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!

Review: Splendour In The Grass, A Folkie’s Perspective

Splendour in the Grass
All Images Courtesy of Splendour in the Grass

As a veteran of dozens, if not hundreds of music festivals it probably comes as somewhat of a surprise that I’ve never been to Splendour in the Grass prior to 2013. With some of the world’s best indie-folk acts gracing the Splendour stage over the last few years it’s definitely been on my wish list for a while and given this year featured the likes of Mumford and Sons, Of Monsters and Men, Laura Marling and more I couldn’t really find a reasons not to go.

Flying into the north coast on Friday night I manged to completely avoid all of the bus and queue issues that had plagued the festival on the first full day (and have been amply documented by the media elswhere). I managed to walk straight in, fix myself up with some food and my first of many mid-strength beers and walk over to the Supertop to catch some music. Arriving late did however have its pitfalls in that I missed sets from Daughter, Boy & Bear and Matt Corby.

Mumford and Sons

The band I had most come to see, in their only Australian show this time around, was of course Mumford and Sons and I was not disappointed. The Supertop was filled to overflowing and I found the best view was actually outside of the tent, ankle-deep in sticky mud and doing my best to dance without moving my feet. The folk-infused four-piece were in fine form and complimented throughout the set by a cast of horn and string players, backing vocalists and some amazing lighting. The massive crowd sang along to “Little Lion Man”, “I Will Wait” and “Roll Away Your Stone” as expected and Mumford and Sons genuinely appeared to be having a ball.

Saturday was packed with folk and singer-songwriter inspired music and I was spoilt for choice as I ran between the GW McLennan stage and the Supertop. I made sure I got to the festival nice and early – there was no way I was missing anything this time.

Art of Sleeping kicked off the day with a half hour set at the GW McLennan stage. These guys have a big sound that’s perfect for a festival (although their 12:30 time-slot probably didn’t do them any favours) and I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see them popping up on more and more lineups. With a sound in the Boy & Bear flavour of indie – albeit with a lot less folk and west coast influence – I really enjoyed the set, with “Empty Hands” the obvious highlight.

The crowd that Vance Joy drew was impressive although I couldn’t help but feel they were all just there to see “Riptide” and nothing else. No one around me seemed that engaged with Joy until he brought out the ukelele and then there was almost an audible sigh when he launched into “Snaggletooth” instead of “Riptide”. Which is a shame as the set was really good and Vance Joy is a clear talent. I’ll definitely be seeking him out live again.

Irish band Villagers have been popping up on folk blogs for a while now but I’ve never really paid them much attention. Their sound is laced with acoustic instruments but I’d struggle to call them “folk” even with Timber and Steel’s broad definition of the genre. That said their set was amazing and definitely a highlight of the festival for me. “Nothing Arrived” was the standout track (probably because I know it from the radio).

One of the biggest “hype” names on the Splendour line up was 19 year old singer-songwriter Jake Bugg so there was no way I was going to miss his set at The Supertop stage. A lot of people have been asking me since whether I think he lives up to the hype and to be honest I’m not sure. His music was good – a lot of alt-country and Americana influences and plenty of decent songwriting – but I’m just not sure that it’s any better than music that’s been produced by thousands of other similar artists. Good on him for breaking through, amassing a decent following and signing to Mercury so early on in his career – I’m just keen to see if he does something extraordinary.

Whitley’s return to the music scene, which was first revealed via his inclusion on the Splendour lineup, had also been hyped by the media (including us). To be honest I was a little surprised that Whitley had drawn a relatively small crowd at Splendour (maybe a symptom of going up against Chet Faker in the program?) but those that were there were treated to some fine music. Camped out behind his organ and with a full band in tow Whitley pulled generously from his new album Even The Stars Are A Mess as well as peppering a few tracks from his back catalogue for good measure.

After endulging in some 90s nostalgia with a cracking set from Something For Kate (they played “Captain (Million Miles An Hour)”!) and enjoying some indie goodness from Cold War Kids it was back to the GW McLennan stage for the gorgeous Sarah Blasko. Blasko is one of the classiest artists in the country and her set was just stunning, despite a few technical difficulties at the very beginning of the show. The lighting for Blasko’s set was pretty astounding and the crowd really got into the songs, singing and clapping along at every opportunity – lots of fun.

Polyphonic Spree

I have to admit that I’ve never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show and my only point of reference point is dancing to “The Time Warp” in dodgy retro night clubs. So the prospect of The Polyphonic Spree peforming the musical from start to finish probably didn’t excite me as much as it did a lot of the crowd – but when they started I was hooked, shouting “Dammit Janet” and pelvic thrusting with the best of them. I’m really chuffed that The Polyphonic Spree decided to end their set with a bunch of their original numbers including “Hold Me Now” and “Two Thousand Places” – this was just icing on an already rich musical cake.

For his new album, Departures, Bernard Fanning has re-embraced his rock roots and all but shaken off the folkiness of his debut Tea and Sympathy. So going into his Splendour set to round out Saturday night I was intrigued to see whether we’d see both sides of the Australian icon. And while the majority of his show centred around Departures I was chuffed when a couple of Tea and Sympathy tracks cropped up. “Thrill is Gone” was a definite highlight and had the crowd (or maybe just me) singing in full voice – beautiful.

As the sun came up on Sunday I was sad I had to miss the last day of Splendour in the Grass due to an early flight and work the next day. Laura Marling, Of Monsters and Men and Gurrumul would have been on must-see-folk list for the day but sadly I’d have to catch them elsewhere.

Overall my impression of Splendour in the Grass was positive. A lot of the issues that plagued the festival on the first day – the bus and queue debacle and the cancellation of Frank Ocean – didn’t affect me much due to the type of festival I chose to have (getting there late on Friday, focusing on folk acts). The mud was unavoidable with all the recent rain but definitely impacted on my festival experience – it’s hard to dance it out to Mumford and Sons or run between venues when you’re ankle deep in sticky black mud. I’m also not sure about the “exclusive bar” setup where different tickets allowing you to get into different venues – it seemed to create a class system and definitely contributed to the amount of booze being smuggled into the event (only the exclusive bars sold full strength drinks).

Overall I have to commend the organisers – the lineup was pretty spot on allowing this fokie to revel in my favourite genre all festival long, the venue itself was laid out in a way that prevented any sound bleed or insane bottlenecks and the issues at the beginning of the event were dealt with quickly and decisively. While I’m still partial to smaller, folkier festivals as a giant rock festival goes Splendour in the Grass was pretty amazing.

Will I go next year? Well I guess that all depends on how many folk-type artists they have on the bill. And whether I can get my gumboots clean in time…

Review: 43rd Top Half Folk Festival, Alice Springs

Top Half

Review by Jeff Corfield. All photos by Gordon Young

Just like good old Cooper’s Sparkling Ale it was cloudy but fine when we pulled into Glen Helen for our first ever Top Half Folk Festival in the spectacular McDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs. It’s been a long time between Top Half drinks for me – 9 years in fact – and the last time Mary River 2004 I supplied the bloody drinks, at my Wort’s and All home brew workshop that year. Since then distance, work and commitments to our own local Palm Creek Folk Festival (held the same weekend) have conspired to keep us away from a festival which was once an annual event for us. We made a last minute decision to come this year – and we weren’t disappointed.

Top Half Folk Festivals have been all about meeting up with mates from all across the north and beyond, sharing good music, poetry, craic and the odd drink, over three days and (very late) nights. The 43rd Top Half was no exception, though perhaps the nights weren’t quite as late this year – for me at least! Given the aging Top Half demographic – many “Top Halfs” are less hirsute and several (not 50) shades greyer these days – I did wonder about the financial wisdom of providing senior’s concessions. Perhaps under 30s concessions might be more profitable, but the Top Half Folk Festival has never been about profit – it’s about folk. In the old days these folk would take a week or so to drive to the annual Top Half as it rotated between Darwin, Alice and Mount Isa. Time seemed to matter less back then and flying was still expensive. It’s different these days, though I was surprised at just how many folk drove from all around Australia on their Top Half pilgrimage to Glen Helen this year.

However, enough of this reflection stuff and on with the festival review. After a 9 year absence I was thrilled to see and hear such a well-balanced mixture of old and new, local and interstate, young and not so young performers in the concert program. At one end of the age scale we had the unsinkable 80 years young Ted Egan, a national treasure and Top Half stalwart, still singing his heart out and enthralling us with songs about the real Australia. At the other end there was 11 year old Josh Gray and his support act father, Phil, who sang us other songs of Australia, from the pen of earlier writers such as Don Henderson and Edward Sorenson.

The concert program featured a diverse range of music genres from Klezmer and Gypsy music of Europe (courtesy of Rusty and the Infidels from Alice and The Weeping Angels from Adelaide) through to traditional Celtic and Australian ballads and contemporary compositions from the world over. Nevertheless it flowed seamlessly and I enjoyed all of it – and that’s saying something, given I’m used to doing stuff at festivals rather than sitting on my bum listening.

Katie HarderThe concerts also featured an impressive array of singer-songwriters, including Top Half favorites Barry Skipsey, Dave Oakes, Dave Clark and others, and importantly several new young performers. I was especially impressed by Jeanette Wormald and Katie Harder (left), both part of a strong Alice Springs contingent of younger performers, including Sally Balfour, which bodes well for the future. Singer-songwriters have always been the lifeblood of folk traditions, including the folk revival, as Phil Beck illustrated so eloquently in his workshop. More on that later.

There were two other aspects of the concert program that stood out for me. First and foremost was the chance to see former Redgum performer Hugh McDonald (right) in concert – twice in one weekend! Our kids cut their musical teeth on Redgum and I don’t think we have a single album that wasn’t worn out long ago. I’ve long been an admirer of Hugh’s powerful songwriting, from the time of “Diamantina Drover” to his more recent “Spirit of the Land”. However I didn’t appreciate just what a fine musician he is – a true guitar virtuoso across such a range of styles. His stage presence was easy and unaffected, as was his singing style and audience engagement. While he expressed some initial trepidation at being the “headline act” at a festival he’d barely heard of, I think he genuinely enjoyed performing to such an appreciative and knowledgeable audience at Top Half 2013 – and he said as much in a note to festival organisers.

Hugh McDonaldOf course the high standard of guitar playing didn’t stop with Hugh McDonald. I don’t think I’ve been to a regional festival which displayed such finger picking talent from so many performers, including Top Half stalwarts Phil Beck, Bob Sharp, Don (the) Bruce, Chris Pemberton and more recent Top Half convert Dave (Mojo) Mullen from Townsville. It was indeed sweet music to the ears – and an incentive to practice more in my retirement!

Juxtaposed to this was the wonderful unaccompanied singing of Australian folk revival legend Margaret Walters, who is fast becoming a Top Half regular. When Margaret starts singing you never quite know whether you will be graced with a sensitive rendition of a serious traditional ballad or a humorous or bawdy ditty, such is her style. She gave us that and more at Glen Helen.

Workshops have traditionally been a feature of Top Half Folk Festivals and this one was no exception – despite the absence of a Paul Stewart “entertainment” this year. Nevertheless we were well and truly entertained – and informed – by two fine workshops. On Saturday morning Phil Gray and the Tabby Knackers Choir and Ensemble presented insights into the life and works of Henry Lawson to mark his 146th birthday. Many of Lawson’s poems have been set to music by performers such as Pricilla Herdman, Chris Kempster and Hugh McDonald and we were treated to many fine renditions from the assembled cast.

On Sunday morning we were treated to A Potted History of the British Folk Revival (50s, 60, 70s) by Phil Beck and friends, with Paul Stewart as the principle narrator (can’t keep him out of the action). Stewie informed me that he’d already cut Phil’s narrative down by two thirds, yet the intro was still nearly 15 minutes long. However quality will always win out and that’s what we received in Phil’s insightful analysis of the British folk revival, punctuated by lovely renditions of songs like “Lord Franklin”, “The Sun is Burning” and others by Scotty Balfour, Phil Beck and others, which had me channeling my old mate Geoff Illif back at the Governor Broome Folk Club in Perth in the early 70s. The workshop ended with a fine rendition of a Top Half favorite “They Don’t Write ‘em Like That Anymore” and once again I was channeling another old mate – Paul Lawler, back in the Gun Turret days of the Top End Folk Club. I’m sure other Top Enders were doing the same for “Lawls”, who is not well at present. The audience left both workshops well entertained and better informed, which is what happens at all Top Half Folk Festivals.

Folk Quiz

The now-famous Folk Quiz (above), organised by Dave Evans and Scotty Balfour was another highlight for me. Based loosely on Spics and Specs, it aimed to test the ageing grey matter of the festival’s finest folk minds – and test them it did! Thankfully it was programmed for Saturday afternoon, before too many late nights and the odd alcoholic beverages took their toll. With teams comprising Paul Stewart, Margaret Walters and Barry Skipsey on one side and Phil Beck, Bob Sharp and Nerys Evans on the other, it was bound to be riotous, if nothing else. The scoring system soon became more indecipherable than an Egyptian hieroglyph, as the judges struggled to keep up with the pace. I’m not sure the declared winners deserved their victory, though Barry Skipsey’s failure to recognize his own song (just because it was played in a completely different style and beat) certainly cruelled it for his team. In the end the real winners were the audience, who were well entertained – and better informed yet again.

Poet’s breakfasts have become a feature of many folk and country music festivals around the country, but these days it’s hard for the average Joe Blow spruiker or poet to get a look in. Not so at the Top Half Folk Festival, under the guidance of the inimitable Jim Smith, another Top Half stalwart from southern climes. Anyone who had a poem or two is encouraged to chip in – and they did, with a wonderful array of humorous and more serious verse from old hands and new comers alike. More power to you and your arm Jim.

Two other important events took place at this year’s Top Half. First was the launch of Scotty Balfour’s new album Motherland at lunchtime on Saturday. I’ve always loved listening to Scotty’s easy singing style and fine interpretation of traditional and contemporary song. I think his voice, like fine wine, keeps maturing with age. The second event was the launch, at lunchtime on Sunday, of Peter Bate’s history of the Top Half Folk Festival. Peter, himself a Top Half “first fleeter” has long been a custodian festival and folk club memorabilia and his little book is a invaluable record of the wonderful history of a folk festival that has outlived so many others to become an icon of Australia’s folk revival. Well done Peter.

Finally, the one thing about the Top Half Folk Festival that always makes it a standout for me is the singing. That might seem a strange thing to say, when folk festivals are traditionally full of singing. But these days that singing is more about performers singing to audiences, not ordinary people singing their lungs out with performers. Again not so at the Top Half – and it’s not just at the famous late night sessions, so much a part of Top Half tradition. It’s at the concerts too, and the workshops. Top Half folk, be they performers or audience, love to sing, and love to join in. At Top Half Folk Festivals there are fewer barriers between performer and audience – and it shows. Hugh McDonald saw it and was blown away by it, as are other “southerners” who venture north to discover what those who live in the Top Half have always known. It’s something I really miss, but I know where to find it. Long may it remain part of the Top Half Folk Festival – that unique little single-venue long weekend event which Hugh McDonald so aptly described as “boutique”. Now I’m not sure my old Top Half mates Stewie, or Batey, or Evans or Beccy would like to be labeled “boutique”. On the other hand perhaps they are a bit like the boutique beers I like to drink – better than the average, different and interesting and full of character – as is the Top Half Folk Festival. Just don’t tell too many people, or they’ll all want some! Then again, the rest of Australia could do with a little of what the Top Half offers, so why not let them in on the secret!

Review: Byron Bay Bluesfest 2013

Bonnie Raitt
Image Courtesy of Bluesfest

To all the devout fans and readers of Timber and Steel, let me first take the opportunity to apologise for the prolonged amount of time it took to publish this. Please understand the love this article contains and the arduous task of having to coherently put it down on paper.

It was difficult to come down from falling into the rabbit hole and immersing myself in five days of being lost in Wonderland. Accompanying me were two filmmakers, one photographer, a Byron local and two actors. Each set that finished and each tent that we walked out of incited a collective sigh and exhausting swoon. Bluesfest, to me, is the only festival we have that comes even an inch in resemblance to Woodstock – obviously, the air had a tinge of green to it. We came to be time travellers and kids with rampant obsessions being let loose in Tyagarah. From being stuck between men and women of all ages sharing this one experience but in different ways, to being stuck in the car park for two hours. Together, we were all big players in moments that ranged from chaotically erratic to life affirming. Being in the same vicinity as the legends we all grew up with is something that can never justly be put into words. But, here goes – our shared experience, fifteen minutes in our shoes.

Our first taste of Bluesfest, 2013 was of Leonardo’s Bride. Abby Dobson wearing red feather earrings and a tight white dress – ageless. In the midst of their set, Dobson announced that this would be their last ever show and they certainly ended their reign on top. With each song, Dobson would stare intently and intensely into the crowd, as if to look into each individual’s eyes. Being led astray momentarily, I heard “Even When I’m Sleeping” from outside of the tent and ran back to the front to hear Dobson’s flawless vocals accompanied with Dean Manning’s rusty and robust harmony. At one point, they confessed to drinking since 10am and then proceeding to play “Sleepyhead” as though they had just finished writing it and played it to a new audience for the ninth time. Although, admittedly I could listen to Dobson talk all day and night, after seeing and hearing this live, I would much prefer her to lull me to sweet slumber with this voice of unwavering fervour.

Staying in the main tent, Mojo, we caught Skipping Girl Vinegar who were probably one of my favourite bands to catch. Their stage plan was the first thing to note, as they stood side-by-side at the front of the stage. One would think that the drummer, Chris Helm, being placed beside frontman, Mark Lang, would cause some sort of audio chaos, however I feel as though the band are very familiar with this setup. Having never seen Skipping Girl Vinegar live before made this set a real treat, being able to clearly hear the 80’s influence with the obvious variations between male and female vocals. My first impression of the band was, ‘wow, they are so cute,’ and my last impression was, ‘amaze. This is a band full of angsty babes.’ The most standout thing about them was the sheer enthusiasm of Helm, keeping a solid beat whilst having a smile that reminded you of untainted pleasure. Concluding their set, was their “bogan anthem” which had the entire crowd fist pumping the air like true Aussie bogans.

It bewildered me as to how people had time to meander about and it impressed me that they would give up their spots to go to the toilet. We, on the other hand, destroyed our knees, bladders and livers over the course of the five days. When the likes of Glen Hansard and The Frames are due to come on stage, there really is not time for anything else other than the music. With playful banter here and there too – we have a little bit of time for that. As was exemplified by Hansard as he took the stage and brought the Irish sardonic humour to Byron. Backed by a full string section and his busted guitar, the Mojo tent instantly filled up and was teeming with people by the end of his first song. Although Hansard’s humour was a welcome comic relief, it was such a blaring contrast from his music that at times it was difficult to engross myself in his music. All-in-all though, Hansard finishing his set with “Falling Slowly” had the entire crowd forgetting his obscenities and hearing what they all came there for. Outside the tent, inside the tent, every mouth sung along and all eyes remained centre stage.

The humidity and heat were starting to take effect on us, all of us; people were getting restless and aggressive as they weaselled their way to the front of each stage. Admittedly, my friends and I partook in said weaselling. We wanted to have some play in the “search for sugar man,” so many crossed arms were attentively pushed and every small space was utilized as a walkway. The entirety of Bluesfest was one surreal stupor for us all. It was hard to even fathom that Rodriguez was about to come on stage and play for us the songs we did not understand as children and later came to fall in love with as adults.

Initially, it seemed as though he would inanimately play and have no strength to talk as he was escorted on and off the stage. This theory was soon thrown out the window when he began his set. Rodriguez embodied more a worldly man who is an old soul. Between songs, he would come out of nowhere with empowered two to five minute speeches about stopping violence against women – which brought on a bellowing roar from the crowd. He would change between this and something a little more light-hearted.

Rodriguez: I’ll tell you guys a joke. Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse went to a marriage counsellor because Mickey wanted a divorce. The counsellor says, ‘Mickey, you can’t just leave your wife because she’s stupid.’

Mickey replies, ‘I’m not calling her stupid, I said she’s fucking Goofy.’

As what was expected, he started to play “Sugar Man” and the crowd lost all sense of propriety. As most were well aware of the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” I feel this had a huge play in the number of those in the audience. All together those who came out of curiosity and intrigue alone along with his fans from the seventies and all who came to be in between. Included in his set was a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” which even though was not completely true to how it was originally played, was still worthy of the applause it received.

Now, as you may have noticed, I have not made any indication as to which days anyone has played. When the lack of phone reception or battery became an obvious factor to us from day one, the only thing that we came to take note of was our meeting spot of ‘M9.’ My friends had carved this into my memory and days and time were unnoticed. For all of the instances we have ever said, ‘man, I wish I had a soundtrack to my life,’ this came true when we would take minutes out of the day to gorge on the surprisingly delicious festival food provided to us. Included in these moments away was even a spontaneous morning we spent in Byron having pints and conversations with locals and fellow festival goers. By this point, it was hard to imagine the world outside of Byron Bay existing and moving onward.

Back to Wonderland, being the incredibly vertically challenged person that I am, getting into the tent away from the pelleting rain was not on the cards for me. Although at the time, it seemed like a great idea, I disbanded from my friends to find a better spot to watch Santana. There was no chance of this. Instead, I chose to join the other devoted fans in the rain that were just as naive as me in not bringing any form of protection to thwart it. This became irrelevant as soon as he started playing. Santana’s lead vocalists, Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay, were a brilliant treat filling in the shoes of legendary voices like Rob Thomas and Wyclef Jean during the show. We came to know and take for granted this large and varied band setup then, here, seeing each expression of love and passion on their faces. The kind of musicians that now seem so rare, I eventually welcomed the pouring rain just to see those eyes. Inside the tent and definitely outside of it, I heard Santana all around me with fans singing along in unison and devouring his signature complex and endless riffs.

Unfortunately, due to so many inevitable clashes, we caught only a small part of Iggy and The Stooges. However, we made it just in time for Iggy Pop telling the audience to ‘get on stage and dance with The Stooges’ – oh, excellent. This drove those on stage and those in the audience wild. This was a fairly standard show for The Stooges as they paraded a shirtless Pop and gave the crowd what they wanted, plain dirty rock.

Now, Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters was a definite highlight. For all of you who were there for Bluesfest or caught one of his sideshows, I know you would agree with me here. You are conditioned and familiar with Robert Plant as the voice of Led Zeppelin and having this sound in your head that seems irrevocable. Though, you also deeply love the band, so you should know better. True to form, Plant delivered. The Sensational Space Shifters having quite a psychedelic feel to them combined with Plant driving the whole thing brought old classics like “Whole Lotta Love” and “Heartbreaker” back to life, but reincarnated. Forty years on and he still manages to bring people to their knees in awe with inscrutable innovation. With lights coming from the stage and places beyond it, amplified by the crowd losing all inhibition, I felt tears well up in my eyes.

Almost ashamedly, Bluesfest was the first time that I had heard of Blind Boys of Alabama and I shudder to think of what I would be had I not seen them. Being around since the 1930’s and being the brand of Gospel Blues that I delight in, their set proved to be one very unforgettable hour of splendour. Setting the whole tent off in uplifted, unrestrained and exalted dancing, blind “boys” Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Eric McKinnie with dashingly charming guitarist Joey Williams proved that blues is not a dead musical variety.

When we came around to see Roger Hodgson, I had met an older couple in the mosh and judging by their expression of elation and the way they held each other you just knew – they were there from the beginning. We talked about this deep love for Supertramp and could barely contain ourselves with anticipation. Post this discussion and close to the lead up to Hodgson getting on stage, they assured me that they would be a barricade around me so that no more of these ten-foot giant fans could stand in front of me.

As incredibly cliché as it may sound, “Breakfast In America” and “Dreamer” were definitely the highlight of his set. Not just because they were the most famous Supertramp songs, but they had the entire crowd dancing their own dance, jumping, screaming, being taken somewhere they only knew. Spending a good portion of the set with my eyes closed, there was still the feeling of this veil of pure love over the entire tent. Since my friends were amazing enough to let me stand in front of them for most of the festival, I looked back during “Breakfast In America” to see them losing it all, I looked back at the older couple and the woman and I grabbed each other’s arms, almost in fear of losing ourselves. Hodgson on stage brought me to the realisation of what distinguishes this era of rock to ours now. Forty years on and his integrity is still intact, that charismatic smile of his as he oversees the sea of people he has connected with for decades.

Bonnie Raitt was probably who I was most excited about. From the line-up, it may have seemed odd but, the way she is live and the way that she connects with her audience is just phenomenal. I left my friends to eat outside the tent as I tried to weasel my way through to the front, however, it proved that most people had the same idea and created a kind of blockade with no space for even me to push through. For a woman in her early sixties, Raitt sure knows how to pull a crowd and keep them there. Among most of the other musical legends alongside her at this festival, Raitt has been performing for more years than I have been in existence, so you come to expect a certain ease and comfort she has on stage. You would hear these constant bouts of fevered exclamations, like ‘I love you, Bonnie!’ or ‘Yeah, Bonnie!’ And, upon her encore, she took a seat and expectations came to fruition when she spoke of the beauty of the next ballad – queue “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” The entire tent stood still, which was appropriate for the intensity of the crowds’ fixated attention on one spot.

Paul Simon – what a God. Ruining the punch line, a man who plays a full set and receives three encores is a man to commend. Simon had a somewhat melancholic and earnest demeanour, which we soon found out had been caused by the passing of good friend and co-producer, Phil Ramone. Quite apropos was Simon’s tribute to his friend in playing “Slip Slidin’ Away” (Of which Ramone had co-produced). At this point, I turned around to my own friend, held her and said, ‘this is happening.’

Though, with this in mind, Simon still made a point to mention that he wanted everyone to be dancing. A mixture of classics and songs from his Graceland album set the audience on fire. As I earlier mentioned, he incited three encores and seemingly perpetual cheering. One of my favourite things about Bluesfest is the intergenerational mix, which was clear on the final night where the Mojo tent played host to the likes of Paul Simon. Backed by a full band of skilful and multi-instrumentalist musicians, Simon’s poetry not only came to life but came to us all individually and embraced us. There was a particular spot that we kept to in the Mojo tent where we had a glimmer of phone reception and I immediately texted my Mother and Father who were the reason for my Simon and Garfunkel adoration. Simon playing tracks like “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “The Sound of Silence” and closing with “The Boxer” in a way completed my life. In contrast to some of the other sets we caught, there was a surprisingly large amount of room to dance and loudly sing along.

This was the only way to end Bluesfest for me. When we had left the tent after Simon’s epic set, we trailed out flustered and speechless.

Festival Director, Peter Noble, has something to be proud of, indeed. This was a great year and having a fully sold out festival with satisfied faces made the insufferable portaloos and broken shoes worth every second.

Review: Womadelaide 2013

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All Photographs courtesy of Arcade Photo

In recent years Womadelaide has given folkies as much to be excited about as just about any other festival, barring the likes of Bluesfest or Woodford Folk. In previous years we’ve seen high profile acts like First Aid Kit, Luka Bloom, Joanna Newsom, Archie Roach & Angus and Julia Stone but a surprising list of fantastic, relatively unknown international artists which gives the festival a distinct appeal to anyone who approaches the event with an open mind, ready to discover something exotic and amazing.

Womad 2k13 Bands-23One of the great things about Womadelaide to me as an Adelaidian is that it’s a constant. I can rely on it, which sounds trivial but it’s something that almost every other festival can’t live up to. I can rely on the music programming to be insightful, contrasting and varied and the quality of sound to be to the highest standard. I can rely on there being great food, enough water, and adequate toilets. I can rely on the fact that I won’t be abused or harassed by drunken bullies and I won’t get into a situation where I’m going to be cramped or trampled. I can rely on having a good, relaxing weekend shared with friends and for that reason I think it has become sacred to a lot of people. Womadelaide has been running for 21 years now and I suppose they’ve essentially perfected it because for as long as I’ve been attending the festival it’s kept the same site layout, precincts, stages and amenities, which definitely contributes to the comfort levels of repeat attendees.

For the last 3 years (at least) the festival has spanned 4 days to include the Friday night before the weekend and the Adelaide Cup public holiday on the Monday following. The great thing about this is that it’s quite commonplace for artists to have more than one performance during the festival, which allows the flexibility to get around clashing set-times or prior engagements (which is a very real danger during the peak of Adelaide’s mad march festival season).

Womad 2k13 Bands-12The Friday night was the major event of my Womadelaide. Undoubtedly the atmosphere was at its most electrifying and everybody I spoke to was restless with anticipation for The Tallest Man On Earth, aka Swedish folk singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson. The Tallest Man On Earth has been one of my favorite artists ever since I first discovered his debut album Shallow Graves in 2009. That was an exciting time in this generation’s indie-folk revival, and Matsson has been contributing increasingly jaw-dropping works since. I had the enormous pleasure of seeing The Tallest Man On Earth perform last year at Womadelaide’s spin-off festival Earth Station that was held in the Belair National Park. Since that time he’s released a brand new album There’s No Leaving Now, which was largely the focus of his Womadelaide 2013 performance. Here’s what Timber & Steel contributor JDX had to say about the album;

“I was more than just a coward. I was handsome too”. One of the best opening lyrics I’ve ever heard. I was in a doctors’ waiting room; the venue for many of my musical discoveries. Kristian Matsson’s intricate chords, his sweeping melodies, his metaphors, sharp, yet brittle, stole me from the moment, as my favourite folk music always does. Matsson said There’s No Leaving Now was about wanting to deal with your own weaknesses. I felt weak. This album made me feel stronger. I could write reams about imagery, or interpretation, about how “Bright Lanterns” is the world’s best post-colonial protest song, about how this isn’t The Wild Hunt and whether that matters. But then I’d be saying too much.

Powerful right? I think that testimonial is representative of the command Matsson has on an audience. When I turned around to survey behind me from the front of Stage 3 during the set I saw a sea of affected faces- it stole us all for the better part of an hour.

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Matsson enters the stage and starts to play without a hint of ado, without a moment to feed his ego with the applause of an adoring mass as if to break the audience’s shackles with reality, their awareness of their surroundings and prepare them to experience the music and only the music. That’s not to say that his performance lacks humanity. Matsson is constantly, unashamedly, physically affected by his music during his performance, which can appear quite unique and peculiar at first but also allows the audience to feel uninhibited. Sometimes he assumes the famous one-legged stance of Jethro Tull flautist/front man Ian Anderson, and at other times he briskly whips back and forth the front of stage like a flamboyant magician showing the audience his empty hands before performing a trick. As per usual, The Tallest Man On Earth performed all by his lonesome until he was joined by a female vocalist (unknown to me) for a song towards the end of his set. Matsson’s trademark open-tuning, quick finger-picking guitar technique never ceases to amaze me. Among the songs from his latest album such as “1904″, “Wind and Walls”, “Leading Me Now”, and “Revelation Blues”, Matsson delved back into his back catalogue for some of his most moving tunes like “Love Is All”, “King of Spain” and “Like The Wheel” and even further back to tracks like “The Gardener”, “Where Do My Bluebirds Fly” and “I Won’t Be Found” from his debut. Below is a live version of one of my favorite tracks from his latest album for anyone who wants on the bandwagon.

Womad 2k13 Bands-25The next act I saw was the hyped Melbourne soul troupe Clairy Browne & The Bangin’ Rackettes, who I’d seen for the first time nearly exactly a year ago supporting Charles Bradley at Adelaide Festival’s Barrio club in 2012. The energetic horn section and spritely back-up singers gave a fantastic excitement to the show and provide the ideal backdrop for diva-queen Ms. Browne to stun the crowd with her powerful-as-all-hell vocals. You’d have all heard her tune “Love Letter” on the radio at some point, but if her Womadelaide 2013 performance proved anything to me it’s that Clairy’s not just a one trick pony.

Before calling it a night I caught the first part of The Cat Empire’s set. The enormous crowd that had gathered to the main stage was probably the biggest of the festival and really just goes to show that the Melbourne collective still has the pulling power to the “world-music” audience, even if their new tunes aren’t quite taking to “youth-radio” like they used to.

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Unfortunately suffering from heat exhaustion brought on by an ill-fated attempt to play a Saturday morning soccer game in the high 30 degree, humid conditions, I missed out on much of the acts over Womadelaide’s Saturday and Sunday, although made it for at least a couple of hours on both days. If there’s one thing for certain, this Womadelaide was the hottest in recent years, being mid-to-high thirties for the whole weekend. All of the acts that I saw on Saturday I came across by complete accident. I delightfully observed indigenous Arnhem Land act East Journey for a few minutes before finding my way to the Morteton Bay Stage to catch a few tunes from contemporary Scottish folk group LAU. Despite being someone who is less inspired by the trad spectrum of folk music, I was incredibly impressed by the musicianship on display and could easily imagine their performance erupting into an unbridled ruckus in a smaller, enclosed venue.

Before calling it a day I stole a moment with both a genre defying group of Parisian-expats called Moriarty and a beautiful, sparse performance on an ancient discarded instrument, the viola da gamba, from viola guru Jordi Savall.

Despite lingering sickness I decided to head into botanic park on Sunday for two performances that I’d eagerly been anticipating, Mia Dyson and Abigail Washburn. Although Mia Dyson is a very well known Australian Rock/Blues & Roots artist, I think the height of her fame must have fallen slightly before my time. I was familiar with her name but not her work, despite her being widely touted by the Blues & Roots community in Adelaide and her being one of the intensely publicized headliners for last year’s Backwater Blues & Roots Festival in SA. To put it simply, I was stunned by Dyson’s Womadelaide performance. Her voice was just so intense and faultless. It made me wonder why I had never heard her music before? Perhaps her style falls on the “Adult Contemporary” side of blues/rock, rather than the “indie” side that’s considered fair game for mainstream radio… This reminded me of an interview article I read on Fasterlouder with Jen Cloher called “Why we need a Triple J for adults”- an Australian artist who’s probably been pigeonholed in the same way as Dyson. Well worth a read.

I caught Abigail Washburn’s second performance of Womadelaide with her current collaborator Kai Welch and found it equally as enlightening as it was entertaining. I had listened to Washburn’s most recent record only a couple of times. As an amateur banjo picker I’m always interested to listen to how the instrument is being used in new music and Washburn is renowned the world over for the use of that Scruggs-style clawhammer banjo in her music. What I didn’t realize was that Washburn’s obvious Appalachian/bluegrass influences are supplemented by strong ties with Chinese culture. Washburn has spent a lot of time in China writing and playing music, speaks the language fluently and draws from the culture in her music. The blend makes for an intriguing result, but is not at all gimmicky. Washburn and Welch had the crowd singing in Chinese and told stories of their shared time in the country following the ravaging earthquakes. In terms of performance, she and Welch played off each other wonderfully, hitting impossible harmonies without falter. Washburn even felt the energy to get up and clog along to a tune despite her obvious pregnancy. She did a TED talk that I found very interesting. Watch below.

Womad 2k13 Bands-48On Monday I was joined by some old friends so I spent the day less intent on seeing performances and more dedicated to catching up. Throughout the day I managed to catch sets from hearty New Zealand blues duo Swamp Thing and UK fiddle prodigy/trad heart throb  Seth Lakeman. I also had the Timber & Steel photographer playing paparazzi for an photo-article called “Beards of Womadelaide 2013″, which I would sternly urge you all to visit.

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Review: Blue Mountains Music Festival, Katoomba, NSW

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

When I first moved to Sydney I found it a bit strange that the city didn’t have its own folk festival. Being the largest city in the country and home to so many talented folk musicians I assumed there must be such a thing as the Sydney Folk Festival. When I discovered there wasn’t it didn’t take me long to work out why – right on Sydney’s doorstep are some of the country’s best music festivals, tucked away in some of stunning locations. And one of the best of the best is The Blue Mountains Music Festival in Katoomba.

After a couple of years of mud-inducing torrential rain the Blue Mountains Music Festival was this year blessed with un-seasonally warm sunny days and crisp clear nights – a combination that drew some of the biggest crowds I’d ever seen at the festival. The market stalls were humming, the venues were pumping and the atmosphere was electric – and of course the music was spectacular.

I have to admit that while the lineup was solid it wasn’t one I was super excited about. A mixture of Australian artists who’ve been touring solidly for the last little while and a selection of overseas artists who are appearing at myriad other festivals this season meant the Blue Mountains lineup wasn’t unique, especially to a regular gig goer, but the quality was exceptionally high and there were still a couple of surprises to be had.

I resolved that I would spend my time at the festival catching artists that I just absolutely love to see live or that I’d been meaning to catch for a while. As a result I often found myself at gigs that were not the “must see” of any particular timeslot leading to a more intimate music festival experience and one that was perfectly suited to the laidback mountain location.

Of the bands I had seen before I was once again particularly impressed with the sets I caught from The April Maze and Bellyache Ben and the Steamgrass Boys. The former have fast become my favourite festival band thanks to their playful banter, great mix of original and covered songs and the way they interact with their audience. Even a heckler at their show in The Shed on the Saturday night couldn’t ruffle their feathers. And I have to say that The April Maze do one of the best covers of “Look at Miss Ohio” I know, completely unplugged and with the audience singing along.

The latter, Bellyache Ben and The Steamgrass Boys (who were without Ben for the festival due to illness), are simply the finest proponents of bluegrass and old-timey music in Sydney at the moment. The set I caught at the RSL Blue Room had the audience up and dancing and whooping along. I’d never thought I’d get excited about seeing the spoons played but when Seth Lakeman’s drummer Cormac Byrne jumped up on stage with the Steamgrass Boys brandishing cutlery I was mesmerised.

Speaking of Seth Lakeman, the English multi-instrumentalist and his band were at the top of my must-see bands for the Blue Mountains Music Festival and I was so happy to catch his set in the Big Top. The amount of energy in the room was amazing and Lakeman’s ability to deliver traditional and traditional leaning music in a fresh and exciting way is second to none. Just watching Lakeman sing and play the fiddle with such ferocity was amazing – and the fact that he was allowed an encore (a rarity at festivals at the best of times) shows just how popular he was with the Blue Mountains audience.

The other artist I hadn’t seen before that really blew me away was Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas. The musical journey they took us on through Europe with their fiddle and cello combination was absolutely magical and you can tell why they are considered among the best on the traditional music scene. It felt as though Fraser and Haas were elevating jigs and reels to be treated with the same reverence as classical music and I’m so happy to have caught them.

With so much fantastic music over the weekend it’s hard to squeeze a mention of every artist into one review. But what’s most important is that the Blue Mountains Music Festival has cemented itself as one of my favourite folk festivals in the country and definitely my number one recommendation to people looking for the folk festival experience. And all right on Sydney’s doorstep – I can’t wait till next year!

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