Review: Gulgong Folk Festival, Gulgong, NSW

The Falls
Image of The Falls Courtesy of The Gulgong Folk Festival

As a country-wide heat wave began to take hold you’d be forgiven for thinking only a crazy man would leave the beach lined coastline of Sydney for a weekend in New South Wales’ central west. And you’re probably right except I was driving over the mountains to take part in the Gulgong Folk Festival, an event I had heard so many good reports on in 2012 and which boasted a 2013 lineup that seemed lifted straight from the pages of Timber and Steel – how could I not attend?

Gulgong, situated about 30kms north of Mudgee and about 4 hours drive from Sydney, seems like a town frozen in time, like the set of some period drama or a recreation of the 19th century, but it’s a very real place and the streets were already abuzz with visitors when we arrived early on Thursday afternoon. Checking into our motel, conveniently located behind the festival’s default main venue The Price of Wales Hotel (with direct access into the pub via a gate in the beer garden) I quickly set about on a pub crawl reconnaissance of the four pubs and one opera house that would be playing host to a myriad of musicians over the next three days.

And it wasn’t long till I was introduced to larger-than-life festival organiser Richard Lawson (with a hug no less) and I started bumping into many of the bands I knew who were on the program – The Falls, Jack Carty, Fanny Lumsden and the Thrillseekers, Bellyache Ben and the Steamgrass Boys and Mustered Courage among others – all doing the same thing I was, checking out the town and finding their feet.

I gave myself three goals at the Gulgong Folk Festival – support all the bands on the lineup that have been featured on Timber and Steel recently, discover new artists and try to catch as many impromteu sessions as possible – and over the course of the three days I was in Gulgong I think I achieved each of those goals.

I definitely wasn’t hard up for choice when it came to seeing some of Timber and Steel’s favourite bands (I know Richard Lawson is a fan of the site and I have a feeling we may have had some input into the programming of the festival). I managed to catch Fanny Lumsden and The Thrillseekers in the town’s Opera House (apparently one of the oldest, if not the oldest in Australia) for a set that, while plagued with sound issues, was as energetic and joyful as always and had me tapping my toes along with every song. The April Maze, a band I’ve been listening to for ages but had never caught live, managed to avoid the Opera House’s sound issues by doing away with microphones and plugged in instruments and making the most of the room’s natural acoustics for a stunning set. Sivan from The April Maze is such a charming and charismatic performer and together with Todd Mayhew put on one of the best performances of the festival – if you haven’t picked up their new album Two yet you should go and buy it right now.

Jack Carty was his usual charming self workshopping a number of brand new songs at the Gulgong Folk Festival after a year touring Break Your Own Heart. After seeing Jack Carty more times than I can count in 2012 it was refreshing listing to new material filling the Opera House. At one point he invited Melinda Kirwin from The Falls up on stage for a duo on “Too Many Things in Too Many Places” (Carty returned the favour the next day appearing during a Falls set) which was absolutley stunning. The Falls themselves sounded beautiful in the Opera House setting with Melinda gushing later that she only wants to play country halls from now on.

The Gulgong Folk Festival was the first time I had caught Wes Carr’s Buffalo Tales project since he stepped on stage at Sydney’s Folk Club last year. Since then Carr has fleshed out the Buffalo Tales persona complete with on stage dream catcher and western clothing, but of course it’s his voice that stands steals the show. Sorting out microphone issues right at the beginning of his Opera House set on Friday, removing any hint of reverb or effects, Wes Carr howled and growled his way through his folk set, preforming songs written throughout his career including the amazing “Blood and Bones”. Mesmerizing.

On the Bluegrass side of the equation I managed to catch Mustered Courage at the Opera House followed by Bellyache Ben and the Steamgrass Boys at the Prince of Wales Hotel. The former put on an amazing show (as always) despite being physically and mentally exhausted after weeks of touring and festivals and battling the sound at the Opera House (which seemed to get worse the more players on stage). Mustered Courage are seriously one of the tightest groups in Australia and even in the face of adversity are able to put on one of the most professional shows of the entire festival. Bellyache Ben and the Steamgrass Boys blew the head off the Prince of Wales Hotel, closing out the Friday night with some amazing jams, some of my faourite covers of theirs (in particular “Sydney From a 747” and “Hard To Love”) and even inviting local banjo maestro Jesse Grover (Gulgong Confessional Singers) up on stage to solo with them. Easily two of my favourite acts of the festival.

And then of course there were the artists I hadn’t seen before that definitely left a lasting impression. The FruiTTrees from the Hunter Valley delighted with their easy listening folk vibes. Marcus Holden (Fiddlers Feast) proved why he is one of the best fiddle players in the country wowing the crowd at the Gulgong RSL with tunes, songs and even some Elvis on a locally procured saw (contributing the to local economy via the hardware store). The bluesy roots of Two Girls Will delayed me at the Prince of Wales (I was passing through to another show at the time) and I’m sure glad they did as they were just amazing live. Singer-songwriters were also out in force at the festival and I caught wonderful sets from Suzy Connolly, Genevieve Chadwick and the absolutely stunning Melody Pool whose music so captured me I had to spotlight on Timber and Steel almost as soon as I returned home.

As for impromptu sessions I only managed to catch one – but what a session! In the beer garden of the Prince of Wales over lunch on Friday members of Mustered Courage, Bellyache Ben and the Steamgrass Boys, Fanny Lumsden and the Thrillseekers along with Marcus Holden, Jack Carty and more had set up a bluegrass session that was attracting a bigger audience than the official program inside the pub. The session was frantic, loose and fueled by beers and is exactly why I like to come to folk festivals. I could have sat their for hours.

Along with the aforementioned persistent sound issues at the Opera House the Gulgong Folk Festival did face some other niggling issues – too many venues leading to smaller audiences at each show, inconsistent ticket checks, early closing hours at the pubs and general festival fatigue from the New Year season – but truth be told none of that mattered because the event itself was absolutely charming from the historic town (and venues) to the super friendly volunteers and locals and of course the sheer calibre of the bands that played there. Richard Lawson took on the organisation of the Gulgong Folk Festival only two years ago and it’s quickly become something very special. I sure am glad I was part of it.

Waking up bleary eyed on Saturday morning after a late night drinking session with many of the festival’s artists (the account of which will have to be left for another time – let’s just say for now that you had to be there) I grabbed some breakfast at The Butcher’s Shop Cafe and then jumped in the car to head back over the mountains. There was still a day’s worth of festival, including the famous street party, to go but I was needed back in Sydney and regrettably had to leave. But for two days and two nights I had become enchanted by this central western town and its festival and I know one thing for sure – I’ll be back! Thank you Gulgong Folk Festival.

7 Comments

  1. January 15, 2013 at 07:09

    HI here Mr. Evans. I noticed you didn’t turnip for the fiddle workshop on the Saturday morning..shame on you. Hey anyway I hope you enjoy the latest contribution of the FF CD Caravan.. I think I gave you a copy? Hope all is well

    • January 15, 2013 at 07:47

      Ah yes, your workshop Marcus. I’m afraid I had snuck out of town with a headache and other hangover-related injuries by that point. Sorry!

      You did give me the album – am going to sit down and have a proper listen to it today! Thanks mate!

  2. Kevin Gaynor said,

    January 15, 2013 at 07:39

    Just a note in defense of audio problems, particularly in the Opera House. The festival runs on a shoestring budget and audio production is scant. Equipment is either battered in house gear, or begged, borrowed or stolen. Nothing that couldn’t be solved with more money. Tell your friends to come along AND BUY A TICKET next year.
    Cheers
    Kevin Gaynor

  3. January 15, 2013 at 15:26

    Mudgee Region Tourism is keen to see this event building each year and we’d love to hear feedback from timberandsteel, who get along to lots of festivals and are probably full of brilliant ideas on how it can be improved. Please comment here or email Holly at ceo@visitmudgeeregion.com.au to turn your visions of the perfect folk festival into a reality!!

  4. January 18, 2013 at 15:32

    […] “As a country-wide heat wave began to take hold you’d be forgiven for thinking only a crazy man would leave the beach lined coastline of Sydney for a weekend in New South Wales’ central west. And you’re probably right except I was driving over the mountains to take part in the Gulgong Folk Festival, an event I had heard so many good reports on in 2012 and which boasted a 2013 lineup that seemed lifted straight from the pages of Timber and Steel – how could I not attend?” – Gareth Hugh Evans reviews the Gulgong Folk Festival. Review here […]

  5. July 8, 2013 at 09:53

    […] We kicked off our year in the best way possible in 2013 by attending the Gulgong Folk Festival in New South Wales’ central west region. The lineup was amazing, the town of Gulgong was friendly and welcoming and the festival organisers put on a fantastic couple of days (you can read our review here). […]

  6. October 14, 2013 at 14:23

    […] not actually a New Year’s festival, the Gulgong Festival (which Gareth enjoyed earlier this year) takes place over the weekend immediately prior, 28 and 29 December 2013, making it a good option […]


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