Remembering Chris Wilson: The gentleman of Australian blues

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Remembering Chris Wilson: The gentleman of Australian blues

Chris Wilson
Words by Talia Rinaldo

Hailed for his vocal and harmonica skills, Wilson was known as the “gentleman of Australian blues”.

Chris Wilson, based on the Bellarine, died at home three years ago, on January 16 2019, with his loving family, courageous and strong to the end. He was a music giant, with a league of loyal fans.

Chris was known nationally and, indeed, internationally for his music. You only have to do a quick search on Dr Google to find descriptions like “legend,” “incredible,” “supremo,” “crowd master,” “so lucky to have him.”

Read some of Melbourne’s most insightful music features here.

A giant of Australian blues and roots music, Wilson was a big man with a big voice and an even bigger heart, he followed in the footsteps of early pioneers like Dutch Tilders, Matt Taylor and Broderick Smith (and led the way for the likes of Jeff Lang, Ash Grunwald and the Teskey Brothers) and took his feeling for blues into the rock and punk worlds, eventually becoming the heart and soul of Melbourne’s legendary thriving live scene.

After studying to be a teacher, he soon found his passion when he joined Sole Twisters in 1984. The R&B band included Brian Horne, Barry Palmer, his brother Craig Palmer, Jeff Pickard, and Nigel Sweeney. He soon joined heavy-hitting post-punk blues enthusiasts Harem Scarem in time for their revered Pilgrim’s Progress album  – taking centre stage with his harp on their burning version of Iggy & The Stooges’ “Open Up & Bleed” amongst other great tracks –  in 1986.

In 1989, he played with Rod Jeffrey and the Bob Sedergreen Blues Band, Bob Sedergreen, Mal Sedergreen, Chris Wilson, Paul Wookey, Scott Dunbabin and Gordon Pendleton. There’s actually some footage of those sessions on YouTube.

Wilson was also playing with Paul Kelly’s band, had played on Hunters & Collectors’ 1987 album What’s a Few Men, and was working with punk stalwarts X.

Chris is better known for the band Crown of Thorns (Barry Palmer & Chris Rodgers) where he truly found his groove with the blues, country and folk sounds, and for his solo work and collaborations with Diesel, Geoff Achison, Mr Black & Blues. He also shared the bill with Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and played with Charlie Musselwhite.

Releasing Crown of Thorns records (and another project, The Pubdogs) on a label by revered blues DJ Max Crawdaddy, led to a deal with Mushroom’s Aurora label, home also to Archie Roach. It was with Mushroom that Wilson released his debut solo album Landlocked in 1992.

In 1993 he was nominated for the best male artist and breakthrough artist ARIA awards following Landlocked and the following year recorded the Live at the Continental CD at a live gig at the Continental Hotel in Prahran.

Recorded in 1994, Chris Wilson’s Live At The Continental stands as one of the most revered albums ever released in this country. His harmonica playing and vocals came together exquisitely, backed by Shane O’Mara and Jex Saarelaht. An intimate recording of the Melbourne blues, country, folk and roots-rock master, it is overall excellence, and it’s virtually impossible to name a standout track.

Early last year, Cheersquad Records & Tapes released the long-deserved re-release, and first-ever vinyl release of the classic Chris Wilson album, Live at the Continental, available on double LP in a limited run of yellow and black vinyl, matching the colours of Chris’s beloved Richmond Football Club. Released on January 22, 2021, just in time for Chris’ 65th birthday on the 24th, the original nine-song CD was expanded with extra material in a low-key fifteen-song independently released double CD back in 2007. That edition was then remastered with yet more material – seventeen tracks in all – for the new double CD. You can find out more about that here.

It’s not a coincidence that his standout CD is a live recording. A live session with Chris was always memorable, many musicians try to engage with their audience, Chris did so every time. Matthew Frederick (PBS, “The Juke Joint”), summed it up “I saw the man more times than I can count and it didn’t matter if he was playing to 2000 people or 20 – He never gave less than his all.”

Turning away from the spotlight, Chris began to play local and hang with his young and also musical family. He often played with his wife, Sarah Carroll (a member of much-loved country trio Git amongst other projects), and they were regulars at Tamworth playing country sets.

Moving to the Bellarine Peninsula, Chris continued life and work as a harmonica teacher, running programs for boys at local schools and phoning in music book reviews to 3RRR-FM’s influential Off The Record program, all while still creating new albums and new projects.

Chris might have been serious about his music, but his music wasn’t always serious. The Pirates of Beer was always good for a light-hearted session.

His lyrics can stand alone as poetry as well as great music, they can be laconic, very much expressive and convey strong emotion. His readings at the Dead Pirates Society evenings at the Piping Hot Chicken and Burger Grill (aka the Chook Shop!) in Ocean Grove were memorable.

Late in his life, Chris’ sons Fenn Wilson and George Carroll Wilson (aka Pollyman) started making names for themselves on the scene.

In April 2021, Fenn Wilson’s released ‘Love Again’, an immensely powerful work written for his mother Sarah Carroll after the passing of Chris. “I wrote Love Again for my mother after the passing of my father a few years ago. It’s about the time after losing someone, when you ask yourself ‘Will I ever have that again?’ or ‘Will I ever love again?’,” Fenn shared.

“It’s also, in part, a question posed to my Dad’s song ‘You Will Surely Love Again’. Although the song is very personal to me and my family, I feel like the question is universal; anybody that has lost something, or someone, has felt that sudden absence and has wondered if it will ever be filled.” This single takes the promise shown by Fenn in his debut album Ghost Heroin to a new level. His voice has become clear and strong, as it needs to be to carry off this song.

Pollyman may not be an act that you’re familiar with, but you will be. Drawing on sounds from the past and present of pop and rock, Pollyman delivers power-pop hooks and retro looks, with defiant and polished songwriting and performances. Inspired by such artists as Jeff Buckley and David Bowie, Pollyman’s distinctive songwriting and exhilarating live performances exude a powerful blend of rock and roll and the soulful side of pop which has already earned them fans like You Am I’s Tim Rogers as well as supporting Cedric Burnside and Canned Heat and being the most highly requested act on Delivered Live. Pollyman’s self-titled debut album is out now on Bonsai Records. You can follow his music here.

Chris recorded a final album featuring his newfound drumming skills and teamed up again with old mate Steve Lucas from X in the roaring pub blues-rock band the Heinous Hounds, which featured one time Keith Richards & The X-Pensive Winos member Jerome Smith and another old pal, drummer Ash Davies.

In 2017, a documentary was produced on the legacy of Wilson’s 1994 album, Live at the Continental. The short film outlines the friendship between Wilson and fellow Aussie musician Shane O’Mara, in addition to the love of playing a live gig.

In July 2018, Chris announced that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was unlikely to perform again. His final album was released, eponymously titled. A fundraising concert at the Corner Hotel was organised and quickly sold out. Chris passed away on January 16, 2019 to an outpouring of grief as great as any that Melbourne had experienced in a long time.

In 2020, Australian music icon Paul Kelly inducted Chris into the Music Victoria Hall Of Fame posthumously, presenting a touching speech and inviting Chris’ wife Sarah Carroll and sons Fenn Wilson and George Carroll Wilson to the stage to accept the induction and perform a version of Chris’s powerful ‘Hand Becomes Fist’.

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. His music will live on in Australian music lovers hearts forever.