Review: 24 Hours at the Blue Mountains Music Festival 2015

BMMF
All Photos by Sarah Turier

I bumped into a friend of mine right at the beginning of this year’s Blue Mountains Music Festival and was surprised to see him. While my friend has a passing interest in folk music I was surprised to see him in Katoomba, especially as he’d driven over 6 hours to be there.

When pressed on why he’d made the journey he looked at me with his own surprise.

“What do you mean why did I come?” He said. “The blues lineup is amazing!”

And that is what the Blue Mountains Music Festival is all about. For me it’s a folk festival. For my friend it’s a blues festival. For someone else it might be a rock or roots or something else festival. The Blue Mountains Music Festival is exactly what you make it.

This year I only managed 24 hours at the Blue Mountains Music Festival due to an unscheduled bout of food poisoning (unlikely from the festival itself) sent me back down the mountains to the safety of my own bathroom, but while I was there I saw some amazing music.

The festival kicked off on a cold and misty Friday night. The crowds were thin as many of the punters were waiting for the weekend proper before heading up the mountain from Sydney. This meant we were eased into the Blue Mounatins Music Festival flitting between venues, getting up close and personal with some amazing artists and loving the fact we could finally crack out our winter woolies.

Castlecomer

The night saw some amazingly diverse musicians take to the stage. From the blues guitar mastery of Nick Charles to the bluegrass mastery of The Company to the epic indie-folk of Castlecomer, the opening night threw up some of the festival’s most exciting acts and I was so lucky to be a part of it.

As always The Company were a highlight, effortlessly huddled around a single microphone creating some of the countries most beautiful music. I’ve seen The Company live so many times but they never fail to amaze me – both their expert musical craft and their charismatic stage presence make their their performances must-see at any event.

The Company

Saturday morning presented a much drier, more bustling festival with locals, Sydney-siders and more making their way through the gates. There was a palpable buzz in the air all around Katoomba as the cafes and bakery filled to overflowing with punters fortifying themselves for the day of music ahead.

Rowena Wise

And what a day of music it was. Before my food poisoning got the better of me I managed to catch sets from Leah Flanagan in fine full band form, the incomparable old timey charms of The Whitetop Mountaineers (with special guest fiddle from The Company’s George Jackson), stunning singer-songwriter Rowena Wise and the blues mastery of Phil Wiggins and Dom Turner.

The Whitetop Mountaineers, favourites of the Australian folk festival circuit, were by far the highlights. Their simple, home town approach to bluegrass and old timey sucks the audience in and keeps them mesmerised throughout their set. And watching Martha Spencer clog dance is just a treat.

Whitetop Mountaineers

The Blue Mountains Music Festival seems to have found the perfect balance. Wedging itself between the Port Fairy and National Folk Festival/Bluesfest guarantees a high calibre of artists not normally seen at a small town event. And its proximity to Sydney makes it easy for day trippers or weekend getaways from the big city. But it still feels like an intimate, community focused event, probably because it’s mostly set on the grounds of a school and the local volunteers are front and centre.

If you’ve never been been to the Blue Mountains Music Festival then I suggest next March you make the trek up the mountains just to see what all the fuss is about.

12 Hours at the 2015 Illawarra Folk Festival

Illawarra Folk Festival
Image Courtesy of Illawarra Folk Festival

Every year as my train pulls away from Bulli station after another successful tilt at the Illawarra Folk Festival I promise myself “next year will be the year I come for the whole weekend, not just a day”.

Then when January finally rolls around again and my pockets are empty following the excess of the Christmas period I always find myself whittling down my expectations and deciding “just one day at Illawarra will do”.

But one day is never enough.

The Illawarra Folk Festival is no longer the little festival I first started going to when I moved to New South Wales 10 years ago. And 10 years ago it had already outgrown its life as a “little festival” having moved to Bulli from Jamberoo to accommodate a much larger audience. This year saw more than 11,000 people make their way through the gates of Bulli Showground proving once and for all that the Illawarra Folk Festival is one of the big guys.

There’s plenty of reasons why I’ve always loved Illawarra. The fact it’s an easy train ride from Sydney for one. It’s mid-January timing meaning it manages to attract the best talent from the New Year’s festivals for another. And that despite the fact that there were 11,000 people through the door I can spend my day walking around the site bumping into old friends, making new ones and feeling right at home.

This year I chose Sunday as my one day at Illawarra for no other reason than it fitted my schedule best and the timing of the final concert – around 6pm – meant I wouldn’t be ridiculously late home. I caught the first train down, rocking into the festival before 9am and before, it turns out, most of the music had started. I parked myself where I could see a blackboard session featuring Mandy Connell in the Tantric Turtle, studied the program intently and let the upcoming day wash over me.

And then I was off! Having just a day at the festival meant I needed to see as much as possible in a small amount of time. Anyone tracking my progress around the showground would have seen me almost running between venues, ducking in halfway into sets, saying g’day to the artists as they clambered off stage only to then piss-bolt to the next gig.

This sort of program onslaught meant I missed more than a few of the artists I wanted to see because of clashes including The Mae Trio, Cloudstreet, Fred Smith, Sparrow-Folk and Big Erle. It also meant I managed to catch snippets of artists that I originally didn’t have down on my list like the Tim Edey Trio as I cut through the Slacky Flat Bar on my way to another gig. Plus it meant that by the time I realised I should really eat something most of the stalls had shut up shop for the weekend and I was left with the option of chip-on-a-stick or a sandwich when I got home. I chose the latter.

But I did see some amazing music. And the variety! This is what is special about the Illawarra Folk Festival – in one moment you can watch a contemporary singer-songwriter like Joe Mungovan (who slipped a James Taylor number into his set because he felt is was the only folk song he knew), run between competing folk-punk shows from The Go Set, The Bottlers and Handsome Young Strangers (who were strangely playing at exactly the same time in different venues) or soak up the jazzed up trad of Stray Hens. Artistic director David De Santi is obviously a lover of folk music in all it’s various guises and this flows through to possibly the most eclectic lineup of any festival in Australia.

Of the international guests I was most impressed with Canadian trad trio The East Pointers and the Euro-Scottish folk of Black Market Tune. The former were just a powerhouse live – one of the tightest bands I’ve seen in a very long time and so charismatic! I can imagine they won the hearts of many young ladies in the audience and may even have inspired more than one person to pick up the tenor banjo (well, I was inspired, so that counts). The latter ingratiated themselves with the crowd with the simple charm and ability to switch their Austrian accents to Scottish brogue as their music demanded. I can’t recommend either of these bands enough.

The Stray Hens were my pick of the local acts. I’m sure I’ve seen these guys at The National before but this was the gig that truly made me fall in love with them. Mandy, Sally and Rowena (along with Richard and Ryan in their rhythm section) are interpreting and elevating traditional songs in a way I’m not seeing many Australian artists do and it’s mesmerising. Festival bookers take note – get the Stray Hens on your lineup or forever be sorry.

And then there’s Eric Bogle. I tried not to fill my Illawarra Folk Festival seeing artists I’d seen 100 times before but somehow I still managed to find myself in the Black Diamond Marquee listening to the songwriting legend. And he was everything you’d expect – funny, passionate, engaging and beautiful. When he played “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” introduced with an explanation that he’d been asked to sing the song at the Anzac Day 100 year anniversary sans the final verse (“bugger that”) it was just magic.

As the Finale Parade made it’s way through the Showground I ducked out of the festival and dragged myself up the road to catch the train back to Sydney, exhausted but ultimately satisfied. Once again the Illawarra Folk Festival had exceeded my expectations and left me wanting more – exactly what I want from a folk festival.

My train wound its way through the mountains back to the big smoke and I made a promise to myself – next year “next year will be the year I come for the whole weekend, not just one day”.

The Woodford Files 2014-15: Goodbye, Farewell and Amen (for 347 days…)

Woodford

Woven Cloud. Image courtesy of Woodford Folk Festival.

“I always judge a festival by its program. If a festival can’t attract big name acts, it’s not much good and I’m not much interested.”

I listened to my host as they opined their assessment criteria of a festival deserving of their attention.

Without much in the way of my comment. Certainly no critique or counterpoint from my way came.

I’m like that if I’m living temporarily under someone else’s roof. I listen and nod a lot. Even if I have strong opinions to the contrary, it usually takes a team of wild horses to extract them.

Here’s a case in point: The 2014-15 Woodford Folk Festival.

The Lettering House at Woodford Folk Festival

The Lettering House at Woodford Folk Festival

I only decided to go less than a month before it started. A Christmas to mid-January commitment in inner West Sydney had been cancelled on me at very late notice, so I immediately started planning for a passage to Woodfordia.

I applied for a media pass, about a week too late, as it happened. But it’s always good to know people who know other people, and when we’re all doing musical and arty things in similar spaces, good things can happen.

A media and adult season camping pass materialised before my e-eyes (one day as I was shooting pool against a formidable opponent in a Liverpool pub), and it was soon wagons north then north-west.

Who’s on first?

But here’s the thing: I just don’t have a program focus.

As in a focus on programmed artists.

I skimmed a few headliners and others about three days before kick-off, and only really seriously started looking at the performer list on Christmas night, as I was kicking my heels back in Bankstown, waiting for a share ride to materialise from Melbourne via the Eurobodalla Nature Coast, and thence to Kariong, Mermaid Beach and Woodfordia.

Oh, look. The Violent Femmes are coming! And Cat Empire. And Big Erle!!!!

Less is more

And here’s the thing. The presence of Big Erle from Illawarra, champions of the Bulli Heritage Hotel, the much smaller Illawarra Folk Festival, and the Corrimal Blues Stomp — that made me deliriously more happy than half the big name acts appearing.

When I found out on 2nd January that Big Erle were playing the Volunteer Party, I was in raptures.

Over the six full days of the festival proper (I had the wrong colour wrist-band for Boxing Day and was stopped at the frontier), I might have seen three brackets/sets/gigs from go to whoa.

The rest of the time was devoted to media: interviews, pictures, video and LOTS of post-production.

I mention this only to warn you: if you’ve come looking for an in-depth analysis of the performers at Woodford, you’ve like, totally so got the wrong guy, y’know!

Alex and Dani from Canada, Fine Earth Foods

Alex and Dani from Canada, Fine Earth Foods

It’s not Woodford per se; it’s you

Festivals for me are all about people.

The festival aficionados that you might only ever get to see once a year at thatfestival, or a number of specific festivals.

It’s the like-minded strangers who you make a connection with because you overhear them talking about Billy Bragg, or see them wearing the same eight-festivals-ago t-shirt that you had on yesterday, or there’s some other linking thing, tangible or ephemeral.

It’s the stallholders that you bond with over a beautifully-prepared Argentinian sausage combo, or stunning gemstone, or unusual item of dress.

Mostly, ze sausage, für better or wurst.

And for me, it’s definitely the random people you meet by pure accident and instantly click with.

I met one couple in the wonderful ornament to Woodford eateries that is Fine Earth Foods. And we engaged on the basis of he having heard me swear in Dutch as I put my gear down and slopped some tea. And that led to an in-depth chat about swearing around the world, language and accents, countries and culture.

Half an hour later as I walked off stage at The Poets’ Breakfast in The Duck, adrenaline coursing through my veins after a rather emotional reading, he was there at the next table to raise a hand and wordlessly high-five me into the middle of next week.

That’s a real festival vibe for me.

Woodford is…

A fit young woman in workout gear and masses of dreadlocks, running laps around the volunteer and overnight camping at six am.

Woodford is generally not…

Emergency services sirens, so it was a surprise to hear some on the first day zooming along the road to Beerwah. It was a one-off.

Into every festival…

Let’s name, identify, then push this elephant out of the room: yeah, it rained.

Quite a lot, actually.

I took a short video from the volunteers’ camp on the morning after the Fire Event in which I talk specifically about this and how some media outlets chose to make that the main (or main-ish) game in their reportage, initially. Ultimately,  I deleted it by mistake. Meh.

I won’t use the phrase I have for these media organs (lol), but let’s just say it rhymes with ‘truck bits’.

You see, after the volunteers, and organisers, and performers, and contractors, and stallholders, and visiting dignitaries — they gots to sell some tickets to some paying punters, and focussing on inclement weather is enough to put off some of the less resilient in the muggle community. And the choir we usually preach to as well who were maybe only coming for a day.

/off soapbox.

Though it did occur to me that Woofordians may have as many words for rain as Eskimos have for snow.

Home away from home

Home away from home

Have you got a dollar?

For me, the tone was set for my whole Woodford on the first full day of the program when I was stood at the counter of Fine Earth Foods, ruminating on what a pot of tea might cost.

Not seeing any signs and wondering if I needed to go back to my table to get extra, I turned to ask the woman stood next to me. She wasn’t sure, despite counting her own change having just bought a cup herself.

As I stood looking at my $3.15 and surmising I might need extra, there was suddenly a loud clink as an extra dollar dropped into my open palm of change.

Thank you, Anna of Bodypeace Bamboo Clothing. That simple exchange put me in a ridiculously good mood and set the tone for the next days, which I invariably started with a pot of tea at Phil and Michelle’s wonderful venue.

I sat there most days powerless, having run down my phones overnight. On the second last day, I saw the charging bay.

On the last day, I found out they ran 24hrs.

Overheard in the café

“Did you go to bed at all last night?”

“Over six days, typically not!”

Forging meaningful relationships

Woodford is a locality with a lot of love in the room. And most are in a laid back mood.

On the first day I ran into one of my Bankstown to Woodfordia travel companions in the company of a gorgeous young blonde.

Me: “Hi, I’m Bill.”

Her: “Hi Bill. I’m Dionysiaque.”

Him: “Thanks for that. Now I know her name!”

[He cops a whack for his comment.]

Him [winking]: “On no, it’s Diane!”

Which it was, I may never know.

What time is it?

Having differentiated myself from 96.36% of musos for 9.36 years as a watch-wearer, it’s a lifelong habit that’s left the building.

Time is a take it or leave it concept at Woodford. Important if you need to be at a venue (to perform or punt). Important if you’re a worker or volunteer and have shifts to get too.

Pretty arbitrary for others.

“Is that the time?”
“No, time is an abstract concept. That’s a wrist-watch.”
(Douglas Adams.)

Or as I was asked on one of those powerless morning tea times (of the soul):

“Do you have the time?”
“No, it’s one thing I don’t have.”

Garbage

One morning, I had a lovely chat with Stuart and Sue, volunteer garbologists from Hervey Bay.

They’d been meaning to come for years, wanted to volunteer, and ‘wanted to do something useful but didn’t want to have to boss younger people around’.

Their son suggested a great idea: street cleaners. Two hours of dedicated cleaning in the morning with a roving commission to clear any rubbish they saw at other times.

And how clean are the crowds?

“Woodford people are generally pretty good. Plus when they see us keeping the place clean, they tend to follow suit.”

Stuart was easily distinguishable by his attractive neck tie of a display of what items go into which bin.

Tokyo Bar

Tokyo Bar

Serious about Woodford

Overheard in the bar.

“I’m taking it serious this year. I even brought glasses and a highlighter this year.”

Overheard in a Morrocan tent on Day One

“Gee, there are a lot of people here!”

Strap yourself in for New Year’s Eve, then.

Not all baristas are town criers

The new chai tent is Melbourne-based Holy Cow. Some pined for the old chai tent, now the Pineapple Lounge.

I quite like the new one.

But the barista didn’t quite have the pipes to cut through the crowd noise for coffee pick-ups.

“Amanda. Amanda. Amanda.”

“Mate, you need a bass-baritone,” observed one scruffy wag waiting for his coffee. Probably me.

“Yeah, I guess we do.”

Right.

“AMANDA!!!!!!!!”

Pigeons flew off the guy ropes, tent poles rattled, and coffee cups danced on their racks.

“Wow, thanks mate. You’re hired!”

Still no Amanda.

An elder woman passed, touched my elbow and winked as she said, “You realise she’s probably too embarrassed and has left now!”

Family Outings

Family Outings

Giving the wandering minstrels some love

I forget which band it was, but a travelling group playing in Bill’s Bar told of how they realised on the plane they’d not brought linen, a requirement of their accommodation.

They mentioned this to the cabin attendant who became very excited to hear of musos headed to Woodford.

They were told to go to the Hungarian Bakery where a family member would see them right, were provided with some airline linen, and two bottles of Shiraz for good measure.

Nice.

Ad nauseum

This article does go on, and so do I.

With pages in my notebook to go, and with the Sunshine Coast mozzies and other insects taking chunks from my flesh, Ill rule a thick line under Woodford Folk Festival 2014-15, unquestionably my favourite festival of any genre of of all time, and leave you with some greatest hits.

Favourite gig: Trouble in the Kitchen, Concert, New Year’s Day.

Favourite perfomer: See above.

Memorable moment: Seeing David Francey sing “The Lock-Keeper” live.

Song for Woodford 2014-15: “Little Bag” by Lucy Wise Trio.

Place I’d choose to be other than Woodford: yeah, right. No.

See you on: 27 December 2015.

Review: BIGSOUND 2014, A Folkie’s Perspective

All Our Exes

It’s been a few days since I wearily boarded a flight at Brisbane to wend my way home after BIGSOUND and only now am I finally returning to reality. 2014 was my first BIGSOUND and I didn’t really know what to expect – only that my friends in the music industry told me I had to go. As a folkie I kind of expected to be out on the fringes of the festival while all the cool kids compared synth lines and the like, but truth be told I came away feeling a big part of this thing we call the Australian music industry and excited about what the future holds music in this country.

BIGSOUND is whatever you make of it” a friend had told me. “Decide what you want to get out of it before you go and then concentrate on that”. It was good advice as the avalanche of things to do, people to see and parties to get into was overwhelming for a first time BIGSOUND-er like me. So I mapped out my days based on artists I wanted to interview, industry folks I wanted to meet and gigs (both unofficial and official) I wanted to attend. And here’s what I got out of the event:

Music Music Music

Ruby Boots

With over 140 bands officially showcasing at BIGSOUND Live this year and a bunch of auxiliary, unofficial gigs happening around the place we definitely weren’t hard up for music. Most of the acoustic artists were centred around the stage at The Press Club but there was plenty of folk, blues, roots and country happening at most of the other showcase venues as well.

On the first night I managed to catch All Our Exes Live in Texas, Steve Smyth, The Tiger and Me, Spookyland, Rob Moir, Ruby Boots and Brad Butcher. Steve Smyth would have to have been the highlight for me – his wall-of-sound blues and roots style was just transfixing and he definitely lived up to the hype. Spookyland were a little more indie-rock and a little less folk than I expected them to be but definitely worth checking out. Ruby Boots (above) was probably one of my favourite acts of the entire week with Bex Chilcott’s voice in fine form.

Night two was meant to be the night I just parked myself at the Press Club and let the bands come to me, but I ended up running around just as much as the first night catching the likes of Fraser A. Gorman, Jordan Klassen, Sweet Jean, The Pierce Brothers, Harmony James and Marlon Williams. It was Marlon Williams that had been getting the most hype (contributed to by myself) throughout the week so it was great to see him pack in the crowd even as the last act of the night. The Pierce Brothers absolutely killed their set at The Zoo and Fraser A. Gorman was a highlight at The Black Bear Lodge.

The two artists I “stumbled” across without any intention of seeing at BIGSOUND were Canadians Rob Moir and Jordan Klassen. The former, a post-punk acoustic singer-songwriter in the vein of Frank Turner, wowed the relatively small crowd at Ric’s Bar with his brash stage presence and in-your-face lyrical style. Klassen on the other hand made some really sweet indie-folk sounds with the help of backing vocals from Jocelyn Price and plenty of ukulele and acoustic guitars. Both very interesting artists and I’m extremely glad I made the time to check them out.

After the Party There’s the After Party

Shane Nicholson

Along with the official showcases there were a bunch of after-parties dotted all over the city that people were scrambling to get tickets to. For me there was only one party to get into – The Lost Highway Country and Inner Western show at Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall.

Featuring sets from The Morrisons, Eddie Boyd and the Phatapillars, All Our Exes Live in Texas, Marlon Williams, Shane Nicholson (above), Ruby Boots and Laura Zarb, the night was a blur of jamming, whiskey, bluegrass and country music. Lost Highway Records is the new(ish) Americana and alt-country label from Universal Music and they definitely chose some of Australia’s finest for their BIGSOUND party. The following days, as the stories emerged it was clear this was one of the after-parties to be at. I won’t recount them here – you’ll have to ask me in person.

I also have to send a big shout out to Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall which is one of the best venues I have been to in Australia. There needs to be a Lefty’s in every state!

Interviews

Having the music industry converge on Brisbane gave me a good chance to interview a bunch of artists I’d been meaning to for ages, as well as some new artists I’m really excited about. In the coming weeks prepare to catch chats with Tom West, Brad Butcher, Bree De Rome, Sweet Jean, The Pierce Brothers, All Our Exes Live in Texas, Ruby Boots and Marlon Williams right here on Timber and Steel.

The Battle for Country Music

While I wasn’t really in town for the conference itself (I only had a ticket to the BIGSOUND Live, not for any of the panels) but I managed to sneak into what turned out to be one of the most interesting, and least reported on sessions of the week – The Battle for Country Music. Facilitated by Scott Fitzsimons from theMusic.com.au the panel featured country artist manager Dan Biddle (The McClymonts, Adam Eckersley Band), artists Bex Chilcott (Ruby Boots), Shane Nicholson and Luke O’Shea (who is also Councillor for Country Music on the Music Council of Australia) and Universal Music Managing Director Michael Taylor.

The panel managed to cover off the divide between the mainstream, “Tamworth” country scene and the alt-country/Americana scene, whether “country” is a dirty word in Australia (most agreed it isn’t or at least shouldn’t be), what the options are for artists that aren’t considered upper tier country acts, how to get country music played on mainstream radio and the Golden Guitars’ narrow-minded view of country music.

Some golden nuggets from the panel included Dan Biddle proclaiming that “there’s a golden age of country music about to happen in Australia” and that Tamworth should move to Sydney for a year (which he later clarified as meaning we need a Tamworth size event in Sydney to get the mainstream industry interested in country music) and Shane Nicholson telling it how it is by saying “It’s ludicrous that there’s even a debate about what is and isn’t country”.

I wish the panel had gone on for hours more as there’s so much to talk about on the topic (and I definitely talked with the panelists after the panel long into the night). I also wish there’d been someone from the mainstream radio community – either the triple j set or the commercial operators – as at times the panel was a little too insular with everyone being from the country music “scene”.

It’s nice to see this kind of discussion taking place at BIGSOUND, that music outside of what’s played on triple j, is being talked about. Surely this means next year we’ll have a bluegrass panel!

Meet and Greet

A big part of BIGSOUND was actually managing to meet a bunch of people in the industry and putting names to faces. I’m not a big self promotor (I’m more comfortable being the guy standing at the back of the room listening to music than introducing myself to the band) but when you’re surrounded by hundreds of music lovers it’s hard not to strike up a conversation. I got to meet a few of my heroes, a few people in the industry I have so much respect for and more than a few Timber and Steel fans. When one unnamed festival promoter told me to “email me your band’s music” I realised how draining all of the meet and greets were on some people, but I actually really loved it.

Coming away from BIGSOUND I am a convert. This was a music conference and festival not just for the cool kids – there was space for this folkie as well. I made the event my own and came away feeling like I’m part of a larger music industry, not just the guy who writes about banjos in his bedroom. Would I recommend BIGSOUND to other aspiring folk writers, musicians and promotors? Absolutely.

See you next year BIGSOUND!

Splendid Splendour

Splendid crop - SITG by A CattPhoto by A. Catt

Having never been to a Splendour but having been to a great number of other festivals up and down the eastern seaboard, I can say I went in with a particular set of expectations and was delighted to have many of those absolutely smashed by my Splendour in the Grass experience.

The venue itself is huge and surprisingly well laid out and the flow of the nearly 30,000 punters was so smooth that I could have been forgiven thinking the numbers were less. Except for when we saw any of the amazing acts, then it became abundantly clear that the festival was at capacity with thousands of very happy festival goers rocking out at any given stage.

This year’s line up offered a great variety, so much so that there really were three distinct precincts within the site that allowed people to hang around stages that floated their genre boats.

The Timber and Steel friendly acts were evenly spread across the three main days and over two of the main three stages, so lets take a look at the folkier side of Splendour in the Grass.

Friday.

Photo by Justin Ma.
sitg14_HeadAndTheHeart_justinma-28The first act we caught was The Head and The Heart who delivered a really tight set and hearty performance for what was a modest crowd. “Ghosts” showed off their great harmonies in the live setting and the audience was treated to loads of favourites throughout their set list.  They were a solid start to the festival and I feel like loads of people missed out by not catching them. They don’t often get to come to Australia so they profusely thanked the crowd for coming to watch to much cheering and applause from said crowd. They tried out a new song with a bouncy tempo and happy vibe which was all very well received. “Sound Like Hallelujah” created a chilled vibe but with an immensely satisfying full sound. “Lost In My Mind” drew a rousing cheer from audience as it begun and took over the space with great drum build up before the crowd took over with a sing-along. The last song was an emphatic rendition of “Rivers and Roads” complete with epic drums thumping before stripping back to a delicate a Capella ending. And tumultuous applause.

We checked out Asgier, who has cropped up on the scene while I was away, but who commanded a huge and somewhat vocal crowd, all comfortably held in the palm of his hand. They sang along in crystal clarity. They swayed, sang, cheered and danced through a beautifully balanced set of both chilled tracks and up tempo songs. His popularity is clear as a really responsive crowd eagerly anticipated every song, with cheers of recognition in each of the opening bars and a seemingly constant surge forward of people to join the throng. “Going Home” delivered a beautiful mix of earthy drums, clear cut piano and haunting vocals undercut by subtle harmonies. The entire tent would clap along at poignant points of a slow song before the whole vibe would morph through the build up to a huge all encompassing piano and drums sound sphere. And to top it off, he pulled out a stunning cover of “Heart Shaped Box”, wow, just wow! His manipulation of piano and chillingly delicate treatment of vocals had everyone hanging on every lyric and every note. Definitely worth seeing any time you can.

We’ve all been hotly anticipating the return of Angus and Julia Stone and they did not disappoint. Starting with some of their new stuff, their set came wrapped in schmick presentation with a tight and polished sound with an obvious comfort on stage, oozing cool. Their new music is a few more steps away from the folky sound they originally brought to the scene and accomplishes a more indie vibe. While the crowd lapped up the new materials, it’s the old favourites so many know and love that really stirred the crowd with mega sing-along to “For You” melding beautifully with the song’s acoustic style. Julia seems really strong and playful in her style rather than the breathy, demure self we’ve known, which was a lovely counterpoint to previous performances. As an alternate opening and sound for “Big Jet Plane” dawned on the crowd, it was clear that their Hottest 100 winning track will always be a staple, crowd favourite that they are so comfortable playing and can completely turn on its head for both our and their pleasure. Their playfulness with their back catalogue was evident and jovial, with “Private Lawns” amping up the reggae vibe and syncopation. Julia pulled out a brilliant performance of “You’re The One That I Want” capturing the audience’s imagination with it’s fragility, building in to a full band resonance that proves they really own it as their own track now, it is no longer a cover. And if that wasn’t enough, they proved without a doubt that “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”! A rousing set and a great way to welcome Angus and Julia Stone back in to the festival rounds.

Saturday.

One of the great things about Splendour in the Grass is the sheer space available to absorb the almost 30,000 punters that flock to Byron Bay in search of great music and a good time. Aside from the 3 main stages, there’s a multitude of smaller spaces where all manner of performances take place, from the exciting extravagance of the colourful Dr Sketchy’s Burlesque Life Drawing, to the ukulele classes, to the buskers stage and its revolving selection of grunge, blues, roots, rock and alt bands, even dancing to the wee hours of the morning at the Tipi Forest full of dance DJs and electronica.

Amish Crop - SITG by ACatt_Saturday107Photo by A. Catt

Probably my favourite small (and surprising) space was the Amish Barn. In 2013, artist Bennet Miller ran a live installation called Barnraiser, where volunteers dressed as Amish people to raise a Barn. I kid you not. And this year, since the barn is complete, they opened it to the Splendour patrons for Rumspringer. Walk in to the barn at any point in the day and not only were you surrounded by Amish folk relaxing and enjoying the weather, but you could buy a drink from the bar and catch snippets of their pop-up bands playing folk in a ‘session’ style, or playing heavy rock like they were in their Barn’s garage band.

The sheer diversity of Splendour makes it an amazing experience. I hope to see the Amish again soon.

I haven’t seen anything of Darren Middleton’s new solo offerings, but as a Powderfinger fan, I was keen to see what he was serving up. As a duo with a stripped back setting on an enormous stage, their acoustic opening of guitar accompanied by violin and stomp pedal surrounded the small crowd with beautiful two part harmonies. Middleton is a humble performer, thanking the audience for coming to see him as he has played Splendour approximately 10 times in different acts, which must be some kind of record, and this time he plays it with his musical off-sider, Kelly. Picking through a back catalogue of numerous bands meant that the set was diverse and varied but sewn together with clever harmonies and a pristine acoustic style. His tracks from recent solo album, “Transition”, demonstrated the intimacy of close harmonies, plucky violin, upbeat acoustic guitar and stomp pedal in a big stage setting.  While touring, they have taken to playing a cover, a track Middleton never thought he would play again, “Falling Slowly” from the movie musical Once which drew a hush over the crowd and the occasional quiet lyrics sung along by individuals in the crowd. Middleton is currently touring with Busby Marou, and with such a solid set from Middleton, the tour will be a strong 1-2 combination definitely worth catching.

Camp Walkway - SITG by LachlanJohnstonPhoto by Lachlan Johnstone

Little May was new to me and they struck me as a sort of a combination of Lisa Mitchell, Gosling and Julia Stone all wrapped up in an indie pop 5 piece. They delivered great sound and a solid stage presence with a range of tracks including a rockier number with fabulous femme vocal harmonies.

Dustin Tebbutt drew a huge crowd in anticipation of his set. Opening with an ethereal quality and acoustic guitar built over top, he looked comfortable surrounded by his band creating a sensational blanket of music and melding sound. They make a cohesive group working together to scale the emotive heights of his body of work through the sweet ballads to the poignant numbers and his flawless falsetto. Tebbutt has the makings of a true balladeer. 12 months ago he was in Armidale planning to come to Splendour, and just starting to put out music. Sadly he wasn’t able to make it to Splendour that year but a friend reassured him not to worry, as next year he’d be playing Splendour. And there he was. The crowd loved it.

Tune Yards were a wild card on our list and if folkies wanted to go clubbing, this is what they’d see. Layered sounds and folky instruments looped to create danceable tracks and quirky grooves creating a somewhat “tribal tea party” soundtrack. They slip through genres, even the rnb and hip hop styles, with confidence and flair. In a nutshell, they are weird and quirky folktronica!

VanceJoy_SITG_26JUL2014_StephenBooth-56Vance Joy. Photo by Stephen Booth

Vance Joy has the potential to be a one hit wonder or a rising star and attracted a huge crowd to prove it. The audience were animated and engaged throughout, a sure sign of good things to come. With a full band behind him, new tracks like “Georgia” soared as a ballad with beautiful accompaniment, a troubled love song. His set was full of sing-a-long’s with the audience including “Snaggletooth” and “From Afar” proving popular. Special guests from Sasquatch created a hullabaloo on stage with a full, robust sound, tangy horn section, altogether a bit like a hoe down vibe a la Mumford and Sons. New songs and old songs, everything was eagerly devoured by the devoted audience. Huge cheers and clapping along carried him on high throughout his set, and then, out came the ukelele to a huge roar from the crowd who sang along, word for word. He wrapped up the set with a cover of “Stand by me” to an enthusiastic crowd. Definitely a star rising performance.

Sunday.

BallParkMusic_SITG2014_StephenBooth-2Photo by Stephen Booth

This year was the first year the site featured the enormous amphitheater, and while punters complained about the huge hill to scale, the reward of that stage was worth all the huffing and puffing to get there. We realised that the amphitheater was large enough to contain the entire main stages area of The Falls Festival, Lorne and the absolute scale of the space really hit home. While the Timber and Steel friendly acts were predominantly on the GW McLennan stage, the entire festival benefits from the innovations and expansion of the site.

Nick Mulvey, SITG_2014-1Nick Mulvey. Photo by Splendour Official

Nick Mulvey is someone I was told to keep an eye out for. An expectant audience gathered early with eager fans right up at the barrier claiming their spot. A small but dedicated crowd cheered him as he walked on stage. He opened with amazing classical guitar work, reminiscent of flamenco, and a really sweet voice with a low level resonance. As a soloist, his guitar style and confident voice really filled the space. The audience had tripled in size halfway through the first song, with a steady stream of people still coming in. Transitioning to a more bluesy, plucking style effortlessly for his next song showed off his diverse range and skill. He creates a really amazing presence through one instrument with really cool syncopation for emphasis and effect. With the crowd swaying along fluidly and the playful lyrics beckoning, I think every girl there wanted to do as his lyrics asked, and maybe some of the guys too… As his first trip as a solo artist to Australia and he could see a few people singing along and it’s obvious he is genuinely flattered by the audience appreciation which is evident throughout the set. Mulvey will be a force to be reckoned with on the scene. Watch this space!

Mikhail Paskalev is a Norwegian/ Bulgarian pop troubador by all accounts, and has a real mix of styles and variety of songs in his back catalogue which had the crowd pumping. He gave a very chilled out and mellow set with a woven sound of thrumming bass and vocal harmonies. Certainly a multifaceted act to look further in to.

I had heard of First Aid Kit, but hadn’t caught up with any of their music until Splendour. Their clear, crisp vocals attracted a decent sized crowd, complete with sparklers and incense. They have a beautiful on stage energy and presence and a light, airy delightful sound with an indie pop beat keeping it all trundling along. With a cover of Paul Simon and the occasional Carpenters-esque sound, their set was rounded out with a tinkly, delightful, angelic melding of voices and harmonies, even for their upbeat tracks.

Ben Howard, SITG_2014-3Ben Howard. Photo by Splendour Official

Rarely have I ever seen a folky act that the crowd chants their name to get them to come on stage, but it worked and Ben Howard presented himself, centre stage with steel string guitar and a cheeky “G’day Splendour!” He instantly had the crowd beside themselves. His set was peppered with a bit of everything, something a little poppy, something a little indie, something bordering on a Placebo track, and a great blend of indie pop layers and strings. A plucky rendition of “Black Flies” had the crowd going mid way through the set. I felt like sometimes his music and performance was moody introversion on public display but then a quick switch would see the entire set move in direction. The upbeat, twangy riffs of “The Wolves” had the crowd cheering and clapping, singing along, rallying the entire tent and surrounds to an almost frenzied state of hoe down style dance. Truly a highlight of Splendour.

All in all, if I could have cloned myself, I could have had 3 or 4 entirely different Splendour experiences – from the Splendour in the Craft tent and it’s Craft singles speed dating event, to the comedy and forum stage, to the crazy fashions punters strut in, the art installations and amazing range of bars with their own DJs and themes, or spending a fortune at the amazing array of stalls selling handmade and bespoke coolness in all it’s forms – each experience would have been just as amazing (plus I could have seen far more of the amazing musical line up). But in a nutshell, I think the 2014 Splendour in the Grass is quite possibly the best festival I have been too. Do anything you can to get to the next one, it’s truly Splendid!

Splendour crop - SITG by LachlanJohnstonPhoto by Lachlan Johnstone

Review: St Jeromes Laneway Festival Sydney, A Folkie’s Perspective

Laneway Festival
Image Courtesy of St Jeromes Laneway Festival

Ever since the St Jeromes Laneway Festival booked Mumford and Sons for their 2010 event right before they became the world dominating band they are today I’ve been a fan. My friends had been telling me to go for a few years prior but it was the 2010 lineup – that also included Sarah Blasko, The Middle East and Florence and the Machine – plus its move to the Sydney College of the Arts venue that clinched it for me. While Laneway is an indie festival at heart it always brings me back for the smattering of folky, acoustic goodness that features on the lineup each and every year

As I wandered into the newly extended Callan Park venue is Rozelle the sweet sounds of Little May filtered over the treetops from the Garden Stage. I’m really proud of these guys – a firm Timber and Steel favourite – for the trajectory their musical career is taking at the moment. Their appearance at Laneway came as a result of taking out the triple j Unearthed and while their early opening spot meant the crowds were no where near as big as they would be later in the day, there was a definite buzz around the park for Little May. A couple of years ago Tigertown had the same slot and it just seems like the perfect way to ease you into Laneway – there’s nothing like the mid morning sun, finding your festival bearings and listening to indie-folk.

Next on my “to see” was Cass McCombs, an artist I have a passing knowledge of but whom many of my peers rave about. Standing in the exposed Courtyard Stage (the limited shade of the peppercorn tree was already well populated) I listened to the American singer-songwriter make his way through a set of country inspired rock tunes. I thought the same thing when I saw Jake Bugg at Splendour in the Grass last year – what Cass McCombs presented was good, I just don’t think it was any better or any more deserving of a place on the Laneway stage than any of the hundreds of country-inspired singer-songwriters I see playing to half empty clubs around the country every week. His talent is obvious, his performance was solid and there were a few people really excited about his set (the guy next to me turned to me unsolicited and said “Who is this? It’s great! So country!”) but for the most part I failed to see what the buzz was about.

From the Cass McCombs set we made our way to hill overlooking the side-by-side Garden and Park stages to catch an afternoon of folky goodness from Vance Joy, Frightened Rabbit and Daughter. I really like the way that Laneway Festival has expanded outside of the walls of the Sydney College of the Arts and into Callan Park for the “main” stages rather than cramming everyone into what is now the Courtyard Stage. Having the elevation of the hill rolling down into the stages was superb, allowing us “older” patrons to have a bit of a sit down on the grass with a clear view of the stage while the young’uns danced up a storm at the front. I hope this is extension of the festival grounds is here to stay – and that the council is listening!

Vance Joy was the man of the hour when he walked on stage in front of a massive crowd for his 2:30pm set. I’d seen him last year at Splendour in the Grass at the height of his “Riptide” stardom and it looks as though he has his festival performance – with his full band behind him – down to a perfect science. Kicking off with God Loves You When You’re Dancing opener “Emmylou” and then deftly moving through the rest of his EP throughout his set Vance Joy had the crowd jumping and singing in the afternoon sun. When the ukulele appeared for “Play With Fire” the crowd went wild, a state of excitement they managed to maintain as Vance Joy wrapped up proceedings with “Riptide”. I think the crowd might have been bigger later in the day when Lorde performed her highly anticipated set, but the energy during Vance Joy’s appearance would not be replicated for the rest of the festival.

Next up were Frightened Rabbit who have managed to shake their comparison Mumford and Sons (which seems solely based on front man Scott Hutchison’s rythmic acoustic guitar sound) and instead earning their reputation as an amazing live band. For a group that boasts more guitarists than is usually recommended Frightened Rabbit still manage to make their sound melodic, complex and layered. This isn’t just a wall of sound, it’s a considered presentation of songs with every instrument playing its part. Hutchison’s reputation as a mouthy Scotsman was fully realised with plenty of in between song banter, berating of the audience and swearing in that charming way that only a Scotsman can. A fantastic performance and the perfect follow on from the sweet folk of Vance Joy.

I’ve been following a writing about Daughter since they first popped up as part of the Communion scene in 2011. Their simple instrumentation – vocals, guitars and percussion – lends itself very well to the indie-folk scene but in truth these guys have firmly moved on from any folk roots they may have once had and have more in common with bands like The XX and Alt-J. I still thoroughly enjoyed their Laneway set as the sun dipped behind the college and the intense heat of the day started to abate. Drawing heavily from their 2013 album If You Leave – which in turn draws heavily from their earlier EPs – Daughter definitely won over the crowd with select cuts like “Youth” and “Amsterdam”.

Daughter were the last of the folkier bands on the line – despite the recent announcement of an acoustic tour Cloud Control have long since shed any folk leanings – so we settled in at the Garden and Park stages and watched the crowds ebb and flow while the likes of Lorde, Haim, Chvrches and The Jezabels played on. I love this festival for so many reasons – its location in Sydney’s inner-west away from the bigger parks and stadiums, its ability to book acts like Lorde and Vance Joy before they’re massive, the relaxed vibe of the bigger stages, the fact I could sit on the grass and enjoy the music – and I’m so glad that indie-folk is still an important part of it. As long as Laneway is able to maintain this quality, both in lineup and presentation, they’ll have me as a lifetime fan.

Review: The Falls Festival, Marion Bay, Tasmania

Ponchos are the latest fashionPhotos by Stu B.

So now to the fun bit, the music!

Day 2, Monday 30th December, rolled around and as we planned our day, we were a bit excited about some unknowns and some stalwart festival acts, it was going to be a great day.

First up, on the Field Stage, at a very reasonable lunch hour was local Foster a Band competition winner Lulu an The Paige Turners. Knowing little but what I gleaned from the Falls Festival App description, I was hopeful for something interesting, lo and behold, the Paige-Turners turned out to be a bigger than expected group of young men, resplendent in white dress shirts, black suspenders and bowties complete with drums, cello, banjo, acoustic guitar, keyboard and who knows what else! Lulu herself stepped on to stage looking like she stepped out of an old timey movie in a frilled lavender dress that would either float beautifully or become her own personal parachute in the windy conditions. Obviously a lot of friends were in the crowd, or at least local and loyal fans, as many shouts of encouragement met them before they even played a note.

Lulu and The Paige Turners Opening with ‘Begin-agains’ from their EP Bookends and Begin-again delivered a strong, strummy guitar intro, quivering vocals, subtle backing harmonies and touches of a soul pitch to her vocals. It’s a very indie pop style but very easy to lose yourself in. To follow up their opening, the slower track, ‘The Mean Reds’ also from the EP mellowed out the audience, becoming solemn at times. With a strong banjo melody and sweet, hushed tones of the harmonies, it was more like the lullaby style we’ve seen from a number of singer/songwriters but with a surprise build with drum and electric bass almost reminiscent of a Mumford and Sons hoedown.

The rest of her set was equally diverse with bluesy bass lines, cool vibes, raspy, rolling, gravely gutsy verses, sentiments stripped down to a Capella accompanied by clicks and whistling, and of course, many a banjo solo from probably the happiest Banjo player I’ve seen of late.

It’s a wonderful mix on stage, of piano intros, rhythm on a snare drum played by Lulu, tales of a broken heart, dischordant harmonies to really set the tone, not to be out done by angsty, angry, passionate vocals. Lulu is a multi-instrumentalist playing percussion, guitar and violin, but also delivering vocals reminiscent of Kate Miller Heidke or Tori Amos. All of this she achieves while also performing with a cold that would likely render her voiceless after her set.

Well in with the audience, they brought out a brand new song, ‘Bright Eyes’, a song she was not sure what it was actually about but “sometimes the universe gives you a song for a reason”. Beautiful lightly treated, stripped back sound with just the simplest of accompaniment graced the enraptured field. Their musicianship was all about the lyric weaving it’s way across the melody, and the 3 piece harmonies by the Paige-Turners with room for an instrumental break and some epic violin by Lulu, like she and it had a private dance to complete. ‘A Little Secret’ changed the mood, with a very country feel to the full instrumental sound and beat yet cleverly walked the fine line mixing between full sound and stripped back line “little secret”. Amusingly, keyboard and the banjo had almost a russian dance off mid song.

Their final song was full of thanks and appreciation for the crowds support, and delivered their first single release, a definite favourite, ‘The Music Box’. A stuccato piano intro, great harmony based vocals  and full band sound behind string and catchy melody had us all nodding to the beat. There was even an instrumental break showcasing the cello and of course a huge violin presence Lulu in breaks. I found it really catchy and could easily hum it all day with it’s killer vocals, Lulu’s passionate stage presence, it all makes for a warning: keep an eye out, Lulu and the Paige-Turners should take stages by storm.

Big Scary at Falls Festival Marion BayWe popped over to the Valley stage to check out Big Scary with their big piano and drum sound and 2 part harmonies. They’re certainly genre-defying and on the Falls stage, combining their slow piano stylings with heavy base and drums, created an ethereal quality to their set and sound. A really pleasant poppy, chill out band for the setting and time.

Paper Kites at the Falls Festival Marion BayWe headed back to the Field stage to catch The Paper Kites and watching their band tune a banjo, it struck me that I wanted to renaming this stage the Banjo Stage! It’s always promising when a banjo is sound checked, almost guaranteed a good hoedown. The five piece, opened with a strong drum beat/line and mellow guitar over the top and calm vocals wafting on the breeze. The crowd grew quickly, attracted to their ethereal indie quality. Their set saw great cohesion of vocal and instruments, working as one, blending when needed, separating when wanted.

They played “Young”, a more synth based track with finger plucking strings over the top. There was a steady crowd dancing up the front, from within, someone releases glitter across the top of the crowd and it floated over them much like the lyrics and vocals. A very mellow set with a solid under current of instrumental indie cool.

At times their set is airy, with floaty piano intros and breathy yet strong vocals. Other times, like when playing “Bloom”, an older song that the crowd can sing along too, a more plucky vibe sets the the crowd screaming and intensifies the atmosphere while still delivering beautiful harmonies that even a crowd can carry. Then they effortlessly add drums and banjo to truly catchy effect. I love the whistling break, crowd tried to whistle along and ended up sounding like drunk birds.

Their new song, “Cold Kind Hand”, is a more indie rock vibe with the femanine vocals playing beautifully off the big earthy drums beats. Staying true to their sound, their new stuff is as equally welcome as their old stuff. Take that Regurgitator.

James Vincent McMorrow at Falls Festival Marion BayI’m a complete novice when it comes to  James Vincent McMorrow, so when we headed to the Valley stage to catch his set, I was delighted to see a crowd had already formed, eagerly anticipating his set. Walking on stage to a rousing welcome from the audience, McMorrow opened with his breathtaking falsetto, reminiscent of early Matt Corby ethereal vocals, over simple piano chords, building to a faster speed with clapping, percussion and backing vocals. I saw in an instant the appeal and why so many are clamouring for his music. The crowd continued to stream in to the field as overall sound, now filled with bass to round out the effect, rolled up the ampitheatre. His voice delivers tones of Bon Iver but devled deeper within himself, ultimately creating an earthy, grounded effect.

His set celivered variety, with synth beat under harmonised vocals, the simplicity and stripped back nature of which was mezmerising. He is skilled at gently bringing new instruments in to the tracks, I didn’t even notice the piano build in to one song, and yet it ended solely on a tight vocal/piano harmony. He claimed nervousness as it had been a year and a half since his last big performance. He merely hoped his nerves were endearing, but to everyone present, not a nervous moment had been witnessed. Launching back in to his moody and soft, almost tentative vocals and delicious piano, echoing drum beats herald crowd favourites and everyone is lost in the performance.

London Grammar at Falls Festival Marion BayI’m one of those people who has heard of London Grammar, and has probably even heard their hits, but having been a bit of a musical hermit of late, I was keen to catch them in full swing on the Valley stage. The haunting intro and her voice flowing off the stage accompanied by keyboard and little else told me I was in for a wonderful show. “Hey Now” had a hypnotic effect on every member of the audience, ending in the kind of silence where you can hear a pin drop. And then there was the rapturous applause.

I can see why Hannah has been compared to Florence Welsh and Kate Bush, her voice dominates over the bass, electric guitar and djembe. But, not just a beautiful voice, she can take on the keys, build a melody that emerges alone only to wend through her soulful, lilting lyrics. She is a statuesque leading lady, yet manages stillness, poise, focus and delivers pitch perfect, stunning vocals that had the audience entranced. Whether they need to engage the audience with more in the way of stage presence is debatable, what they don’t have in presence, they make up for with atmosphere and sheer soundscape.

Hannah was experiencing the worst hayfever she has ever had because there is a unique type of grass in Tasmania and nowhere else in the world. With that revelation, it was amazing her vocals weren’t affected. Their wildly popular cover of Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” was to be expected, a popular choice with the crowd with it’s keys opening making way for the whining, stripped back electric guitar, reminiscent of The xx’s sparse production style.

With the crowd thoroughly in the mood, a staffer comes on stage with a giant birthday cake to celebrate Hannah’s birthday, for which the crowd sang happy birthday and she was incredibly excited as the cake was gluten free meaning she could actually enjoy eating it after their set. Fittingly, they celebrated the moment with a song the crowd could all sing along to, “Caught in the Middle”. To wrap up, they delighted the audience with “Metal and Dust” with it’s midway upbeat synth beats and keys which created a wall of sound crawling up the hill from the valley stage.

Violent Femmes at Falls Festival Marion BayI am of the age to have just been alive when their first, and arguably most famous, album was released, but I sure as hell knew about them and have danced in to many a late night with Blister In The Sun blaring. So needless to say, I was at the Valley stage for the Violent Femmes set. Just walking on stage they received a huge welcome from the crowd. And with out any ado at all, they cracked straight in to it with “Blister in the Sun”. They played like their album release was last year, like they do it all the time, and most of the crowd was up and dancing without a second thought. Naturally, with their time in the industry and their experience, they could play each track with a kind of laid back delivery, but full of cheer and that cool swagger attitude. Effortless in fact. They dubbed themselves the Grandfathers of folk-punk and to be blunt, they’re dead right on that call. And of course, they are one of those acts that can play their album from start to finish and hold every person in the palm of their hands for every single track, in spite of us all knowing what would come next. “Kiss Off” went off, the big slappy bass tones of “Please Do Not Go” had the crowd going crazy,  “Add It Up” had everyone singing every word at the top of their voice, and I was having a bit of a Reality Bites flashback. It was a glorious set, they sounded almost exactly like they did the day it was released and they were such a joy to watch, clearly having a great time on stage.

The Cat Empire at Falls Festival Marion BayOur final folky act of the night was our name sake and one of our favourite acts, The Cat Empire. I wanted to make notes and recall all they played, highlight the nuances of their set, but in true Cat Empire style, they just nailed it. They have this ability to cheer a crowd as soon as they walk on stage, talk to us all like we’re personal friends just jamming at their place, and have us all singing, dancing, grooving and jumping along to every track. They played a great selection of their back catalogue interspersed with tracks from Steal The Light and they generally got the party really pumping. We, as a crowd moved and grooved as one, loving every second. They, as always, nailed it. I read a Faster Louder review of the Marion Bay Falls  that put the Cat Empire down to a “pale imitation of The Roots” due to their scheduling, but clearly the reviewer was at an alternate universe version of the same gig, because we saw nothing of that. In fact, The Roots were a disappointment to us, nothing like we expected, so much so, that we left half way through their set and headed to bed. We must have missed the good bit.

Finally the penultimate day rolled around. Day 3, Tuesday 31st December – New Years Eve and the reason we were all there.

Gossling at Falls Festival Marion BayAfter a lazy lie-in, we headed to the Field stage to see one of our favourites, Gossling who we enjoyed seeing back in 2011. What a difference 2 years makes, from opening spot on the main stage at Lorne to a modest crowd, to a mid afternoon Marion Bay Field Stage spot absolutely packed with punters. Having not yet caught the latest offering from Gossling, I wasn’t quite that sure what to expect but bouyed by her unassuming start and complete skipping of any kind of chattering intro, Helen and band kicked straight in to the set with glee and abandon. Her set was heartfelt yet forthright, pulling tracks predominantly from the new album Harvest of Gold. The intimate setting allowed Helen to tell the stories behind the songs; the  love song about a couple who had been together a long time, whose spark was there in the beginning but is no longer there and the resulting mutual break up; her early experiences with social media as an artist and that anyone can say anything they want online and she just has to stop being a little pussy; and the day to day observations and experiences of life. Particular highlights included “Songs of Summer” (co-written with Steve Parkin) and that lamentable opening line “On a  Friday night, a thousand weeks ago” replete with male vocals (by Alexander Burnett of Sparkadia on the record) as well as the sheer frustration meets pop sensibilities of “Challenge” and it’s social media mayhem. All in all, another delightful afternoon spent with Gossling.

The John Steel Singers at Falls Festival Marion BayHustling from one stage to the next meant we could get a glimpse of The John Steel Singers on the Valley stage and their dedicated fans clamouring to tyhe front of the stage. Their set was upbeat and at times delivered a psychedelic vibe to the over all indie sound. I’ve heard a bit about the group, especially because TnS contributor Haz is a bit of a fan boy, but I was truly delighted by their tight harmonies and elegant guitar work. An oldie but a goodie, “Strawberry Wine” was a particular favourite with the crowd and as we made our way to our next stop, the set was in full swing, crowd singing and dancing along and glimpses of harmonised spleandour taunted us.

Later in the day we found ourselves back at the Field stage to catch complete unknowns, Bombino. Within an instant, our reaction was “They’re so cool!” Rocking traditional garb albeit of shiny material, and sporting electric guitars, this was an outfit set to impress. Opening rocky riffs drew an instant crowd to dance along. Singing in their native language, inspite of having no clue what was being said, their music translated with a sense of storytelling that spoke directly to the soul each member of the audience.

Bombino at Falls Festival Marion BayThe easiest way to describe their sound is a kind of a meeting of world music and indie stylings. Band members hail from West Africa, Niger, so it’s desert music that they play with touches of a Reggae feel to their beat. Bombino delivered a consistent energy and tempo throughout their set, holding the crowd in their groove through to the end, with a huge cheer from the audience to thank them for the performance. This is the kind of group I think Ash Grunwald would love to jam with!

Emma Louise at Falls Festival Marion BayRecovering from Bombino, we were set put to catch Emma Louise at the Field stage. Having missed a lot locally for the last 18months, I was curious to see just how far from folk Emma Louise had moved. With a heady mix of synth keyboard, acoustic guitar and stripped back drum kit, it was hard to predict just what would arrive. She walked out on stage looking super slick, breathy backing vocals began and she strapped on her acoustic guitar, much to the appreciation of the volminous audience. Stunning, breathy harmonised vocals wafted over the crowd creating a haunting and still opening. She has really matured and grasped the ethereal indie sound that Matt Corby toyed with a few years ago but delivers it with strength, confidence and delicate handling of the style.

“Toys”  gave a clever meld of synth, guitar and those evocative vocals, smooth as butter and just as addictive. Her stage presence has come leaps and bounds since I last saw her at Falls in Lorne, a true professional graces the stage now and captures the audience, holding them with every lick of a lyric.

The crowd, as one, responded to each synth-laden ethereal moment creating a sense of anticipation. “Tessalate” erupted from a mournful synth opening, trilling guitar and tantalising snare that broke in to a solid bass drum rhythm. Emma Louise’s Florence-esque vocals wound their way through the soundscape, met with harmonised backing, building to a beautiful crescendo before a delicate ending.

The set was peppered with new and old tracks including the strong keyboard, drum rhythms and intertwined angelic vocals of “Atlasize” and the rolling intimacy of “Keep Me Warm” allowed her great vocal range to tip in to and out of melancholic, interlocking harmonies to create an incredible, dreamlike atmosphere. And naturally, she ended with that favourite and original hit, “Jungle” which had the already large crowd heaving with enthusiasm and joy.

Crystal Fighters at Falls Festival Marion BayWhen we headed to the Valley stage for the Crystal Fighters, we had no real idea what to expect except that their bio included the word folktronica, so of course, I was there. The crowd were very excited for them and as they entered the stage they made an amazing visual impact as they were all dressed for the occassion. It seems this is what happens when a strange mix of percussion, glittery costumes and acoustic meets electric cohesion. No matter their cross-genre mix, the crowd were instantly dancing.

It all got a bit folkalicious when their txalaparta came into it’s fore (for those playing along, it’s like a giant xylophone played by two people at once), it was almost tribal in nature, matched with a thumping drum rhythm in an altogether stripped backing style to the vocals before the synth and full ensemble sound built in to a massive presence with crowd jumping and dancing feverishly. Did I mention they manage to include a ukelele in their dance music ensemble?

Love is all I’ve got for this act. Infectiously fun and impossible not to enjoy! I mean, you’ve got to love a bit of electric, hyper ukelele. They managed the crowd beautifully, taking us musically down to the beach (the real beach we could see from our vantage point), down through a
mellow, strummy intro in to the calyspo feel backing and harmonised vocals of “Plage”, where the synth builds before a big electric guitar line joins the party. I also adored the epic cow bell that features in “I Love London”. I think this is one of my favourite, highlight acts from the whole festival, a must see and a must to track down some of their back catalogue!

Grizzly Bear at Falls Festival Marion BayComing down from such a high energy set, we stayed at the Valley stage to catch Grizzly Bear
It was their second New Year’s Eve in Tassie and they seemed quite happy with their lot. Their opening number, “Speak in Rounds” brought with it the haunting quality of their vocals and the woozy atmospherics their sets are renowned for. They moved from one set to the next with such grace and ease that at times you’d forgotten that one song ended and another begun. The inextricably mellow and chilled resonance segued effortlessly in to echoey lament only to give way occasionally to a bluesy rock beat or to a revel in synthesizer gait.

Their performance is one of those truly enrapturing experiences, where their dreamy set can transport you to another reality, parrallel to the often frenetic energy of Marion Bay on a special occasion.

Neil Finn at Falls Festival Marion BayThe final folkishly influenced act on the Valley stage that night was the irrepressible, Neil Finn. We saw Finn take the stage back in Lorne and while that was a fun set, there was something more this time around. Whether the vibe of the Marion Bay festival or the hubbub of New Year’s Eve, either way, in that inimitable personality and presence, the audience was putty in Finn’s hands.

He crafted together a set filled with nostalgia, of hits and favourites as well as braw new works from recent album Dizzy Heights. Of the old songs, there was once voice as the crowd sang in unison, word for word, proving just how timeless Crowded House and Split Enz are. Of the new works, my favourite was the transidental temporary insantiy of “Pony Ride”, or that could just have been Finn’s explanation for the song and somehow we were all suddenly riding rainbows on unicorns with him, likely in hysterics. Title track “Dizzy Heights” and “Flying in the Face of Love” also were received well, but it was moments like Kirin J Callinan jumping in for a guitar solo on the Crowded House track “Locked Out” that made the set memorable. The spine tingling closer, one man on his knees and one guitar with no amped sound while crew changed over behind him for the next set, the thousands strong crowd with just the utterance of it’s opening  had us off singing “Better Be Home Soon” and claimed the defining moment of the night.

I don’t recall much of the actual New Year, with MGMT running over time, a quick countdown before kissing and hugging your nearest and dearest, or the random crowd members beside you, and then finally The Wombats hitting us with an onslaught of hits and subsequent dancing frenzy, it all just blurs together to be an energy filled night of frivolity with a matching hangover the next morning.

But, if you’re going to wake up with a hangover anywhere in the world, Falls Festival Marion Bay just moved up my list of acceptable places to do so.

Review: The Falls Festival, The Marion Bay Vibe

IMG_8801 - Version 2Photos by Stu B.

The Falls Festival is a funny beast – you have to choose between 3 states to attend, each with a slightly different line up. We chose Marion Bay, Tasmania for it’s chilled out, family friendly atmosphere, it’s absolutely stunning natural setting and because well, we haven’t been to Tassie for many years.

Having been to Lorne back in 2011/12, we had a few expectations about it’s little sister, Marion Bay, but what we discovered is that each site has it’s own unique style, pace and feel. With Lorne and Byron Bay selling out in the ever expected blink of an eye, we wondered whether the addition of Byron Bay as a third location (popular holiday destination and no stranger to big festivals) would be detrimental to the further afield, Marion Bay. Ticket sales were down but we found there was much more than just ticket sales to measure a festival by.

We made a real trip of it, flying in to Launceston for a night, driving down the East Coast in a hire car for two days (we even got to pat a Tassie Devil!), and spending a couple of nights either side of the festival in Hobart really appreciating the produce of Tasmania all on offer at the conveniently timed Taste of Tasmania which is definitely worth the visit. In short, before we arrived at Marion Bay, we were already in love with the place. Getting to the Marion Bay site is a bit tricky if you’re not a local driving there, however there is a very well organised bus system which we took, and where you kind of feel like you’re on a school trip, complete with that nervous energy buzzing round the passengers.

Marion Bay is the only Falls Festival which allows under 18s to attend, which I think is a really good option for the festival. In the lead up to the entry gates, and before your car is checked top to bottom for contraband alcohol (which if confiscated is given to the volunteers to drink at the after party – so it does go to a good cause), there is an alcohol amnesty, a lock up where you can store your grog instead of trying to sneak it in and simply collect it on your way out of the festival. We did see a number of cars stop and take up that option. In all, the festival has a much more relaxed and chilled out feeling. Some say that because there are children around, there is a natural reaction for the adults to behave a bit more and not go overboard on the alcohol. Other anecdotes told of those who successfully smuggled alcohol in who would head back to camp to drink their contraband and be so intoxicated that they never made it back in to the festival of an evening to see the big name bands… such a waste. But, it did mean we experienced one of the best festival crowds ever, complete with a bunch of little kids clad with epic ear muffs.

Tepee Village by Tepee LifeWe decided that since we were having one hell of a holiday away, that we would splurge on our accommodation for the festival. As with all of the Falls Festival sites, camping is included with your ticket. If you don’t want to haul your own camping gear, you can buy a gimme shelter ticket which will kit you out with a pop up tent and something to sleep on, already set up for your arrival. We went with the mother of all options and booked a Tepee for the full festival. These things are cool and environmentally friendly – made of recycled vinyl banners and bamboo poles, it’s a tent you can stand in, with space to sleep from 2-6 people. If being able to stand up in your tent isn’t the only appealing option for you, the tepee village also boasts a chill out, lounge room style common area with couches, coffee tables, power to charge your gadgets, shade cloths, funky night time lighting and some really cool people running the place. The only down side to being located in the centre of the festival was that it was away from toilets and showers and right next to the Village which is one of the late night venues. But, who needs a full night’s sleep anyway? On the plus side we were right in between the Field and Valley Stages meaning you could constantly drop in to your tent to drop off or pick up anything you needed. Tasmania, even in the middle of summer, can be bitterly cold and whips a wickedly chilly breeze straight through your bones while the sun blazes to hellishly hot temperatures any time the wind dies down. Being able to stop in for a quick layer or clothing change on the way between stages was indeed heaven.

The site itself had far more room than Lorne, with a full stretch of markets in the field between the two stage areas (where the Gimme Shelter and Tepee camping were as well as The Village) which made ducking between acts and stages a bit more energetic. The Field stage was a great little space, intimate even for a small crowd, and absolutely brimming with energy when a big crowd turns up (for Violent Soho or Solange for example). The Valley Stage, while sloping toward the stage isn’t quite the impressive ampitheatre that Lorne has, however it completely trumps Lorne by having the most spectacular view for any festival I’ve been to. I could sit on the rise and watch the sea and it’s hilly backdrop change colours from brilliant blues and emerald greens to a moody shifting between slate grey, cobalt blue and the kind of green you could only expect at the bottom of the ocean. It’s probably one of the most calming backdrops to set the scene for a festival like this.

View of Marion Bay and camping areas at Falls Festival 2013

Set over three nights, the first night saw only The Field Stage running to host the traditional opening night of any Falls Festival, Boogie Nights. Dressing up in theme is thoroughly encouraged, especially this year with the intergalactic theme that saw one couple lucky enough to win the opportunity to dance on stage with MGMT. We saw many, MANY wild and kooky costumes and it was clear Tasmania was going to be nothing to sniff at. Our favourite and most nerdy costume we thought should have won, was a young lass dressed, rather convincingly, as a Dalek. There were aluminium wrapped people, neon coloured fluffy outfits and event an amazing effort as a Sesame Street martian (yip yip yip!). We enjoyed Boogie Nights and it’s exemplary collection of boogie, funk, soul and groovy acts, none of which are in any way folky so don’t really warrant a review, but it’s one hell of a way to start a party. Our highlights were the incredibly silly antics and games of Legs Akimbo, amazing beat boxing by Tom Thum, the crazy outfit and intense energy, whole set dancing of The Correspondents and of course the excellent choices decade upon decade of Hot Dub Time Machine.

The next few days were filled with so many acts, that we decided to try and really pick out the folk influenced ones to review, and all that will all be revealed in part 2 very soon!

Entry to The Village at Falls Festival Marion BayBut to wrap up this piece, looking at the whole vibe and experience of Marion Bay, we couldn’t fault it. Great atmosphere, some fantastic site specific art throughout the site, a fantastic array of food and market stalls, plus the sheer room to move made the place really comfortable to spend a good few days. The vibe was amazing, relaxed, but still with a really positive energy, so much so, that it seems everyone on site was happy, all the time. That is no mean feat! But finally, we really loved the family friendly aspect of Marion Bay. We don’t have kids, but it’s a really pleasant place even without kids. It’s not over run with little ones, but they are an ever present, incredibly well behaved addition to the audience mix. There was plenty of activities for them to participate in, including the Festival Parade that saw a couple of hundred people build and create crazy costumes in the village throughout the festival all in time for the New Years Eve parade to the Valley Stage. Filled with punters young and old, headed by a golf cart, it was a superb representation of Love in all it’s forms.

If Woodford is too far away for you, or a little too folk heavy for your liking, then Falls Festival Marion Bay is a perfect alternative which still gives you a lot of similar experiences yet has a personality and style all of it’s own. Or, if they’ve got a great line up and that’s all you’re keen on, come for the space, the easy access to the beach, the pleasant weather and temperature and the awesome excuse for a getaway.

Review: JamGrass Festival 2013, Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne

Jamgrass
Image Courtesy of JamGrass

As I was boarding my plane to head down to Melbourne for the 2013 JamGrass Music festival I couldn’t help but wonder why I had chosen this event over countless others to devote my time and hard earned frequent flyer points to. On any given weekend there are countless of events around the country showcasing music from the folk, country, roots and acoustic genres (all the good stuff), many of which are within easy traveling distance of my home town – so why was I flying Melbourne stay in a dodgy hotel in the far flung northern suburbs for this one.

JamGrass is in many ways a unique event. An urban, indoor festival focused on a genre of music that is hardly cool (despite hipsters having a fondness for a banjo), JamGrass is almost the exact opposite of any other bluegrass festival in the country. But it works. And it keeps drawing me back.

I think the reason it works is that JamGrass has grown out of a community of like minded individuals. This is not a commercial venture, the folks behind the festival are not professional events managers and there’s no pressure to cram the latest and greatest indie kids into the lineup. JamGrass is about the music. It’s about the musicians. And it’s about the jams.

That’s not to say that JamGrass isn’t a slickly run festival. Its enviable two stage setup in the Thornbury Theatre means downtime between performances is kept to a minimum. The festival generally runs to time (day two this year started about half an hour late due to one of the bands getting stuck in traffic) and bands are ready to go pretty much as soon as the lights come up on stage despite the reputation bluegrass artists have for constantly tuning. So many other festivals around the country could learn a thing or two from JamGrass about how to program consecutive concerts.

And I haven’t even gotten to the lineup yet! JamGrass has grown up from the Melbourne bluegrass and jam scene so has its pick of the crop when lining up the local talent. Add to that the reputation JamGrass has established over the last couple of years, drawing in talent from around the country along with its proximity to other Australian Bluegrass festivals meaning it has access to touring international acts means the quality of acts is exceptional.

This year I took in the Friday and Saturday nights of the festival, flying out of Melbourne before the festival finished on Sunday evening. In the 48 hours I was in town I experienced some of the best bluegrass this country has to offer. Normally I’d pull out a list of highlights but to be honest every single moment of the festival was exceptional. I think if anyone was following me on twitter throughout the festival weekend would have seen just how excited I was:

If I’m pushed I’d have to say that of the artists I haven’t seen before I was absolutely blown away by singer-songwriter James Kenyon whose unique voice and alt-country songs were just stunning and The Company who seem to be redefining bluegrass for an Australian audience and whose musicianship is just a step above. In a sea of highlights Mustered Courage’s set on the first night stood out with appearances by The Quarry Mountain Dead Rats and Kat Mear (among others) and an impromptu conga line through the middle of the performance.

But I don’t want to take away from any of the other artists who played throughout the weekend. The Green Mohair Suits, The Steamgrass Boys and The Morrisons proved that Sydney bands can pick with the best of them. Jimi Hocking’s mastership of the blues mandolin was a welcome respite from the frantic picking of a lot of the other acts. From the USA, Patt and Possum were just superb with some extra special fiddle and piano based tunes. The Stetson Family managed to prove their multi-skilling by tweeting me from the stage while they entertained the crowd. The list just goes on.

I’ll be going to a lot of festivals between now and the next JamGrass Music Festival – in fact I’ve been to a couple already since JamGrass took place in October – but I’ll be hanging out to next year for JamGrass 2014. There’s just something very special about this festival and I’m so happy I was part of it this year.

Review: Bushstock 2013, Shepherds Bush, London UK

Bushstock titleReview and photos by KT Bell

When you live in London and you like Folk music, Communion is the Mecca of your music world. The fact that Communion is going strong in Australia and had a huge influence on the very beginnings of Timber and Steel, well, it just makes any Communion experience all that much more special.

The Communion brains trust built Bushstock, a multi-venue local folk extravaganza complete with outdoor beer gardens, sets in Churches and pubs crammed full with music lovers and musicians. In typical London fashion, I’d managed to double book myself and could only hit up the festival for a few hours in the afternoon missing all the big name attractions, which might have been a blessing in disguise as it meant I could focus on checking out the newer, upcoming acts on the UK scene.

The average music festival in Australia is an outdoor affair taking full advantage of our glorious weather and usually a bit of a trek to a venue that can hold the volume of people likely to attend. Bushstock is exactly the opposite, a selection of venues within short walk of each other in London’s increasingly trendy Shepherd’s Bush. Of the four venues for the festival, only two were operating early in the day so I found myself shifting regularly between a church and a pub, opposite ends of the venue spectrum mentally.

Bushstock 1I arrived at the church in time to catch the last song by George Ezra. A young and relaxed performer, his distinct voice of mellow, treacle like tones was more than fitting for a church setting. Humble in his stage presence, George would be an interesting act to catch again and soon.

Then was the first Hike to the Defectors Weld, the pub venue a 5min walk away.

DSC_0651The pub had a tiny stage set between a door and the main seating area and the bar itself. happily, being so early in the day, the room was open enough to find a comfortable spot to watch Sam Fender. He was young and full of soul expressed through an acoustic guitar and the agony of being a teenager with his set littered with songs from puberty. He has raw talent and the passion and intensity of Kim Churchill at times, complete with intelligent lyrics for someone so young. Sam is quite clearly in the it’s of the Communion chaps so keep an eye out for his rise on the scene.

Bushstock 3Then it was time to hot tail it back to the Church to catch Annie Eve. She was not quite what I had expected, but then I didn’t know what to expect from any of the acts. She was much more reserved and introspected than the previous act and in a completely different, serene setting. Her voice reminds me of a cross between Lisa Mitchell and Julia Stone with a very distinct sound and style to her singing, melancholic and lamentably solemn. While it didn’t get my juices flowing, she had great orchestration and flowing musicality to her entire set. It will be interesting to see where her music goes and how it further develops.

Bushstock 4And if course, it was the time to return to the Defectors’ Weld for Young War. A deceptive name, this act was a solo guy layering guitar and voice over each other in loops to create his own backing. He strikes me as the guy who mucks around with music in his room honing the technical only to surprise us on stage with actual talent and strong technical backing. I could only tell he was nervous by his shaking hand programming his guitar tuner. He was more like acoustic soul tending to r&b but not this shit pop r&b hip hop meld bullshit, the real rhythm and blues in acoustic guSivuitar and real ingenuity. He has great potential once he explores more songwriting outlets and finds more of his voice.

Bushstock 5I hustled back to church for Sivu (pronounced see-voo) Which was one of the main acts I was aware of before the festival. Sivu was a complete band with string section and reminiscent of skipping girl vinegar but with less of the happy band vibe and a more indie grunge with orchestration feel. Their only song I was familiar has an awesome film clip filmed in MRI and happily their performance was just as good live as in the video clip. Tending more toward the indie spectrum, they have a good cross section of fans to see them have a steady interest and gigs.

Bushstock 6My last trek before heading off to my double booking, saw me back at the Defectors Weld to catch a guy going by the name The Lake Poets. another act that was a single guy and an acoustic guitar, young and simplistic but in a positive way that was not overly fussy or ostentatious, just plain and to the point. His set was calm and measured framing his pleasant voice and affable charm through a smooth collection of heartfelt tracks.

In all, it was a great festival but certainly one you’d be likely to pick one venue to stay at for an extended time rather than back and forwards like I did. Each venue had food and drinks available, it felt a little sacrilegious to be drinking alcohol in a church but no other Londoners seemed put off, must be a Shepherd’s Bush thing. I would have liked to stay and see the other two venues and their headline acts, but at the same time, it was great to see new emerging acts being attended by what became huge crowds. After the first set at the Defector’s Weld, it became more and more difficult to find a spot to see the acts short of standing right at the front of the small stage crammed in with every other punter. And the Church, well, it probably hasn’t seen such overflowing pews and aisles filled with worshippers before, but it brought it’s own energy and vibe to the event which no doubt fed in to the mood and ambience of each act in such a glorious setting.

In short, if you are ever in London while Bushstock in on, make sure you get there and experience this unique festival. The only thing even close to like it that I’ve been too would the the Snowy Mountains of Music simply because it’s held at the snow and must be inside, but otherwise it has a completely different style and feel in spite of hosting similar style acts. But then anything by Communion is a not to be missed experience, so here’s to many more years of Bushstock!

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