Wanderer Stephen Pigram MGM ★★★★✩
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.