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Nahko and Medicine for the People express their love for Aussie audiences

Nahko Bear likes reaching out to a crowd – the bigger, the better. Little surprise, then, that Bear and his world music six-piece keep coming back to Bluesfest, an event that typically draws crowds of over 100,000.

After four Bluesfest appearances, Nahko and Medicine for the People consider the festival a second home, says Bear.

“The ability to really catch the feeling of the community and to enjoy the music that comes through Bluesfest is really what’s drawn me back over and over again,” says Bear.

“Without the interaction and participation of the crowd, we wouldn’t be able to perform at our best. Certain musicians, they’re there to let you watch them do their thing. That’s great for certain artists, but, for Medicine for the People, we really thrive off of interaction and participation, whether that’s singing along with us or when I get down in the crowd and talk to you. It’s pretty high-energy. We have a lot of fun and we love what we do, and I think that really shows in our live performance.”

Despite hailing from Portland, Oregon – a city somewhat resembling a 1:15 scale model of Melbourne – Bear says that he has found Australian audiences more open and accepting than American ones.

“Australia’s crowds, to my experience, have been outstanding,” says Bear. “Whether they’re working-class people or vagabonds and travellers or suburban, stay-at-home parents, there are so many types of people who have found the music to be enjoyable. I find Australians to have a very deep appreciation for presence, poetry and melody. In a way, in certain parts of America, you’ve got to convince them.”

Bear made his first trip to Australia in 2013. Before the release of Medicine for the People’s 2016 alt-world chart climber HOKA and his iTunes #1 solo album My Name is Bear, Bear was on his own – an artist without a manager, a support team or an established audience. Working with artists like Xavier Rudd, Bear discovered a supportive and inclusive community and found an in to the Australian festival scene.

“Before developing fans, I developed relationships with these friends, spending time out there just to play music and hang out with like-minded folks,” says Bear. “Each year that I got invited back to Bluesfest, I continued to deepen my relationship with some of these musicians. I still consider myself a beginner, just getting my foot in the door and paying my dues.”

Even as his options have broadened, Bear has retained an affinity for the small-scale and the low-tech. My Name is Bear, he explains, was largely recorded in a friend’s closet. The album draws on material found in old journals and cassette tapes Bear unearthed from his personal archives.

“It was interesting to go back 12 years and remember how I felt and try to puzzle through it,” says Bear. “And I’m a fan of the low-budge. Making quality stuff without having to spend a zillion dollars is really fun.”

In an era of almost universal pessimism, it’s difficult to square Bear’s social engagement with the warm and upbeat tone of his music. Bear believes that, within the next five or 10 years, the dysfunction that has marred both Australian and US society will give way and the public will begin to heal the rifts caused by polarisation.

“I hear, that it has to get worse before it can get better, though I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that,” says Bear. “I have a very hopeful perspective on our future… I’m human, so I still feel down or upset when I witness what’s happening on the planet and between countries and between classes, but I do feel very hopeful.

“I think that my music, as my practice and as my channel, is a much-needed thing in the world, and I am as much in need of it as everyone else is. I feel super blessed to get to do what I do, so I’m excited to come out and bring that all back to the land of Australia.”

Nahko and Medicine for the People will play Bluesfest on Thursday April 18 and Friday April 19. Find more details on the full lineup and grab tickets via the festival website. They will also play at 170 Russell on Sunday April 21. Tickets via Moshtix.