Recorded in 1994, Chris Wilson’s Live At The Continental stands as one of the most revered albums ever released in this country.
‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone…’
There are exceptions to Joni Mitchell’s observation from ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. Melbourne audiences knew what they had in Chris Wilson. The late great purveyor of roots music (and so much more) was recently inducted into the Music Victoria Hall Of Fame. It’s hard to think of any stage presence more commanding. A giant of a man. Physically, intellectually, lyrically. A force of nature and instantly recognisable vocally and on harmonica.
Now, an expanded reissue of his ‘Live At The Continental’ recording celebrates one particular night of magic.
The key takeaways
- The live album is being released with with additional tracks and for the first time on vinyl
- Remembering Chris with guitarist Shane O’Mara
- The album is released January 22, just in time for Chris’ 65th birthday on the 24th
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In May 1994, Chris was joined on stage by guitarist Shane O’Mara and pianist Jex Saarelaht at the iconic Prahran venue which closed two decades ago.
Shane O’Mara has worked with a raft of Australian headliners. From performing alongside Stephen Cummings, Rebecca Barnard, Paul Kelly and Tim Rogers to production on acclaimed albums by local artists (at his Yikesville studio) and ARIA-winning soundtrack work.
O’Mara says, “This release is a worthy celebration for an extraordinary record. Throughout all my years playing and touring, it’s the one record that everyone mentions. [Just] the other day I played with Lisa Miller at The Retreat. Someone came up and said, ‘I miss Chris so much’. It was a beautiful one-off, with Jex’s amazing piano and Hammond playing. Let alone Chris as an iconic figure. And oft-misunderstood, I think.
“People started calling him ‘The gentleman of the Blues’. That annoyed me a little bit. Chris was broader than that, as is evident on the record. An incredible harp player, singer, songwriter… A really erudite, smart man. A teacher. A guru. I used to call him ‘the Bhagwan’. My nickname for him. He used to call me the goat,” she laughs. “So I don’t know where that puts me! This bleat-y little fool clicking on my trotters around him?”
Wilson may have known the Continental gig was to be recorded. But O’Mara reveals, “Jex and I had no idea. I honestly don’t think it would’ve turned out as it did if we knew. We would’ve tightened up a bit and you wouldn’t have those beautiful expansive tracks like ‘Hymn’ and ‘The Changeling’.
“In a lot of live recordings… they’ve gone back into the studio and fixed up little bits or recorded tracks over several nights. But this is that thing of capturing time. In a really riveting performance… structure is thrown away a bit. Instead of, ‘OK, we ‘ve got an eight-bar intro then a harp solo, a four-bar break, then you come in…’ Chris was the opposite. He’d just say, ‘OK we’ll do this one. You can do the intro.’ Quite improvisatory. Whatever happens, you’re prepared to go with it. Rather than going ‘Hang on. It’s not my turn yet.’ God help you if you said that to him!.
“Although, I never got the infamous ‘roar’ on stage. He was a sort of a kitten too. A gentle bastard.”
We talk of the annual Queenscliff Music Festival. A Bellarine local, Chris and partner Sarah Carroll traditionally led the Tides of Welcome community gospel choir sessions. Always with huge smiles.
“That was his favourite schtick,” says O’Mara. “He was as happy playing ‘Nutbush City Limits’ as ‘You Will Surely Love Again’. He was passionate about his music and wore it on his sleeve, but he would love people dancing around. So he’d do a song like that for the celebratory aspect of playing. He lived to play. He once played a whole set to an empty Cherry Bar band room with only the barmaids for an audience.”
Did O’Mara play differently when sharing a stage with Chris? She laughs, “Yeah. Terrified. We played so much as a duo – in my memory – after the Conti thing. And it was trial by fire really. We did a residency stint for months in the front bar at The Espy. A unity of like-minded folk. The show would be packed. I’m playing behind Chris. He’s just done an incredible harp solo or something. He looks at me and goes, ‘Your f****in’ turn.’”
O’Mara laughs heartily. “A seat-of-your-pants learning experience. I say terrifying, but it was inspiring really.”
Chris’ record collection – and personal repertoire – embraced punk, country, soul, rock, jazz and the obscure. “In school teacher mode, he’d [put on a record] and say ‘Have a listen to this. Waddaya reckon?’, O’Mara recalls. “Once it was Dr John’s track ‘I Walk On Guilded Splinters’ which is really f***in’ scary. I answered, ‘It’s intense!’. Chris said, ‘Yeah. It’s grouse.’”
On Chris Franklin’s moving documentary, Wilson and O’Mara recall the legendary night at the familiar and welcoming venue. Eight extra tracks from ‘the Night’ are added to those originally released, with outstanding production quality throughout. Most are original with covers of Bob Dylan and Elmore James gems included. From two brief rehearsals came this extraordinary work of art.
“That ethic of trusting in another player and seeing what happens. Letting go. Chris loved that.”
The expanded edition of ‘Chris Wilson Live at the Continental’ is available on double LP (including a limited coloured vinyl pressing) and double CD. The vinyl comes with a free digital download.