First held in October 2008, the Juke Joint has emerged as one of Adelaide’s swampiest, most foot-stompingly authentic blues music events. Establishing a two night format in 2009, last year’s offering expanded again to include simultaneous shows in Adelaide and Whyalla along with the launch of ‘These Are My Blues’, a compilation tribute album to blues legend Big Joe Williams released by local roots label Stobie Sounds. Now in its fourth year, the event has taken on a new, larger context as the climactic show of Adelaide’s inaugural Backwater Blues and Roots Festival, a second collaboration between Stobie Sounds and organisers Mojo Inc., which ran in various locations around the city and state from October 21. Featuring a line-up of local, national and international blues talent, Saturday October 29 was set to be a long, sweaty conclusion for a busy ten day program.
After all, getting people moving is what the blues are all about. That was certainly true during the official Juke Joint warm-up at the Whitmore Hotel on October 26, where Sweet Baby James and Rob Eyers, Old Gray Mule and CW Ayon kept the packed room dancing until very late for a Wednesday night. I’d left sometime just before twelve after speaking with a punter on the footpath outside (where the music’s volume was barely diminished) who’d once taken three months leave from his job, which turned into nine, travelling around the southern United States. He described his time in motel bars and biker hangouts where the floors moved with roaches and broken glass and chicken wire surrounded the stage, listening to many of those blues greats like R.L Burnside who re-emerged during the early 90s. It was an instructive encounter: the blues are also about bringing people together and telling stories.
Back to the main event on Saturday and several people were already waltzing by the pool table when long-time Adelaide band The Streamliners took the stage around 7.45. Together since 1989, this band has gone through a number of changes in both membership and style, through everything from swampy Delta and Chicago to the up-tempo horn sections of Big-Town blues and, more recently, a greater focus on rock/country styling with the inclusion of Bob Rankine on guitar and Deryck Charles on keybourd to complete their current five-piece. The key word for their performance on Saturday, however, was smooth. Seeming to progress effortlessly through a set list that included long, slow, atmospheric pieces alongside more upbeat, jumping rhythms and a stand-out performance of Eagle In the Sky from their recent ‘Signs’ album, evoking wide open spaces and empty highways, the group’s passion, precision and professionalism were on display and well-appreciated.
Next up were the night’s international guests, Old Gray Mule guitarist C.R. Humphrey from Lockhart, Texas and “one man band” C.W. Ayon from New Mexico. Offering what Humphrey calls “that foot stompin’, magic boogie shit,” their drums and guitar duo is suited for two things first and foremost: late nights and lots of dancing. They got plenty of both during their time in Adelaide, saying that audiences here were some of the loudest and most enthusiastic they’d ever played to. Ayon’s first gig on returning home will be at the local renaissance fair, which he thinks (though providing great exposure) may not live up to the energy on-show during Backwater Festival’s many bar room gigs. Even little-old Auburn managed to get around sixty out to see these two play, with more than a few people, Humphrey says, kicking their heels. Although Night Train’s large stage looked somewhat sparse with only two players, their steady, smooth and frenetic instrumental work and steely-eyed focus carried the set. Seeing them play crammed-in local front bars until well after midnight, however, had assured me of this combo’s genuine, smoky-roomed blues talent.
The night was getting on and respected Australian blues-man and harmonica maestro Chris Wilson’s appearance provided another energy shot to keep things moving. Accompanied by Sweet Baby James and Rob Eyers, whose raw power had been on show at the Whitmore Hotel warm-up, the effect was powerful and the audience couldn’t help but give their undivided attention. Wilson really works the mic and wails into his harmonica to get the crowd grooving, pacing around the stage and spitting out lyrics.
But if Wilson’s presence on stage was engaging, the influence of Mason Rack Band was positively electric. The band usually plays longer gigs, lead singer Mason Rack says. Combined with their brief visit, with only one other gig at the Willunga Golf Club on their South Australian itinerary, the group were obviously keen to pack as much punch into their Adelaide set as possible. From his dedication of a song to Quagmire from ‘Family Guy’ – giggidy giggidy – you got a sense of where this performance was going. Rack’s aggressive slide guitar work certainly provided a counterpoint to the more relaxed, reflective demonstrations of that art during the previous night’s Bottleneck Slide Show at the Wheatsheaf Hotel. Featuring impressive solos from bass guitarist Nathan Lee-Archer, epileptic strobe lighting effects that gave a stop-motion feel to Joel Purkess’s efforts on drums and the much-anticipated beer keg percussion duel (“there’s a reason those kegs are up on stage,” someone from a previous show told me) Mason Rack’s live performance is heavy, metallic blues with a good dose of theatricality, suggesting that along with the influence of gravely voiced legends such as Tom Waits and Led Zeppelin, there might be a little bit of Meat Loaf stuck in this band’s throat!
By now the crowd began to thin-out, tired from their week of Backwater bluesing and the approach of 2 AM. For those who stayed the party continued, highlighting the collective spirit of this festival’s program and the blues generally, with appearances from local singer Tara Carragher doing a rendition of classic Louisiana song You Are My Sunshine, a rock-paper-scissors contest between Rob Eyers and Mason Rack to decide who would play the drums and an increasingly frenetic jam-fest epitomised by C.R. Humphrey’s “sexy motherf**king dance contest”, in which a number of female audience members are invited on stage to see who best keeps up with the beat.
Whether its dancing, drinking, storytelling or some combination thereof, the blues are an organic, communal genre rich in history and culture. We can only hope they’ll continue to be celebrated in such a passionate and engaging way amid South Australia’s bars, pubs, markets and juke joints for many years to come.