Tony Hillier

Hillier's Hotline

Issue #6 December 1st 2009: 'Tis the season to make merry... and make lists.


‘Tis the season to make merry … and make lists. It’s pretty well obligatory for music writers to come up with their ‘picks of the year’ and ‘brickbats and bouquets’ as the festive season approaches. This correspondent doesn’t intend to buck the time-honoured tradition, especially since compiling lists happens to be among his favourite pastimes.

So, let’s start with the local scene. All in all it’s been one of the better years on the Cairns front in recent times. The rallying zeal of PALM (People Advocating Live Music), short-lived as it was, might not have resulted in the creation of as many live gigs as its organisers had hoped, but it did lead directly to a spate of opportunities for emerging singer-songwriters and to the emergence of the website, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, has been a real boon.

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Terry Doyle’s Songwriter Showcases on Thursday nights in the salubrious setting at Mondo’s, with the “stage” decked out like the organiser’s front parlour, velvet drapes et al, have been especially enjoyable. They have succeeded in unearthing and fostering some major young talents in the slipstream of Emma-Louise, such as teenagers Heather Angell and Hannah Karydas, and providing a regular venue for seasoned performers like Chris Wighton, not to mention the ever ebullient and enthusiastic Steve Baker. Similarly, Ray Elias’s sessions at the Tanks Arts Centre’s monthly markets and the Wednesday Song Space sessions at the Salt House, and 12 Bar Blue’s various evenings in Shields St. As Mr Doyle rightly observes: “I have said time and time again, doing your own song once on stage in front of a decent audience is worth hundred times of doing the same song in your bedroom.” ‘Live @ Mondo’s’, the album, is on the agenda for early next year. Meanwhile, the Mondo’s Songwriters Showcases will continue every Thursday leading up to Christmas (weather permitting), but will not operate on New Year’s Eve. A second Songwriter Workshop is planned during January 2010. Another Songwriters stage is mooted for Edmonton at weekends at ‘The Southside Markets’.

On the folk scene, it was sad to see the demise of Willie McBride’s, which hosted many memorable Celtic soirées. Hopefully, Mick O’Mara and his ‘seshun’ players will find another suitable venue. Perhaps the time is right to revive the Cairns Folk Club, once the longest-running organization of its type in Australia. Traditional music is undergoing a renaissance in the British Isles, with young musicians leading the charge. It could happen here one day.

In the bigger arena, it’s gratifying to hear that Festival Cairns will be managed in-house again in 2010. The 2009 event was a huge improvement on previous years, when it was contracted out. There was more of a community feel this year and a much improved music bill. Some of the innovations, such as the Market Square Stage in Shields Street didn’t quite come off. Others worked marvellously well, such as the opening CIAF concert at Tanks Arts Centre. Arnhem Land’s Saltwater Band was an inspired choice to headline the concert on the Esplanade after the Grand Parade, even if it did start late after a technical hiccup and, disappointingly, without Aboriginal musician-of-the-moment, Gurrumul Yunupingu. Congrats to the Council’s Belinda Griffin, Leslie Sparkes and Stephen Foster for a job well done in limited time. With an increased budget at its disposal, next year’s event promises to be bigger and better.

The formation of the Cairns Regional Council Advisory Committee, of which your correspondent is a member, hopefully will ensure that the music festival scene in general will burgeon in the Far North. As a regular at festivals around Australia and overseas, I can tell you that Cairns is lagging well behind cities like Adelaide, and yet we are perfectly positioned to be one of the festival capitals of Australia. To do that, we must adopt a “can do” attitude rather than presenting a bureaucratic minefield for prospective festival organisers. Providing support for events such as the Cairns Blues Festival is assuredly a step in the right direction.

Despite having to move from their intended venue (at the North Cairns AFL club) to Fogarty Park late in the piece, the inaugural Cairns Blues Festival was a huge success — thanks largely to some big-hearted organisers (led by the Festival’s President, Pauline Langley) who put their own hard-earned on the line, and a well-drilled and hard-working team of volunteers. In excess of 2000 punters packed into the arena to celebrate the 12-bar idiom and boogie to some of the best practitioners down under. Chain’s lanky and loquacious frontman Matt Taylor summed it up with uncharacteristic succinctness during the closing set when he declared: “This city has always had an affiliation with the blues, and always will have”. The spirit of the festival was encapsulated in the preceding set, which featured veteran Sydney band the Bondi Cigars. I’ve seen the Cigars countless times at Johno’s over the years. While they have always been the epitome of a tight band, their show at Bluesfest was simply sensational. Frontman Shane Pacey played and sang like a man possessed. The 2010 Cairns Blues Festival will be held in the same venue, only over two days. Mark Saturday and Sunday May 1 & 2 in your calendar right away. Some hot acts have already been locked in, including Geoff Achison & the Souldiggers and the UK’s Bex Marshall. Early bird tickets will be on sale from March 1 via Ticketlink or .

Another festival that is putting the Far North well and truly on the national map, Mickie Sellton’s Reggaetown, also promises to widen its scope in 2010 after drawing its biggest crowd yet this year. Tjapukai Park, nestling at the foot of the Kuranda Range, really is an idyllic setting for a festival, and would be a perfect site for a northern version of WOMADelaide one day. The Kuranda Roots Festival also saw a happy crowd of some 2500, including many families, enjoying reggae and related genres. The weather played its part in helping to ensure the day’s success, a gloriously sunny mid-winter’s day morphing to a cloudless, starry night. Veteran Sydney band King Tide left the younger bands in the shade with their skankin’ old skool set.

On the southern side of the Atherton Tableland, the Yungaburra Folk Festival was as downhome and relaxing as ever — especially with the 11th hour re-opening of the Lake Eacham Hotel. Brisbane’s Saruzu Quartet and Jaleos Flamenco were the highlight for this punter.

The Fire & Floodwater benefit concert, held at the Cairns Showground on a March Saturday, attracted some of the area’s finest performers, who all willingly donated their services. Unfortunately, public support was not commensurate with the nature of the event or the hard work that went into organising it (take a bow Bruce McKenzie).

For roots music enthusiasts, the Tanks Arts Centre once again proved a godsend. The venue goes from strength to strength, the latest addition being a state-of-the-art sound system. The ‘Jazz Up North’ series was especially enjoyable, with the totally improvised set created by saxophonist Jamie Oehlers, pianist Paul Grabowsky and drummer David Beck a highlight for this music-lover. Two of my favourite Sydney jazz acts — alto sax supremo Bernie McGann and the catholics — are locked in for the 2010 series, subscriptions for which will be available in January via Ticketlink or .
Jeff Lang’s October show at the Tanks was mind blowing — literally — with the decibel meter registering a level that would have sated even The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’s deceased resident rock star, Hotblack Desiato. Nano Stern’s set was a tad too loud too, but nonetheless immensely enjoyable. The good news is that the charismatic Chilean singer-songwriter will be returning to next year (April 17). The Tanks’ general program next year promises some real treats, such as Toni Childs (March) and the American Latin rockers Ozomatli. Having been blown away by both acts at the East Coast Bluesfest, I strongly urge Hotline readers to book their tickets as early as possible.

Mention of Bluesfest, the bill for the 21st anniversary event, and the first to be held at a new permanent site at the Tyagarah Tea Tree farm (located just off the Pacific Highway, some 10 minutes north of Byron Bay), is commensurate with the occasion. Crowded House, Buddy Guy, Supertamp’s Roger Hodgson, Gipsy Kings, Buena Vista Social Club, Jeff Beck, Bèla Fleck/Oumou Sangarè, Al Di Meola, Peter Green, Brian Auger, Colin Hay, Lyle Lovett, Dr John, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Joe Bonamassa, The Flatlanders, Old Crow Medicine Show, Donavon Frankenreiter and Jack Johnson are among the international guests (organisers also came close to snaring Dylan, incidentally) between April 1-5. If you’re planning to go, buy a ticket now or run the risk of being disappointed.

The program at WOMADelaide (March 5-8) is only marginally less impressive; certainly more cosmopolitan — Ravi Shankar & Anoushka Shankar (India), Ethiopiques (Ethiopia), Dub Colossus (Ethiopia), Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (USA), Calexico (USA), Eliades Ochoa (Cuba), Ojos de Brujo (Spain), Babylon Circus (France), The Skatalites (Jamaica), Amal Murkus (Palestine), Mairtin O’Connor Trio (Ireland), Lepistö & Lehti (Finland).


On a personal note, I’m delighted to convey the news that Kamerunga is in line to perform at both the East Coast Bluesfest and National Folk Festival at Canberra during the Easter holiday (April 1-5), not to mention the Cygnet Folk Festival in Tasmania (January 8-10) and the Wintermoon festival, near Mackay (May 1-3). I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those who supported and encouraged the band in its first year of operation, in which we were also nominated for ARIA and ABC awards and performed at no fewer than nine different festivals — from Wallaby Creek (just south of Cooktown) in the far north to Port Fairy on the wild south west coast of Victoria. Our year culminated with a showcase at the prestigious Australasian World Music Expo at the Melbourne Arts Centre.

My Top Ten albums of 2009 (in no particular order) are: Mahala Rai Banda’s Ghetto Blasters, KAL’s Radio Romanista,Lau’s Arc Light, Jeff Lang’s Chimeradour, Annabelle Chvostek’s Resilience, Darrell Scott’s Modern Hymns, Dave Brewer’s Life of Riley, Martin Simpson’s True Stories, The Greencards’ Fascination and Tony McManus’s The Maker’s Mark.

Have a very happy holiday season. I’ll catch you again next year!

Tony Hillier