Gertrude – A South Australian Rock Opera

If you’ve ever drank at The Exeter Hotel, you may remember the luxurious mullet of David Blumberg. The mullet is gone, but the Samsonite powers (of song) remain. We’re not discussing haircuts today though. We’re talking about isolation, trains, princesses, sheep farmers and the joys of being a musician in South Australia.

We’re at the National Railway Museum, in Port Adelaide. As we sit on a caboose and try to locate (using google maps) the isolated homestead where his and The Maraby Band’s new album Gertrude was recorded, Dave fills Fritz in on the inspirations and backstory of this very South Aussie record.

Fritz Magazine Gertrude South Australian Rock Opera

Picture an alternate South Australian landscape, marred by long forgotten tracks of narrow gauge railway lines. A wild mid north haven for a lonely society beauty. The power of dreams realised through song.

If this all sounds a little gauzy and psychedelic, you have to remember we’re dealing in the realm of an outback rêver – the old French translation being to dream. The premise? “A South Australian rock opera,” Dave Blumberg says, with a grin, “Gertrude is an album that I recorded and released with my band, The Maraby Band. It’s a song cycle about princesses and trains and the mid north of South Australia.”

Well, that explains it then.

“I was living in Scotland in 2012 and missing home, so I used to go to the National Gallery. I was always drawn to the John Singer Sargent painting of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw.” Sargent was a prolific portraitist of aristocratic and society beauties, and Lady Agnew, the titular Gertrude of the piece, is one of his most famous paintings. Struck by her languid pose and challenging eyes, Gertrude became a muse of sorts.

“In my homesick state, I started dreaming about this princess waking up under the gum trees in the bush by the narrow gauge railways of the mid north. On my nights off I would get a four pack of Tennent’s lager (Scotland’s favourite pint) and sit around in my cold Edinburgh flat and strum my guitar.”

That strange, homesick-coloured vision turned into the track ‘Lady Agnew of Lochnaw’.

Fritz Magazine Gertrude South Australian Rock Opera

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw – John Singer Sargent

“That was a mini concept piece. I wrote another two or three songs while I was overseas, demoed them and then forgot about them.”

It would take another five years before they were to be realised as a full album. Returning to his home town Adelaide, Dave played some of his demos to friend and fellow South Australian musician Pat Telfer.

“I told him what the inspiration was – this weird princess wakes up in the bush and he was like, ‘yep, great, let’s record it.’ I had the skeletons of other tracks, finished them all off and went up there (Maraby Station) in August 2015 and we recorded them.”

Conveniently Maraby Station is Pat Telfer’s family homestead. “Pat’s family used to run a sheep station in the Flinders Ranges. We had an opportunity to go and record up there with him and all the other gals and guys in the band.”

Fritz Magazine Gertrude South Australian Rock Opera

Maraby Station

Finally finding the station on Google Maps, the loneliness of the location is no exaggeration. It’s really not near anything. Almost complete isolation. Nothing but the endless surrounds and all the time in the world to make music.

“It’s really stunning. There were a whole bunch of doomsday prophesiers that rented and kitted it out because they thought the end of the world was coming. It’s a perfect location to go up to and knuckle down and have no distractions. There is no internet, there is no phone reception… you’ve got electricity to plug in your amplifiers and your mixing desk and you just make music, cook food and drink beer.”

Fritz Magazine Gertrude South Australian Rock Opera

The rock opera spans a wide influence of sounds, bringing together country, folk, pop and a distinct South Australian iconography. The whole album was made by 90 percent South Australians – recorded in the bush and mixed in the city. The love of SA and Adelaide runs through every lyric – a reflection of Dave’s own feelings.

“I’m an Adelaide boy, I love it here,” a stint in Edinburgh, Scotland and Montreal in Canada scratched the travel itch.

“Adelaide’s great. I can work a good job at The Exeter that is very flexible to me playing gigs and going away interstate and taking time off to create music.”

Fritz Magazine Gertrude South Australian Rock Opera

Adelaide is a supportive environment. We like to get out and move around but it’s the returning that has us interested. It’s not everyone’s dream to get out and never look back. Opportunities are here for the taking. That includes creating a record label from your bedroom, as Dave has done with Drongo Tracks.

“We can pay fuck all rent and save money and put records out instead. If I was in Sydney, I’d be having to work in a crappy pub five or six days a week and have way less time for creating.”

Get your hands on a copy of Gertrude by David Blumberg and The Maraby Band on Bandcamp. You can also find the vinyl album at Mr V in Semaphore, Clarity Records on Pulteney Street and Street Light on Vaughn Place, near The Exeter.

The album launch is at Ancient World, Sunday 27 August from 3pm. We’ll see you there.

Video: Aaron Nassau

Have you seen any great local Adelaide bands recently? Let us know in the comments, below. 

Smiley Fritz

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