LUCKY OCEANS The X-Press Interview

Fremantle-based pedal steel guitarist Lucky Oceans has one of the most decorated musical careers of anyone that calls Western Australia home. In his early years in the USA he worked with the likes of Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis and won a Grammy award with Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel in 1978. Lucky Oceans moved to Freo in the early eighties and has spent the years since performing with his own bands Zydecats and Dude Ranch alongside some of the biggest names in Australia. Aside from performing, Oceans also spent over a decade presenting on the ABC and has been the Music Director for “art for social change” group Big hART. Now celebrating 70 years on the planet and 40 years in Fremantle, Lucky is set to perform with hand-picked cast of local musicians for his 70th Birthday Bash on Friday, April 23 at Freo.Social. BRAYDEN EDWARDS found out that despite having so much to look back on, Lucky Oceans hasn’t stopped looking forward to his next musical adventure.

So 70 years! Do you remember the first time you started playing music and did you feel it would come to define your life as much as it has?

My first concert was a guitar duet of Exodus in which I made a mistake and laughed. The principal announced to the whole auditorium that, had I not laughed, no one would have known I made a mistake. That was a good lesson which I have drawn on through the years and augmented by taking the strategy – if you repeat a mistake, it then seems intentional.

Through my parents’ love of music, I knew deep down that I’d have something to do with music but had no idea that it would become such a defining element of my life. One thing I never imagined is how fulfilling it would be. Lately, I have a peak musical experience about once a month that takes me higher than I ever knew was possible.

And in particular how did you get into playing the pedal steel guitar and what was it that drew you to the instrument?

One of my first musical loves was Blues, which has a lot of slide guitar in it. The first lap steel I remember seeing was played in a blues band by African American musician Freddie Roulette. When Asleep at the Wheel formed, I had a lap steel and played some blues on it. But when we got into Country Music and Western Swing, I fell in love with the sweet, crying sounds of the pedal steel, bought an instrument and immersed myself in learning the vocabulary of the instrument. Headlining steel guitar conventions, places where I used to see my heroes play, has been a real thrill.

You moved from the US to Fremantle back in 1981. What was the music scene like at the time and what was it that attracted you to WA?

My move to WA was essentially for family and for love and more “jumping off a cliff” than a career move. I did love the intelligence and friendliness of the people, the many public spaces, the weather and the beaches. I played pubs with Jim Fisher’s Outlaws, in nightclub bands and I was in a modern jazz group that worked regularly.

The scene was more centred on pubs and nightclubs back then. Now we have many excellent, music-based venues. Lots of good musicians were around but things have dramatically improved since the founding of WAAPA’s music program. WA and Fremantle in particular, benefit musically from their isolation in that we often develop fresh things because we’re not trying to be like everyone else.

My mission has been to put together groups with people who will spark off each other, create something new and lift each others’ games who wouldn’t have played together otherwise. I had a Sunday Session almost all the time until the Zydecats lost theirs at Clancys after 19 years! Instead of working with one to three bands, I now have about 15 on the go because the residencies have largely gone…and because it’s interesting. For instance, I’ll be playing at the Duke of George in Fremantle four times in May, each with a different band. And I curated seven concerts for Perth Festival earlier this year, playing each with a different band again!

And how have you been able to use the power of music for causes you are passionate about in the time since coming here?

I’m passionate about the power of music. Although it’s hard to define it, in many ways, it is bigger than the causes that it serves. Music brings people together to experience joy communally. It uplifts peoples’ lives who enter into it honestly. Working with cutting edge Arts for Social Change organisation Big hART has allowed me to use the power of music in Roebourne, where we write and perform songs with the local community and the inmates of the local jail. Seeing the people of that community healed by songwriting and seeing the community’s vision of itself become more positive through musical activity has been an amazing privilege.

What can we expect from the event at Freo.Social this weekend? With such a large catalogue of music to draw from, will there be anything in particular you’re looking forward to on the night?

The concert at Freo.Social will be a sort of a retrospective, with songs I played with Jim Fisher in 1980 up to songs I played with Jessie Gordon in 2021, with Nansing Quartet, Dave Brewer, Dude Ranch and Zydecats songs too. It will showcase the breadth of the songs that I’ve written in various lineups over the years – a rare occasion when all these threads come together in one night.

It’s a thrill for me to play with this great group of musicians and to introduce them to each other. Already, in rehearsals, everyone was joyful, digging each others’ playing across the generations. This show is sold out but I hope to do another, similar show soon. Readers can go to my website to check upcoming shows and scroll to the bottom of the homepage to join my mailing list. Or just check out my Facebook page.

Looking back at such a decorated musical career, is there something you are most proud of?

For me, it’s going to usually be the most recent thing. I played a great show at the Duke of George last night with Howie Morgan in which I was able to use a lot of the techniques I’ve developed on the pedal steel in a soulful, in-the-moment way. I’m proud of my musical director positions – as one of the directors of Perth Festival’s Home, and, in March 2021, of Roebourne/Big hART/City of Melville’s Songs for Freedom.

I love assembling musicians and watching them become greater than the sum of their parts and to mature as artists. I’m happiest working in a collaborative way because it’s a microcosm of how people can get along and make each other better instead of competing. Another proud moment, the closing night of Fairbridge Festival 2021, playing with Jessie Gordon and Bill Lawrie in Barrelhouse, Jessie sings my new song The Bell. There’s a brief silence afterwards and then the entire crowd rises up and gives a standing ovation. In the middle of the set! All those people in tears during the song, sharing the feeling! I still get a lump in my throat thinking about it.

What’s next for Lucky Oceans as a 70-something? Are there more projects or new music on the way to look forward to?

I have enough songs to record an album of my own and I am very excited about that, having never done so. I would like to work these songs up into a theatre piece also. Asleep at the Wheel, the band I co-founded, is having a 50th anniversary celebration so I’ll be doing an album with them. Palyku man David Milroy and I will be doing some shows together featuring our own songs. I’ll be doing some shows with Grace Barbé which excites me because I love African music but have never played it.

There will also be another “Lucky and Friends” show in a medium sized venue, plus some more performances of songs from my ARIA-nominated Purple Sky album, with Paul Kelly, Kasey Chambers and more. I will also be doing more work with Big hART, involving commissions for inner city Sydney spaces and prison-written songs, while still looking to expand the boundaries of what a pedal steel guitar can do.

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