Sultan’s Swing

My first taste of Dan Sultan came via a video on YouTube of Sultan at the Meredith Music Festival outside of Melbourne performing “Your Love is Like a Song,” the tune that won the award for Single Release of the Year at the Deadlys in 2007. It wasn’t a promising start: the cold crowd was huddled under umbrellas and plastic ponchos on a summer’s day where you could see your breath misting in the air. But the drums were pounding a 4/4 rhythm to warm the kids up and the crowd was soon smiling and bouncing to the beat. The camera swung around to the stage where Sultan, arms above his head, clasping a microphone, was keeping time and, improbably it seemed, sweating through his t-shirt. Then suddenly, with a shout of “one-two-three-four,” as the horns kicked in, Sultan leapt across the stage in a moment of rock and roll ecstasy the likes of which I haven’t seen for many a year. In terms of exuberance, joy, rhythmic abandon, and yes–as everyone says–sex on legs, it was a electrifying moment.

Sultan has been banging around hotels and festivals with his blend of rock, R&B, soul, and country since he was twenty years old. (He was born in 1983.) The Sydney Morning Herald has characterized him as the “black Elvis.” Although at first I thought the notion of a black man channelling a white man channelling black men was a bit ludicrous, the more I watched the performances available on YouTube, the more I thought the comparison was dead on. I’m not sure that even the Rolling Stones in their early years captured both the thrill and the nuances of American rhythm ‘n’ blues with the verve that Sultan brings to his performances. 

Sultan’s heritage–musical and otherwise–stretches across much of Australia. He grew up in Melbourne–Fitzroy and Williamstown–Cairns, and, early on, in Yuendumu, where his Irish father worked for the Aboriginal Legal Services and Dan remembers being given a pair of clapsticks by a Warlpiri elder and joining in the singing and dancing around the fire. His mother is of Arrernte and Gurindji heritage: the name “Sultan” harks back to the Central Desert Afghan cameleers, and on the Gurindji side he counts Vincent Lingiari among his forebears. As a teenager in Williamstown, he hooked up with guitarist and songwriter Scott Wilson, and a star was born. He’s been tapped to play in the Black Arm Band, and in a couple of weeks he’ll make his screen debut as Lester in Bran Nue Dae, playing opposite Jessica Mauboy.

Along the way, he and Wilson have released two knockout albums. The first, Homemade Biscuits (2006), starts out with a bang (“Your Love is Like a Song”) and then cools down for most of the first half with a series of slow, bluesy laments. Things heat back up in the second half of the album (I’m tempted to say “on side two” because Biscuits truly has the feel of old vinyl) when the horns come back for “Fool.” “Lonesome Tears” is straight from the soundtrack of a 1950s Western; “Money” isn’t the Berry Gordy/Beatles classic, but a Scott Wilson original that’s Chuck Berry by way of George Thorogood. The album closes with “Roslyn,” Sultan soloing on acoustic guitar and singing the story of his mother’s removal from her parents; it’s a tribute both to her and (I think) to Archie Roach. It’s the song he played to a standing ovation at the gathering in Federation Square to celebrate the Apology on February 13, 2008.

As good as Homemade Biscuits was, it’s been overtaken by Get Out While You Can, which was released at the end of November 2009 (and which is available internationally on iTunes). The first album was largely the work of Sultan and Wilson playing most of the instruments themselves; Sultan plays keyboards and drums in addition to accompanying his full-throttle voice on guitar. While there are still a few stripped down numbers here, including the title track, “Get Out While You Can,” Sultan and Wilson have formed a full band featuring four horn players along with a full-time keyboardist and a crackling rhythm section.

Stylistically, Get Out While You Can covers the whole range of Sultan’s musical interests, from blues to folky ballads. There are brilliant rockers like “Crazy” and “Letter,” which is built up with burning Stax horn lines. When he does country, he does it right, from the steel guitars to the classic lyrics, like these lines from “Dingo”:

I don’t really know who you are
All I know is you stole my guitar
I paid a grand for it
You got two grams for it
Oh, you hurt my soul.

These days Dan Sultan seems to be playing at the top of his form. On a recent installment of the television show RocKwiz, he teamed up with Ella Hooper for a rendition of “With a Little Help From My Friends ” that showed him unafraid of comparisons with Joe Cocker at Woodstock, and he pulls the performance off with flair and a lot of soul. Hemmed in among musicians and backup singers on a small stage, he’s itching to bust loose and move. Which is no doubt what he’ll do when he performs next Saturday January 9, with the Black Arm Band at the Sydney Festival, and again with his own group on January 15. Then it’s back to Melbourne for The Big Day Out concert on Survival Day, followed by a headlining performance the same evening at Share the Spirit Festival. Even if the weather’s miserably cool again, I’m betting on Dan to make it hot. Check out this performance of “Fool” from Share the Spirit two years ago if you don’t believe it.

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