Fat Freddy’s Drop don’t rush things with this only their third full length album in 14 years (excluding a pair of live albums). That steady approach is also one of the defining aspects of their sound and their propensity for slowly evolving electronic, soul, dub and funk workouts that equally nurture listener’s limbs and ears. Blackbird is without doubt their most cohesive and rewarding work to date.
The general mood of Blackbird is a darker one. On the surface all the elements of what makes them so unique are present and utilised but they’ve managed to economise the ebb and flow of the new songs and create a sprawling yet finely tuned record. Opener Blackbird uses its near 10 minutes to blend funk inflected soul with a swinging dub bass line and reverb drenched horn section, sounding very similar to compatriots The Black Seeds and taking them closer to the dance floor than they have for a while. They also approach a pop format in the first official single Clean the House which captures a pulsing, vaguely Motown groove allowing the other instruments, in particular the guitar, to paint some wonderful melodic stabs and phrasings. Bones lightens the album considerably with its breezy Spearhead-ish vibe and feels comparatively inconsequential before the squelchy electronica of Soldier heads back to darker dub territory. The last three tracks all exceed seven minutes with Never Moving in particular mixing up a swirling electro-funk quick-step that finds them stretching out further into EDM.
Blackbird is a defining example of rhythm-based musical cross pollination that sounds perfectly natural in the hands of Fat Freddy’s Drop; furthering their exploration of structure, nuance and sonic texture with glorious futuristic results.
this review was first published on The Music and in Drum Media
THE BLACK SEEDS ARE CELEBRATING FIFTEEN YEARS TOGETHER AND ON THE EVE OF ANOTHER AUSTRALIAN VISIT VOCALIST DANIEL WEETMAN SPOKE WITH CHRIS FAMILTON ABOUT THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF THE BAND.
Maintaining and indeed growing an international profile can be a tricky exercise for bands from the Southern Hemisphere. The costs of touring and missed opportunities from not being on the ground in Europe or the USA can discourage and disadvantage many bands yet The Black Seeds seem to have played the field well. Knowing the right people, persistence and commitment to the cause are all ancillary factors that need to occur to support the music, something which the band have been evolving and maturing now over a decade and a half.
From early beginnings in the nascent Wellington reggae and dub scene the band quickly felt the need to diversify their sound to strengthen their own identity and allow members to contribute their different styles to the mix. With the release of last year’s Dust and Dirt Daniel Weetman believes one highlight of their career has been maintaining the standard they set on Into The Dojo (2006).
“I was really proud of Into The Dojo because it was a big change and showed some maturity. I’m really proud of Dust and Dirt too. It has done the same job as Into The Dojo in terms of bringing in everyone’s influences and I think having our own studio in Wellington was really refreshing. Just sticking together has been an achievement. We are always thinking forward, toward the next album and getting a new studio. We’ve maintained a good respect for each other which may come from being in a big band and being able to hang with different people on tour. Always progressing in our writing and progressing reggae music is a highlight of what we’ve done and we’ve kept that reggae base, it has the skank but it has a whole lot more happening in there too.”
Over fifteen years the band members have inevitably started families which adds another dimension to the pressures of managing an international touring group but by adopting a flexible approach they have ensured they can still tour yearly to Europe and the USA.
“The majority of us have kids now and so we have to keep the partners in mind when we’re booking tours. We’ve had situations where some of us haven’t gone on tour because we’ve been expecting babies and so we had to get people to fill in but it always seems to work out, even if we have a different keyboard player or guitarist on tours of Europe. North America is growing each time we go and there are lots of reggae bands there wanting to play with us and we were blown away by what they were telling us about how people appreciate our sound there. I think that’s because we have a rock and psychedelic edge with the reggae backbone and people really respond to that variety. Getting a great review from Rolling Stone magazine who said we’re one of the best reggae bands in the world helps too! We’ll take that compliment.”
Another curveball is about to be thrown at The Black Seeds with founding member Weetman shifting to Sydney later this year to be close to his young son. He still intends to be part of the band but how that will work practically is yet to be tested.
“The rest of the band are still based in or around Wellington and I’m living up in Auckland at the moment. I’m actually going to move to Sydney later this year to be with my son. It is going to be really difficult but the guys still keen for me to be in the band and carry on but we’ll just have to plan ahead a lot. If it gets to be too hard then I’ve accepted that there is a chance I might not be doing it anymore.
this interview was first published in The Drum Media and on themusic.com.au
words by Charles Hemmingson / photo courtesy of Veronica McLaughlin (13th Floor)
Soul is when you take a song and make it a part of you — a part that’s so true, so real, people think it must have happened to you. … It’s like electricity — we don’t really know what it is, do we? But it’s a force that can light a room. Soul is like electricity, like a spirit, a drive, a power.
Ray Charles, 1966
If anyone had the qualifications to set about defining the essence of soul in words it was the man who had a great deal to do with defining and refining the concept, the music, the movement itself.
At Auckland’s Civic Theatre on Saturday night another man, with the credentials and a musical history and career dating back almost as far as Ray Charles’ himself, demonstrated the power of soul in the very way that Charles describes, and no one who was there will likely forget it soon. When Bobby Womack, two-thirds into his ultimately 20-song set, went into A Change Is Gonna Come – a number which defines his own legendary mentor and friend Sam Cooke’s career, spirit and achievements probably more than any other song from Cooke’s towering repertoire – it certainly did sound as if Cooke’s powerful, personal, political and visionary story was Bobby Womack’s, too. And light the room he did.
As the defining moment of a show which brought the house down in a way one imagines only the real deal of a true gospel-fuelled rhythm ’n’ blues revue can do, it was the essence of soul – moving and electrifying. That moment also stood, of course, as a very personal tribute to, and as a symbol of, one of the true soul innovators in Cooke (a man who trail-blazed a path from the spiritual-based gospel circuit to the secular chitlin’ circuit to broad mainstream acceptance and love) – as well as a symbol, of course, of Womack himself – a man who followed directly in the footsteps of Sam Cooke (who mentored the Womack brothers’ first band The Valentinos from 1956 and signed them to his own label in 1960, once he had the clout and capacity to do so).
And what a voice did, and does, Bobby Womack possess. An original in all of the ways deemed important on that path such legends tread – legends of whom, Womack himself seems so aware, so few remain – in his performance of Cooke’s song, the well-documented triumph and tragedy of Womack’s life rang in a cracked yet joyous performance, which both crystallised and transcended the show.
Because, and for all of the histrionics, flash, polish and grit of the genuinely funky 13-piece rhythm ’n’ blues review band backing him – the horn solos, percussionist, and feature solo spots for the backing vocalists – was it not the voice of Bobby Womack we were there to hear, to witness, to celebrate above all else?
That voice, always as gravely as it was sweet (a quality even in his teens well-noted by Cooke) is now a beautiful weathered thing. Nonetheless, and even in its clear and road-worn imperfections, it’s a sound to behold, and on Saturday night it was the very essence of soul, its rich baritone, cracked yet unequalled falsetto, and deep, righteous vibrato cutting deep into the hearts of the front and back rows all.
As a singer grows older his conception grows a little deeper because he lives life and he understands what he’s trying to say a little more. If the singer tries to find out what’s happening in life it gives him a better insight [into] telling the story of the song he’s trying to sing.
Bobby Womack, Dayglo Reflection (Featuring Lana Del Rey), The Bravest Man in the Universe, 2012
Opening with Across 110th St, the title track of his classic seventies blaxploitation soundtrack, and arguably the epitome of the sub genre, it couldn’t have been a bolder move. It’s a tough song, both in terms of its range and phrasing, and proved a challenge for the singer straight off the bat. Arguably it’s the artist’s trump card in a wealth of potential set material – his much loved, best known song, and a number perhaps best reserved as a set’s knock out blow – though you could also understand the move. It’s his calling card, too, and in that a means of setting the scene when the lights go down and the audience shivers.
And with intent established he went on as he kicked off, his voice warming with every tune, the audience following willingly and willing him on. Three songs (Please Forgive My Heart, Deep River, and the title track) from his latest and great Damon Albarn-produced The Bravest Man in the Universe – a record which seems to touch a lot on notions of regret, forgiveness and redemption in its communication of a world-weary, but unbeaten and uncompromising taking of stock – sat naturally alongside some of his biggest hits, Lookin’ for a Love, That’s the Way I Feel about Cha, Woman’s Gotta Have It, Harry Hippie, and even slick, soapy eighties melodramas If You Think You’re Lonely Now, and I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much.
But it was the aforementioned Cooke classic and the true, abandoned gospel of Jesus, Be a Fence Around Me which had Auckland’s Civic feeling about as close to Harlem’s Apollo Theatre as it might ever feel, the singer entreating the audience, to stand up, to clap their hands, to testify – and rise and clap and dance and testify we did.
And some people say it’s just rock ’n’ roll. Oh, but it gets right down to your soul. You’ve gotta just keep on pushing, keep on pushing. Push the sky away.
Nick Cave, Push the Sky Away, Push the Sky Away, 2012
That Bobby Womack is treading the boards now, only months after family tragedy and his own struggle with grave illness, is further testament to his clear drive to sing, to connect, to testify himself. In a pimping red leather suit, shoes, cap, and shades, Womack – even with a tendency to tire at times, and despite clear physical limitations and the undeniable fragility of a man who’s plainly walked the walk – held centre stage and the spotlight as one imagines he always has.
I’m sure Nick Cave, a man who also knows not a little about the essence of soul, would understand Womack’s continued drive to write, to perform, to sing even still, and well beyond reasonable expectations of stamina and the official set list, even after the house lights have come up. And if the sky in Cave’s song represents the great beyond, or at least an emptiness or entropy or a stasis which presses or threatens us all, then perhaps there really is only one thing for it – there to be found in rock ‘n’ roll music, soul, gospel, rhythm ’n’ blues – there to be found in doing what you’ve always done, in never giving in nor up, in bringing it in on the one, two, three, four…
It certainly felt that way on Saturday night, as Womack’s valet repeatedly, and in the age-old R&B star-time tradition associated, in particular, with James Brown, re-jacketed him – Womack turning him away at one point, as Murray Cammick has pointed out, in the ultimate compliment to his audience.
Music is nothing separate from me. It is me. I can’t retire from music any more than I can retire from my liver. You’d have to remove the music from me surgically — like you were taking out my appendix.
Ray Charles, 1978 from Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story by Ray Charles and David Ritz
Music certainly remains with and in Bobby Womack, and no amount of illness, or real, potentially debilitating surgery has been able to remove this from him. Saturday night at the Civic was true testament to that.
Openers, Show Me Where It Hurts, proved an inspired (if initially left-field seeming) selection with their original and beguiling Rhodes electric piano, drums and vocals approach. The Auckland duo held it down and held their own in the face of what must well have felt an intimidating prospect, given the pedigree of the headliner – and for a solid, swinging 45 minutes engaged early comers, who were rewarded for their promptness with a hot and sometimes rollicking performance from singer, keyboardist Josh Hetherington and drummer Ronny Haynes. Both contrasting and complementing the main attraction, it was a performance in the true spirit of the occasion, and it ended up feeling just right.
Standout tunes All You’ll Ever Need, (an apparently theme-tuned) Show Me Where It Hurts, and stomping Motown-tinged finalé Joanee – alongside a wicked and funky, yet weirdly faithful rendition of seventies Rolling Stones’ incongruity Fool to Cry – warmed an audience who seemed as if they didn’t quite know what they were witnessing, but somehow really liked it – yes they did!
Melbourne is throwing up some great soul and funk bands of late, particularly the ones with a subtle strain of garage rock running through their grooves. Saskwatch have released a new single this month which was recorded by go-to-guy Mikey Young. It is out now digitally and will be followed by a 7″ vinyl release on Northside Records. Keep an eye on their Bandcamp page for more info about that.
Thursday 21 March- Cherry Bar, Melbourne (residency)
Saturday 23 March- The Hill Are Alive Festival
Thursday 28 March- Cherry Bar, Melbourne (residency)
After an eight year recording hiatus The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have returned with an album that finds them in fighting form and returning to some of the touchstones that made them such an exciting and visceral rock n roll band in the 90s.
Meat + Bone recaptures some of that stripped down blues and funk that the band built their name on but it also draws from their later dalliances with classic Stones rock (Black Thoughts, Danger) and the fuzzed out electronica of Boot Cut. The result is an album that draws from all corners of their discography yet it doesn’t feel like a grab bag of disparate styles, it hangs together surprisingly well as a cohesive album.
The finest moments come when they loosen their hips and unleash their trademark James Brown meets The Cramps take on dance music. They’ve always been a band that sounds best when they are raw, primal and lascivious with that triangular balance of vocals, guitars and drums locked in tight. Bag of Bones, Get Your Pants Off and Bottle Baby are prime examples of just that and a clear sign that the trio are still in rude musical health.
It is always a pleasure to visit the ornate surroundings of Sydney’s State Theatre with its outlandish detailing and proclivity for gold and chandeliers. It creates a certain mood and atmosphere and definitely lends a sense of occasion to whichever band is gracing its stage. UK’s Dark Horses had the opening honours and, with quite a different sound to Beck, they played a set of dark and dramatic rock music that took in moody psychedelia, some minor krautrock influence on songs like Boxing Day and the occasional gothic overtone. It all worked pleasantly well but often felt too measured in both song and presentation. Singer Lisa Elle showed she possesses an undeniably strong voice, especially when she shifted gears from deadpan to displaying some fragility and emotion but those moments were few and far between.
The stage for Beck looked distinctly bare with only one keyboard and a few racks of guitar pedals and as the lanky one appeared he cut a solitary figure in leather jacket, wide hat and playing some back porch slide guitar, but then the audience’s ears latched onto that familiar set of notes that kickstarted his career, the curtains parted to reveal his full band and a lighting rig and we were treated to Loser, the first of many, many highlights.
The first half of the set saw a mixture of early tracks like One Foot in the Grave, his mid period hits such as Devil’s Haircut, Girl and Que’ Onda Guero and a great cover of Dylan’s Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat. The style pendulum swung wildly as one would expect with funk, soul, hip hop, new wave and rock all fighting for a place on the setlist yet Beck himself was a picture of slacker calm (gone are the dance moves), offering the occasional hilarious anecdote about playing Bondi Beach in the late 90s and discovering a lost 80s guitar solo in the bowels of the State Theatre before effortlessly dispatching another highlight from his now burgeoning back catalogue.
One of the best moments came with a retreat to some acoustic, countrified songs, particularly a trio from his excellent Sea Change album. The Golden Age had a gorgeous drifting quality and highlighted what an exceptional singer Beck is when he plays the traditional song card.
As we headed towards the two hour mark Beck and band upped the party vibe with a stellar run of songs – The New Pollution, Nausea, Gamma Ray and a show-stopping Where It’s At that brought the audience to their feet and toward the stage, able to scratch that dancing itch that had been bugging them in their seats for much of the night.
At roughly thirty songs the night was a real sonic survey of the man’s brilliant songwriting cache and showed that he has excelled at pretty much every stylistic corner he has explored. He seemed relaxed and enjoying the chance to stretch out, untethered from festival stage times and as a result it felt like one of those special shows that those in attendance will rave about to friends in years to come.
FAT FREDDY’S DROP ARE ABOUT TO TAKE LEAVE FROM RECORDING THEIR NEW ALBUM TO PREVIEW IT AT THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE. KEYBOARDIST DOBIE BLAZE GIVES CHRIS FAMILTON AN INSIGHT ON THE TOURING LIFESTYLE AND THE BAND’S CREATIVE PROCESS.
New albums aren’t a common occurrence in the world of Fat Freddy’s Drop. To date there has only been 2005’s debut Based On A True Story, Dr. Boondigga & The Big BW in 2009 plus an EP and live album. Ever since the band first formed around the start of the new millennium the’ve maintained a strong focus on their live shows and subsequently touring has taken up a major part of their time and played a key role in their songwriting process. As the band readies themselves for a brief run of dates in Australia they are also in the middle of recording their next album Blackbird which will take flight in the first part of 2013.
Europe is a key territory for Fat Freddy’s Drop and the region where they have focused most of their international touring. The band recently got back from another tour there which keyboardist Dobie Blaze (Iain Gordon) rates as the most enjoyable one they’ve done in terms of the shows and the personal relationships between band members on the road.
“It was an awesome tour, the best we’ve ever done really. It was a combination of our own shows and festival shows so we had great audiences and lots of beautiful venues. We get on really well on the road, especially with touring being managed so well which is a huge part of everyone getting on. We have an amazing tour manager through Europe and it’s just the way they structure the tour that takes the stress out of it. Everyone is there to do the job so no one gets pissed off. On the tour I don’t think there were any issues so it is nice to come home and feel like it was a success and there is no big drama to deal with when you get back.”
Returning home, in Blaze’s case to Paekakariki just north of Wellington, is a chance to recoup and reunite with family who don’t get the chance to accompany the band on the road, as much as they would like to share the experience with them. “When you get home it is a case of back to reality. As my wife puts it, it takes a little while for me to land,” chuckles Blaze. It’s always wonderful getting back to family so by the end of the tour you can’t wait to get home and the kids can’t wait to open their presents. Life on the road is very different, it’s all go and you get into your routine of bus travel and sleeping when and where you can. There is the luxury of living in hotels and not having to clean up after yourself though. You have to change those bad habits a lot when you get home. It’s great to be able to have those experiences as part of my life though.”
Fat Freddy’s Drop have played Sydney a number of times but this will be their first performance at the Sydney Opera House, as part of the Graphic festival, where they’ll be previewing the forthcoming Blackbird album accompanied by animation and illustrations. It promises to be a special evening as the band combine music and visuals in a venue seen as one of the world’s best. “I’ve got absolutely no idea what to expect from the Opera House so I’m really looking forward to checking out such a legendary and prestigious venue. It feels like we are doing something very grown up and arty,” says Blaze before adding “ I better go and get a new hat from my hat man for the occasion.”
This interview was first published in Drum Media.
Listen to the brand new single Silver And Gold from the forthcoming 2013 Fat Freddy’s Drop albumBlackbird:
Doc Holliday Takes the Shotgun had the opening honours and proceeded to rip up the memo that says the support band has to battle shitty sound, a disinterested sparse crowd and not upstage the main act. The singer and bassist spent the set lurching madly around the stage and dancefloor looking vaguely menacing between cheesy grins. Their sound sat somewhere between the early deconstructed blues of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Gun Club and straight up rock and cowpunk and they play it well. All the components were there in terms of musicality and attitude and they looked like they were having a barrel of fun.
Mildura’s Jackson Firebird have been circling the blues and rock scenes for a few years now and as you’d expect they’re a well oiled machine, though not at the expense of a playful live show. The duo kicked out their boogie jams with a very short set, the highlight of which was drummer Dale Hudak pounding out primitive beats on his bottle bin while Brendan Harvey carved hip shaking riffs from his guitar. The crowd quite rightfully went nuts for them, calling for an encore that never came.
Gary Clark Jr. looked every inch the star even before he played a note, sauntering onstage with a coy smile, bling necklace and wide brimmed hat. Clark and his understated band eased into the set, building the tension and mood before Clark unleashed the first of his many solos of the night. What quickly became apparent is the range that he covers in his playing. From straight up rock n roll to psychedelic electric blues and memphis soul the guy can do it all – and seemingly with ease. Between songs there was little banter yet when he closed his eyes, dropped his shoulder and let his fingers do the talking the results were sublime. When he dropped the tempo for the magical Please Come Home, complete with audience screams and yelps, he showed he can also coax tender and fragile tones from his instrument. The biggest cheer came with the tough groove of single Bright Lights late in the set before an encore that included a wonderful acoustic solo spot. Clark showed he is the real deal and an exceptional guitarist with a voice that contrasts and complements his playing perfectly. This was a show that justified the hype.