6 March 2024

Frank's kicking off his boots to play with the 'mightiest rhythm section in the land' at Kiama jazz festival

| Karen Lateo
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Man playing a guitar

Frank Sultana is a regular performer at Kiama music cafe Finding Fillmore’s. Photo: Karen Lateo.

Most blues tragics can recite the tale of Robert Johnson. As legend has it, the Depression-era guitarist made a pact with the devil at a highway crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, selling his soul for talent and fame.

Australian musician Frank Sultana didn’t need a satanic pact. By the time he visited Mississippi, he’d already hit the heady heights of the world blues scene: he was the newly minted solo winner of the 2023 International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis, topping a field of 148 acts from 40 US states and 12 countries.

Yet he couldn’t resist seeking out that infamous intersection.

“The true location of the famed crossroads is debated,” said Frank, who’s curating a special showcase for the Kiama Jazz and Blues Festival this Saturday (9 March).

“I’ve stood at three places that all could be THE crossroads! Though I think that Robert Johnson just practised hard. He went away and practised hard.”

Frank’s pilgrimage also took in the iconic venues of the blues lexicon, the humble shacks and barbecue joints, and many big names along the way.

“It was deeply satisfying and humbling all at once to be an Australian blues musician immersed in the home of the blues,” he said.

READ ALSO First look at Kiama jazz and blues line-up as festival attracts live music grant

“It’s given me a fresh sense of purpose to what I’m doing, to be accepted and awarded in America.”

The Kiama legend wouldn’t have looked out of place there. He seems a born bluesman: his sweat-stained fedora crowns a weathered, grey-bearded face that belies his 53 years. On stage, he kicks off his battered boots and performs in socks, and there’s always something boozy at hand. It’s no surprise his singing voice has a whiskey-soaked, tobacco-smoke rasp. But appearances can be deceiving.

“I’ve never smoked cigarettes in my life!” he insisted.

“I just kind of open my mouth and that’s what comes out. It’s a bit of fun to play into the blues imagery and the language that goes with it.”

In blues circles, Frank is a late bloomer. Born and raised in western Sydney by Maltese immigrant parents, he worked in occupational health and safety logistics and the trade union movement.

“But music was always just kind of simmering away in the background,” he said.

“Mum and Dad’s record collection was predominantly American ’50s and ’60s music, with country and western like Johnny Cash and Frankie Laine and Marty Robbins, or straight-up rhythm and blues like Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, all of them. That’s how I fell in love with the blues.

“I remember going to school and finding out that there was other music – as a kid I thought that’s all the music there was.”

Man with his boots off on stage

Frank always removes his battered boots on stage. Photo: Karen Lateo.

He first performed before an audience as a nine-year-old at a school assembly.

“A guy in the class played acoustic guitar and three of us sang Circles, from the school songbook,” Frank recalled. “It was a buzz. It still is the same buzz.”

By 17, he’d progressed to a teen band, playing standards like Rock Around the Clock and Great Balls of Fire in a local Chinese restaurant – because “we were too young for pub gigs”. As an adult, music became his side hustle, juggled with a 9-to-5 career.

Frank began a deep dive into the Mississippi blues of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s “and found that was the era I really felt connected to”. He recorded his debut solo album, “Blues from the Lost Motel”, in 2010, followed by more recordings and touring with his band, The Sinister Kids.

“It wasn’t until I started writing blues songs in 2010 that I began thinking I could play gigs and actually make a life out of it,” he said.

Within seven years, he’d parted with that band and made a commitment to himself: do what makes you happy.

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“The moment of quitting work and going full time with music and the preparation and lead-up to that, and then doing it and then moving to Kiama … that was an epiphany moment for me,” he explained, reliving the snowball momentum of the decision.

“I realised that I wanted to make a complete change in my focus. I had a five-year plan in 2018, and winning at Memphis was five years exactly. Though no-one knew it was going to pan out like that.”

Surviving the pandemic lockdown years by touring when and where he could, and doing live online sessions when he couldn’t, Frank amassed hundreds of gigs’ worth of experience and acclaim. The Sydney Blues Society nominated him for entry in the IBC, though it took a GoFundMe campaign to get him there. He became only the third Australian to win the contest, following in the footsteps of Melbourne blues greats Fiona Boyes and Jimi Hocking.

Frank now has an enviable contact list of musicians and mentors that stretches from beachside Kiama to the muddy Mississippi. He’s played the Durango Blues Train in Colorado and recorded his ninth album, “The Ghosts of Sun”, in the iconic Sun Studios in Memphis. He’s heading to the US again later in the year.

“It was great to win, but it’s actually been about the friendships and the sense of family,” he said. “And the support from Kiama was just amazing. That’s been the biggest thing for me.”

Man on stage playing guitar

True to his blues heroes, Frank fashioned a guitar from a cigar box to take on his US tour. Photo: Brad Elligood.

Frank is polishing a 10th album, “Have Band, Will Travel”, in his home studio. He’s working with his recording and touring band members, Dan Sullivan on harmonica and Adrian Herbert on percussion, with frequent collaborator Stan Mobbs on bass. Dan and Adrian are part of his Australian touring band.

“It’s certainly not as rock and roll as some people might imagine,” he explained.

“It’s long drives, it’s hotel rooms, it’s afternoon sound checks. Travelling with middle-aged blokes, a nine-hour drive now takes 11 or 12 hours. It’s the pee stops.”

In December, Frank delved into his contact list to host the inaugural Bluesbash at the Kiama Bowling Club, gathering some of the Aussie blues scene’s greats. A second Bluesbash is in the works for June. Yet his upcoming Kiama Jazz and Blues Fest show will be very different.

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Called Blues with a View, he’s turning a stage at the Kiama Surf Club into a jam session base camp. He has assembled “the mightiest rhythm section in the land”, featuring his regular percussionist Adrian, Ben Wicks on bass, and Sally Wiggins on drums, with blues stars Nathan Beretta, Jesse Redwing, James Southwell, Continental Robert Susz, Dan Sullivan and Rob Woolf on the bill.

“We start at 3 pm and we go through till 8, with everyone floating in and out and jamming. There’s a heap of talent in town over the weekend, and some will come down and sit in on a song or two. It’ll be cool!”

Kiama Jazz and Blues Festival 2024 is on from Friday, 8 March, to Sunday, 10 March. Free performances will be held in the town’s cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs and open spaces, and there is also a program of ticketed events. Frank Sultana’s ticketed showcase, Blues with a View, is at the Kiama Surf Lifesaving Club on Saturday, from 3 pm. Click here for more information.

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