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Memoirs of a Blues Festival

Graeme Hague mozies into town for the Bridgetown Blues Festival looking for trouble, only to find there isn’t any…

By

11 September 2005

Text: Graeme Hague

To me, ‘the blues’ always conjures up one enduring image – a guy looking like he’s crawled out of the nearest dumpster, playing a very battered acoustic guitar across his lap with a bottleneck slide, while wailing incomprehensibly about lost love, drinking too much bourbon and living in alligator-infested parts of the USA. Blues aficionados can’t get enough. Somehow they can pick where each song ends and another begins. Me? I just want to snatch the guitar out of his or her hands, put on a set of fresh strings and tune the thing. What drugs are these people on? But that’s me…

There’s no doubt that genuine, traditional blues music is an acquired taste, but to prove its popularity thousands of fans flock to the sleepy little hamlet of Bridgetown in southwest W.A. to get their annual dose of depression in 12 bars of E minor. The entire central area of the town is converted into a sideshow alley with market stalls, sausage vendors of all descriptions and, of course, street buskers. Bob Dylan-esque musicians with guitars and harmonicas gripped in neck braces lurk on every corner. The local pubs get into the act hosting bands throughout the weekend and on the Saturday, when the main street is temporarily closed to traffic, PA systems are dragged out onto the footpath to cook in the November sun.

The headline acts this year included the likes of Tony Joe White and Melissa Sigler from the United States while a bandwagon of Australian artists get to perform by rotating through any of the five venues scattered around Bridgetown.

Perth-based Audex Sound has the gig of providing production for all these venues and it’s a credit to Keith Crammond and his crews that they can haul everything 250 kilometres, set up inside bare tents and aging buildings, and make everything work first time – nipping back to the warehouse isn’t an option. In fact, with Audex also supplying production on the same day for ‘A Day on the Green’ in Bunbury (120 klicks north and featuring the likes of Pete Murray and Kasey Chambers) the weekend would have been a very good time to sweep Audex’s empty factory floor – if there was any staff left to do it.

LOOKING FOR TROUBLE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES

Ah, so many cables, microphones, speakers and electronic goodies to go wrong. It’s exciting. In my opinion, this is the stuff of good, investigative AudioTechnology journalism. I set forth on the Saturday morning confident I’d quickly find a nice, juicy problem to write about. (With this kind of approach to things, it’s not surprising I’m on my second marriage.)

Two hours later and I’m deeply disappointed. Everything, it seems, is going fabulously well. In ‘The Blue Owl’s Nest’, which is one of the large marquees that’s promoted as a ‘civilised’ venue for the big acts (plastic chairs laid out in neat rows… dancing is kinda frowned upon), Rik was tweaking a Nexo Alpha system and complaining about what he feels is a serious issue… having to share a shower and toilet with 12 other smelly crew in the same house. Fortunately, they’re all averaging about four hours sleep each night, so who the hell has time to shower?

Another venue has a vintage Tapco Scorpion desk at front-of-house. Yes, you read it right – evidence that Audex’s warehouse is definitely empty. Nevertheless, the system is pumping, the crowd is rocking and, despite some dead channels, the Tapco still has faders to spare. This particular marquee is renowned for partying, and, being built on a gravel car park, the tight press of drunken, beer-toting punters quickly kicks up clouds of dust, which probably makes the Scorpion the best choice – a kind of sacrificial lamb. This is no place for a Digico D5.

The Festival Club is the town hall and is intended to be a close and intimate room for quieter acts. As it happened, it was packed to the rafters with people finding themselves getting very intimate indeed and I didn’t have the courage to sheep-dog my way across the top of the crowd to the sound guy and annoy him with chit-chat about his preferred SPX 990 presets (or something). The act on stage appeared to be decidedly ‘local’ and a little nonplussed by the array of real microphones and funny-looking speakers on the floor pointing at them. I quietly slipped away.

STRIKING A CHORD & ONLY ONE CHORD

Outside, things were hotting up. A heat haze was rising from the tacky bitumen of the main street and the Spring sunshine was beginning to take its toll. Beer and ice cream are never a good mix, but most people end up trying it. It’s time to visit the ‘Alfresco’ – a free-entry venue positioned on a car park.

Again, everything seemed to be working fine. Very annoying. Mind you, that’s just the gear. Let’s be honest, the free venues also tend to showcase the lesser-known acts. There are the community concerts, school groups and local garage bands who deserve just as much to be a part of the festival, but maybe need a tad more practice before they hit the big stages. I reckon they’re harder work for the sound crews too, because you never know what’s going to happen. And they tend to be a little more difficult, if you know what I mean. Drummers insist on having the top-of-the-wozza drumkit dismantled in favour of their own piece of junk with tin cymbals; and the double bass player refuses to accept that his ‘expensive’ Tandy pickup is causing a howling feedback. Meanwhile, the guitar players are way too loud, the singers way too soft. I had conflicting memories of this gig after working monitors on it four years earlier. It was a long day and night, satisfying until it was capped off by everything degenerating into an endless jamming version of Minnie the Moocher followed by 20 minutes of Bad to the Bone. How anyone can play one chord for that long is a mystery and it was a case of He who solos loudest, solos last.

Next stop, the Repertory Theatre. This does workshops most of the day and smaller acts at night. This time I don’t even get through the door for the crowd, but it doesn’t matter, the sound emanating from the room isn’t exactly inspiring me to persist. But where is the chaos and panic when you need it, a saga unfolding… anything! I decided to give up, ditch the camera somewhere safe and research the bars instead.

TURBO LETTUCE & A QUEUE FOR THE SHOWER

It’s later that night, empowered by the wisdom of several beers, that I see the real blues festival I was looking for earlier. The sound crews are starting to appear jittery, their eyes glazing from too many renditions of Mustang Sally, microphone leads are kicked aside instead of coiled neatly, the care-factor is slipping and everyone is only thinking of a quiet beer at the end of the gigs, maybe a puff of some turbo-lettuce while they swap war stories… then standing in line with 12 other blokes for a shower. They’ve got three nights of this and by the end of the weekend most of the equipment might as well be put on the back of a ute and driven through a carwash, it’ll be so covered in crap.

Personally, I’ve got a small weekender shed about 10 minutes away, a wife who’s prepared to stay sober and drive, and a fridge full of beer with a bottle of scotch on top. I slip away.

In the early hours of the morning I’m fantasising about sneaking back into town with a pair of side cutters and a plan for some creative re-patching to make things a little more exciting for this article, but then I realise the Audex crew probably wouldn’t share my sense of humour. Half of them won’t have had their shower yet.

And they don’t understand that there’s just no fun in doing things right.

The Bridgetown Blues Festival has completed its 13th season and this year tickets sold out by midday on the Saturday, making it the most successful yet. The event is coordinated and run almost entirely by volunteers from the local community, with bars and stalls staffed by groups such as the Volunteer Fire Brigade, Apex Club and a long list of others. With that in mind, it’s quite a remarkable feat of organisation and a credit to the folks involved. More information can be found at www.bluesatbridgetown.com

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