If there was a recurring friction at this celebration of American roots music, Donald Trump wasn’t mentioned by name. Beth Nielsen Chapman captured the prevailing feeling when she pointedly declared that she wouldn’t talk about politics lest she say something she regretted. The Nashville singer-songwriter eschewed the here and now for the timeless and universal, closing her set with a lovely paean to the celestial, There Is No Darkness. Chuck Prophet introduced Bad Year For Rock And Roll, his homage to such luminaries as David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen, meanwhile, with a pained lament that 2016 was also the year “we lost any illusions about democracy”. And Loudon Wainwright III interrupted his set to allow his right-hand man, banjo player Chaim Tannenbaum, to deliver a moving rendition of America The Beautiful, highlighting the topicality of the standard despite it being more than a century old.
Southern Fried Festival ****
Various venues, Perth
Wainwright and Tannenbaum were originally brought together by Kate McGarrigle. And the former paid a kind-of-tribute to his late ex-wife with their only co-composition, the weighty, warts-and-all number, Over The Hill. The track perfectly encapsulates the bittersweet sting of Wainwright’s confessional shtick, which marries wry, witty responses to “death and decay” like Doctor and Old And Only In The Way with lyrically arch, tender reflections on the roving 70-year-old’s messy personal life.
Sharing an extract from his forthcoming memoir, about struggling to connect with his soon-to-be famous, openly resentful children, Rufus, Martha and Lucy, he also focused on a weak, toxic masculinity on the thoughtful Men and Charlie’s Last Song, a heartbreaking elegy for troubled troubadour Charlie Poole. Wainwright continues to deliver music that makes you wince and smile in a single line, even after all these years.
Prophet is also looking back on bright lives burned out for his latest record. The turbulently charged title track of Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins, about the enigmatic early death of the I Fought The Law singer, is a rock ‘n’ roll banger which was quirkily juxtaposed here with the droll, new wave meditations of Jesus Was a Social Drinker. From psychedelic pop to surf rock, Prophet and his band The Mission Express infuse alt-country with a recklessness, humour and urgency, his duet with his wife Stephanie Finch on the rhythmic In The Mausoleum, and call and response with the crowd on the churningly ferocious Temple Beautiful, an impish delight to hear.
You certainly couldn’t accuse Nielsen Chapman of wallowing in a sorrowful past. Despite the sort of medical, bereavement and relationship history that could only come to a country singer, she remains an optimist. New song Enough For Me is a jaunty number, while How We Love has a crystalline beauty in its clarity. Sand and Water, dedicated to Princess Diana by Elton John when he performs it, or her big commercial hit, This Kiss, could be mawkish in less assured hands. But Nielsen Chapman is a compelling chronicler of powerful emotions, a rightly acclaimed
writer for others who deserves her growing spotlight as a performer.
Finally, a mention for the UK’s Danni Nicholls, whose huskily sultry singing and gift for heart-rending intimacy make her an exciting prospect.