If you haven’t experienced the percussive magic of Greg Sheehan then you have been living under a rock. He is an innovator who is regarded internationally as one of the best in his field. We are spoilt having him here in Byron Shire but his musical generosity sees him guest with acts like Kev Carmody, Blue King Brown, Sinead O’Connor and The Cat Empire.
What is most notable about Greg is his exuberance, his unbridled joy. Put some sticks in his hand and there’s a joy that just shines through. So much so that this year’s Mullum Music Festival has been dedicated to the musical genius of Greg Sheehan, with the grandmaster programming Sunday at the Civic Hall.
So how did it start for Greg? A man who has been professional for 43 years?
‘I started off when I was two years old. I saw a drummer for the first time and I thought he was a magician and I have been trying to emulate him ever since! That night when I got back from the concert I got some twigs to use as sticks and turned a bucket upside down and played it. Now when I play the feeling is the same.’
Things have changed significantly in the entertainment industry in the last few decades, most noticeably the fact that so many young people view being a musician as a viable and exciting career. Not so for Greg. ‘I grew up in a conservative Irish family,’ he says. ‘My parents never once mentioned that making music was something I could do as a living. I was just 17 and I was coming home from a gig when I literally stopped in my tracks and realised that I was working as a musician.
‘It was a blind passion that led me to it. There are some people I guess who struggle with it a bit, who don’t practise enough, but that wasn’t so for me; the passion led me to want to improve. I still practise every day because I want to be better at my craft. I want to practise.’
For the Sunday at the Civic, Greg has invited some of his favourite musicians in a celebration of diverse musical styles. Cohorts include Ben Walsh, Laura Targett, Cleis Pearce, Steve Berry, Hamish Stuart, Charles Wall, Matt Ostila and many others.
‘The whole day starts with a show that I do and there are lots of special guests. We are doing something exciting: we are going to have a live band improvising to slideshows, featuring the photos of John McCormick – he rarely exhibits – and among those photos he has a whole lot of archival photos of things that have happened in the Civic Hall. I am also featuring a whole lot of my photos. People have been saying for ages I should put on an exhibition so I guess this is my chance! I will be guesting with different groups and then we are having a big drum up. When Glenn Wright (festival director) used to run the Harbourside Brasserie we used to run The Big Drum Up. It’s a bit retrospective so I will use a lot of the musicians playing during the day, including some of the members of the Barefoot Divas.’
Most of Greg’s playing, and a lot of the day, will be built on his greatest strength – improvisation.
‘I love the edge of improvising – of not knowing what is going to happen next.
‘A lot of people in years gone by just tell me that they love the excitement of it because we are in that moment.’
In fact, one of the most exciting things is that there is a distinct feeling that whatever you see won’t happen again. It’s improvised, it’s pushing musicians nervously to their edge, so it’s alive, and electric and happening right there in front of you.
‘There is going to be a lot of really great percussionists such as Hamish Stuart, and Charles Wall from Bobby Alu. We are going to create a beautiful wall of percussion and drums and then have singers come and sing on top of that – it’s one of the oldest traditions, voice on top of percussion. We are going to chat to the singers leading up to the show; they will be singing a couple of things they already know but they will be out of their comfort zone and they might sing a song with full melodic backing and try and do it a different way with percussion.’
Greg Sheehan, playing and programming Sunday at the Civic Hall for Mullum Music Festival 21–24 November. For program and ticket information go to www.mullummusicfestival.com or call the hotline on 6684 6195.
Find this and many other great gigs in Echonetdaily’s North Coast Gig Guide.