Eight hours of entertainment was incredible value, given the number of bands performing and that admission included a wander through the old gaol grounds. The building is a perfect setting for the blues, and the relaxed nature of the event allowed time to explore its eerie corridors, exercise yards, solitary confinement cells and hanging tower.
The blues is a melancholic musical form that grew among African-American communities following the end of slavery, and it is usually associated with struggle. The gaol setting provided a venue for reflection, contemplation and connection; I was fascinated by paintings in some of the cells and the burial sites of inmates, wondering what sort of wretched lives they – and their victims – experienced.
Headliner Chris Finnen – in matching bright blue shirt, jacket, fedora and guitar (the man’s got style) – plays a mean guitar and knows how to reach a crowd. With drummer Trapper and Michael Winter on bass guitar, he brought to life some Muddy Waters tunes and other traditional blues. Finnen’s guitar work is exceptional and his version of Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man”, with its recognisable riff on slide guitar and funky bass, was first-class.
Songs that had lyrics such as “I’m a boa constrictor and an anaconda, too, and I’m gonna crawl all over you” gave Finnen the time to explore every note, and he had his guitar singing.
The nature of the day was very relaxed and we enjoyed a freedom denied to former inmates; people drank, ate, walked, danced and moved whenever they chose. The walls of the gaol are so thick and high that an adjacent courtyard provided a smaller venue for acts such as The Brouhaha and AP D’Antonio.
The brilliant guitarists (Sam Buckley, lead guitar, and Connor O’Neill, bass) in Melbourne band Dreamboogie were spectacularly good, living up to the MC’s comment of, “Bugger me, you’re gonna love this”. Frontwoman Rebecca Davey – in rough, guttural vocals reminiscent of Janis Joplin – belted out a tribute to Bessie Smith and female blues singers of the ’20s and ’30s.
Dreamboogie bring a wonderfully new and modern sound to the blues. Their set included “I’m Gonna Find Me a Good Man” and “Black Mountain Blues”, with apt lyrics such as “good boys get out on bail and bad boys go to gaol”.
Seven-piece Gumbo Ya! Ya! have been around a long time and still sound as good as ever. Tracks such as “I’m Gonna Treat You Like a Dog” reminded of the raw roots of the blues and a cover of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” had an incredibly lively, upbeat feel.
One of the last acts in the line-up was Adelaide band Zkye Blue, and they got the joint jumping. Lead singer Zkye Compson-Harris took to the microphone as the audience was chatting, but when she softly sang “I wish I could be … “, people tuned in immediately. Then she whirled across the stage with “Love Me Baby”.
There are lots of gutsy tracks on Zkye Blue’s first album, such as “The Dog Wants In (But the Cat Walks Out)”, which has its roots in the blues but is given a modern twist with lyrics about women taking control of their lives, and the ode to female pleasure “Lick It Before You Stick It”. “Took It Like a Man” was powerful and the slow-blues song “He Thinks I Still Care”, with its gospel-like sound, was enough to wake the spirits present and past.
The festival wrapped up with the Blues Brothers and Sister of Soul, who had most of the audience dancing on the lawn to favourites “Minnie the Moocher”, “Shake a Tail Feather” and “Jailhouse Rock”. It was wonderful to hear a band member on harmonica come forward and take centre-stage; what is the blues without a harmonica? Slick and entertaining, this performance was a terrific way to finish off a day of the blues.
The blues, by singing about tragedy, help to heal pain, with soulful melodies that soothe the soul. By bringing together a community of people who were prepared to sing, dance and feast together, the excellent musicians at the Gaol Blues did a power of good in transforming the Gaol from a place of punishment to a new venue of celebration.
Haunted but undaunted, the performers fronted up from the back room and gave a hell of a concert that had everybody swinging.
The Gaol Blues was a one-day/night event held at Adelaide Gaol on March 20.