Headbelly Buzzard

The Folkus Room, 23rd Oct, 2008

by Tim Meyen

Dr. Stovepipe opened the evening to a disappointingly meagre crowd. The Doc’s sound continues to evolve and mature, with more of Jim Sharrock’s original songs emerging and getting the Stovepipe treatment, good vocal harmonies and clever but not over-the-top arrangements that get the most out of the trio’s instrumentation. If you are at all interested in stylishly played and presented music influenced largely by Western Swing and old-timey stuff, you no doubt are already a rabid fan of this wonderful Canberra band. But just in case you’re sitting on the fence I’m sure my ringing endorsement will sell you on their effervescent charms.

The music of Headbelly Buzzard is probably an acquired taste, but it’s one I have acquired with great enjoyment over the decade or so since I first saw them. I’m so glad there is a band in Australia that obviously loves the real old stuff, the guts of Appalachian traditional music, and does such a great job of interpreting it. Long, long, old rambling toothless tunes, melodies built to a pre-Industrial timescale, with no need to stop after three minutes for an ad break. You have to relearn how to relate to music like this, to let the endless repetitions wash over you. Like swimming in the sea when you’ve only ever been in a bathtub before.

Craig Woodward, the man at the centre of Headbelly Buzzard, is a deeply unfashionable musician and I respect him greatly for it. His fretless banjo playing is a thing of beauty – endlessly inventive, but all within the essential Appalachian style. It’s like a wormhole opening between the Mawson shops and a back porch in North Carolina just after the Civil War. We had the added benefit of Nicola Hayes’ rhythmic, droney fiddle-playing to take us back to the authentic, circa mid-90s early Headbelly sound, and the bass and guitar shuffled along faithfully without anyone exhibiting the slightest desire to ‘take a solo.’

Headbelly’s stage presence deserves a mention. It’s perfect. Appalachian music doesn’t really belong up on a stage, and neither do Headbelly Buzzard. They always convey an endearing embarrassment, blinking in the lights, muttering into the mics, or staring fixedly at a point several metres above the audience throughout an entire 10 minute rendition. Just as you imagine it would be if you hauled Uncle Vern and Cousin Festus out of their illegal still-house and put them on a wagon to play for the record man from the Big Smoke.

Needless to say the uncompromisingly traditionalist approach doesn’t make you a great living these days, or any living at all. Hell, it ain’t enough even to get a half full house at the Folkus Room. It runs directly counter to some of our society’s favourite preoccupations: progress, individuality, ‘youth’ culture/rebellion, novelty. Well hooey to those I say. Often derided as hillbilly music, the truth is the real old-time mountain stuff is too obscure even for hillbillies these days. But I’m pleased to hear Headbelly have developed a diehard following down in (their hometown) Melbourne, after more than 13 years of a Friday night residency. The comfort of such a long association shows in the relaxed flow of the band’s musical interaction. The recent passing away of founding member Mick Cameron has meant the end of Headbelly Buzzard as a name (a pity since it’s such an unforgettable one), but I sincerely hope these musicians will continue to perform this music together in another guise.

Headbelly Buzzard CDs, including a new double CD covering the entire history of the group, are available here.

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