This month, the Darwin Blues Festival hits town, and with a swag of blues, soul and rootsy rock from a star-studded line-up over three nights, it’s well and truly got the blues for you.
Featuring the likes of Australian soul sister Christine Anu, the son of blues royalty Muddy Waters, Big Bill Morganfield, Oz rock music legend Mark Seymour and the high energy live performance of Ash Grunwald, plus a host of local blues acts, this year’s event showcases a diverse cross-section of the genre.
In a lot of ways, the Top End is the natural home for blues music in Australia – its frontier origins, relaxed pace and already solid blues following – but Darwin’s blues carries its own distinct flavour, with blues and roots its foundations, and rock and country heady its kick.
“The Blues seems to suit the Darwin lifestyle,” agrees the event’s organiser, Josh Thomas, a blues junkie and muso himself. “Everyone talks about how laid back and friendly Territorians are and it comes out in the style of music we play.” It’s little wonder then that the Darwin Blues Festival has been known to draw crowds from right across the Territory.
Having spent the last few decades making those transitions from rock to blues, former Hunters and Collectors frontman, Mark Seymour plays the festival with his new outfit and a host of material from his solo albums. Responsible for writing rock anthems like Holy Grail and Throw Your Arms Around Me, his sound has changed since the heavy bass, lead guitar and famously loud sound of ‘Hunnaz’. But for Seymour, the job is essentially the same. “I’ve always operated on the very simple premise that my music needs to translate to people in a room. I want to be able to tell stories with my guitar and I appropriate styles as it suits me,” he says. “The thing about emotion in music is that it really comes from a very mysterious, strange place deeply embedded in your personality. You can’t invent that, it just comes out. I take my place on stage and nothing I write in my shed is going to translate if it can’t pass that test.”
In this more acoustic, post-Hunters incarnation, he’s embraced the blues. “It’s just three chords and it’s all based on jamming. The format of that style takes you where it wants to go. I think that the simplicity of using those three chords and not being frightened of doing things very simply is the key.”
Pleased to find out he’ll be sharing the bill with Morganfield, Seymour describes Muddy Waters as a “master” and a massive musical influence in his adolescence.
He’s not the only one excited about Morganfield’s appearance - it’s quite a coup for relatively young festival in a town like Darwin, not always on the international radar. Morganfield came to music later in life, after two university degrees and the death of his father. Though he’s inevitably tied in people’s minds to Muddy Waters – his debut album Rising Son was a nod to that legacy – Morganfield’s career is very much of his own making complete with fiery slide guitar and a deep Chicago blues style. “My guitar is my torch and my soul carries the flame. Make no mistake, I'm a true Bluesman,” he says.
Closer to home, Australian song darling, Christine Anu’s smooth blend of pop-influenced soul is known across Australia. She’d been in the show biz scene for a few years before she hit a popular nerve in 1995 with the single, My Island Home, which won both her and the song’s writer, Neil Murray, ARIA accolades. The blues for her have particular resonance. “As an Indigenous person, with my connection to song and to spirit,” she says, “that’s soul in itself. That’s roots.” Her latest album is a songbook of Aretha Franklin classics and as a long-standing fan, she’s thrilled to be performing some of these songs at the Festival.
Also Australian-grown, Ash Grunwald returns to Darwin on tour for his latest album, Trouble’s Door. On being reminded he’ll be playing the amphitheatre as he did the last time, his enthusiasm for his job, the crowd and this town are quick to shine through. “Epic!” he exclaims. “That is going to be great!” Having made his name on the festival circuit, Grunwald’s high-energy live performances are themselves epic. Of his take on the blues sound that he’s made his own, he says, “because it’s so varied, you can take it in so many directions. That’s what so great about it.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Morganfield, whose very heritage suggests the future of blues is safe and sound. “Whoever said there’s no future for the blues,” he says “has got to have a hole in their soul.”
And with a review like that, may the blues stay blue forever.