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Concert review: Timbre Rock & Roots | 5/5

SINGAPORE – Despite its previous uneasy relationship with rock music throughout the ’70s and ’80s – which was once considered a decadent influence from the West – in the last five years, there has been a surfeit of rock bands and artistes performing in Singapore, establishing this island as one of the rock music capitals in the region.

SINGAPORE – Despite its previous uneasy relationship with rock music throughout the ’70s and ’80s – which was once considered a decadent influence from the West – in the last five years, there has been a surfeit of rock bands and artistes performing in Singapore, establishing this island as one of the rock music capitals in the region.

In addition, Singapore is also beginning to build up a reputation for hosting music festivals, with the hope of emulating – or even surpassing – the biggest music festivals from around the world, from Denmark’s Roskilde to Japan’s Fuji Rock to Britain’s Glastonbury to America’s Bonnaroo, where many music fans go on an annual pilgrimage to their preferred festival, in their hundreds of thousands.

Some of the biggest music events fans have bookmarked on the Singapore calendar include The Esplanade’s Mosaic Music Festival, the Singapore edition of the St Jerome’s Laneway Music Festival, Baybeats, Music Matters, and of course, the Timbre Rock & Roots music festival.

On its website, Timbre lists the festival as “a joint collaboration between Timbre Music Pte Ltd (of Timbre Group) and Bluesfest Pty Ltd, the organiser behind one of the world’s most prominent music festivals, East Coast Blues Festival also known as Bluesfest (Byron Bay, Australia).”

Its musical focus is clearly defined in the name of the festival itself with a roster primarily drawn from the heyday of rock music (1960s to 1980s), as well as roots music, which gained international recognition from the 1980s onwards. But that’s not to say that they’ve restricted themselves in the genre selection. Thus far, in its three years of existence, the likes of Bob Dylan, Buena Vista Social Club, Buddy Guy, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Specials, Gipsy Kings, Imogen Heap, and John Legend have graced the two-day festival.

This year’s edition (the festival’s fourth) was probably the most ambitious yet, with two very strong headliners in the form of Robert Plant (of Led Zeppelin fame) and Paul Simon. With a supporting cast that included Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Cliff, Rufus Wainwright and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, among others, there was a veritable online buzz when the line-up was first announced.

The primary interest lay in the inclusion of Plant. As the frontman of Led Zeppelin, Plant represented - in the eyes of the authorities - everything that was “wrong” about rock music in the 70s: Long blond tresses, high register vocal style and overtly preening sexual stage presence. Which probably accounts for Plant being turned away twice at Paya Lebar Airport in the ’70s - by all accounts, it still piques Plant somewhat.

This gave a historical weight Timbre Rock & Roots that was definitely not present in previous years. But this significance was probably not uppermost in most ticket-buyers minds as the anticipation and expectation centred more around two nights of good old fashioned rock and roots music.

That apart, it was clear that this year’s Rock & Roots was the best so far and was a resounding success. Much of that had to do with the relocation of the venue grounds to Fort Canning Green (it was previously held at the Marina Promenade, located on the Singapore Grand Prix F1 tracks behind the Singapore Flyer).

With the natural slope of the Fort Canning Green allowing for easier viewing access to the stage than the flat surfaces of the Marina Promenade and the grass providing an outdoor picnic vibe to the occasion, there seemed to be a more relaxed tone to the proceedings, with folks bringing their groundsheets and other field accessories for maximum comfort.

The obligatory tents for vendors selling beer and food were all out in full force, as well as the brands and slogans of sponsors, although it all came across like a dinner and dance event with the somewhat cheesy lucky draw and the familiar emcees (how more Singaporean can one get?)

But what was noticeable amongst the messages of industry and commerce were also the insertions of two key slogans - “Know Your Roots” and “Music = Respect”. These messages caught the eye as philosophical underpinnings to what the organizers wanted to achieve (apart from the commercial successes) with the festival.

These commendable principles were carried through on stage as artists in their 60s proved that age is simply no barrier to good music. The two headliners Plant and Simon had the packed crowd eating out of their hands.

For Plant - backed by the Sensational Space Shifters - the performance was a smosgarbord of diverse styles, arrangements and instrumentations. The psychedelic backdrop provided the key as African and Western formats embraced each other in a heady brew. For the fans of course, Plant and band delivered new versions of classic Led Zeppelin material - Black Dog, Ramble On, Going To California, Whole Lotta Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Simon - with crack band of musicians in tow - delivered a lesson in rhythm to the audience: Syncopated beats driving the songs forward, such as Mother And Child Reunion, Slip Sliding Away, Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, Late In The Evening and a crowd-pleasing You Can Call Me Al.

The other acts had varying degrees of appreciation, with distaff blues legend Bonnie Raitt faring slightly better than the idiosyncratic Rufus Wainwright. The latter played solo (with piano or guitar) and for my money was one of the best performers of the festival but much of his musical pearls fell on deaf ears. Wainwright was brave enough to play the harrowing Zebulon (written for his mother’s death) but was instead rewarded with general diffendence.

For The Tedeschi Trucks Band and Jimmy Cliff, having the final slot for each day was a bit of a poison chalice as many audience members took the opportunity to leave after the headliners, although it must be said that for the assembled faithful, there was no disappointment in the resultant performances.

Is Timbre Rock and Roots Music Festival anywhere near the previously highlighted big music festivals yet? Probably not. But the festival has certainly set out its agenda well and I can imagine that there are numerous band/artists in the classic rock and roots milieu for the festival to tap upon in the years to come.

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