I caught Ash Grunwald at Richmond’s Corner Hotel on Sunday night.
I first heard this extraordinary talent by accident a couple of Port Fairy Folk Festivals ago when I attended a mid-morning all-star session called a ‘blues jam’, mainly in order to hear the American slide master Bob Brozman. This was my first Port Fairy and I feared that something called a folk festival might feature lots of bad poetry and middle aged men with beards. It did in fact feature bad poetry and beards, but also a stunningly diverse range of musicians that fit into the marketing categories known as ‘roots’, ‘world’ and ‘contemporary folk’ (which sounds like a tautology). This suited me fine, as, by the judicious use of the catalogue, I was able to craft myself a very nice little blues festival, which suited me just fine.
This jam consisted of a motley bunch of musicians of various shapes and sizes in a line across the front of the stage. Lots of beards and wide waist-bands. Somewhere in the line though, was a young dude with dreadlocks who looked like he’d just towelled off after a session in the local breakers. He was brandishing a Gibson 137, and I thought this was the token bar-room blues poser who was going to blow everyone off the stage with volume and phony metal attitude. Well I was wrong, brothers and sisters!
Each person called out whatever song they wanted to play and the key, and the rest followed along. When it was Ash’s turn, he called for ‘Smokestack Lightnin’’ and this voice came out of him like he was channelling a large black share-cropper from the 1920s.
This guy is young, barely 30, from Melbourne, and yet he has the most authentic blues voice I’ve ever heard emanating from an Australian. Think Howlin’ Wolf crossed with Son House in an extraverted mood.
And yet, he manages to remain himself. I’ve seen him several times since then, and I’m always struck with the ease with which he’s adopted a foreign voice and made it sound like he was born to it.
In interviews he’s careful to distance himself from the revivalists. He doesn’t want to sound like a 78 record, but instead emphasizes how no one in the history of the blues could really sound like him, since in his head, along with the Delta, is a couple of decades of hip-hop and electronica. You can hear this in the insistent doof-doof of his left foot on a stomp box, and his reliance on simple grooves to propel the song along.
If I have a criticism it’s that, when the occasion calls for it, he seems uncomfortable with the emotional power his voice can embody. On Sunday night, for instance, when a punter called for ‘Crossroads’, he couldn’t bring himself to bring the temperature down to the cold intensity the lyrics demand, and sounded like he was making excuses for it by stepping in and out of his affable down-to-earth Aussie persona during the song. Somebody should tell him he doesn’t need to, because when he’s really on, he makes you feel the despair of that last dangling line in your guts: ‘I’m standing at the crossroads / And I feel I’m sinking down...’.
I keep asking myself where he could go from here, since this one-man-groove thing he’s got going has got him through a couple of studio recordings and a live album already. A clue is in the best of his own songs and the arrangement and selection of covers, which are not by any means tied down to the canon. He throws in Tom Waits here and there, and his songs try on several different styles and moods, like ‘Dolphin Song’ which is a hilarious country style story-song.
I’d love to hear him with a long term band of his own, not just borrowed for the session, but a real sympathetic group of fellow travellers. You get a feeling for how this might sound on his guest spot with Joe Camilleri’s ‘Bakelite Radio’, which can be heard on the website: http://www.abc.net.au/dig/stories/s1401489.htm. They feature it as part of their Australian Blues Project special. Joe and the band chug along on a simple authentic Delta beat, and then Ash opens up and it sounds like someone let the Back Door Man himself in.
If he doesn't get taken by a shark in the meantime, I predict we'll hear a lot more of Ash Grunwald.