Tony Hillier

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Issue #8 April 20th 2010: Singing the Blues



Reminders of why the Cairns live music scene has the blues and reasons to be cheerful (part 2) will resonate concurrently on the May Day long weekend.

Some optimism and positivity first. The Cairns Blues Festival, in only its second year, has expanded to two days and put together a bill that will be the envy of many equivalent, but long-established, events “down souff”.

The headline bands, Geoff Achison & the Souldiggers and the Backsliders, are top of the respective blues’ piles in Melbourne and Sydney. The support bill behind Achison — a truly amazing guitar player — on Saturday May 1 includes the best of British blues belles in Bex Marshall. Sunday sees Australia’s leading blues ladies, Fiona Boyes and Dallas Frasca, in action. Saturday night also features two of your columnist’s favourite Melbourne bluesmen, Louis King and Chris Wilson. For a glance at the full program proceed with al haste to:

Johnos Blues BandJohnos Blues Band

It is gratifying to see that Bluesfest has programmed local acts — at least in the early part of both sessions — but perplexing that invitations were not extended to the founding fathers of the Cairns blues scene. The absence of Ian “Johno” Johnson from this year’s line-up has been noted in several missives to the local papers. The blond icon’s long-time right-hand-man and mentor, Ric Montgomery, has been snubbed for the second year in a row.

No one did more to establish a following for blues in Cairns than “Monty” — initially with his establishment, back in the early 1980s, of Johno’s Blues Band, and then with Johno’s Blues Bar. And, so, it is only poetic justice that Johno and Ric will be struttin’ their stuff again, albeit elsewhere in the city, on the weekend of Bluesfest (after the action at Fogarty Park on Saturday and Sunday).

Thanks to the enterprise of the redoubtable Terry Doyle (who else?), the vibe of Johno’s Blues Bar will be recreated at The Vibe Bar, which is located at 39 Lake St — just a couple of blocks away from the festival site. On Friday April 30 (from 9pm) and Saturday May 1 and Sunday May 2 (from 10pm until the wee small hours), Johno, Ric and former colleagues in Johno’s Blues Band will be reunited for the first time since the demise of Johno’s Blues Bar three years ago, supported by The Doyles. Sunday will see the revival of the “world famous” Gong show with JBB and The Doyles. Entry each night is $10 — a small price to pay to re-live Cairns’s halcyon days and a perfect way to kick on after Bluesfest.

A brief historical synopsis for those new to town: the closure of Johno’s Blues Bar on Sunday June the 10th 2007 signified the end of an era — the cessation of the region’s only dedicated seven nights a week live music club.

When the Bar opened in 1989, Bob Hawke was still ensconced at The Lodge. Initially from premises in Sheridan St, and then for eight years from an eyrie above McDonald’s golden arches on the ‘nard, Johno’s Blues Bar had showcased the cream of local talent alongside the finest national and international acts. Somewhat ironically, Johno’s came to rest in an edifice on the corner of Aplin and Abbott Sts formerly known as ‘The End of the World’. For some of the diehards on the final night that moniker was all too apposite.

Closing night guest-of-honour, Phil Emmanuel, whose brother, Tommy, had fulfilled the same role on the opening night 18 years before, summed up the situation succinctly that evening: “It’s a very sad loss — Johno’s was the frontier of live music in the Far North and a very important component on the interstate and international music scene.”

The stellar list of names that graced Johno’s three establishments and adorned posters on the club’s walls, would comfortably fill this article. This punter’s favourite Johno’s gigs featured Little Charlie & The Nightcats, Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers, Terence Simian & The Mallet Playboys, Junior Wells, The Yardbirds, The Animals and Osibisa. Other regulars might nominate appearances by the late Johnnie Johnson (one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll), The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Amazing Rhythm Aces, Jimi Hendrix’s mentor Guitar Shorty, Katie Webster and Maria Muldaur. (Then, of course, there were those unforgettable — and totally unexpected — non-music moments such as the night a visiting Russian sporting team carried the club’s “gogomobile” minibus up four flights of stairs at the Esplanade club to deposit it in front of the stage. I’m not sure whether Johno was in the driving seat at the time!)

Memories of other magical nights of yore will come flooding back for this music lover when Bernie McGann takes to the stage of the Tanks Arts Centre on Friday May 21 as part of the Jazz Up North series —

While residing in Sydney in the early ‘eighties, I never passed up an opportunity to see the legendary alto saxophonist in action. If he lived in America, Bernie would be regaled as a national treasure. He’s one of the great originals of Oz Jazz, a player who has developed an individual sound that is somehow redolent of the Aussie bush. A genial, quiet man, he lets his sax to the talking, playing with passionate intensity but with considerable lyricism. A ‘must see’ concert if you’re interested in jazz.