Review: The Gum Ball 2012

Review by KT Bell, photos by Stu B.

In spite of all our good efforts, enthusiasm and eager anticipation following last year’s fantastic Gum Ball, Stu and I found ourselves behind schedule driving in to the darkness from Sydney, desperate to get to Lower Bedford for the 2012 Gum Ball and it’s stellar line up. We arrived at 9pm, just in the nick of time before the gates closed for the night. In the headlights of the car we set up our modest camping facilities only a few hundred meters from the main festival area with the roaring set of The Tongue as our soundtrack.

To my delight, we managed to catch the last act of the night, the newly reformed The Bakery. While not really folk, they’re worth checking out in their new format. After an extended period of absence, the band took on a new line up for the 2011 Woodford Folk Festival and their act has been going from strength to funky strength ever since. As the festival’s sound system fell silent, the crowd migrated to the silent disco to revel on in to the early morning. Amusingly to those watching from the outside, it looked like a silent, shuffling human zoo exhibit with the occasional rousing group rendition of some classic chorus. As the silent disco serenaded us with another round of “they paved paradise to put up a parking lot, ooooh, bop bop bop…” we headed to bed in readiness for a huge Saturday to come.

In the morning light, we rose to discover the sprawling tent city nestled among the gum trees and the impressive set up of the seasoned gum-ballers surrounding us. Complex lounge room style common areas complete with couches, tarps stretched over cars, vans and tents, lean to’s and all manner of camping comfort and conveniences. We stumbled off to the festival arena in search of coffee and breakfast, passing impromptu camp kitchens, gas cookers perched on tow bars and the likes with eggs, bacon and all manner of delicious smelling DIY breakfasts taunting and tempting us the whole way. Eating your breakfast in the very grounds of the festival watching the place slowly waking up as the morning fog burns off certainly starts that excited feeling that only this kind of festival can inspire.

Just prior to 10am, Stu and I positioned our camping chairs just to one side of the sound mix tent where we had an excellent view of the side by side stages, ready and comfortable for a long day of The Gum Ball. To start off the day and brighten up the morning for some rather dusty heads, the Perch Creek Family Jug Band bounded on to stage not dissimilar to the endless enthusiasm of the Brady Bunch or Partridge Family, and we’re bedecked in much the same garb. A 5 piece family outfit saw the stage awash with banjo, washboard and jug, acoustic guitar, harmonica and double bass all blending together in a wholesome family vibe. They produced great rhythm and a great way to start the morning. Recently turned 17, Christi has become the bad boy of the family, proving his status with a cover of Justin Townes Earl’s “If you ain’t glad I’m leaving, girl you know you ought to be”. The crowd quickly grew as daughter Eileen delivered a sultry cover of “Minnie the Moocher”. A bit kitsch but a whole lot of fun, their onstage family banter must have been what it was like for our Evan Hughes growing up in a folk family, as the kids all complain to mother Camilla that, in spite of her Train Whistle opening, they “don’t do the ready stances anymore”. But after some ‘gentle’ motherly advice and encouragement from the crowd (would I do a thing like that? *looks innocent*) they struck their very silly and quasi rock star poses and launched in to a bit of honky tonk, country tinged, bluegrass. It was all very cheesy, but in the right way for that time of the morning. I had to question whether there is anything this family don’t do? They are all multi-instrumentalists, Eileen tap dances with a mini banjo, the vocal harmonies while all the time sharing the spotlight and the instruments equally. And to round things out they finally brought out the jug in time for Christi to accompany the jug playing a saw in a lullaby style number. Family nights at their place must be amazing.

A little later in the morning we were treated to the Irish lilt of Roesy. A modest chap, he thanked his family, saying he wouldn’t be here without them. Performing solo with just his acoustic guitar, full voice and genuine story telling style, Roesy told tales and drew the audience in to his melody of worlds. Enjoying his set, I often felt like we may not have been at a festival but relaxing in Roesy‘s backyard while he told us tales of the songs his Dad used to sing.

Benjalu is a name I have heard but not a band I have followed so I was interested to see what they had to offer. From the outset, it was clear they were on fire, sounding really tight with an excellent mix of acoustic guitar and electric. Their indie sound is heavily grounded in roots with a dash of rock and a touch of folk to round out their style. With their subtle harmonies and great energy, they had the crowd up and dancing instantly and it’s no surprise their infectious sound had the audience in raptures. I really enjoyed their song about being hungover complete with bongos for that pounding headache feel with strummy acoustic guitar and harmonized melody to sooth the soul. We’d seen him lurking at the back of stage but it was a great delight to see a cameo performance on their last song by none other than tour buddy Kim Churchill. It was clear that they had great rapport which delivers an excellent collaboration, they worked well together on stage and brought their set to a crescendo finish. Benjalu was an utter highlight and I shall be watching them like a hawk.

You all know that we here at TnS love Kim Churchill and we’re always very happy to see him on a festival line up. He took to the stage in his one man band style as we’re so used to seeing him. He opened with echos of “Waltzing Matilda” woven throughout “Loving Home” which attracted a big crowd to his set, it was clear people were drawn to him and his sound. In such a picturesque setting, it was easy to appreciate such musical layers all produced live by one person! Currently touring with Benjalu, it was clear they are all very good friends. He told the story of how Benjalu‘s van had broken down 2 days ago, that they have been saving every cent from every EP sold to record a new album and that he would hate to see that money to go to a van. During his next song, “Revolution”, donation buckets were going around collecting donations to help fix the van. Using his ethereal loop echo to advantage his passionate performance in songs both new and old, (like his LA song, telling how he dislikes the big cities), Kim’s raw performance energy is apparent. Close up, you can see him tremble as he performs, hands as they strum, face as he plays harmonica. Title track from his new album “Detail in Distance” is very reflective, he has learned over the years that sometimes distance is the thing that helps you see clearly. Kim likes to tell stories between songs, of how they came about. By far the most compelling was about a song written in French Polynesia while on tour, “Bathed in Black”, and how on a bad day he chose to change his own mindset and outlook. How a man in his early 20s could be so wise is beyond me, but I am grateful Kim Churchill is such a keen and regular performer who can bring this wisdom to us all through his enthusiasm and music.

Wagons wasted no time getting deep in to the bluesy country goodness as they burst forth onto the stage. In the between song banter, Henry Wagons dedicate a song to all those bad choices made at festivals, and “I Blew It” rang around the festival arena. Jovial with the crowd, Wagons was not shy of dedicating the next song to all there, especially a woman in the crowd looking at him skeptically who he was determined to win her over in one song. A deep, pounding rendition of “Love Me Like I Love You” may well have succeeded. An emphatic “Willie Nelson” had the crowd singing along and Si the Philanthropist’s hip hop gave Henry a moment to wipe his brow and take to the drum kit. Wagons whirled through their set getting the crowd totally involved for an energy filled finale that left the gum trees ringing.

Mat McHugh had quite the following gathered at front of stage well before his set began. His solo set up included an acoustic guitar and laptop to provide a variety of additional backing sounds as he launched in to “My Mind is an Echo Chamber”. I thought to myself that he sounded like a stripped back Jack Johnson or Xavier Rudd. I looked him up on The Gum Ball site and realised he is the lead singer and songwriter of The Beautiful Girls. Cue the moment of feeling really ignorant, no wonder he sounded familiar. After touring solo in support of John Butler Trio, Matt discovered his new stripped back solo career and the Gum Ball audience seemed impressed with his new solo exploits.

I’ve been a fan of Ash Grunwald for a while and enjoyed interviewing him at Bluesfest last year, but Stu had hardly even heard of him and looked at me dubiously as I enthused about his upcoming set with Vika and Linda Bull. As Stu stood in the audience ready to photograph the set, he casually chatted to the crowd who not only echoed my sentiments, but got Stu intrigued and pumped for the set. Ash delivered a powerhouse opening, engaging the crowd with thumping kick drum, strumming rhythm guitar and wailing vocals, brought down to a cool, bluesy lament. With notes like gospel howls, Ash’s voice took over the Gum Ball arena and the crowd was transfixed. He then welcome Vika and Linda to the stage and using a loop recorded in Melbourne of Linda, which according to her “sounds like my grandpa” brought a whole new dynamic of sound to the festival. Ash sang and delivered running commentary throughout the set, nothing phases him. He explained that the chorus of his next song was inspired by The Hangover II, the tattoo faced “Demon in Me” from his new release Trouble’s Door. A diverse set, the next song built from a slow start into a speedy intro for “Shake that Thing”. With out hesitation he slid in to a cover of “Sail”. Ash’s voice carried over everything, electronic backing track, the swagger of the guitar and sultry backing vocals by Vika and Linda. An a Capella with a gospel style changed the feel of the set but still had the audience clapping and singing along. A grungy recorded backing loop accompanied “Raw” which true to it’s name has a raw sound and heavy dirty beat. At the end of the set, he thanked good friends Vika and Linda as this was their last performance together in the collaborative format for some time as Ash moves forward with promotions and tour for his new album Trouble’s Door. After the set had finished, Stu returned to our spot, grinning. Turns out Ash Grunwald had been awesome.

We had munched on some terrific festival food including the Wagons‘ endorsed wood-fired pizzas, and enjoyed dutch poffertjes for dessert and then it was time for the dessert finale of Jinja Safari. Their excitement was evident as they took to the stage, full of energy and life. Without hesitation they delivered their ethereal, tribal drum soaked intro, layered with harmonies and rich melodies oozing forth over the crowd with everyone swaying in time. Their set was smooth and sweet like treacle and the perfect ending to a rolling, rollicking, eclectic day of music. The keyboard was fanciful and lyrical and they all danced with their instruments while they performed, the bongos energetically shooting between phrases of songs.

We collapsed in to our camp beds exhausted but very satisfied by a fantastic festival with a well considered and varied line up to cater to a wide range of audience tastes. It’s hard to believe that The Gum Ball has been going for 8 years and hasn’t yet exploded in size or grown too big for it’s earthy and natural soaked site. We arrived home just after lunch and were really impressed to have fit a trip out of Sydney and so much music in to one weekend and still have time to relax before the working week started. Clearly the folks at Lower Belford and the surrounding Hunter Valley know how to put on a truly inclusive and inviting gig and the locals have discovered what a gem it is, now the Sydney-siders and Central Coast people just need to clue on and The Gum Ball will soon become a sell out success year after year. This year some punters had traveled form Canberra just to see headline act Custard and they wouldn’t have been disappointed with their set as well as the whole event. So it’s a sure thing that next year’s Gum Ball will have just as brilliant a line up and hopefully, as they note in their wrap-up blog post, a whole lot more people will come and enjoy the festival alongside the regulars.

Preparing for The Gum Ball

The Gum Ball 2011The Gum Ball 2011 by KTBell

After last year’s taste of The Gum Ball, we are very keen to be heading back to Belford for what is sure to be a folkin’ great weekend away. We’re making plans to catch as much of the weekend as possible by packing the car on ANZAC day so we can get the jump on the traffic on Friday afternoon. We’ve got our gumboots at the ready, just in case of rain, and we’ve been going over the playing times and are hanging out to see the newly reformed The Bakery, TnS fave Kim Churchill, the country swagger of Wagons, raw roots power of Ash Grunwald with Vika and Linda and can’t wait to see where Jinja Safari are taking their tunes too. And they’re only the ones we’re familiar with, with the Perch Creek Family Jug Band opening Saturday’s bill and a raft of our faves from other genres, this is going to be an exciting festival in the perfect setting!

With less than a week to go, and with a spate of struggling festivals cancelling across media headlines for months, it’s dishearteneing to see a news story this past week about the struggle the event is experiencing with lower than anticipated ticket sales and the bureaucratic red tape faced every year. The most inspirational part to come out of the struggles is that the festival still manages to support Beyond Blue, The National Depression Initiative.

In an effort to make the Bedford location more accessible for all, The Gum Ball have announced on their facebook page that they will run a shuttle service from Newcastle on Friday with a return service at 10am Sunday, all accessible by train from Sydney. Bookings for all are essential for all services info@thegumball.com.au.

The Gum Ball 2011

That’s all well and good if you live near-by, but this festival is really the perfect escape for any Sydney-sider but it’s like Sydney just haven’t grasped that yet. Perhaps The Gum Ball needs to be compared to something a little more familiar. Stu and I have been looking forward to the Gum Ball for a year, and I’ve been contemplating why. The Gum Ball has the crowd participation and pleasure of The Falls Festival (Falls is like the Op Shop Bop on steroids), the atmosphere and idyllic setting of Peats Ridge Festival and the community spirit and village vibe of Woodford Folk Festival, it just doesn’t have the sense of occassion of New Years Eve.

Perhaps the problem is the comfort zone – the big, established festivals are a given and punters will make the trek. It’s boutique festivals like The Gum Ball, tucked away in the most divine bush setting, that are an unkown quantity, but music lovers should bite the bullet and make the effort because what awaits you is a spectacular and unique experience. Still not convinced? Check out their blog for details of the Op Shop Bop, Sid’s Circus Playground, Yoga, Tai Chi and Hula Hoop workshops, the Silent Disco for all those night owls that want to rage in to the early hours of the morning. If you’re worried about camping and food – the festival food on site is guaranteed to be great once again – we’re not planning to pack anything to eat! However, it is a BYO festival (no glass!), so no queues at the bar and no disappointment at having to choose from drinks you don’t like.

In reality – this is the kind of festival punters have been crying out for for years after over-regulation of the large scale events have placed more rules and regulations on the festival experience. This is the chance to get back to great music and a brilliant music festival experience. With tickets still available for only $120 for Saturday or $165 for the whole weekend, plus a tank of petrol split between some friends – this is the perfect way to spend a cheeky weekend away with mates.

The Gum Ball 2011

Not coming this year means you might not get another chance if numbers don’t rise. So come and support Australian music and a family run festival. They’re welcoming you on to their property, we guarantee you’ll welcome them in to your hearts.

Adelaide Fringe Festival Recommendations

Old Man River
Image Courtesy of Old Man River

With all the focus on WOMADelaide on Timber and Steel recently it’s easy to forget that Adelaide is playing host to another great arts event this February and March in the form of the Adelaide Fringe Festival. The Fringe offers up some of the best in music, comedy, theatre and dance between the 18th February and the 13th March which really brings Adelaide alive. And while the focus is definitely not folk, a number of Timber and Steel friendly artists will be appearing as part of the Adelaide Fringe. By no means a definitive list (see the full artist lineup here) we thought we’d put together our recommendations for this year’s festival:

Adam Page – 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th March, La Boheme. Wonderful looping guitars with composed and improvised sections.
Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under – 2nd-3rd March The Garden of Unearthly Delights, The Spiegeltent. The queen of freak cabaret is back in town. Expect a ukulele or two.
The Audreys Acoustic Duo – 13th February, The Garden of Unearthly Delights, The Spiegeltent. The Adelaide natives return home with their amazing acoustic duo show.
Celtic Roots – 1st, 7th-8th March, South Australian Folk Centre. Get your trad on with Matthew Lykos and Julia Norman as they sing celtic folk songs.
Georgia Germein – 19th February, 5th March, 13th March, The Promethean. Just 19 years old but writing and performing wonderful acoustic pop.
Glenn Richards Duo with Dan Luscombe – 17th February, The Garden of Unearthly Delights, The Spiegeltent. The Augie March frontman takes his amazing solo work to Adelaide
The Harry James Angus Band – 11th-12th March, Jive. The Cat Empire frontman delves back into post-war era tunes and songs
Jayne West & Tom West (Traveller & Fortune) – 24th February, Dog & Duck. Adelaide locals who produce beautiful finger picking folk music
Jess Ribeiro and the Bone Collectors – 11th February, The Garden of Unearthly Delights, The Spiegeltent. Described as “fringe-dwelling, note bending nu-folk”
Justin Townes Earle – 2nd March, The Gov. Townes Earle is a legend of nu-folk and alt-country. Make sure you see him!
Katie Noonan & The Captains – 21st February, The Garden of Unearthly Delights, The Spiegeltent. This is the last tour for Noonan in this incarnation.
Lanie Lane – 23rd February, The Garden of Unearthly Delights, The Spiegeltent. A recent Timber and Steel Spotlight artist. Make sure you catch the thinking mans Amy Winehouse.
Live at The Beards Club – 24th February, The Garden of Unearthly Delights, The Spiegeltent. If you haven’t got a beard you better start growing one so you can see The Beards in action.
Magichour – 25th February, The Wheatsheaf. Acclaimed folk pop duo Gemma Deacon and Ian Housten-Shadwell.
Old Man River (above) – 26th-27th February, The Garden of Unearthly Delights, The Spiegeltent. A serious talent.
Paper Cranes & Diamonds – 25th-27th February, Adelaide Town Hall. Showcasing the work indie-folk work of Brisbanes Ichabod’s Crane and visual artist Dean Loades.
Rachael Cearns – 6th March, The Promethean. Beautiful female singer songwriter.
Smells Like September – 28th February, Ed Castle. Alice Springs foursome banging out folk-pop gems.
The Transatlantics – 9th March, The Garden of Unearthly Delights, The Spiegeltent. Easily one of the country’s best up and coming bands.
Vika and Linda – 19th February, The Garden of Unearthly Delights, The Spiegeltent. Two of the best voices in contemporary Australian music.

And to top it all off make sure you head to The Fuse Festival Showcases between the 16th and 18th February to catch the best in local Adelaide talent.

If you’re in Adelaide or feel like a break in the southern capital get ready to see some great live music. Bring on the Fringe!

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