This is a guest post by Jeff Lang.
You won’t get a ticket for tomorrow night’s fundraiser at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne for Blues musician Chris “Gentleman of Australian Blues” Wilson and his family for love or money. But you can still support the great man in his time of need by throwing some well-deserved dosh at this Go Fund Me page, where all funds will go to Chris and his family.
I’ve got my own lingering memories of Chris—for a time back in the day I worked for Paul Kelly and the various iterations of his backing bands over the years. On stage Chris was a literal riot, a hulking presence that blew his harps and his voice into an uproarious storm. On-stage he would upstage anyone. Off stage he was a gentle giant. One memory sticks.
On tour at the small town of Katherine in the Northern Territory in the late 1980’s, Kelly and his band had played a blinder of a gig at a local club. The next day the local crew took the band fishing a few klicks out of town behind the small Aboriginal community of Rockhole. We were all more than a little hungover from the night before, Chris no less than the rest of us, but while we all staved off our collective head-cracks with cold VBs and dips in the Katherine river, Chris spent a few hours fast asleep—like a denim-clad beached whale—he was a big man—on the sandy river bank, oblivious to the close-up roaring waters and kids using him as a climbing frame.
Oh those times.
Last evening fellow blues musician Jeff Lang posted this loving tribute to Chris Wilson on his Facebook page. He has graciously allowed me to re-post it here. Unsurprisingly, Jeff’s best memories are of Chris’s gigs.
I’ve been thinking about Chris Wilson a lot over the last couple of months, playing a song or two at each show, listening to his albums to pick a couple of songs to sing at the Corner Hotel benefit this weekend. I’ve been fortunate to see him many, many times through the years and to play with him a lot too.
As the memories have bubbled up I’ve been thinking about some of the Chris Wilson gigs that left an indelible impression on me.
* Vic On The Park, Marrickville, early 1990’s
First exposure to the force of the Wilderbeast. I must’ve seen this listed in the street press and went in cold, not knowing what to expect.
I’d moved to Sydney a year or so earlier and was living pretty much on the bones of my arse at a BYO-roof residence in Summer Hill. There were a lot of live music venues running back then. A couple of guys who were regular gig-goers met me there and we stood near the front of the stage shortly before the Crown Of Thorns hit the stage with a ball-tearing version of Born Under A Bad Sign.
Shane O’Mara on a red Strat, Chris Rodgers on bass, not certain but probably Pete Jones on drums. And the big fella up front – holy crap, he was pretty frightening to encounter, lunging toward the audience prodding his finger at us to punctuate the point of a given line, prowling backwards and forwards during guitar breaks like a caged bear in a bad mood. Then he’d unleash a harmonica solo and that fat, searing tone would tear our heads off.
He was carrying a bit more weight back then which only added to the slightly scary intensity of the performance. We all took a backwards step a few times. It was powerful stuff, quite the first impression.
* Esplanade Hotel, St. Kilda, 1995
I was playing a solo set in the Gershwin Room that night, probably opening for someone or other, and seeing that Chris was on later in the front bar I packed up quickly and rushed through to get a position.
The room was pretty packed by the time Chris hit the stage, this time accompanied only by Shane O’Mara on acoustic guitar and resonator guitar.
The Power Duo.
Having seen him in full band mode I was blown away by the beautiful songs I was hearing in the stripped back setting. It was the first time I heard songs like You Will Surely Love Again, Rose Tattoo and The Changeling live.
It was, if anything, even more powerful than the previous experience. Whoever was running the sound certainly had them dialled in perfectly – it was loud, clear and all enveloping.
“Shane O-fucking Mara on guitar everyone, give him a round of applause!”
We certainly did. He had a stereo DI rig for his guitar, hard-panned left and right. During the intro of one song (might’ve been their dark take on When The Levee Breaks) Shane had a panning effect making his guitar move side to side and he also had a flanger switched on, swirling the sound about. Only way to describe it is that the guitar sounded like it was shooting around the room, back to front, left to right, half instrument, half jet airplane.
I’d never heard someone with such a rich concept of how their live sound could provide texture and colour from an amplified acoustic guitar before. It was super impressive, and that was just the one intro. The entire gig was like a master class on how to accompany a singer with a lone guitar and have it be as dynamic as a band.
The other thing which blew me away was how Chris brought that same coiled, animal intensity to a gig largely comprised of tender, beautiful songs. Songs that hinged on the stories and imagery of the lyrics, and that displayed the full range and effect of his sonorous voice. It could feel like it was an incongruous fit, but watching him it wasn’t. He’s just a natural born front man, born to fill any space he sings to.
* Hopetoun, Surry Hills (Sydney) 1999
By this stage I’d done a fair few gigs with Chris, sometimes playing with him, sometimes with him graciously agreeing to accompany me on harmonica on a gig of mine, other times on the same bill with the then-current incarnation of Crown Of Thorns – Chris Tabone on drums, Andrew Pendlebury on telecaster, ‘Evil’ Graham Lee on pedal steel and Chris Rogers on bass.
Chris was touring a fair bit on the back of the double album The Long Weekend and the band were a well oiled machine. This gig was on a Sunday afternoon on a weekend where I’d played a couple of double-bill shows with them in Newcastle (where he had me join them for a song without a guitar, just singing, standing next to him… the bastard! Haha!).
I had the night off so I went along to watch despite having seen them the two nights previous. Why wouldn’t I?
I’m not sure Chris believed in his own material as much as the rest of us. Certainly he could breath life into someone else’s song and make it his own, but I’d noticed in Newcastle that the ratio was quite low on his own songs. When I’d prod him with a request he’d say something like “Nah, no one wants to hear that depressing crap…” then change the subject.
Well, I’m glad I caught the Crown Of Thorns that Sunday in Sydney as it was two sets of wall-to-wall Chris songs, the band taking flight behind him, covering all moods required.
People Like Me, Hand Becomes Fist, Can’t Stand The Way, Little Richard, Shootout At The 7-11, Sunbury 73, Face In The Mirror … one after the other, often with very funny stories preceding them. It was one of those magical gigs.
I remember him sitting on the edge of the stage between sets, savouring the buzz. Savouring being a total badass, possibly.
They encored with the day’s sole cover, a version of Hey Joe that tore the roof off the place, Chris arching his back and leaning into the sound coming from his amp as he played a long wavering note on his harmonica, un-cupping his hands from the microphone, just enough to generate a note of feedback that he somehow controlled so it rang in harmony with the note he played.
* Port Fairy Folk Festival, 2018
PFFF isn’t a gig where you hear loud bands. For one thing they have strict dB limits set. 96db I recall, which while not whisper-quiet is very polite. I was playing on one stage in a late morning spot and went to catch up with the sound crew, say hi, get the lay of the land. About the sound restriction the front of house tech laughed and said something along the lines of “It’s a little hard to keep to that when we had one band pushing 110db off the stage…” I asked who that was. “Skronkadoodledoo”.
Wilson strikes! Haha!
Skronkadoodledoo was the band Chris formed with his longtime guitarist Shannon Bourne and his son Fenn on drums. Alison and I made a note to make sure we caught them in their evening spot in the festival’s rowdiest venue: the Guinness Tent.
As we entered the tent the band kicked off. They sounded like The Who or something – a massive sound. Shannon Bourne is a guitarist not to be messed with, a player of rare facility and sensitivity who can follow the music anywhere. That evenings requirement was a brutal form of force. Totally musical but coming AT you. Taking no prisoners. His Fender Jaguar through a Hiwatt half stack sounded like the way a mountain looks.
Fenn Wilson was pounding the kit like Phil Rudd. Rock solid, relentless. At the end of the set his snare was covered in blood. His dad was proud of that. He values commitment, always has. Won’t stand anyone up there being half-arsed.
Chris played rhythm guitar for half the set on a Gibson SG. He’s left handed, so it had a nice visual symmetry when the two guitarist would walk toward the kit in the centre, their guitar necks looking like they were pointing and directing the energy inwards for Fenn to push back out.
The rest of the gig Wilson was at his frontman best, chiding the audience to make more noise for the two musicians accompanying him, strutting and prowling, throwing out his arms out as he sang in that deep voice. Owning it and blowing everyone away. As usual.
The repertoire was largely blues standards and he was having a whale of a time up there. As were we in the audience.
It’s likely to be the last gig I’ll see from him and it was a memorable one. Alison and I have talked often about how great it was, well before we knew about Chris’ illness.
Like I said I’ve been thinking about Chris Wilson a lot since I learned of his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. It’s very sad I probably won’t hear him play again, won’t get to watch him own a stage and destroy a room again. But I’ve been so very lucky to have these memories and many others to carry with me as fuel.
Anyway let’s not mope, we don’t know how long he has left but he’s still here. None of us know how long we have left, but we’re still here for now. I feel grateful to be alive, the joy, the sorrow, the whole glorious fucking mess of it all.
Thanks Chris Wilson.
Here is the note from Chris’ GoFundMe page.
Chris Wilson is not well. He has pancreatic cancer. For over forty years Chris has given the people of Melbourne, Australia and the world the gift of his talent and enormous heart. As a singer, harmonica player, songwriter, producer, mentor, husband, father and friend he has laid himself on the line and lived with fierce authenticity. He won’t be performing any more, his wife Sarah will be stopping work to care for him, so if you can spare a buck or two please help ensure that financial stress is one thing the Wilson family won’t have to endure at this time. Thanks in advance.
Australian guitarist-songwriter-vocalist-producer, Jeff Lang has built a reputation for making startling music that is accomplished, intricate, gutsy, melodic and loaded with soul. Often taking unexpected turns, he has consistently inspired his audiences by creating a stylistically diverse catalog of over 25 albums … Jeff has mischievously called his music ‘Disturbed Folk.’ One writer referred to him as a “quiet achiever.” But the overall impression one has from observing Jeff’s lengthy career is that of a driven man who keeps his head down, playing and recording music as if his very life depends on it.
Outside of his homeland, Jeff has toured the UK, Europe, Japan, India, China, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada as well as concentrated work in the U.S., where he has played upwards of 300 shows, living there for 6 months at a time. He has appeared on prestigious American radio programs A Prairie Home Companion, Mountain Stage and Acoustic Café. Jeff has shared stages with Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Richard Thompson, Bonnie Raitt, Ani Di Franco, Chris Whitley, Albert Collins, Loudon Wainwright III, Greg Brown, John Butler, A R Rahman and Bob Geldof among many others.