Blue Notes by Robin Lynam: Kara Grainger

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 3:52pm

The wider world usually pays little attention to Australia's lively blues and roots music scene - largely, I suppose, because so few of these musicians choose to work much outside the country.

This is a shame, because as any visitor to Sydney's The Basement club can attest, there is no shortage of talent, and every now and again an Australian blues artist does manage to grab the attention of an international audience.

In 1992, slide guitarist Dave Hole signed to the prestigious US independent blues label Alligator Records. He has since continued to record, and tour the world with considerable success, while remaining based in Australia.

Hole won a 1999 ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) award for best blues and roots album with Under the Spell; as did Australian slide guitarist Jeff Lang, in 2002, for a duo album, Rolling Through This World, made with US slide virtuoso Bob Brozman.

A third Australian slide guitarist-singer-songwriter is beginning to enjoy similar success: Kara Grainger, who has played her share of gigs at The Basement. She is now based in Los Angeles and her 2008 album, Grand and Green River, is a slickly produced collection of songs recorded in that city and featuring some big-name players, including guitarist Eric Johnson and Little Feat drummer the late Richie Hayward.

As a vocalist Grainger - who played at the Timbre Rock and Roots Festival in Singapore on March 22 - was strongly influenced by Bonnie Raitt (who also performed at the festival); it was a pleasure, Grainger said, to be one of three female lead guitarists on the bill, the third being Susan Tedeschi.

As a slide player Grainger has developed her own style, less influenced by Raitt and other Californian slide masters who came to the fore in the 1970s such as Ry Cooder and Lowell George, than by their original Mississippi Delta blues role models.

Grainger, whose discography to date consists of Grand and Green River, an EP called Secret Soul and another album entitled LA Blues, has just finished recording a third album to be released in June.

Sidemen for that album include James Hutchinson and organist Mike Finnigan, both from Raitt's touring group, but in Singapore Grainger was backed by local blues band Raw Earth, who did a very creditable job.

The fact that she was able to perform so strongly with a pick-up group made me wonder whether a few gigs could be organised for her here next time she visits Asia.

Although Grainger wasn't going on to the Byron Bay Bluesfest in New South Wales, which ends tomorrow, most of the other performers at the Singapore festival were, including the Tedeschi Trucks Band. I thought the American band, Raitt, Grainger and Paul Simon were the big hits of the two shows.

I knew Tedeschi was an accomplished guitarist, but was half expecting her to be overshadowed in this band by her husband, Derek Trucks. Not so. They traded solos, and she gave as good as she got.

Bluesfest is a huge event, and other big international names on the bill include Taj Mahal, Steve Miller, Santana, Allen Toussaint, Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite, Robert Cray, Tony Joe White and many more.

Meanwhile, lovers of big-band jazz have two gigs to choose from this Saturday. At the Fringe Club, The Happy Go Lucky Big Band, which specialise in the music of Duke Ellington, will be led by trumpeter Kenny Matsuura, with Elaine Liu on vocals. The music starts at 10pm.

At Grappa's Cellar, the Stray Katz start a little earlier at 8pm. With the venues only about 10 minutes' walk from each other, real aficionados could probably catch one set at Grappa's before moving on to the Fringe Club.

Take Three

Three noteworthy albums from outstanding Australian blues and roots musicians.

  • Short Fuse Blues (1992, Alligator Records): originally released in 1990 in Australia on Dave Hole's own independent label, when Alligator Records picked up Short Fuse Blues it made an international blues star of the slide virtuoso. A good mix of originals, blues standards and blues-derived rock tunes including Peter Green's Albatross and Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze.
  • LA Blues (2011, Newtrax Records): Kara Grainger's slide work is well to the fore on this strongly blues-oriented collection of tunes, including Robert Johnson's Come On in My Kitchen and Jimmy Reed's Baby What You Want Me to Do.
  • Carried in Mind (2011, Universal Import): there is relatively little blues content here beyond Jeff Lang's slide and lap steel guitars, but there's strong songwriting and even stronger instrumental work.