A benefit showcase gig in aid of HIV awareness, at a backstreet club tonight devoted to whimsical acoustica (the night was even called Club Acoustica). It’s not where you expect to be blown away by a towering talent of surfer blues, wild steel guitar, ingenious sampler twiddlings and a whoop-inducing voice. But I’d never heard of Ash Grunwald before tonight.
Let’s backtrack slightly. There were five artists on the bill tonight. Third on, Jillaine Jones, from Darwin, was all big curly hair, sassy dress and endearing smiles, giving vent to a voice of some range and twanging her acoustic guitar for all she was worth. Alongside her (inexplicably in centre-stage) was a backing vocalist who clearly idolised Robert Del Naja for a living – and less of him would tonight have been more. With a beret-sporting double-bassist who doubled up as percussionist by tapping his bass as well as playing it, all was novel and interesting. But Ms Jones and her posse were followed on stage by Ash Grunwald. And that was that.
A “warm-up” caused the audience’s maddening background chatter to instantly die down. Mesmerised by the dreadlocked surfer dude, on his lonesome on stage, we watched open-mouthed as he all but set fire to a shiny silver steel guitar while one-man-banding his way through songs by foot-tapping a tambourine and an electric drum.
He explained he had only half an hour so wouldn’t be able to “go off at tangents that end up nowhere” – a talent he managed to exercise during his set nonetheless. He told us infectiously of his recent trip to the Mississippi Delta region, where he paid homage to his musical blues heroes, and visited the crossroads made famous in the Ry Cooder-soundtracked film Crossroads. His audience was eating out of his hand. By the time he swapped the silver steel guitar for a lap steel-cum-sampler device it was obvious that here was no ordinary performer.
He created live loops with a running commentary, as if demonstrating the product, tapping it a few times and then laying down a riff before playing over the top of it. And singing with that show-stopping voice which brimmed with confidence. As he retuned guitars and twiddled with the sampler, he continued to ply the audience with what he called “bulls**t”, which were, in fact, amusing, interesting and unique tales from a fascinating musician.
Someone in the audience shouted, “DOLPHIN!” and Ash obligingly played Dolphin Song, a tale of a close encounter with a shark while surfing that was as Australian as if blues were invented in Brisbane. It came complete with Aussie accents, a dolphin impersonation and quite the funniest blues lyrics you’ll hear all year.
A Robert Johnson cover – Rolling and Tumbling – and a few songs from his just-released new album, plus of course some more banter, and it was over way too soon, even before ‘flu-suffering Jess Grey took to the stage to end the evening.
Grunwald’s debut album Introducing, released in 2002, makes interesting listening after this. It rumbles along at a rather standard blues pace. But live, now, Ash Grunwald is utterly original, simply a different performer, and one of the most engaging solo acts I’ve seen in ages. When he surfs on in to a town near you, go get tickets. And shout “DOLPHIN!”