David Rovics “St Patrick Battalion”

A St Patrick’s Day Musical Tribute

Everywhere there are uprisings and resistance to unjust occupation, one finds the Irish. Irish nationalism is unique in its commitment to international solidarity, due both to its anti-colonial perspective and its many many exiles.

The story of John Riley and the San Patricios is a fine example of this tradition, and American songwriter David Rovics has created a song about this 19th century brigade that beautifully combines Irish and American musical traditions, evoking the sense of Irish exile and showing how Irish international solidarity is deeply entwined with the history of the American people, north and south. He has great subjects to work with, but David’s unique ability to imagine the motivations and character of his subjects has served him well in this story rendered in song. The result has been universally popular amongst his followers and fans around the world (and even, to judge from my own experience, his detractors and hecklers.)

To find out more about this remarkable battalion, go here: http://www.stpatricksbattalion.org/index.htm

Pipeline to Oblivion

A Topical David Rovics Set

for Fossil Free: Global Divestment Movement Showcase, February 13th and 14th 2015

“Global Divestment Day is an opportunity to showcase the rapid global spread of the divestment movement. Let’s take it to the next level in confronting the rogue fossil fuel industry driving the climate crisis.

Our common message:

Fossil fuels = History

Renewables = Future


Through our creative actions we will represent the shift needed away from dirty old fossil fuel dinosaurs to the shining symbols of hope like wind mills and solar panels.”

Darren Hanlon, “The Book Thief”

From the musical history project Mick Thomas Presents Vandemonian Lags

Vandemonian Lags is a beautifully executed album, driven by Australian songwriting legend Mick Thomas. We are fortunate, here down under, to have such musicians; devoted, without ego, to nurturing the industry and the art, with a deep appreciation for its collaborative nature. Based on the documented stories of the people who populated the outdoor prison camp that was Van Diemen’s Land, the whole project, housed on The Founders and Survivors website, offers a multi-genre journey into both the music made, and the subject of colonial Tasmanian peoples’ history. Primary sources, videos of historical analysis, images, family trees, copies of the album lyrics and music…

There’s a live show, too, that Mick Thomas is planning to stage again next April. A nice touch is the collection of photographs that come with the album download, of all the contributing songwriters and performers, dressed up as convicts, looking appropriately dubious. “I am what you say I am, a laggard Vandemonian” is a line from the first song on the album. Well, so are we all, somewhere in our rough colonial history.

Track 7 of the album, “The Book Thief”, is a song about a convict who once stole a book. That’s the history bit. But the writer of this song, Darren Hanlon (see the attached image), points to another truth. Badly made words shape our culture for the worse. There are countless examples of that in Australian society today. The decay of even the desire for an authentic and creative means of expression, especially on the part of those who traditionally preserve those sorts of values, (like journalists and intellectuals) is a source of personal pain.

“The laws of the land are full of words ill-writ.” And so is the language. Words are an important part of my world, as a reader and a researcher. The cultural debasement of the language bothers me a great deal, and this is why “The Book Thief” resonates particularly with me. Find out which song does the same for you, here.

Hamell on Trial

Hamell on Trial is my latest musical enthusiasm. Recently, Ed Hamell offered 8 of his albums for free download: “First they’re free, then you have to pay a small fee, now they’re free again. WHAT A Yo-Yo!!! Rich? Send me a million!! Poor, pay what you can!! BUT: Spread the word to the uninitiated!!! That’s only fair!!!”

I believe it is, and it’s certainly not a hardship for me to go on about music. So here goes.

The main problem I had writing this was deciding how to describe his style. My temptation is to say, “just listen”, but you know, I’m supposed to a writer here. There should be a way to write halfway decent words, even about an artist who has a mad genius with them. “I like words. I’m a big word guy.” he told a BBC presenter last year. I laughed when I heard the podcast, of course, but after listening to several albums, my reaction to this statement is “well, duh.” The albums I have downloaded – for free, I admit- have given me an enormous amount of entertainment, and so the least I can do is wax lyrical in the appropriate place, as requested.

So I pondered that for a while, with some (excellently worded) input from Cosmo (a songwriter currently living in Wales, and an enthusiastic fan). Like the Australian comedian Tim Minchin, Hamell on Trial (that’s his name for his solo act) merges music and shaggy dog stories, narrating from a perspective of personal experience and compassionate intolerance. Really. It’s hilarious and tender all at once, with no sentimentality.

From the east coast of the United States (Syracuse, in fact), Ed Hamell has a style of performance that is very popular here in Australia (insofar as we have enough people for something to be “popular” of course). I think of it as “standup comedy with musical backing”. Hamell on Trial pushes this style into a sort of acoustic punk. Fast-paced, clean guitar riffs accentuate a frenetic and poetic torrent of words. My favourite is this one: “Ed’s Not Dead, Hamell Comes Alive“.

It’s a collection of live songs – chosen by Ed’s roadie- recorded on the tour where he opened for Ani DiFranco: “infinitely bigger crowds than I was used to, cutting my teeth in larger arenas“. It worked. You can tell how he went down with the crowd. Listen to it. Laugh. Then go find the rest. and you know, pay for some of them, or tell someone about them. Cosmo told me he has a “small but perfectly formed” audience when he is not borrowing Ani’s. I like that, but “large and perfectly formed” would be better.

Les Thomas, “Survivor’s Tale”

“Learning is neverending.” Les Thomas.

Progressive Melbourne residents are familiar with Les Thomas. Like his hero Woody Guthrie, Les is passionately committed to social justice in his own land, and he regards, quite rightly, our abuse of the rights of asylum seekers as a matter of particular urgency. Most of the songs on “Survivor’s Tale” have been heard at protests and benefits, performed by Les on his acoustic guitar.
This album, although it contains such passionate and polemical songs as “Free Ranjini” and “Song for Selva”, is a venture into electric and collective music. In Les’s words, he had “lots of amazing help from different musicians” in its creation. The result is a well-produced rock album with a very Australian feel, a definite contribution (and tribute) to a fine Australian social songwriting tradition. (In a lot of places, this sort of music would be called folk-rock, I guess, because it has a strong Irish influence and often involves a violin. Australians mostly think of it as rock music).
This is a new adventure, an experiment. Often it soars, sometimes it clangs, just a bit. But is the rawness and experimental nature of the music that makes it attractive, encouraging repeated listens. The lyrics are an invitation to experience empathically the journey and outrage of the detained Australian refugee, as good social songwriting should do. There is a more personal invitation in the music.
Survivor’s Tale, in a generous and open-hearted fashion, invites the listener to share Les’s love of his craft, his enthusiasm for expanding his musical horizons. “I definitely tried to do everything as well as possible and learned heaps”, he told me. “I am keen to keep raising the bar as possible with future recordings.”. Since it is just the kind of musical journey I like, I for one am aboard. When you listen to Survivor’s Tale, you’ll be on the bandwagon with me.

The News from David Rovics

David Rovics really does bring you all the news that’s fit to sing. What’s more, he could be doing it in your town, on his next tour.
“…what’s striking about Rovics is his enduring and seemingly tireless commitment to the life of a radical grassroots troubadour, and his ability to bring first-hand reports of local struggles from around the world to each community that he visits.” Wally Brooker
Here’s some examples.You can probably find others, here. For the sake of proper music listeners (who need an album, thanks very much) I have constructed a soundcloud playlist. For the news-oriented types, the article is linked to the quote below.

Soundcloud: The News from David Rovics

Oil Train
America’s Exploding Oil Train Problem
Last July, a tanker train filled with North Dakota crude derailed in the middle of the night in Lac-Mégantic, a small Canadian town near the border with Maine; the resulting inferno killed 47 people. Since then, derailments in Casselton, North Dakota, and Lynchburg, Virginia, have led to evacuations. The Lac-Mégantic disaster spurred protests from fire chiefs and town officials who said that they were ill-equipped to deal with a possible derailment.

The Commons
Will Detroit’s Water Be Privatized or Recognized as Commons?”
Detroit: “The People’s Water Board is working to have water recognized as a Commons, an entity that serves and is managed by the public. In this world of privatization, the Commons is a powerful antidote to predatory capitalism.”

Has the Bombing Begun?
US Sending 200 Troops for Drills in Ukraine: Pentagon
“The presence of 200 soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade will mark the first deployment of US ground troops to Ukraine since the Kiev government’s conflict with pro-Russia separatists erupted earlier this year.”

Syria, 2013
Syria is Not a Revolution Any More- This is a Civil War.”
Like many others, the three men are bewildered at what has become of their war. Their alliances – and their goals – are shifting. The regime is far away, the jihadis are near – and seem unstoppable. Their resources are dwindling; their families are shattered. Their villages and farm lands are lost to regime militias. Their allies are at best unreliable, and at worst actively conspiring against them.
They are a businessman, a smuggler and an army defector who became respectively the political officer, treasurer and military commander of a once-formidable battalion in northern Syria.

Good Kurds, Bad Kurds
Pentagon Warns That Isis has Global Aspirations as US Continue Iraq Strikes.”
America’s own effort to build an international coalition against Isis advanced on Tuesday as well, as Britain and six other nations agreed to provide the Kurdish peshmerga militia with small arms, ammunition and other supplies.

Banner Suspended Above Downtown Roanoke, Calls Out Coal Baron Billionaire
Roanoke, VA – “Early this morning members of Mountain Justice, Rising Tide North America and Radical Action for Mountain’s and Peoples’ Survival (RAMPS) hung a banner, suspended between two downtown buildings on Jefferson street in Roanoke. The groups are acting in support of community demands in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee that billionaire coal baron Jim Justice stop poisoning water, exposing communities to devastating mountaintop removal coal mining operations and leaving central Appalachia a public health disaster.”

His Hands Were in the Air
Ferguson and Global Struggle for Justice.”
“The Justice Department has formally announced a civil rights probe of the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, where the unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown was killed last month. The announcement follows weeks of protests sparked by Brown’s death that brought to light allegations of racial profiling and other police abuses against African-American residents.”

Minimum Wage Strike
Nearly 500 Striking Fast Food Workers Arrested, Fight for 15 Intensifies
“Nearly 500 fast-food workers—in uniforms from restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s—were arrested Thursday during a 150-city strike, as the fight for $15 and union rights intensified across the country. Thousands of cooks and cashiers walked off their jobs from more than 1,000 stores, chanting “We Believe That We Will Win,” and vowing to do whatever it takes to secure higher wages and union rights.”

Vincent Cross, Live at the Retreat Hotel, Brunswick

The Retreat Hotel is a classic Melbourne pub with a dedication to live music, a type of venue that has almost disappeared under the weight of wine bars and yuppie-induced noise restrictions. Brown carpet, bar stools and wooden furniture, music posters everywhere. Arriving to the sounds of Vincent Cross sporting a newly acquired Akubra and making beautiful blues on his 1955 Malon acoustic guitar (I can hear all the musicians drooling), invoked memories of a mis-spent youth amongst the inner-city pubs that housed a vibrant local live music scene.
It was an auspicious beginning to a gig that was musically impressive, with stories both funny and moving, that left us with a warm appreciation for the type of music he loves to share.
Vincent Cross has a talent for drawing the attention of his audience. Over the course of the two-hour show the background chatter faded away, the audience enticed into listening closely by the virtuoso guitar picking, the grandeur and originality of the ideas he explored, and the intimate rapport that he projected.
Vincent Cross plays again at the Retreat Hotel tonight, and a house concert on Tuesday, which I will unfortunately miss, because he has a style ideally designed for such a venue. He made the audience feel as if the front bar of the Retreat was in fact his lounge room, and we were all hanging out with a friend.
Passionately enthusiastic about his craft and genre, the show doubled as a personal tour through the history and craft of an old, grassroots musical tradition. In between songs, Vincent displayed a talent for storytelling that combined very personal descriptions of the origins and meanings of his songs with a self-deprecating and slightly geeky sense of humour, and an obvious enthusiasm for thinking about music and its history and meaning.
Vincent’s lyrics are more poetry than anything else, a legacy of a childhood and adolescence spent in Ireland. “Living in Ireland taught me what words are really for”, he told me later on, and there is certainly an Irish feel to the way he constructs imagery that is vivid and sophisticated yet beautifully relatable. He works just as hard on his songcraft as his music. The rendition of “Sometimes”, a song about “what success and failure means to an artist”, on his latest CD, “A Town Called Normal”, had a particular appeal. Several members of the audience purchased CDs on the strength of their response to it, and made a point of saying so.
Born in Dublin, Vincent Cross lived in Sydney until the age of 10. This is Vincent’s first visit to Australia since his parents returned to their country to start a pub when he was ten, and the tour has been a moving and profound experience for him. It has confirmed for him that Australia is “spiritual home”. I was very pleased to be able to welcome this accomplished, intelligent and charming performer to our shores, and you will be too.