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Geoff Achison masters American music in the wilds of Australia By Mike Gibson

 

To hear Aussie guitar-slinger Geoff Achison tell it, the Land Down Under is perhaps the worst place to play American blues this side of the Arctic Circle.

â“Quite often you're on the road in Australia and you're playing some of these rugged little Outback roadhouses or whatever,â” Achison laughs, speaking from his newly purchased home in Atlanta, Ga. â“I remember one gig in particular where I was put in front of a rowdy group, and when they thought of guitar players, they thought of Johnny Cash,â” he continues. â“That's all they wanted to hear. Now as much I might think Johnny Cash is really great, I just don't sound like him. I couldn't sound like him. You get put in front of a crowd like that and it's prettyâ intimidating.â”

But Achison, now 41, persevered, and he hopes his recent relocation will yield dividends now that his periodic jaunts on this side of the drink have begun to bring a measure of recognition. Achison has traveled all over the United States in recent years, received kudos in the likes of Downbeat magazine, and has worked with ex-Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, now an abiding Achison fan.

â“There's been a snowball effect, these last seven years or so,â” he says. â“I've visited my agent here in Atlanta regularly, and built it up with little tours, about six weeks long each. It's improved with each visit, to the point I was getting lots of calls to play in the States every time I'd go back home to Australia.â”

Achison says it was only through serendipity and persistence that he learned the blues in the country that gave birth to â“Waltzing Matildaâ” and the didgeridoo. A bass player in a small combo that played â“old jazz tunes,â” the 17-year-old Achison chanced to hear a recording of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton on the sound system of a venue he played.

â“I flipped out,â” he remembers. â“I said â‘that's it, that's the sound. That's what I want to do.' Someone explained to me that this is a blues record and this is blues music, and I bought a guitar and went on a search.â”

Having grown up in rural southeastern Australia, Achison took periodic railway sojourns to nearby Melbourne, where he purchased old albums by the likes of Buddy Guy and Albert Collins and Freddy King at specialty record stores, and uncovered a small but vital and close-knit underground blues scene. He started his first band through his newfound Melbourne connectionsâ"a four-piece outfit called Just Bluesâ"and slowly made the transition from blues hobbyist to impoverished working musician.

â“I was making a living off the band, which was great; it's what I wanted to do,â” he says. â“But I was making something like $90 per week. I was living in a house with nine other people, for $20 a week each. It was hard, but those were great days.â”

And the hardship eventually paid off when Achison was hired to play guitar with Dutch Tilders, a hard-touring bandleader recognized at the time as the country's preeminent bluesman. Then in 1995, after five years with Tilders' band, Achison took all that he'd learned as a sideman and struck out as a bandleader in his own right.

Though often billed as a blues artist, Achison says he's not really comfortable with being labeled a bluesman. And it's true that the original music he plays with his four-piece outfit the Souldiggers is inflected with a mélange of styles, funk and soul and rock and even a smooth undertone of traditional jazz. But it's also firmly rooted in the sounds Achison first heard through King, Collins, et al., especially by way of his own sensitive but virtuosic blues-approved guitar playing and pleasantly gruff Joe Cocker-esque vocals.

â“There are people out there who do â‘the blues' a whole lot better than I do, people who do it more traditionally,â” Achison says. â“But my songs and the way I play guitar are certainly blues-based at the foundation.â”

Achison is currently touring on the strength of the Souldiggers' 2005 release Little Big Men , availableâ"just like all of his albumsâ"through his own Jupiter 2 recording label. He also released a solo acoustic album in February, entitled Acho , although his upcoming performance at KMA's Alive After Five will be a full-band, electric affair.

The Knoxville appearance will be one of his first shows as a resident of the United States. That might seem like a daunting prospect for a bloke who was born and raised in backwater Australia, but Achison believes it merely marks the beginning of a very promising stateside career.

â“I love playing for the folks over here; they really seem to â‘get it,' maybe moreso than the folks back home do,â” he says. â“I've always wanted to see if I could really get over in the United States. So we're here now, and we're gonna give it a red hot go.â”

WHO: Geoff Achison and the Souldiggers WHEN: Friday, April 27, 5:30 p.m. WHERE: Knoxville Museum of Art HOW MUCH $10 general admission, $6 with student ID

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