Since relocating from the University of Western Australia eight years ago, RTRfm has become synonymous with an certain red facade on Beaufort Street, Mount Lawley. It is a stalwart of the neighbourhood, its frequencies beaming out in all directions and permeating the nearby landscape. But even the staunchest city slicker must make his/her way down to our colourful Port sister-town every so often, and RTR makes an annual tradition of it, when the air is coolest and the nights longest.
The Fremantle Winter Music Festival holds a special place in my heart. In 2007, my bright-eyed, underage self succeeded in attending and witnessing a feast of superb acts: The Kill Devil Hills, Felicity Groom, The Autumn Isles, The Preytells and countless more – including a band that remains to this day my favourite Perth group: Mink Mussel Creek. I’ve missed a few since then, but when this years’ lineup emerged, I knew I had to attend. Admittedly that’s largely because my band’s name was on there (a heartarming full-circle moment)… but discounting that, even. It was the recipe for a total cracker of a night: three pubs plus a bowls club, and six stages among them, with acts as diverse as Leon Osborn, Fall Electric, Grace Barbé and Mental Powers. Rarely will you find such an assortment on one poster – but there you go.
As we move down Stirling Highway it’s already dark; streetlights streak past, while a healthy-looking moon hangs still overhead. We insert the car between two others outside the century-old Swan Hotel, the last thing you see before the bridge to Fremantle-proper. The place is still quiet, but lights glow auspiciously.
Ground level leads into the cosy, narrow Swan Lounge; downstairs, wedged into the natural slope of the coastal block, is the Swan Basement. It’s a strange but loveable room: a surreal hodge-podge of fifties-style blue vinyl booths, red velvet walls, coarse cement render, Grecian columns, fake ivy and of course, Carlton Draught on tap. Before long, a familiar figure darkens the doorframe: Alex Last (of Salamander et al) loading in gear for his performance tonight as RAKKIT DIBS.
A juicy, swooping synthesizer note leaps out of the PA and I think to myself: wow, the pre-show playlist is taking a turn for the interesting. Turns out it is, in fact, RAKKIT DIBS releasing the first strand in a mystifying web of beautiful noises. Echo-steeped notes bubble up from the swamp, sporadically humming, popping and swirling through the crisp air. These are loose, meandering, hypnotic compositions but – unlike Last’s long-standing project Salamander, and ambient venture Seer Wave – the emphasis is less on evocative sound and texture, more on percussive groove. Filtered drums, wallops and clicks dance groggy in the haze, amassing into ethereal dub-like mantras. If you wanted a reference point it would have to be Californian navel-gazer Sun Araw – but the easy comparison undersells Rakkit Dibs’ originality. There are deftly placed exotic vocal samples, sparse passages where silence is the lead instrument, and stretches of real danceable abandon. I wear a Cheshire cat grin. I grip my pint tightly, lest my involuntary movements cause a spill. When RAKKIT DIBS elevates you to a mysterious distant, be sure to send a postcard (it’s worth writing home about).
I jump up with my buddies to play; in other venues dotted along surrounding streets, acts like Roland Pain, Davey Craddock and the Spectacles, and an impromptu band (featuring RTR Music Director Adam Trainer) let their sets unfurl. More people flow into the various rooms and soon, they are incredibly dense with bodies. I’ve never seen the Swan Basement particular full, let alone packed tightly with people, shoulder-to-shoulder. Through this throng, Diger Rokwell and Felicity Groom make their way onto the stage.
ROKWELL & GROOM is still really a fledgling project, but the marriage of Groom’s voice and songwriting with Rokwell’s worldly rhythms and textures is so fitting that it feel like it’s existed forever. Evolving out of a one-of collaboration for a Cut and Paste gig, the duo has grown into something formidable and unique. Moody, layered beat production with female vocals on top may not be so uncommon at the moment – but so distinct are Groom and Rokwell’s respective musical stamps that we’re treated to something entirely its own. The arrangements are lush with ornament – clattering percussion, Rokwell’s fluttering guitar – but soothing and spacious, like a temple. Reverb becomes the unwitting third member of the band, applying itself – never quite to the point of obfuscation – at every turn. Among the standouts is the forthcoming LP’s title track, “New Parts” – a title which aptly describes the duo, too, since although both musical halves of this duo are familiar, each bears a fresh significance as a component in this new, elegant machine.
The little hand has gone past Eleven: it’s getting towards the latter end of the night, though I’m hardly ready for things to wrap up. Contemplating the many great options surrounding me – (Apricot Rail at the Apricot Railway Hotel, Mental Powers at the Bowls Club, Empty Cup at Mojo’s, Rachel and Henry Climb a Hill upstairs), I soon realize that I’m going to have trouble even getting through the crowd if I want to relocate. I then realize that I’m going to be very conflicted about doing so, once I hear the opening strains from GRACE BARBE & AFRO KREOL – so in the end, I stay put. This is the “Global Pop” stage we’re at, and Barbé is perhaps Perth’s foremost exponent of what those words might mean. Hailing from the Seychelles, she channels Indian Ocean island sounds, as well as a cosmopolitan blend of reggae, afrobeat, funk, moutya, Tsingé township groove and more. But she does in a way that gives each tune its own unique identity with a nod to a certain geography: never middling into the pan-exotic realm of nondescript “world” music. Tonight Grace shares bass and guitar duties with collaborators Dan Caroll and Jamie Searle, while her sister Joelle damn near steals the show with impeccable, complex drum patterns that ooze momentum and life. The whole thing is an incredible sanguine, joyous affair, balancing nuance and artistry perfectly against egalitarian pure-groove and simple, accessible melodies. Remarkably, by the time this thing closes out, the whole jam-crammed room has their hands up and is cheerfully following Grace’s dancing instructions which involve full 360 spins. No self-consciousness, no questions asked, no qualms about the array of disparate “scenes” colliding on one bill on one stage on one night. Such is the RTR philosophy – ignore the nonsense, be attentive to all that which is excellent and earnest, get lost in the endless and exuberant labyrinth of music in its myriad forms. I only managed to see three bands of the dozens that played RTR’s Fremantle Winter Music Festival. And even so, I leave brimming with memories of musical highlights from the evening; my ears satisfied with nourishment to last them through the winter.