Review: Junior Brown Wows Aussie Country Fest

U.S. singer/guitarist and Australian vocalist Kasey Chambers highlight country contingent at East Coast Blues & Roots Music Festival.

BYRON BAY, New South Wales, Australia — Country music is on the rise in this part of the world, and Junior Brown is doing his part to speed along the process.

When the Texas native knocked out the audience at last year's East Coast Blues & Roots Music Festival with his dazzling guitar playing and wry humor, he managed to give country music a foothold at what is fast becoming Australia's premier music event.

This eclectic four-day Easter festival — set in the idyllic seaside town of Byron Bay on the north coast of Australia's most populous state, New South Wales — was established as a blues showcase 11 years ago.

Its inclusion of a strong country contingent signals not only the changing emphasis of the event, which draws more than 40,000 music fans, but also the increasing popularity of the genre among music fans from urban areas who flock to the resort each year.

The festival's main bill boasted the likes of ZZ Top and Robert Cray, while this year's burgeoning country contingent included Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Keiran Kane, Kevin Welch and Brown in a triumphant return.

The lineup of local country performers included Australia's reigning queen of country, Kasey Chambers, bluegrass band Uncle Bill, veteran aboriginal artist Jimmy Little and the western swing of the Moonee Valley Drifters.

It might not be the Grand Ole Opry, but it's a start.

Brown And Co. Make A Splash

Brown and his band, including his wife, Miss Tanya Rae, looked as though they had just stepped out of a corporate boardroom in Dallas. The word was out that this was an act not to be missed. So all manner of guitar-lovers turned up in droves to watch Brown's stunning versatility.

Junior Brown gets a definite glint in his eye when he unleashes a blistering solo and checks out the audience reaction. "Bet you didn't think I could do that," he seems to be thinking.

With a wicked wit to match his playing — evidenced in the song "My Wife Thinks You're Dead" (RealAudio excerpt) — and a propensity for unlikely rhymes ('divorce' with 'borscht' or 'Kremlin' with 'hemline'), Brown delivered a showstopper of a performance. The crowd responded with a resounding ovation.

Carpenter brought her abbreviated acoustic band (minus drummer) to Australia for her first visit here in a decade. Playing the main stage, the singer/songwriter followed reggae perennials Burning Spear and preceded jam band Gov't Mule — both popular acts with devoted followings. It might have seemed a daunting position on the bill, but Carpenter took it in stride and produced a delightful hour that traced her impressive career.

Kane and Welch won over a sodden crowd as the skies unloaded one of the famous Byron tropical downpours. The duo, on their second tour here in less than six months, probably played to their biggest audience as crowds herded under the canopy of the stage-encompassing tent.

Solo Star

But perhaps the most important country gig of the weekend took place when young Chambers, lead singer with the Dead Ringer Band, took the main stage Saturday afternoon. With the platinum-seller The Captain (featuring guest spots from Buddy and Julie Miller) behind her, Chambers has single-handedly taken Australian country music out of the bush, into the city and to the top of the charts.

When she appeared here last year as lead singer for her family band, Chambers drew rave reviews. Now solo, but with her father and brothers still behind her, she showed how much a year has meant in experience.

She offered an impressive mix of songs from The Captain and some classics such as Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues."

The following day, Chambers gave an equally impressive performance and threw in Lucinda Williams' "Changed the Locks" and the vintage country number "Do Re Mi" for good measure. Chambers' band, honed into a tight unit by constant touring, can power into country rock with a high lonesome guitar sound or kick back on the more traditional numbers.

After Chambers' sets, it was interesting to note that business at the merchandising tent picked up, as fans formed lines to grab copies of her CD.