The following review was written by Dave Evans. Evans is a regular performer at The Top Half Folk Festival, is one of the organisers of the Alice Springs leg of the festival and is also our Editor in Chief’s father.
“Tell me Dad, what is a Top Half Folk Festival?”
“Well son, it’s like this: a group of like minded musicians and friends from all over the Territory get together with another group of musicians and friends from all over Australia and they play music, and they drink, and they talk, and they recite poetry, and they play music, and they drink, and they talk, and they recite poetry, and occasionally they eat and sleep.”
“And they have been doing this for 42 years?!?!?!”
“They have, and I suspect that, livers willing, they might be doing it for some time to come.”
“Now that I have found my very first lagerphone that you made me all those years ago, can I go to the next one?”
“Only if you promise to play music, drink, talk, recite poetry, occasionally eat and sleep, and burn the lagerphone!!! Meanwhile let me tell you all about the 42nd Top Half Festival.”
The Top Half Folk Festival is held alternately in Central Australia (Glen Helen) and the Top End (Mary River) over The Queen’s Birthday weekend each June, and this year it was Darwin’s turn to be the host. The Mary River Park, roughly halfway between Darwin and Kakadu National Park, was the setting, and what a perfect place for a weekend of music and fun. I remember, with a touch of nostalgia, some of the earlier Top Half’s, which were held in local schools, with classrooms cleared so we could throw our swags down, and concerts held in vast concrete assembly halls. Good days, but there is no denying that the majestic ranges of Glen Helen in Central Australia and the likewise beautiful setting of the Mary River out of Darwin lend themselves more readily to one of Australia’s best small folk festivals.
This festival included as always some of the best musicians from the Territory, together with some musical mates from interstate, and guest artists, Danny Spooner and Dave Alleway with Di Gaylard. The weekend programme consisted of concerts, workshops, presentations, poetry, a folk quiz, impromptu sessions, and activities for the younger visitors. (“How to burn a lagerphone without starting a bushfire” was a suggested activity, but too many people turned up and the bushfires council wouldn’t allow it).
As is often the case with festivals, even the smaller ones, I wasn’t able to see everything, however, here are my thoughts on what I did get to, starting with some of the presentations.
Danny Spooner’s presentation on the life and music of Hamish Henderson, ably assisted by Dave Alleway and Di Gaylard, was an absolute ripper. Henderson, was a Scottish poet, a songwriter, a soldier, an intellectual, and a collector (along with American Alan Lomax) of folk songs. In many ways he was responsible for the folk revival in Scotland in the 50s and 60s and he also started a people’s festival in Edinburgh in the early 50s, where Scottish traditional music was played, a fore-runner I guess to the Edinburgh fringe festival of today. Danny sang a collection of great songs, with the standouts for me being “The D Day Dodgers” and “Banks Of Sicily” interspersed with insights into Henderson’s life. Great stuff.
A Tribute to Dave Meyers was presented by The Shiny Bum Singers and Friends. The Shiny Bums are well known in Canberra circles and have performed at the National Folk Festival down there. Dave Meyers performed with The Shiny Bums until his untimely death in 2010. A frequent visitor and performer at Top Half Festivals, this was a chance for his friends to pay tribute to his song writing skills and to remember a good man. Parodies galore about the public service, and his special song about the $5 sausage written after a memorable festival meal a few years ago. Good fun all round, a nice tribute to a nice person. Thank you to Pat and Arminel Ryan for making it happen. We’ll miss him.
Woody Guthrie: Ramblin’ Radical was presented on the Sunday by Paul Stewart and his usual cricket team of musicians. I must confess to being biased about this presentation as I was part of it, however, talking to people afterwards it was plain that it was not just me that thought this was one of Paul’s best yet. Months of research into the complicated man that was Woody Guthrie paid off, with Paul able to share insights into his life from all the research he had done, as well as using quotes, and the 20 plus songs, sung by the cricket team. Everything linked together beautifully, and although by all accounts he wasn’t a particularly nice man, his songs stand the test of time. Too many songs to mention them all, but “Do Re Me” “The Reuben James” and “Deportees” are worth following up on if you want to sample a bit of Woody Guthrie.
The folk quiz has become an integral part of Top Half’s in recent years, two panels of three face off against each other in a battle of wit(s) overseen by an irreverent MC (your’s truly) with the much sought after “winners are grinners” trophy being the ultimate prize. Musical knowhow is somehow lost amongst the mayhem that ensues, and the ultimate winners I guess are the audience, who seem to love the format, (a cross between Spicks & Specks and Rockwiz) and the humorous sparring between the panels and the MC. Judging from the comments afterwards many consider it a highlight of the weekend. Who am I to argue!!
I managed to see one of the afternoon concerts (Sat) sleep deprivation winning out on Sunday. I remember leaving at the end thinking how much I enjoyed it. There was a nice cross-section of music with The Randoms (Jabiru) Ian Kitney (Ex Katherine now Maryborough) Josh and Phil Gray (Perth) Karien, Ian and Jayne (Everywhere) and Last Minute (Darwin). There was something for everyone with both traditional and contemporary songs, tunes, and a cappella. Great to see young Josh (10 yrs. old?) upstage his Dad, together with some lovely harmonica playing. A nice version also by Last Minute (with Tony Suttor) of the Dave Oakes song “Uluru”.
The Saturday evening concert started in fine style with The Darwin Ceili Band. They are old hands at this, having been around for a long time, and they didn’t disappoint, a very polished performance.
Phil Gray from Perth minus his mates from Loaded Dog is a fine singer and song writer and it was good to see a solo performance from him. Chris Pemberton is a favourite of mine, his choice of songs, his guitar playing, and with a voice that is easy to listen to, he always comes up trumps.. Add in Tony Suttor on voice and squeezebox and you have a wonderful sound. Love it. Barry Skipsey from Alice Springs has been singing and writing great songs for many years now. It’s always a delight to see him perform and his newest song “The Green Box” about the plight facing many Aboriginal people in and around Alice Springs is both powerful and emotive. The Three Beans from Margaret River (Karien, Jenny, and George.) also played a great set, nice musical accompaniment with Jenny’s voice a stand out. What can one say about Danny Spooner that hasn’t already been said? A long time favourite of mine, a true professional on stage, a great selection of songs, “Harry was a Champion” and “The Lasses Who Dance” two standouts. A wonderful singer and musician, he is indeed a living treasure.
Ted and Caroline Burns and Dave
The Sunday concert was another great show, with some more of my favourite artists. Don Bruce from Tanunda, great voice, a beautiful guitar picking style: quality. Phil Beck from Perth, likewise a great guitar player, with a voice to match, an ability to choose good songs, and a nice easy stage presence. Ted and Caroline Burns were joined on stage by their friend Dave and his guitar playing added another level to this popular duos set. The best I have heard them sing. Top Stuff. My old mate Scotty Balfour never disappoints. I believe he is singing better now than ever, he’s comfortable on stage, his choice of songs compliments his voice, and it’s about bloody time he put out a cd. A harp and Scottish small pipes are perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea but give them to Dave Alleway and Diane Gaylord and the result can only be a selection of wonderful Celtic and English songs and tunes. “The Pearl/Jamie Raeburn” and “Drummer Question/Beeswing” were great examples of this.
So there you have it, another wonderful weekend of quality music and spoken word with friends and new acquaintances. As I said I didn’t get to everything, but talking to Jim Smith who ran the poets breakfasts whilst I slept, these were as popular as ever and a wide range of material was covered. I am contemplating writing a workshop titled “workshops I have missed” there’s plenty of material to be had. As you can imagine there were some terrific sessions, on the Friday night, and after the evening concerts on Sat. and Sun., out on the balcony of the main building, as well as another session going on each night around the campfire with Kevin McCarthy.
As a final note, I would like to congratulate the Mary River Park hosts, Rogan and Bronwyn, who provided terrific food and ensured that enough beverages were available to keep everyone happy. They even organised a special delivery of Guinness when stocks got dangerously low. My kind of people. My thanks also to the dedicated band of Top End folkies who organised the weekend’s festivities. The meaning of life is 42 and this was the 42nd Top Half Folk Festival. It couldn’t fail really could it!!?
I’m off to give my liver a rest, until the next one that is.