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Wan­derer Stephen Pi­gram MGM ★★★★✩

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Tony Hil­lier

LIS­TEN­ING to Stephen Pi­gram’s long over­due de­but solo al­bum leads to the in­escapable ob­ser­va­tion that Aus­tralia’s re­mote trop­i­cal north­west coast is, in mu­si­cal terms at least, the equiv­a­lent of Amer­ica’s steamy deep south.

That his roots-soaked, self-pro­claimed salt­wa­ter mu­sic has an in­du­bi­ta­ble re­la­tion­ship with the swamp blues of the south­ern states is ev­i­dent from the get-go. It comes across loud and clear in the sound of Ca­jun fid­dle, the rat-atat-tat of wash­board and the Chuck Berry groove that drives a hootin’, hol­lerin’ humdinger of an open­ing track, Croc­o­dile River, and in a cracked and croaky voice that evinces shades of Dr John, Tony Joe White and Taj Ma­hal.

There are gen­u­flec­tions to deities of Delta blues gui­tar in the singer-song­writer’s leisurely fin­ger pick­ing (and guest Jim Con­way’s throaty harp) in Too Much More to Say, his re­so­phonic play­ing in Long, Long Way and the old-school slide in Dar­ren Gal­lagher’s Walk­ing Blues, the set’s sole cover. Sashimi Brain, co-writ­ten by Bran Nue Dae author Jimmy Chi, is Cre­ole­flavoured and built solidly on pro­ducer Ker­ryn Tol­hurst’s coun­try blues slide gui­tar, An­drew Swann’s rub board and Lucky Oceans’s ac­cor­dion. A jaunty per­son­alised com­men­tary on pro­cras­ti­na­tion, Last Minute Man, which has more than a whiff of Taj Ma­hal’s ver­sion of Henry Thomas’s Fishin’ Blues, is il­lu­mi­nated by Brod­er­ick Smith’s evoca­tive har­mon­ica play­ing. If the mu­si­cal slant of Wan­derer em­anates from Louisiana and Mis­sis­sippi, the sen­ti­ment ex­pressed in the lyrics is fair dinkum out­back Aussie.

Croc­o­dile River is set in prover­bial up-shitcreek mode: ‘‘ He’s up a croc­o­dile river on a moon­less night / Try­ing to shine a light on those red beady eyes / In a dinghy with no pad­dle on a turn­ing tide / At the mercy of a salty, ah such is life.’’ The al­bum is full of sim­i­larly folksy snap­shots of Kim­ber­ley life­style. Sashimi Brain al­ludes to the high cost of hit­ting the grog: ‘‘ It’s just like pissin’ money down the drain / Now it’s all pick­led my sashimi brain.’’

In Be­ing, Pi­gram gets nos­tal­gic about ra­dio days and boxing matches of yes­ter­year: ‘‘ Heard Lionel down Harada on the wire­less / un­der the stars, on a worn out cy­clone bed / Ain’t no need for tele­vi­sion, all the pic­tures were in your head.’’ In Long Long Way, he waxes more lyri­cally: ‘‘ I can smell the colours of a rain­bow / I can touch a float­ing cloud up high /I can see the blue of all the oceans / I can hear the sound of limbo rush­ing by.’’

Mimi, an ode to an adored grand­mother, and Wan­derer II, based on orig­i­nal verse writ­ten by Pi­gram’s fa­ther back in the 1950s, pal­pa­bly pluck the author’s heart­strings. Had he opted to base him­self in one of the south­ern cap­i­tals, Pi­gram might be as well known as Paul Kelly or Shane Howard.

But then he wouldn’t be the bard of Broome or the king of Kim­berly song.

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