Legendary musician Ken Stringfellow is gracing the Grace Emily this Australia Day.
Adelaide film producer, guitar noise-monger and The Posies mega-fan Michael Clarkin chats to Ken about his latest release and what fans can expect on his current Australian tour.
Adelaide fans of indie pop are in for a rare treat this Australia Day when singer-songwriter Ken Stringfellow plays the Grace Emily in support of his latest solo album Danzig in the Moonlight. While in the country, Ken is also performing ‘Big Star’s Third’ at the Sydney Festival with a star-studded line-up including Big Star’s Jody Stephens, REM’s Mike Mills, Cat Power, You Am I’s Tim Rogers and the Hoodoo Gurus’ Dave Faulkner.
Stringfellow is best known as co-founder of The Posies, the iconic power pop band formed in Bellingham in the US state of Washington. During the feeding frenzy of the late 80s and early 90s when major label A&R personnel descended on Seattle, The Posies were signed by the David Geffen Company and released their major label debut ‘Dear 23’ in 1990, a year before labelmate Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ turned commercial rock on its head.
While The Posies never sold as many records as their contemporaries – their melodies and harmonies devoid of the angst element of the ’grunge’ package – their records and audience have endured and thrived. The Posies have enjoyed a lasting popularity within the Australian music scene with You Am I and the Hoodoo Gurus amongst their fans. Grinspoon’s lead singer Phil Jamieson once confided in me, “The Posies were an earlier, better version of the Foo Fighters!” Furthermore, Melbourne band The Wellingtons played The Posies’ 1993 release ‘Frosting on the Beater’ in its entirety last year, in celebration of the much-loved album’s twentieth anniversary.
Stringfellow’s musical legacy was further enhanced by his decade-long tenure as a touring and recording multi-instrumentalist with REM; his seventeen-year membership of the reformed Big Star (until the untimely death of Alex Chilton in 2010); his four solo albums; multiple side-projects; his prolific work as a record producer (including producing Melbourne folksinger Hannah Gillespie’s 2010 album ‘All the Dirt’); and arranger.
Free from the structure of a band, Ken’s solo shows are an indelible, intimate experience where Stringfellow showcases his fine vocal range with piano or guitar accompaniment and his in-between songs banter is often hilarious! At his last Adelaide show in 2005 a friend told me through laughs, “He should be a stand-up comedian!” (Adelaide Cabaret programmers check out Ken’s vocals on the Burt Bacharach and The Posies’ version of ‘What the World Needs Now’ from the ‘Austin Powers’ soundtrack!).
Ken plays without a setlist and favours his solo material. However, fans can be rewarded with requests in exchange for tequila shots. Furthermore, Ken’s encyclopaedic music knowledge (Shawn Smith, from the Seattle band Brad describes Ken as “A human juke box”), ensure that just about anything can happen at a Ken Stringfellow solo show – from tear-inducing performances of Henry Mancini’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ classic ‘Moon River’ to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ being reworded on the spot as a request for illicit substances from the audience!
Ken’s performance improvisation skills were perhaps best displayed to Adelaide audiences during a 2001 solo gig. After the plug was pulled by Uni Bar management when the clock struck 12am (damn overtime rates!), Ken grabbed his guitar and completed his encore with a stellar acoustic rendition of the Posies classic ‘Solar Sister’ in a stairwell at the University of Adelaide’s Students’ Union Building. The crowd was floored.
Before arriving in Adelaide, Ken will perform at the Sydney Festival’s ‘Big Star’s Third’ show at the Enmore Theatre on Thursday 23 January. The opportunity to perform Big Star’s work means a great deal to Stringfellow. He reflects, “I take nothing for granted with Big Star’s music. It’s truly a miracle that they survived their bad business turns in the 70s to be even on the radar today. It’s a testimony to how good the music is, though. We’re just trying to get this music elevated and visible and show it for the complex, emotional, sophisticated and unique body of work that it is.”
Stringfellow describes his latest solo release ‘Danzig in the Moonlight’ as, “A very epic, boundary-less, genre-busting travelogue of my last decade, since now it’s been ten years since the solo album (‘Soft Commands’) that came before it. I had a lot of things to comment on and report back to my listeners.”
Joining Ken for his Australian tour is Chris Stamey, from the revered popsters the DBs. Ken explains, “I’ve gotten to know Chris via these Big Star Third shows, they are really his brainchild. He’s the musical director and did the hard work of assembling the arrangements, and extending them.”
Stringfellow has been based in Paris for the last ten years. While he is fond of French wines, Ken has been enamoured with Australian wines since he first toured Australia with The Posies in 1996. He explains, “I always manage to fit in a visit to a winery or two when I’m in Adelaide. Rumor has it that Penfold’s is inviting us over when I get to town.”
It’s Ken’s first Adelaide show since he shared the stage at the Grace with Melbourne’s Even back in 2005 and with his hectic schedule, it may be some time before he visits our shores again.
Ken Stringfellow and Chris Stamey perform at the Grace Emily Hotel, Sunday 26 January. Doors open 8pm Tickets: www.oztix.com.au
Ken Stringfellow’s ‘Danzig in the Moonlight’ is currently available in Australia on CD and digital download. Ken Stringfellow’s Best of Compilation ‘I Never Said I’d Make It Easy’ has been released to coincide with the Australian Tour.
Michael Clarkin tweets @michaelclarkin