Thursday, April 12, 2018

I hope they wake with a smile and say words like 'totes, awes, and dude'

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After missing the National Folk Festival last year (for a pretty fun reason), I decided to get myself a season pass at the earlybird price and really make the most of it.

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On Friday I went to a workshop with the Melbourne Scottish Fiddlers. (The picture above is from one of their shows later in the weekend.) I've been learning fiddle for about a year and a half and I was determined to challenge myself by participating in a workshop during the festival. This one would have been my first pick, but by the time I spotted it on the program, I had just arrived at the site and had only about an hour to spare. I thought about rushing home to get my fiddle but I decided to just listen this time.

I ended up participating (at least, as far as I could) in an old time tunes workshop on Saturday with Cat and Clint, and one on Sunday with WÖR teaching two of their rediscovered 18th century tunes. Altogether this was a pretty big milestone! The first time I've ever got the fiddle out in "public" and played with other people. (Aside from my teacher).

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I can read music (thanks Mum and Dad for all those years of piano lessons!) and am much more comfortable learning tunes from sheet music, but I can also learn by ear. Sometimes I record my teacher playing a new tune and gradually learn it from listening to the recording. Learning two or three completely new tunes in the space of an hour though is pretty fast for me. I'm sure trying - and failing quite a bit - was good for me.

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I didn't stay at the festival late on Friday but did also see Seanchas and old favourite, Steve Poltz, who never fails to make me laugh and cry, sometimes simultaneously.

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On Easter Saturday I spent all day and evening at the festival with one of my best gig buddies and we had a fantastic time.

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We checked in with the folk-singing diplomat, Fred Smith. His latest album is about America (hence the slide show) but he also did Afghanistan material from the Dust of Uruzgan album as well. I have seen a few of his shows now over the years and he's always thought provoking (with some funny too). I didn't get a good photo but Liz Frencham was playing in the band of course and sang some songs too.

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The Good Lovelies, from Canada, were indeed lovely in their music and harmonies and very accomplished musicians, doing a lot of switching instruments. The core band is a group of three women who have been together and touring internationally for many years.

I feel like I see many more women musicians, particularly groups with multiple women, at this festival than I seem to anywhere else. I wonder why that is? Sadly I wonder if it may be partly because the National Folk Festival (and probably other folk festivals) offers space and stages of various types for a very large number of acts right, down to blackboard sessions and buskers - folk festivals have that inclusive vibe, don't they?

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Of course there is still a severe gender disparity in "folk music," just like every other music scene, especially when it comes to more successful, international touring bands. When I see a group of four or five 30-ish blokes from Canada or Scotland playing exquisite folk music, of course I love it... but I can't help also thinking, how many of you have wives/significant others at home with the kids? Or are they touring with you rather than pursuing their own artistic/other dreams? No, I don't assume, and I don't think I know - I just wonder, because I have an idea how dominant the dominant paradigm is. So with all this in my mind it was nice to observe that at least one Good Lovely had her husband manning the merch table, with a small child on his shoulders. 

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WÖR was one of my favourite acts from the weekend. Their arrangements of tunes found in old Flemish manuscripts were great. Guitar, accordion, bagpipes, fiddle, baritone saxophone and occasionally soprano sax. There was something very appealing to me about these tunes. Hope the magic translates to the CD (we all know sometimes it doesn't) because it's on order.

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Two years ago K texted me from the National (I happened not to be there that evening) with a heads up about Bush Gothic. Go to YouTube he said. I did, I watched everything, and immediately fell very hard for their 'darker, stranger Australia folk.'  Most of the songs are from the convict era and early days of settlement but they also do an incredible, not-at-all-corny cover of John Williamson's (corny) 'True Blue.'

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So I've been listening to the albums for the past couple of years, and I have actually seen Jenny perform (at the first Stringmania concert), but this was the first time I had seen the group live. I loved them of course and went back for another set the following night. I was delighted when they played a lot of different songs, including a clever new version of Slim Dusty's Pub with No Beer.

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Back to Saturday night - we spent a while with Mick Thomas and the Roving Commission. I found out the huge Weddings Parties Anything hit 'Father's Day,' all these years later, still sounds over familiar and overexposed to me. The show was good, but as planned, we left to move next door to the Marquee for Steve Poltz - I was very happy to see him again and my buddy is a fan.

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Late Saturday night I caught the second half of Breabach's set. Wonderful Scottish tunes, multiple bagpipes, all right up my alley. They actually played Womadelaide a few years ago. I made sure I heard their full set on Sunday.

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On Sunday I also spent a bit of time at the instrument makers concert which is always interesting. Sometimes the makers themselves play but many instrument makers are not performers themselves. So often they just introduce the instruments and have other musicians showcase the instruments.

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Hat Fitz and Cara were intriguing. I meant to see them at Womadelaide, but missed out. Turned out to be not what I expected. The music was a bit more blues than is really my thing, but I loved the arrangements, Cara on drums (and washboard for one song) front and centre and she has an incredible voice. Bit of sassy couple humour in there too.

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I finished off Sunday night in the Trocadero, always a more genteel venue, with Fiona Ross and Ken Nicol. Fiona is a Scottish singer of the Scots language, now based in Australia; I've seen her before and like her stuff. During this show I cast off my knitted project, and cast on the next one, in the dark! (And it worked out fine).

By Monday I was pretty tired but determine to get the most out of this long weekend. I had great company, hanging out with my sister and her children for part of the day, and another excellent gig buddy for a lot of it. Early in the day I saw part of an Irish ensemble set called 'Companach - Music of Ireland in its place.' With a slide show of gorgeous Irish locations and other images relating to the tunes, the show moves through each of the 32 counties with a tune for each.

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Faith i Branko, another couple act, play mostly Roma music from Serbia, with, I think, Faith's own songs. They have an interesting back story - she was an accordionist from the UK, working for a circus and sent to Serbia to find a fiddler for the circus.

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Elephant Sessions was a big hit at Womadelaide and I enjoyed their set here too. Not exactly what I'm looking for in my Scottish music but definitely a party/dance band with some good tunes.

The farewell concert sometimes dragged a little but it was worth staying for a chance to hear some acts I had missed. I was especially keen to hear young Irish singer Susan O'Neill (known as SON) who has quite a Janis Joplin thing going on. And Ten Strings and a Goatskin, from Prince Edward Island, were a brilliant bonus. Gosh Eastern Canada must be swarming with incredible folk musicians!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Do the five-day grind once more

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Yes I've been to Womadelaide again (almost two weeks ago)!

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Tank and the Bangas

After getting in to the festival on Friday afternoon, establishing camp and meeting up with friends, we wandered along to the stage part way through this set. Straight away I wished I had been there the whole time. Tank and the Bangas are from New Orleans. Lead singer Tank is a slam poet as well as a singer. She was an energetic bundle of feel-good charm and charisma. I'm not exaggerating.

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Anoushka Shankar

I didn't get up close for photos but I really enjoyed this set. I hadn't listened to Anoushka's music (Land of Gold is now on its way to me) but I do remember when she played Womadelaide in 2010 with her famous father Ravi Shankar. That was a quiet, meditative, classical show. I remember an incredible shared mood in the huge, quiet, seated crowd stretching way back from the main stage. This was quite different - with a lot more varied and modern/western influences. I was mesmerised by her fast playing and the rapid bouncing her thumb had to do, anchored on the top of the neck of the sitar while the rest of fingers were strumming. It looked like it would be hard on the thumb joint.

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Rodrigo y Gabriela

I had vaguely heard of this duo but don't think I'd really heard them before. (They've been big for a decade; I'm just slow.) They got their start in a metal band in Mexico, and went on to play as a duo in seaside resorts. I gather these jobs were about providing 'authentic Mexican atmosphere' but in an interview they said they didn't have a lot of suitable repertoire so they adapted a lot of metal and rock material to play in a Latin style. At some point they moved to Ireland, had to start out busking because Irish hotels tended to hire Irish folk musicians, but quickly gained a following as their own distinctive rock/metal/folk acoustic guitar style emerged.

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I was interested in how they do all they do with nylon strings, and this article about the guitars was pretty interesting.

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After a delay getting started (while a Tool track played - something you'd expect at a stadium gig but no one wastes that sort of time with a 1-hour festival set) the performance was absolutely worth waiting for. These two love to play and clearly love to play together. I was fascinated with Gabriela's style in particular - she's kind of a one-woman rhythm/bass section, with some kind of flicking strumming movement and plenty of knocking and tapping on the guitar body - and she really played to the crowd as well. I'll be listening to them more .

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Thursday, February 01, 2018

Feel like dancing in the rain - can I have a volunteer

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I didn't know much about Aberdeen before we arrived. I knew it was the birthplace of Annie Lennox. That was about it.

Our visit had a mixed start. K had come down with a cold during that day. And we had reached dirty clothes desperation point and needed a laudromat urgently. Luckily there was one pretty close to the hotel. We were thrilled with our huge and incredibly reasonably priced hotel room. It was pretty great after the awful guest house in Inverness.

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Beach Ballroom

In the morning K found us a nice place for breakfast at the beachfront. It was a reasonable walking distance away ...but worth it. I was pretty hungry/desperate for coffee by the time we got there and ordered. Breakfast was good, and it was nice to sit in the sun for a while.

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While we sat at the cafe, we watched as a half marathon ran right past us. We had learned before we left the hotel that morning that the inaugural Great Aberdeen Run was being held that day. I just had to check the website to see if entries on the day were possible (no) (probably for the best! But I might have given it a go! I think my sneakers had just finished drying out after a muddy walk/run on Skye). So I resigned myself to a tiny bit of run envy, and also a very enjoyable day exploring the city on foot while lots of roads were closed to traffic.

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After we were done with breakfast and also finished drying out all the contents of my bag (yep, lid improperly closed on water bottle during that walk), we wandered along the beachfront for a while.

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Seeing a line of ships waiting out on the horizon always reminds me of visiting Newcastle (NSW) back when my parents were living there.

It wasn't hot but it was a nice summer weekend day and I was surprised to see so few people at the beach. We couldn't work out if the traffic closures kept people away or if the beach just really isn't that popular. Probably there are nicer beaches not far away. But I have a soft spot for a semi-industrial city beach!

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We enjoyed a bit of dog-spotting and also made sure to get our shoes off and stick our feet in the North Sea. On the way back along the promenade we came across this work of sand art, already being gradually eaten by the sea, and the artist himself sitting on a bench overlooking the beach and watching the waves come in. He said he does this often.

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The Gordon Highlander

We walked back into town through Castlegate.
seagull collage
I got laughed at by a couple for taking photos of this seagull. Or maybe just for taking so many photos and looking like a clueless tourist? I forget each time until I go back, the gulls in the UK are much bigger than ours in Australia. Sneering people are much the same anywhere though.

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The statue of Ceres on top of an old bank building (now a pub) seemed to have some extra decoration.

Ceres statue

We spent a while sampling the options at the Brewdog pub. They have many delicious beers which I have been buying back home whenever I find them. Apparently they are coming to Australia and I'm really looking forward to it.

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It's easy to see why Aberdeen is called the Granite City or the Silver City.

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And we were fascinated by the Triplekirks site with its sole surviving spire. We wondered if it was going to be enveloped by a shopping mall like the Shot Tower at Melbourne Central.

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Turns out there have been various development plans for the site and church remains since at least the mid-90's, ranging from offices to an art centre, to flats (including demolition of the spire!). The latest, pictured below, seems to be fancy student/academic accomodation. Pics I've seen on instagram suggest construction might have actually started since we were there.

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Monday, January 08, 2018

We learned fast to travel light

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On the day we left Inverness we had planned to stop, maybe for a short time, at Culloden. Visiting the battlefield, the site of the last battle fought on British soil, was a much bigger experience than I expected. I shared some thoughts about this on Instagram.

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The battle at Culloden in April 1746 was the end of the Jabobite Rising of 1745, and the last battle fought on British soil.

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The visitor centre/museum was really well set up and told the story with a good deal of complexity and a lot of information from different perspectives.

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We also took a group tour of the battlefield. I'd never visited a battlefield before, and it was so strange to walk each front line (conveniently marked with footpaths and red and blue flags) and picture the two armies lining up to face each other across a field.

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And although that idea is completely foreign to me, once you delve into the historical context and relate to some of the people involved, it's very easy to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. War might look different but we humans are still tend to be territorial, angry, and scared, desperately defining our in-groups and out-groups to make sense of things and try to make ourselves feel safe. 

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I am so glad we took the time to visit the Culloden site. It was strange to learn even though the battle is relatively recent in historical terms, that the locations of many graves and other details about the site are unknown and can't be surveyed because of the use of the site for commercial forestry for a long time.

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Below you can see the visitors centre. I like the way it fits modestly into the landscape.

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After some lunch, we got on the road for Aberdeen. We stopped briefly in Nairn for a look at the beach. I wish I had known to visit the Nairn Fishwife. This is one of the disadvantages of doing your research post-trip!


We also stopped in Elgin. Here we were more focused on finding a pharmacy open on Saturday afternoon to buy some cold medicine, than sight-seeing. I did take some inadequate photos of this statue, which turns out to be the infamous Wolf of Badenoch. He seems to have been a very angry man with too much power. The statue is in a weird spot, not really in a pedestrian thoroughfare - and we just happened to pass it because of where we parked.

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