For decades Newcastle’s seemed like Sydney’s poor cousin, a city overshadowed by the big smoke a couple of hours down the Pacific Highway. However, in recent years I’ve seen my hometown and the nearby Hunter region experience a real renaissance thanks to festivals which as impressive as any you’d find in the New South Wales capital. Events like these make Newcastle and the Hunter much more than Sydney’s lesser relative.

Fat as Butter

Fat as Butter is one of Newcastle’s leading music festivals, with an eclectic line-up of retro acts and up-and-comers taking over the Newcastle Foreshore around September or October since 2007. Where else would you see acts like Wheatus, Naughty by Nature, and Eiffel 65 sharing a stage with our own Living End, Calling All Cars, and The Jezebels? Sadly the 2014 event didn’t go ahead after organisers failed to secure a worthy line-up, but they promise they’ll “definitely be back in 2015 with a smashing show.”

Jazz in the Vines

Image via Sounds of Oz

Jazz in the Vines is one of my favorite festivals for its chilled-out atmosphere and consistently stellar line-up. I hated missing this year’s event; my parents travelled abroad and I didn’t think it’d be the same without sipping Semillon with mum while we sang along to artists like Joe Camilleri, Leo Sayer, and Tom Burlinson. Add in some of the Hunter’s best food and I’ll definitely be grabbing early bird tickets next year.

Newcastle Jazz Festival

It doesn’t have the wine, but it’s still worth checking out the Newcastle Jazz Festival, held at the Newcastle Jockey Club on the last full weekend of August. The line-up’s always eclectic with traditional jazz artists and big bands performing alongside modern masters who fuse jazz with funk and soul, like Psycho Zydeco, Fish Fry, and the Funky Do Das. This premier festival, which has run for 27 years, is considered one of the best in its genre in the nation.

Wollombi Music Festival

Image via Sounds of Oz

When I took my sister to Wollombi a few years ago, she fell instantly in love. As a single mum, she loved that there was a music festival where we could enjoy awesome new blues and roots acts while her young daughter played happily in the Kidsfest zone. I was out the moment she mentioned camping the next year, but she’s been attending ever since. I might be too much of a princess to embrace the overnight accommodation, but I could definitely appreciate the quality line-up, which this year featured King Tide, The Peep Tempel, and Holly Who, as well as the family-friendly atmosphere.

The Newcastle Weekender Festival

This year saw the launch of a new kid on the block, The Newcastle Weekender Festival run in conjunction with the This is Not Art event. A massive crowdfunding campaign saw up-and-coming and experimental acts like Horse Macgyver, Philippa Omega, Hedonist, and King playing intimate shows across four days at the Terrace Bar and the Croatian Club. Its commitment to celebrating the talents of left-of-centre acts make it one to watch.

Have I missed any Novacastrians? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the music festivals that make Newcastle and the Hunter great.

When I was a kid, we didn’t have massive children’s acts like The Wiggles and Hi-5. Children’s entertainment wasn’t really a thing, so we sought out our own songs that resonated. For me it was “Butterfly Ball” by Roger Glover, “House on Pooh Corner” by Loggins and Messina, and perhaps most importantly, “Alexander Beetle” by Melanie Safka. There were no convenient CDs or digital version in those days either. Playing it was a bit of a production. We’d beg Dad to bring out his copy of Candles in the Rain and he’d remind us that we had to stand still so the stylus didn’t jump. So we’d keep our feet planted while we made those little beetle noises and sang along to the beautiful tale of a runaway bug. As I grew older I discovered more Melanie music, but that song was always one I held a little bit closer to the rest. And it was that song that took me to Lizotte’s, Newcastle, on 22 June.

I’d told myself that “Alexander Beetle” was such a small song really that I wasn’t going to hear it. I was going to be happy with the big hits and whatever else she decided to play. And I probably would have been. There’s a wonderful aura about Melanie. She’s so warm and giving, and her voice has lost little over the years. Her band is stellar, especially her son Beau. His incredible guitar talents might only be matched by how sweet he is looking out for his mother.

I was so happy just soaking it all up in the intimacy of Lizotte’s, and then she asked us what we’d like to hear. “Alexander Beetle!” yelled out a voice from a few tables away, and a few other voices joined the chorus. It seems I wasn’t the only one so touched by that little song. A hand flew to my mouth in surprise, and my heart soared as I realised it was going to happen. I was going to hear that song live that had meant so much to me. Do you know what that feeling’s like? I sang along as I fought back happy tears and decided it didn’t matter what else happened; this was already an incredible show.

I told myself I didn’t care what else happened, but I guess there was a part of me that would have been disappointed had I not heard the hits. They were all there, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma,” the delightful “Brand New Key,” her incredible cover of “Ruby Tuesday,” and the jubilant “Candles in the Rain,” sounding so perfect. I gained a new appreciation for these songs as Melanie told us tales of their history.

Melanie plays those songs because she knows we want to hear them. She’s such a generous, giving performer. But she’s also quick to tell you that she hasn’t been idle over the last few decades. Her set included a smattering of new songs too, with lyrics so thick with wisdom. She lamented the way radio is only interesting in playing young shit, and listening to her new material I had to agree with her. She’s an artist that still has so much to give to anyone willing to listen. Who needs radio though? Hearing her incredible songs, new and old, come alive in such a small venue was so much sweeter.

Image source: own photo

There are certain performers that keep you coming back year after year. They always sing the songs you want to hear, sound sublime while doing it, and give so much of themselves to their fans. For my family, Richard Clapton is one such performer.

I first saw Richard Clapton performing a free show with Mental as Anything at the Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum decades ago. I didn’t really know I was a Richard Clapton fan back then. The show was something my parents took me to at an age when I didn’t control such things. But I was definitely a fan by the time I left. I was stunned by how many of his songs I knew, and how effortlessly he performed them.

So many years have passed, and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Richard since. We’ve all grown, but the consistency of his concerts remains. So when my parents won a free dinner and show at Lizotte’s Newcastle, we knew we’d have to see Richard again.

What a shame we had to suffer through Hats Bennett before we did. I rarely make comments so harsh, but there really wasn’t a lot to like about Hats. His hat was cool, and he was a really solid guitarist. It’s just a shame that he didn’t stop there. His songwriting was really underdeveloped (a song about introducing a new cat to another? Really?) and his voice had serious limitations. I don’t need a perfect voice, but if yours isn’t strong you probably shouldn’t aim for a falsetto. It seems I wasn’t the only one, as the crowd’s reactions ranged from bored to bemused.

All was forgiven once Richard stepped on stage though. What a talent he is. It might seem clichéd to insist that he only gets better with age, but the addition of Jak Housden to his band ensures his music is certainly sounding better than ever. Hit after hit washed over us, punctuated by Richard’s witty banter and insights into that brilliant back catalogue. Richard doesn’t seem to mind staying with those time-honoured songs. He knows why people see him play, and he’s only too happy to oblige. He treated us to just one song from his new album Harlequin Nights, ensuring he didn’t push the patience of a crowd that clearly wanted to just sing along.

An encore seemed like a mere formality. We all knew he’d never leave us before singing “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Girls on the Avenue.” Even when his trademark sunglasses snapped in two before that last track, he knew he had to soldier on. He did only half joke that he’d do away with anyone who snapped a photograph though, and when someone cheekily did with a smartphone, I thought he might follow through on that threat! But it was all in good fun, and the perfect end to another great night with Aussie rock royalty.

Image source: own photos

Last week David Campbell took me back to my childhood when his Let’s Go tour touched down in Newcastle. I expected big things from the show. I knew I’d be treated to songs from my favourite decade of music, and I’ve never left a DC show without a big smile on my face. Predictably he didn’t let me down.

As the lights came up we were instantly transported back to the 80s. The band wore more neon than I’ve seen for years, and the lights were straight out of the period. It was perfect. He opened with the title track, “Let’s Go” and barely took his foot from the throttle as he treated us to songs from the album and other 80s favourites. As a child of the 80s those unexpected gems were some of the night’s highlights for me. His stripped back version of “Every Time You Go Away,” beginning with an a capella section, was breathtaking. His take on “Knew You Were Waiting,” with back-up singer Josie Lane stepping into Aretha Franklin’s shoes was so much fun. And his version of “Power of Love” was even more awesome after hearing his story of performing it as a teen beginning his journey as a musician. Those tales really made the night for me, the reminiscing about buying Smash Hits magazine and recording songs from the radio using the old two-fingered method. They were probably lost on certain sections of the audience, but as a 30-something I was right there with him.

I’ve always loved seeing shows at Newcastle’s Civic Theatre. It’s such a beautiful venue, so intimate and so well appointed. But it may not have been the best place to see David Campbell. I spent so much of the night dancing in my chair, dying to do more. As he started “Goody Two Shoes” it all got too much and Mum and I jumped out and found a quiet corner to dance. The theatre’s not really the place to do that, but who can sit down with that sort of music?

The show was brilliant but it probably wasn’t the right venue. Thankfully David’s announced some more dates later this year. I think I might have to go back for a second helping!

Image source: own photos

The last time I saw Jimmy Barnes he was stripping things back with an acoustic show at the most intimate of venues, Lizotte’s on the Central Coast. Just a few short months later I witnessed a show that couldn’t have been more different. He was back with his Cold Chisel band mates and playing it loud in Newcastle great big shed, the Entertainment Center. While I appreciated the quietness of the first gig, there’s something about seeing a Chisel show that can’t be beat.

Before the rock veterans graced the stage we were treated by a set by The Break. Psychedelic surf music is an unusual entrée for some pub rock, but the skill of these musicians made it a tasty treat. The Break features members of Midnight Oil who spoke fondly of their love of our city. That sort of flattery helped win over the crowd, who listened attentively to the drum-heavy instrumental tracks.

While the crowd appreciated The Break, the excitement went up a notch when Cold Chisel took to the stage. It was sad at first to look out and see someone else sitting in Steve Prestwich’s chair, but new drummer Charley Drayton settled into his very big shoes. He slotted in seamlessly, helping original members Jimmy Barnes, Ian Moss, Phil Small, and Don Walker belt out hit after hit. We knew the lyrics to all the songs and sang along enthusiastically.

While I appreciated the loud rock numbers, the moments when the band stripped things back were real highlights. A pared back version of “When the War Is Over” was a fitting tribute to the late Steve Prestwich. I also appreciated the reggae-tinged take on “Breakfast at Sweethearts,” one of my personal favourites that wasn’t played the last time I saw them live. I’m also not sure anything can beat singing along to numbers like “Khe Sahn” and “Flame Trees.”

It wasn’t a perfect show. Jimmy’s voice seemed to be showing the strain from all that touring, especially during the ballads. The mix also wasn’t quite right, with Don Walker’s keys dominating at times they should have been more subtle, particularly in the stripped back moments.

But even these minor niggles couldn’t detract from seeing the band that I believe are the greatest Australia’s ever produced. It’s amazing to have them back in business.

Image source: own photos

Let me take you back to last Saturday night. It was a night where the end of the world was nigh, or at least we were told that it was. I was pretty sure there’d be no Rapture, but I figured if there was at least I’d go out seeing one of my favorite Australian performers, David Campbell.

Clearly the rest of Newcastle had the same idea, as the showroom at West Leagues Club was packed to capacity. Our enthusiasm was rewarded, as David played as if it may be the last time he’d grace the stage. He was incredibly animated, the result of several coffees we were told. Whatever the cause, I felt as if we were treated to a comedy act as well as a musical one. David’s always funny, but the Rapture and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent scandal gave him a bit more material to play with. And play he did, memorably telling us he would sing a song by his famous father before launching into Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.” It’s not a tune I’d ever expected him to play, but even singing country he was bloody good.

But laughs are only half of the David Campbell story. He can turn the show on a dime, bringing the entire audience in to a tender moment on a whim. Those special moments came in the always breathtaking “Begin the Beguine,” the romantic “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and my personal live favourite “Mr Bojangles.”

So there was no Rapture, but if there was that’s the show I’d want to go out on. Happily though we go on, and I know I can enjoy something just as good next time David hits town.

Image source: own photos

Western Australian music royalty came together last night for one amazing show at Newcastle’s Civic Theatre. This grand old theatre was made for the intimate music of artists like The Waifs and Mama Kin, and the attentive crowd lapped it up.

I put Mama Kin together with The Waifs in my introduction because her set never felt like mere support. I’m used to crowds chattering away as support acts desperately try to capture the attention of someone in the audience, but not last night. All eyes were transfixed on this spirited performer, who so effortlessly fused blues, roots, folk, and soul. The crowd even complained when she announced her last song. She cheekily told the audience they needn’t pretend they were there to see her. A fair call perhaps, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t savouring her every moment on stage. I know I was; hanging onto every lyric, singing and clapping to the beat when she encouraged us to, laughing at the stories that punctuated the songs. Mama Kin definitely made a few new fans last night, and I’m amongst them.

As The Waifs began their set I was again struck by how attentive and receptive this Newcastle crowd was. Just as Mama Kin was supported, so were The Waifs’ new songs. Their set drew heavily from their soon-to-be-released new album Temptation, but the audience didn’t seem to mind one bit. Of course songs like “Lighthouse” and “London Still” received a rapturous reception, but the crowd patiently waited until they came, content to let the new material wash over them.

Of course, all credit can’t be given to the crowd. The Waifs’ new material also stacks up against their familiar hits nicely. The songs tell stories which suck you in, compelling you to listen even if you don’t know the words. Add in the vivacious personalities and exquisite harmonies of sisters Donna and Vikki, and the gorgeous meshing of the band’s instruments, and you’ve got an act that you’d happily hear perform anything they desired.

The Waifs are one of those bands I’d always meant to see but never quite gotten there. After enjoying a night in their company I can see why their fans are so passionate, and why they return for each and every tour. Next time I’m sure I’ll join them.

Image used with permission from Stephen Green Consulting

Despite giving Australia The Screaming Jets and Silverchair, Newcastle isn’t really known as much of a cultural capital. The annual This is Not Art Festival looks to change all that, with its annual line up of music, art, creative writing, and free thinking.

From September 30 to October 4, the festival will turn the Steel City into a cultural hub of activity, with The Crack Theatre Festival, National Young Writers Festival, Sound Summit, and WalkARTbout amongst the highlights.

Visit the This is Not Art Festival website regularly to learn all about what’s happening. Checking out the festivities sounds like a great way to spend your Labour Day weekend!

Yesterday was a day for real thought as Julia Gillard was officially announced as the prime minister of our first minority government in 70 years. I’m still not entirely sure of the ramifications of that, but I’m interested to see how it pans out. It seemed fitting that such a pivotal day should coincide with me making a trek to the Newcastle Entertainment Centre to catch two of the country’s most political acts, Blue King Brown and John Butler Trio.

All too often it seems that the support act is an afterthought, a new band that needs exposure or musos that are mates with the main act. Rarely do the artists fit together to create an evening that sends such a strong message. Both Blue King Brown and John Butler Trio create music with meaning. And the Newcastle crowd lapped it up.

Blue King Brown were first, led by the mesmerizing Natalie Pa’apa’a. I caught the band a few years ago when they supported Santana, and they’ve come a long way since that time. Long time fans may have been thrilled to hear old favourites, but the new material from their latest album Worldwize: North & South got me going. There seemed to be more emphasis on melody, more focus in the message and the crafting of the songs. Thankfully the set was made up of songs both old and new, which gave us all something to enjoy. While support acts too often suffer from chattering crowds keen for the main act to start, Blue King Brown seemed to captivate the audience. They listened intently to these songs and gave the band the respect they really do deserve.

While Blue King Brown impressed me, I was wowed by the John Butler Trio. I’d never seen the band before, so I was struck by John Butler’s incredible musical skills. The live arena is where they really come alive, and the key to that is the main man himself. It’s where John can play an epic, intricate instrumental guitar piece to a transfixed audience, and switch easily between electric and acoustic guitar, lap steel guitar, banjo, and even drums. His technical talent is incredible, and his energy on stage electric.

That energy is what makes these powerful songs work. Rather than appearing preachy, the potent messages contained in the tunes take us back to the musical revolution of the late 1960s. Hearing John Butler speak about the proposed development of the Kimberley region gave “Revolution” extra power. The band’s gentle acoustic cover of Kev Carmody’s “Thou Shalt Not Steal” was one of the show’s most poignant moments.

But this isn’t the late 1960s, and bands that really have something to say are becoming rarer and rarer. Music has always been a great catalyst for change. As I watched the crowds clap their hands in unison in response to this band that has so much to say, I began to feel hope that real change is possible. And what a powerful thing that is.

Image source: own photos

Autographed Paul Young and Tony Hadley ticket

Last night I achieved a childhood dream. I saw Tony Hadley and Paul Young in concert.

Some of my younger readers might be asking “Who?” For their benefit, here’s a history lesson. I was lucky enough to be born in the 1980s. In this glorious decade Paul Young and Tony Hadley topped the charts, Paul with his solo career and Tony as lead singer of Spandau Ballet. These days they’re a bit older, a little heavier, but Paul and Tony are still delivering those hits to their faithful fans.

The show opened with both 80s icons taking the stage for a surprise duet of the Don Henley classic “Boys of Summer.” I was so overwhelmed with seeing both men on stage at once I immediately dug my camera out of my bag. Apparently it didn’t realize what a significant musical moment this was, because it refused to play. I couldn’t believe it. I would love to have a photo to show you, but it just wasn’t to be.

My despair at the camera situation faded though once Tony left the stage to allow Paul to shine in the spotlight. He took us down memory lane early with “Love of the Common People.” Poor Paul’s voice isn’t a patch on what it used to be, but we were happy to sing along loudly and make up for his vocal flaws. He was certainly energetic though, and no one could accuse him of failing to entertain.

After a few solo moments Tony returned to join Paul in his smash hit “Senza Uno Donna.” Then it was Paul’s time to rest while Tony belted out some Spandau Ballet classics. Unlike Paul, Tony was in fine voice. When I was busy swooning over him as a girl I don’t think I realised exactly how well he sings. And for the record, despite the extra kilos he’s gained, Tony Hadley still makes me swoon!

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