Tony Hillier

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Issue #24 October 2013: Tablelands Treats

Commensurate with its status as the oldest event of its kind in Queensland, the 33rd Tablelands Folk Festival (October 24-27) is offering good old-fashioned value-for-money for a stellar line-up, as well as an atmospheric and historic setting.

For $70, the price of entry to most nationally touring one-night pop concerts, punters can get up close and personal for two days and three nights with a swag of roots music stars who have stood the test of time.

Not that the event centered on Yungaburra’s historic Lake Eacham Hotel (with an opening preview night at Herberton’s Royal Hotel) is stuck in the past. Among this year’s headline acts is a Scots lass who rocketed to worldwide fame on the back of one of the defining songs of the Internet age. Sandi Thom’s irresistibly catchy ditty ‘I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair)’ zoomed to No.1 in seven countries in the wake of a YouTube video clip that has now garnered well over two million views.

Shane Howard, who wrote Australia’s definitive land rights anthem ‘Solid Rock’, is another of this year’s draw cards. Other top-line acts include ‘The Bard of Broome’ Stephen Pigram, Sydney’s virtuosic Volatinsky Trio, veteran singer Margret RoadKnight, who’s celebrating her 50th anniversary as a professional musician this year, dynamic Brisbane and Melbourne duos women in docs and Lily & King and all-conquering local band Hillbilly Goats.

Sandy ThomSandi Thom
More about the headline acts and a mammoth support cast in a mo. But first an advisory note. Capacity is strictly limited, so those intending to attend are urged to purchase in advance rather than taking a chance of tickets being available on site at the last minute. Tickets are available on-line at They can also be purchased directly from the following outlets: Music City in Cairns, Uptown Music in Atherton, Closet Hippy in Malanda and Quincan Cottage in Yungaburra.

Sandi Thom will be starring on the opening night at Yungaburra (Friday October 25) before jetting off for another headline turn on the same weekend, at the Sydney Blues & Roots Festival.
Unlike others whose reputation has been established in similarly whirlwind fashion via the worldwide web, the eye-catching singer is no one-hit wonder. Seven years after her meteoric emergence, she has a string of highly literate songs in a handful of genres to her credit and is accepted as a serious artist and not, in her words, "cookie-cutter pop."

As befits the girlfriend of superstar American guitarist Joe Bonamassa, Thom has turned to the blues in the last few years, proving herself a proficient guitarist and harmonica player in her own right.

The Scot describes her latest album Flesh and Blood, produced by Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes, as a new chapter in her story. “I never liked to pigeonhole myself,” she says. “I feel like my sound and voice have been naturally developing since I was 14-years-old, and that it’s only now I’ve finally hit upon what I really sound like.”
Thom says her music blurs the boundaries between folk, blues, pop, Americana and country.

Shane Howard really needs no introduction. Some of his staunchest fans live here in the far north, which is why the man who composed ‘Solid Rock’ and several other de facto Australian anthems is guaranteed a particularly warm welcome at this year’s festival. The Victorian has a special affinity for the Tablelands, having lived at Speewah for several years after the break of his chart-topping band Goanna in the mid-‘80s.

Shane HowardShane Howard

The veteran musician has celebrated a series of landmarks in recent years. In 2012, to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of ‘Solid Rock’, Howard produced a new album of revamped oldies. Other Side of the Rock, which was launched at a spectacular concert at Uluru, features two dramatically revised versions of ‘Solid Rock’. “I hear an impassioned young man on the original version … it’s a character voice at this stage,” he told your correspondent in an interview, alluding to his singing back then and now.
Howard’s new take on ‘Razor’s Edge’, another of his best-known songs, has topical resonance, with Queensland once again presided over by a controversial conservative government. “I wrote that song when I was hitching around Queensland in 1975,” he imparts. “They were hard days under Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s regime if you weren’t in agreement with his government.”
This year, for the 30th anniversary of the successful campaign to stop the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania, Howard has dusted off his moving, ‘Let The Franklin Flow’, a song that helped spearhead the eco crusade.

In a special festival event, Shane will be linking up with Broome legend and old mate Stephen Pigram on the festival’s closing Sunday (October 27).
Luring Pigram to Yungaburra is another TFF coup. Ensconced in pristine Kimberly country, he has performed all too infrequently around Australia in recent years. The release of a long overdue solo album has induced the multi-instrumentalist and principal singer in legendary family band the Pigram Brothers to make a sortie outside of his beloved Broome.
Listening to Wanderer, Pigram’s belated debut as a solo performer, reminds that Australia’s remote tropical northwest coast is, in musical terms at least, the equivalent of America’s steamy deep south. The album also harks back to Pigram’s genesis as a country blues player. “When I started to get into the guitar, during my last few years at school, I was right into the Mississippi John Hurt style of fingerpicking,” he relates.

Stephen PigramStephen Pigram
Other songs on Wanderer show that Pigram’s self-proclaimed saltwater music shares a close relationship with the swamp blues of the southern states. The singer’s cracked and croaky voice even evinces shades of Dr John, Tony Joe White and Taj Mahal.

Pigram, who backs himself on various guitars, ukulele, harmonica and stomp box, is a veritable one-man-band. Had he opted to base himself in one of the southern capitals, he might be as well known as Paul Kelly or Shane Howard. But then he wouldn’t be The Bard of Broome.

Margret RoadKnight, doyenne of the Australian acoustic roots music scene, will be celebrating the closing of a landmark year with her performances at the Tablelands Folk Festival.
If the 50th anniversary of a distinguished career wasn’t enough, in July she celebrated her 70th birthday. The same month saw the release of a compilation album, Decade, comprising some of her finest recordings, cut for the Festival/Warner label between 1975 and 1984. Above all else, the 26-track remastered collection from four of her albums shows the lady’s mastery of blues.

Margret RoadKnightMargret RoadKnight
Blues of all hues benefit from RoadKnight’s impressive chops, from a suitably raw reading of Ma Rainey’s ‘Misery Blues’ to Donovan’s ‘Young Girl Blues’. Highlights include ‘Cakewalk Into Town’, which had the distinction at the time of its release of being the first cover of a Taj Mahal song. Her covers of Oz pop hits include Doug Ashdown’s ‘Winter In America’, Ross Wilson’s ‘Living In The Land of Oz’ and Bob Hudson’s ‘Girls in Our Town’.

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, RoadKnight was self-proclaimed “queen” of the opening acts. “Every second folk or blues overseas act that came through I opened for, from Lady Black Mambazo to John Martyn,” she reminds your correspondent. She has also shared the stage with and sung for Nelson Mandela.
Songs by her original inspirations — Odetta, Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba — still pepper her playlists. “I got a lot of my early performance repertoire just by listening to them,” she concedes.

There’s not another outfit in Australia quite like the Volatinsky Trio, as music-lovers who attend this year’s Tablelands Folk Festival will find out. Apart from the fact that their music is a vibrant mix of Russian and Balkans-laced originals and traditional pieces, the group’s members — all products of the renowned Soviet folk and classical music education system — play an exotic combination of instruments.

As one of the world’s leading exponents of cimbalom, Belarusian Lucy Voronov, a graduate of Minsk Conservatorium, tends to grab the limelight in live performances. Wielding wooden hammers, her hands fly over the dulcimer-like instrument’s 78 strings at breakneck speed and with a passion associated with the best gypsy players.

Ukrainian Anatoli Torjinski’s mellow cello offsets the flurry of notes that Voronov generates to a nicety. This graduate of the Odessa Conservatorium of Music has become one of the most in-demand cellists in Australia, where he also performs with Monsieur Camembert and Libertango Trio.

The Trio’s Australian leader, Stephen Lalor, is a fleet-fingered whiz on Russian mandolin (domra), an instrument he studied at Kiev’s Tchaikovsky Conservatorium. Also a skilled guitarist and composer and arranger, he straddles the folk and classical worlds, performing with the Sydney Symphony, Opera Australia and orchestras in China and South-East Asia and writing for everything from string quartets to mandolin groups.

The paths of these three virtuoso musicians converged in Sydney, where they would often find themselves performing together as accompanists for visiting Russian, Ukrainian and Balkan players. Their performance debut under the Volatinsky Trio moniker that’s a combination of their surnames came a couple of years ago at the NSW Art Gallery.
Suffice to say, they haven’t looked back, with acclaimed performances at the National Folk Festival and at Woodford and WOMADelaide to their collective credit. “I think the reason we work so well together is that we all have common musical background and really rigorous technical instrumental training,” Lalor opines. Together, the Trio’s instruments create what the leader terms as “a special sound universe”.

Those in attendance at Yungaburra last year will have no problems recalling Lily & King — the undoubted hit of TFF 2012. They are a quintessential festival turn, a quirky musical junkyard duo from Melbourne that plays an improbable array of instruments, including trombone and toy piano.
“Our aim is to use all of our limbs for making music at the one time,” avers the mercurial and charismatic Lisa Baird, who performs under the stage name “Lily”. Lily/Lisa says she started playing trombone as a way to meet dysfunctional men.

King [Tony King] is a double-bass player who has opted to play other instruments because as he says: “It’s easier than carrying a double bass through city laneways in Melbourne.” Now he plays guitar or banjo, foot drums and sings pretty well all at the same time as Conservatorium-trained Lisa/Lily takes centre stage with her coquettish vocals and jazzy bursts on “bone”.
Lily & King’s music is joyful, retro and a bit down and dirty as well. Some of their songs have a decadent, burlesque vibe; others exhibit shades of 60s’ bands like the Beatles’ and the Lovin’ Spoonful.

A glance through the following profiles, in alphabetical order, will whet appetites for other acts among the galaxy of talent that will be gathering for this year’s Tablelands Folk Festival. Full program listings, plus details of workshops, can be viewed at the festival website.

Agnuremak will be presenting a retrospective of the past four years ‘American Folk Legends’ tribute shows encompassing the works of Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary and Woody Guthrie. Songbooks provided.

Amanda Kay is an unusual performer who blends jazz, folk, blues, reggae and Latin to make up her own smooth soulful sound. Complex chord voicings and polyrhythms flow.

Bec Drollinger won the National Our Backyard songwriter competition. She is an intimate solo performer who blends folk/jazz/blues and her own special something.

Bob Elliston is El Presidente of the Tablelands Folk Festival President, and host/compere of the Herberton Concert and the Songwriter's Competition.

Brigit Murane utilises every possible part of her guitar to present an insane mix of guitar body percussion, intricate slapping and triplets.

Bush Remedy, a far north institution, will be hosting the annual bush dance in the Community Hall — a fun experience for young and old.

Chris Tiaan features guitar, dobro and blues harp in music influenced by Neil Young, Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot and sailing.

Chris Wighton a truly inspirational Cairns singer-songwriter and award winner, who is captured in the clip below in concert at the Tanks Arts Centre earlier this year.

Davy Simony is a folk-roots singer/songwriter hailing from Kuranda but now based in Melbourne who entertains with guitar, foot percussion and live loops.

Dozier & McKay are Tablelands musicians who perform original songs with an acoustic guitar feel. Their performance will incorporate songs penned by the latter’s father, the late, great Ken McKay.

Flying Blind revisit the repertoire of blues artists and jazz giants and the popular music of the early 20th century — barrelhouse blues, ragtime and bebop.

GG Davies has produced five albums of raw primal roots and blues.

Grimick never stray far from the essential ingredients — great rhythm, a contagious melody, and something to say.

Hot & Wet Swing Set perform downright dirty blues, sweet swing sounds and sexy syncopation from the Speakeasy era.

Jordan Brodie , a Queensland Music Award winning 18-year-old instrumental guitarist, covers tasty blues to swinging jazz arrangements, and everything in between.

Karl Broadie has the ability to capture the attention and heart of a listener in just a few bars of music. His entrancing melodies are enhanced by his happy knack for writing memorable songs.

Koahlition, a 7-piece family band that plays upbeat roots, rock and reggae, will perform songs from their new CD Under the Sun.

Little Owl features sisters Amelia and Briony in band formation with a set of poignant originals.

Mangrove Jack, local legends, will be strutting their stuff in their own unique way, featuring Mick Hodgkins' award winning originals and a little bit of the bush and the Blarney mixed in.

Mr Smith is a band of award winning musicians whose songs are wrapped up in a blend of pop, funk and roots.

Omid Master presents songs relating to protecting the environment and life along the Far North Queensland coast.

Ray Danes, the 2012 Tablelands Folk Festival Songwriting Competition winner, returns brandishing a debut EP.

Ray-Lee, at 17, is already a seasoned performer who writes and performs original songs with a smattering of covers mixed in.

Silktones, a unique vocal and instrumental duo, perform original tunes influenced by different eras and genres.

Simply Deb is a Kuranda-based singer/songwriter and Celtic Harp player who mixes traditional folk and contemporary songs.

Tessa Devine has been travelling/playing/busking her way up and down the East Coast of America with her alternative folk music and is now based in Yungaburra.

The Blue Ruins is a bluesy, rootsy band from the Sapphire Coast that was nominated for a handful of gongs at the 2012 MusicOz awards.

The Burns Unit, aka Ted and Carolynne Burns, will be hosting the Folk Club Blackboard sessions.

The Hillbilly Goats provide a history lesson of Mountain Music's evolution featuring high energy blues, country, jazz, bluegrass and rock n roll.

WAZe James, a regular at the Tamworth Festival, performs rockin' country blues.

women in docs, globe-trotting duo that performs a unique brand of acoustic folk pop with boundless energy, vibrant harmonies and humour.

Woyaya!, a locally based choir, celebrate the beauty of acapella songs from all over the world.

• Tracks by some of the acts mentioned in the above article and much more can be heard during Tony Hillier’s World of Music, a weekly segment on ABC Radio Far North (Friday 4:45-5pm). The program is also available as a podcast at:

Tony Hillier