The 35 Hour Blue Mountains Music Festival Experience

Blue Mountains Music Festival
Image Courtesy of the Blue Mountains Music Festival

The Blue Mountains Music Festival proved to be a wonderfully muddy, musical and maniacal affair, distilling the best of the recent spate of touring artists and presenting the crème de la crème in a perfectly rainy setting. Timber and Steel ventured through the mist to Katoomba on Saturday morning to catch 48 hours of the festival. What ensued was the most rain and most music we’d ever seen in such a short space. Welcome to our Blue-Mountains-Music-Festival-in-35-hours review. Enjoy!

Saturday:

11:30am @ The Big Top – Fiddlers Feast
Fiddlers Feast
The weekend started at the Big Top. The rain at this point was a light drizzle and everyone’s spirits were high. Fiddlers Feast were a band we’d heard a lot about but hadn’t had the chance to see before. We were pleasantly surprised by their folk-jazz fusion and wonderful stage presence.
Fiddlers Feast are the perfect festival band. Their collection of fiddle tunes, folk-jazz improvisations and reconstructed pop tunes is exactly what an audience is looking for on a Saturday morning. We were particularly impressed with the way Fiddlers Feast managed to utilise their three violinists in a way that was complimentary without being overpowering. The highlight of the set would have been their jazz-folk cover of “Downunder” by Men at Work, proving the song still has legs after its high rotation on the playlists of “classic hits” radio stations

1:30pm @ The Blue Room – The Little Stevies
Regular readers of Timber and Steel would know that The Little Stevies are a band dear to our heart. After grabbing a quick lunch we ran over to the Blue Room at Katoomba’s RSL club only to be confronted with a massive line. We dutifully stood behind the last hopeful punter when word came down that the gig was full and they were only letting people in on a one-out-one-in basis. Considering we’d seen the guys before and that they were playing two more times at the festival we decided to try our luck in a different venue.

1:30pm @ The RSL Pavilion – Alan Kelly Quartet
The first stage we stumbled upon after missing out on The Little Stevies gig was the RSL Pavilion where the wonderful Alan Kelly Quartet were displaying their mastery of traditional Irish music. We’d previously caught Kelly and co at WOMADelaide and their set here was very similar to what we’d heard before – which is not a bad thing considering just how good the band are.
What was a lovely change from WOMADelaide was to see people dancing to Kelly’s music. Traditional Irish music is, at its heart, dance music and that was a little lost in Adelaide due to the “sit down stage” policy. There were no such restrictions at the Blue Mountains Music Festival and the audience took full advantage of the fact, leaping and jumping to the music.
While we had seen Kelly’s set a few times before we were particularly impressed with his last set of tunes which he announced as the “Galway Reels” – they just seemed to zing in the surroundings of the Pavilion Stage.

2:15pm @ The Guinness Stage – Graveyard Train
Graveyard Train
From Alan Kelly it was over to the Guinness Stage (ironically set in the middle of a school) to catch the horror-country stylings of Melbourne’s Graveyard Train. We’ve been recommended Graveyard Train several times before as a possible Timber and Steel feature artist but from their recorded work we could never tell whether they were a serious artist or not. After seeing them live we’re still not sure.
The MC announced Graveyard Train as a band who like to sing “songs about death” which was probably the prefect description. With a collection of instruments including a coffin shaped washboard and chains hit with a hammer as percussion (seriously), Graveyard Train had both the “horror” and “country” elements of their bio covered. Their vocals were embedded permanently in the lower register and the themes running through their songs were decidedly morbid – the entire performance felt a little like the sound track to a really depressing Western.
We walked away a little confused, very entertained and unexplainably sad. Graveyard Train definitely need further examination

3:45pm @ The Guinness Stage – The Cottars
Canada and Australia share a very similar history so it’s no surprise that both countries produce some really fine traditional music. The Cottars are a four piece hailing from the Cape Breton region in Nova Scotia, an area steeped in the Celtic tradition.
The Cottars had a lovely dynamic on stage, deftly moving from sets of tunes to Gaelic ballads to original compositions and back again with ease. Their relative youth (normally when you think of traditional music you think of elderly men in pubs pumping out the same old tunes on squeeze boxes and fiddles) did nothing to diminish their obvious affection for the music. Fiona MacGillivray on whistle, bodhran, keys and vocals was a particular standout in what was a group of standouts – the way she lost herself in the music was amazing.
The standout tune from The Cottars’ set would have been their version of “The Rights of Man”, a very common piece among lovers of trad given a new lease of life in the hands of these young performers

4:15pm @ The RSL Pavilion – Leah Flanagan
Racing from the Guinness Stage where The Cottars were playing we made a quick stop at the Pavilion Stage to catch a few songs from our favourite Territorian Leah Flanagan.
The wonderful thing about the way that Leah sings is just how much warmth and love she brings to her audience. Even with cold rain falling around us we were transported to the warmth of Mindle Beach Markets during her gorgeous track “September Song”, giving us strength to battle the weather onto our favourite venue of the entire festival, the Cabaret Room at The Clarendon Guesthouse.

4:30pm @ The Cabaret Room at The Clarendon Guesthouse – Busby Marou
Busby Marou
When we got to the Clarendon to hear Rockhampton locals Busby Marou we were greeted with a massive line and a “full house” sign. Luckily, being the canny operators we are, we managed to snaffle a couple of comfy seats right outside the door so at least we were able to listen to the boys do their thing.
About halfway through the set a couple of seats in the Cabaret Room became free and we managed to sneak in and sit down. Busby Marou had been touring for so long they had decided to let their road manager and “merch guy” pick the set list at risk of it becoming “boring”. The result was a lovely mix of songs from their album and EPs as well as a few cracking covers (“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “My Island Home” included) and unrecorded songs which had a real sense of fun and spontaneity.
What I loved most about this gig was just how relaxed it was. Towards the end of the show Jeremy Marou’s guitar pickup batteries started to give way which saw the boys deftly swapping instruments mid song (so Marou could solo) without missing a beat and even meant the audience was treated to a purely acoustic version of their track “Konomie”.

5:45pm @ The Big Top – Tony McManus
We’d heard so many good things about celtic guitarist Tony McManus that we just had to see him to believe the hype. We definitely weren’t disappointed after being presented with a musician who is not only a master guitarist but also a consummate performer.
Watching McManus move over his guitar was like watching water move over rapids. His affinity with the instrument was absolutely amazing with McManus being equally adept at instrumental works and vocal-guitar songs. When he broke into a Celtic cover of “What a Wonderful World” we were absolutely lost in his talent.

7pm @ The Guinness Stage – The Little Stevies
After seeing Tony McManus we had every plan on seeing The Little Stevies at the Guinness tent. But the rain had decided to pick up and we thought it was wise to use this time to duck back to where we were staying, grab some warmer, more waterproof clothes before heading back to the festival for the rest of the night. Besides, we’d no doubt catch The Little Stevies at their Clarendon gig on Sunday.

9pm @ The Big Top – Katie Noonan
A happy coincidence saw us get back to the festival, freshly rugged up and water proofed, to catch one of the last performances of Katie Noonan with her band The Captains. All the rain had seen a speaker blow at the Big Top Stage pushing all the acts there out by half an hour and allowing us to find a seat, get cosy and catch the majority of Noonan’s gig.
If you’ve been unlucky enough to not catch Katie Noonan in one of her various incarnations over the years then that’s a real shame. Her music has this wonderfully intelligent, haunting quality that you really don’t see with any other contemporary acts. The Captains were just the perfect backing band, matching Noonan perfectly as she moved through a repertoire of newer and older tracks. We were particularly impressed when Noonan whipped out an iPod full of notes so she could sing a song she had written just five days prior. The Captains may be going on hiatus but Katie Noonan shows no signs of slowing down.

10:30pm @ The Guinness Stage – The Waifs
The Waifs
Finishing up Saturday night was Australia’s favourite folk trio (Quartet? Quintet?) The Waifs. Rather than bombard the crowd with new music The Waifs had decided treat us to a selection of their “greatest hits”. Starting with the one-two punch of “Bridal Train” and “London Still” the audience were in full voice as the band made their way through their back catalogue,
After the first couple of songs Donna admitted to the crowd that “this is a folky set – sorry if you felt like dancing”, a sentiment that was completely ignored by the audience as they jumped up and down to every recognisable chord. Even the slower songs (like “Sun, Dirt, Water”) were greeted with shrills of recognition and the appreciative movement of dancing bodies.
This is exactly what we love about The Waifs. Despite having a raft of new material that they’re been spruiking to crowds as part of their current national tour they knew the audience at the Blue Mountains Music Festival perfectly and catered to their every whim. By the time they launched into “Crazy Train” about two thirds of the way into the set we knew that there was no better way to end our Saturday night.

Sunday:

9:30am @ The Guinness Stage – Poets Breakfast
The traditional way to start Sunday morning at any folk festival is, of course, the poets breakfast. The traditional way for Timber and Steel to start a Sunday morning is with a strong coffee and a bacon and roll. So we decided to mash up both traditions and catch the early risers at the Guinness Stage for some poetry, breakfast and coffee in hand.
We won’t pretend to know any of the poets (so we won’t try and name them here) but we did recognise quite a number of the poems. There’s something wonderful about a Poets Breakfast that reminds you just how much poetry is a part of the folk tradition and it’s alive and well within the scene.

11:30am @ The Blue Room – Busby Marou
Obviously we’d seen half of Busby Marou’s set the day before but we love these guys so much that we thought they were worth not only a second look but a review of an entire set.
Looking a little worse for wear after a late night session in The Clarendon the night before, Thomas and Jeremy ambled on stage in their usual laidback manner. We’d made sure we’d gotten to the Blue Room nice and early so that we didn’t miss out and we weren’t disappointed nabbing a spot right at the front.
Despite the hangovers (and with morning beer in hand) Busby Marou delivered yet another amazing set. Jeremy Marou was experiencing the same guitar issues as the day before (despite replacing his pick-up batteries) but was saved by the lovely Leah Flanagan who offered up her instrument instead.
Jeremy Marou is without a doubt one of the best guitarists we have ever seen. Watching his control and ability over the instrument we felt overly apologetic for ever assuming the man was just a ukulele player. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see Marou popping up in master-guitarist workshops in future festivals – he’s that good.
Obviously we’ve spent more than a few words gushing over Busby Marou in this review but they were seriously the highlight of the festival. If you haven’t seen them you have to – their track “Underlying Message” is worth the price of admission alone.

12:30pm @ The RSL Pavilion – Band of Brothers
Band of Brothers consists of two sets of brothers: Slava and Leonard Grigoryan and Joseph and James Tawadros. And they’re in a band. Hence the name. But that’s where the simplicity ends because these guys are truly masters at what they do.
The performance at the Pavilion Stage began with just the Tawadros boys on oud and req’, filling the tent with a dazzling array of Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms. As the audience delivered a thunderous applause at the end of the first piece we knew that the boys were already a hit. But when they were joined by classical guitar virtuosos the Grigoryan brothers the performance was taken to a new level.
Swapping between a quartet and various duet incarnations Band of Brothers were an education in musical mastery. The only tune of theirs I recognised was wonderfully twisted version of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” but that didn’t matter – the music was so wonderfully enchanting it had us jumping to our feet in spontaneous applause after each tune.

2pm @ The RSL Pavilion – Crooked Still
Crooked Still
Crooked Still were probably the band we most anticipated seeing at The Blue Mountains Music Festival. We’d discovered them only recently thanks to a combination of their Australian tour announcement and their version of “Ain’t No Grave” appearing on the True Blood soundtrack so we were keen to see how their brand of strings-based bluegrass translated to the live arena.
All of Crooked Still’s press billed them as “nu-folk” or even “nu-bluegrass” but after seeing them perform we would have to say that they’re just pure out and out bluegrass. The “nu” tag probably comes from their unconventional instrumentation (in particular the cello) but their sound is very much rooted in the tradition.
The performance delivered by Crooked Still was an absolute joy. Mixing originals, traditionals and a heavy dose of bluegrass-ified covers (including the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” sounding like it was born in the Appalachians) Crooked Still’s was instantly appealing to everyone in the audience no matter what their age. We’re really glad we managed to catch the band although after the response they got they’ll no doubt be back in the country sooner rather than later.

4:30pm @ The Cabaret Room at The Clarendon Guesthouse – The Little Stevies
Having missed out on two Little Stevies shows at the festival so far we were determined to catch the band in their final slot at the Clarendon. We did everything in our power to do so getting their over half an hour early to secure a seat. But upon arrival we were greeted with yet another line and yet another full house sign. It appeared that the crowd from the band before (Pacific Curls) had decided to stay put for The Little Stevies meaning no one else could get in.
While it was disappointing for us the full festival shows can only be good for a band like The Little Stevies. Maybe next year we’ll see them exclusively on the bigger stages.

4:45pm @ The Blue Room – TinPan Orange
Missing out on The Little Stevies did mean that we managed to catch the whole performance from fellow Melbourne act TinPan Orange. TinPan are a band we’ve been following for a long time on Timber and Steel but, surprisingly, one we’ve never seen before. Talking to guitarist Jesse Lubitz in the bar the night before we were promised a show very different to what we’d heard on their recorded material and it appears that we were rewarded with just that.
The TinPan Orange is wonderfully stripped back and organic in comparison to the band’s recordings. The addition of keys (performed by Gideon Preiss of Husky fame) filled out the trio’s sound wonderfully without overpowering their understated, folky sound.
TinPan Orange may be officially a “band” but this is really the Emily Lubitz show. Lubitz is the perfect front woman – charming, disarming and beautiful. When introducing one song she admitted “I can be moody. It’s good for song writing, a dynamic life. It’s ok though, I’m in a good mood today” instantly getting the audience onside while giving us a window into her life. Jesse, Alex and Gideon did a wonderful job of supporting Emily (although at times Alex’s violin and electric mandolin were a little too muted in the mix) proving why TinPan Orange captured our attention in the first place.

5:45pm @ The Guinness Stage – Mama Kin
Mama Kin was probably the act getting the most buzz around the festival all weekend and rightly so. Their brand of bluesy folk connected with the audience at The Guinness stage as the rain pelted down and we warmed ourselves with cups of hot chocolate and mulled wine. Danielle Caruana’s onstage presence is a force to be reckoned with and I think we enjoyed the stories between the songs just as much as the music itself.
The rise to prominence for Mama Kin over the last year or so has been pretty fast and now we can see why they are the band of choice for festivals and support slots around the country. Mama Kin are a highly polished live act that have perfected the art of on stage effortlessness – we’re really looking forward to seeing where they take their sound from here.

6:30pm @ The RSL Pavilion – Justin Townes Earl
Justin Townes Earl
Ok, now we get it. The last artist on Blue Mountains Music Festival was Justin Townes Earl, a favourite among the Timber and Steel team but someone this reviewer hadn’t spent much time investigating. But that’s all changed now after this performance. Justin Townes Earl was quite simply amazing.
Loping on stage with fiddle player in tow Earl bent into his mic and announced “It’s early” in his southern drawl before launching into a set of pitch perfect American folk. If ever a man was the true bearer of Woody Guthrie’s legacy then Justin Townes Earl is it. Somehow he has taken this old folk singing form and made it modern and relevant without changing a single thing.
We sat enraptured for the entire performance, hanging on Earl’s every word and really feeling his music deep down inside. He admitted about halfway through the set he was struggling to rein in his language as there were children in the audience and even quipped “I don’t know why I’m tuning this, it’s the blues” after taking some time out to adjust his guitar.
Our highlight would have been his rendition of “Christchurch Woman”, a song he said he normally dedicates to the woman in the song but would instead dedicate it to the people of Christchurch. As the rain had well and truly set in outside the Pavilion tent we couldn’t think of a better way to wrap up what had been an awesome festival.

Overall a fantastic affair. It was frustrating not being able to get into every band we wanted to (The Little Stevies know we still love them) but we should take comfort in the fact that so many people were willing to brave the weather to catch some wonderful folk music. The festival grounds were a mud ball by the end of the weekend but no one seemed to mind – we were there for the music and it was the music we’ll remember.

Here’s to another fantastic Blue Mountains Music Festival in 2012.

9 Comments

  1. March 21, 2011 at 21:55

    thanks for the glowing review and first up! terrific!

  2. March 21, 2011 at 22:18

    Hey thanks so much for the wonderful review.
    we recorded our second gig on the Guinness stage and should have a DVD out shortly!

  3. March 30, 2011 at 15:10

    […] Hughes spent a very rainy and wet Blue Mountains Music Festival unsuccessfully trying to see Melbourne pop-folksters The Little Stevies due to packed out venues and clashing appearance […]

  4. November 7, 2011 at 09:06

    […] have it at every show. It’s just changed the band completely. EH: I first saw you guys at the Blue Mountains Music Festival this year and since then you’ve popped up on festival lineups everywhere. Is that something […]

  5. November 15, 2011 at 10:55

    […] of our favourite events on this year’s music calendar (despite the torrential rain – check out our review here) so we got pretty excited this morning when the first round of artists for next years event landed […]

  6. December 13, 2011 at 12:57

    […] were lucky enough to catch Justin Townes Earle live for the very first time this year (at the Blue Mountains Music Festival) and he was simply amazing. So when we heard that he was returning to Australia for Bluefest (as […]

  7. March 26, 2012 at 15:23

    […] last year’s perpetual rain and shin-deep mud bath (not atypical in the Bluies). Yet I also knew, as you can read in Evan’s review of last year’s festival, that the residents of the Blue Mountains and those attending from afar, are resilient and […]

  8. April 12, 2012 at 13:19

    […] first saw Justin Townes Earle at last year’s Blue Mountains Music Festival where he performed solo with a fiddle player in accompaniment. Since then Earle has released a band […]

  9. April 14, 2014 at 10:25

    […] last time I saw The Waifs was at the 2011 Blue Mountains Folk Festival and the gig was absolutely magic. I reckon this tour is going to be more of the same. Tickets are […]


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