The music community in Western Australia has a diversity and depth that has produced many of Australia’s biggest stars. With local artists being some of the hardest hit by the COVID pandemic and closure of venues, RTRFM and Perth Festival’s WA Mixtape is a well overdue celebration. While the line-up for this live event was overcrowded and jammed with homegrown talent, the audience was safely dispersed on picnic blankets and camping chairs in the Government House Gardens. The format, taking inspiration from the RTRFM segment Slightly Odway, sees artists perform their own hits alongside covers that celebrate each other and some other incredible acts that have come out of WA.
After the welcome to country, Indigenous singer Phil Walley-Stack began the evening with a stage presence that stripped away the palm trees and city skyline behind the audience. It felt like all that was left was the land, the bush, and the music, as he sang Man of Culture and Yothu Yindi’s Treaty.
While Walley-Stack’s performance actively encouraged audience engagement, Rabbit Island (Amber Fresh) was too softly spoken to be heard clearly during her introduction. However, this suited her first song, an original, which was raw and emotional. Her soft voice created an intimacy that could make one forget about the stage, the microphone, and all the other barriers between the performer and the crowd.
Like Rabbit Island, Gemma Farrell’s jazz quintet weren’t afraid to discuss the big topics, performing a cover of Stella Donnelly’s hit Old Man, a fearless single about sexual assault. Donnelly’s track is already stripped down, and Farrell took this further, stripping the song of its lyrics, the woman of her voice. While Farrell’s interpretation was more upbeat and lacked some of the sadness Donnelly’s lyrics brought, it was also an ominous observation of the way sexual assault is treated in our culture.
Next up, alternative rock band, The Struggling Kings, played a song of hope, a track that needs to be blasted through every loudspeaker in Australia. Baanigar was a more intimate track when played live and it included choruses written in the brothers’ own language, Bardi. The song emanated a strong connection to country; to the muddy river just beyond the manicured gardens, to the eucalypts instead of the imported palms.
Shifting from the acoustic guitars of The Struggling Kings, Dennis Cometti’s version of The Scientists’ punk hit Last Night was loud and razor-sharp. Dennis Cometti’s music is best described as punk-rock meets suburban-bogan. Their own song, WAXIT, was even sung while wearing WAFL jumpers for the East Fremantle Sharks. A true anthem for the state, WAXIT echoes the complaints that have been passed down through generations like secret family recipes.
After another short break, Queency bravely reimagined Tame Impala, one of WA’s biggest exports. Queency is a truly versatile performer, and his soul pop rendition was sexy and energetic. His stage presence made you feel like dancing to the strobe lighting under the trees.
Moving away from pop, The Little Lord Street Band’s country-folk songs were both gritty and catchy. Their cover of The Waifs’ Bridal Train, struck a nice balance with their Paul McCarthy cover, seeing Natasha Shanks taking over the lead from James Rogers. The song was upbeat, showing the woman’s desire to join the bridal train, while the lyrics showed the haunting consequences of jumping onboard too soon.
Noah Dillon’s rock songs lacked the polish of The Little Lord Street Band. His voice was dirty with a rough edge to it like it was showing us the back streets and skivvy bars you need to climb through to get onto a stage like this one. He honoured The Triffids with Wide Open Road before singing recent single Knievel Daredevil, stripping the track back to talk about the pressures put on young boys to be strong and fearless.
After a slightly awkward false-start, The Badass Gospel Choir grew into their performance, with their voices sweeping through the city lights, blinding everybody. Conceived and headlined by Abbey May, the Gospel Choir began with The Tommyhawks’s feminist song Fighting the Times. Queency acted as a supportive ally, backing up the four strong female leads as their voices rose up into the stars and the heavens.
Like Noah Dillon, Carla Geneve also covered The Triffids’ Wide Open Road, though her version was softer and less busy that Dillon’s. Her own song, a combination of two originals, featured her hit The Right Reasons. This track exposed Geneve’s darkest moments, showing the intimacy her songwriting is known for. Its deep melancholy spoke with a maturity that is unexpected from an artist of only 21.
Your Girl Pho closed out an amazing night with a longer set. Combining the smooth tones of a saxophone with a synth, her electronic pop dance moves were impressive, and you hardly noticed her looping tracks while she performed. Her unconventional approach to songwriting resulted in a diverse performance, spanning R&B, jazz, soul, and electronic pop. Her as-yet unreleased single, Costar, a sophisticated dance floor anthem, provided a contrast to R&B hits like Sinister.
Your Girl Pho’s final number was a duet with Katy Steele, the former lead singer of Little Birdy. They covered a track by Steele’s brother, Luke, who is one of half of electronic pop duo, Empire of the Sun. While Walking on a Dream still contained some echoes of the track’s electronic roots, Katy Steele’s influence drove the cover more toward rock. It was the perfect way to end a striking night of celebration, as we gathered to support and nurture WA music, growing it larger than even the palm trees around us.