The Top Half Folk Festival Reveals 2017 Lineup

Ten Cent Shooters
Image Courtesy of The Ten Cent Shooters

After announcing WA country-blues trio The Ten Cent Shooters as their 2017 feature artist a few weeks ago The Top Half Folk Festival have revealed their lineup ahead of the June event.

The local Alice Springs lineup includes Karen & Jacko, Rusty & the Infidels, Neil & Mel Phillips, Dave Oakes, Mary Flynn, Ted Egan, Bloodwood and Edan Baxter as well as fellow Territorians Sally Balfour, Tony Suttor, Paul Stewart, Chris Pemberton and South Of Berrimah Line.

The interstate lineup includes Shamrock, Timber & Steel, Barney Foran, Bob Sharp, Phil Beck, Phil & Josh Gray, Ashlea Reale, Peter Bugden, Bob Barford, Ted & Carolynne Burns, Kirsty Robinson and Richard Gorter.

The Top Half Folk Festival takes place at the Glen Helen Homestead, west of Alice Springs, from the 9th to the 12th June. For more information check out the official Facebook page here.

Full Lineup for the Top Half Folk Festival Revealed

Fanny Lumsden
Image Courtesy of Fanny Lumsden & The Thrillseekers

We’re less than two weeks away from our favourite little folk festival, the Top Half Folk Festival in Central Australia, and it’s shaping up to be an amazing event.

The Top Half has already announced headliners Fanny Lumsden & The Thrillseekers (above) but this week they announced a raft of other artists including Ted Egan, Colin Lillie, Barry Skipsey, Sally Balfour, Margaret Walters, Bob Sharp, Scott Balfour, Dave Oakes, Don Bruce, Neil & Mel Phillips, Rusty & The Infidels, Malarkey, Watershed Players, Edan Baxter, Chris Pemberton & Tony Suttor, Peter Bate, Paul Stewart, South Of The Berrimah Line, Phil Beck, Phil Gray, Kirsty Evans, Ted & Carolynne Burns and the-band-that-became-a-blog Timber & Steel.

The Top Half Folk Festival is held from the 5th to the June at the Glen Helen Resort west of Alice Springs. As well as the festival there will be an informal welcome drinks in Alice Springs at the Gap View Hotel on Thursday 4th June. For more information on the Top Half Folk Festival including how to get your hands on tickets and accommodation check out the Central Australia Folk Society web site here.

First Listen: Child Ballads, Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer

photography by Jay Sansone

photography by Jay Sansone

Late one night at a folk festival many miles from anywhere,  the bar had been drained dry of Guinness by countless bearded folkies,  and I found myself posed a difficult challenge.  Musician Phil Beck had asked me to define exactly what Folk Music was exactly.  I slurred something difficult to understand but after honestly trying to understand me, Phil instead offered a simpler definition; folk music is simply music people have never stopped singing.  Folk music is, in short, music that people still want to listen to.

Child Ballads is the brand new Album from Anais Mitchell, this time teaming up with Jefferson Hamer.  Although some of the songs do indeed feature themes of babies and children the album is actually named after Sir Francis James Child, from whose five-volume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads these seven songs are culled.  The music is therefore not new, indeed you will have heard many of these songs in many guises before.

The genius here is that these fresh arrangements and finely arranged harmonies, beguiling in their simplicity, offer something genuinely original.  Lines written hundreds of years ago are made current, wounds reopened, magic rekindled and feuds renewed.  Although these songs have crossed an ocean, and are played in a relaxed American folk style,  the music has actually been  strengthened by this displacement.  Mitchell and Hamer have found a way to connect with each song and make it their own. Opening track “Willie of Winsbury” is a great English staple, heard many a time by this reviewer, yet here I found the many familiar voices coming to life in different and unexpected ways.

The standout track for me is “Tam Lin” whose magic unfurls slowly and quite frankly stuns in it’s simplicity.  Similarly, “Clyde Waters” sounds like it could have been written yesterday.  Hamer’s more precise and somehow traditional intonation and Mitchell’s more modern and huskier tones lend a balance and weight to the stories here, and the production of the entire album is remarkably consistent – allowing the music to breathe.

For the nu-folk listener; this is Trad you can play in public, and for the traditionalist – this is something that may surprise and delight.

We’ve heard all this before.  Many times.  But I still want to listen.

Child Ballads is out now from Wilderland Records. 

Review: The 42nd Top Half Folk Festival, Mary River, NT

Scott Balfour
Scott Balfour

The following review was written by Dave Evans. Evans is a regular performer at The Top Half Folk Festival, is one of the organisers of the Alice Springs leg of the festival and is also our Editor in Chief’s father.

“Tell me Dad, what is a Top Half Folk Festival?”

“Well son, it’s like this: a group of like minded musicians and friends from all over the Territory get together with another group of musicians and friends from all over Australia and they play music, and they drink, and they talk, and they recite poetry, and they play music, and they drink, and they talk, and they recite poetry, and occasionally they eat and sleep.”

“And they have been doing this for 42 years?!?!?!”

“They have, and I suspect that, livers willing, they might be doing it for some time to come.”

“Now that I have found my very first lagerphone that you made me all those years ago, can I go to the next one?”

“Only if you promise to play music, drink, talk, recite poetry, occasionally eat and sleep, and burn the lagerphone!!! Meanwhile let me tell you all about the 42nd Top Half Festival.”

The Top Half Folk Festival is held alternately in Central Australia (Glen Helen) and the Top End (Mary River) over The Queen’s Birthday weekend each June, and this year it was Darwin’s turn to be the host. The Mary River Park, roughly halfway between Darwin and Kakadu National Park, was the setting, and what a perfect place for a weekend of music and fun. I remember, with a touch of nostalgia, some of the earlier Top Half’s, which were held in local schools, with classrooms cleared so we could throw our swags down, and concerts held in vast concrete assembly halls. Good days, but there is no denying that the majestic ranges of Glen Helen in Central Australia and the likewise beautiful setting of the Mary River out of Darwin lend themselves more readily to one of Australia’s best small folk festivals.

This festival included as always some of the best musicians from the Territory, together with some musical mates from interstate, and guest artists, Danny Spooner and Dave Alleway with Di Gaylard. The weekend programme consisted of concerts, workshops, presentations, poetry, a folk quiz, impromptu sessions, and activities for the younger visitors. (“How to burn a lagerphone without starting a bushfire” was a suggested activity, but too many people turned up and the bushfires council wouldn’t allow it).

As is often the case with festivals, even the smaller ones, I wasn’t able to see everything, however, here are my thoughts on what I did get to, starting with some of the presentations.

Danny Spooner

Danny Spooner’s presentation on the life and music of Hamish Henderson, ably assisted by Dave Alleway and Di Gaylard, was an absolute ripper. Henderson, was a Scottish poet, a songwriter, a soldier, an intellectual, and a collector (along with American Alan Lomax) of folk songs. In many ways he was responsible for the folk revival in Scotland in the 50s and 60s and he also started a people’s festival in Edinburgh in the early 50s, where Scottish traditional music was played, a fore-runner I guess to the Edinburgh fringe festival of today. Danny sang a collection of great songs, with the standouts for me being “The D Day Dodgers” and “Banks Of Sicily” interspersed with insights into Henderson’s life. Great stuff.

A Tribute to Dave Meyers was presented by The Shiny Bum Singers and Friends. The Shiny Bums are well known in Canberra circles and have performed at the National Folk Festival down there. Dave Meyers performed with The Shiny Bums until his untimely death in 2010. A frequent visitor and performer at Top Half Festivals, this was a chance for his friends to pay tribute to his song writing skills and to remember a good man. Parodies galore about the public service, and his special song about the $5 sausage written after a memorable festival meal a few years ago. Good fun all round, a nice tribute to a nice person. Thank you to Pat and Arminel Ryan for making it happen. We’ll miss him.

Woody Guthrie: Ramblin’ Radical was presented on the Sunday by Paul Stewart and his usual cricket team of musicians. I must confess to being biased about this presentation as I was part of it, however, talking to people afterwards it was plain that it was not just me that thought this was one of Paul’s best yet. Months of research into the complicated man that was Woody Guthrie paid off, with Paul able to share insights into his life from all the research he had done, as well as using quotes, and the 20 plus songs, sung by the cricket team. Everything linked together beautifully, and although by all accounts he wasn’t a particularly nice man, his songs stand the test of time. Too many songs to mention them all, but “Do Re Me” “The Reuben James” and “Deportees” are worth following up on if you want to sample a bit of Woody Guthrie.

The folk quiz has become an integral part of Top Half’s in recent years, two panels of three face off against each other in a battle of wit(s) overseen by an irreverent MC (your’s truly) with the much sought after “winners are grinners” trophy being the ultimate prize. Musical knowhow is somehow lost amongst the mayhem that ensues, and the ultimate winners I guess are the audience, who seem to love the format, (a cross between Spicks & Specks and Rockwiz) and the humorous sparring between the panels and the MC. Judging from the comments afterwards many consider it a highlight of the weekend. Who am I to argue!!

I managed to see one of the afternoon concerts (Sat) sleep deprivation winning out on Sunday. I remember leaving at the end thinking how much I enjoyed it. There was a nice cross-section of music with The Randoms (Jabiru) Ian Kitney (Ex Katherine now Maryborough) Josh and Phil Gray (Perth) Karien, Ian and Jayne (Everywhere) and Last Minute (Darwin). There was something for everyone with both traditional and contemporary songs, tunes, and a cappella. Great to see young Josh (10 yrs. old?) upstage his Dad, together with some lovely harmonica playing. A nice version also by Last Minute (with Tony Suttor) of the Dave Oakes song “Uluru”.

The Saturday evening concert started in fine style with The Darwin Ceili Band. They are old hands at this, having been around for a long time, and they didn’t disappoint, a very polished performance.

Phil Gray from Perth minus his mates from Loaded Dog is a fine singer and song writer and it was good to see a solo performance from him. Chris Pemberton is a favourite of mine, his choice of songs, his guitar playing, and with a voice that is easy to listen to, he always comes up trumps.. Add in Tony Suttor on voice and squeezebox and you have a wonderful sound. Love it. Barry Skipsey from Alice Springs has been singing and writing great songs for many years now. It’s always a delight to see him perform and his newest song “The Green Box” about the plight facing many Aboriginal people in and around Alice Springs is both powerful and emotive. The Three Beans from Margaret River (Karien, Jenny, and George.) also played a great set, nice musical accompaniment with Jenny’s voice a stand out. What can one say about Danny Spooner that hasn’t already been said? A long time favourite of mine, a true professional on stage, a great selection of songs, “Harry was a Champion” and “The Lasses Who Dance” two standouts. A wonderful singer and musician, he is indeed a living treasure.

Ted and Caroline Burns
Ted and Caroline Burns and Dave

The Sunday concert was another great show, with some more of my favourite artists. Don Bruce from Tanunda, great voice, a beautiful guitar picking style: quality. Phil Beck from Perth, likewise a great guitar player, with a voice to match, an ability to choose good songs, and a nice easy stage presence. Ted and Caroline Burns were joined on stage by their friend Dave and his guitar playing added another level to this popular duos set. The best I have heard them sing. Top Stuff. My old mate Scotty Balfour never disappoints. I believe he is singing better now than ever, he’s comfortable on stage, his choice of songs compliments his voice, and it’s about bloody time he put out a cd. A harp and Scottish small pipes are perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea but give them to Dave Alleway and Diane Gaylord and the result can only be a selection of wonderful Celtic and English songs and tunes. “The Pearl/Jamie Raeburn” and “Drummer Question/Beeswing” were great examples of this.

So there you have it, another wonderful weekend of quality music and spoken word with friends and new acquaintances. As I said I didn’t get to everything, but talking to Jim Smith who ran the poets breakfasts whilst I slept, these were as popular as ever and a wide range of material was covered. I am contemplating writing a workshop titled “workshops I have missed” there’s plenty of material to be had. As you can imagine there were some terrific sessions, on the Friday night, and after the evening concerts on Sat. and Sun., out on the balcony of the main building, as well as another session going on each night around the campfire with Kevin McCarthy.

As a final note, I would like to congratulate the Mary River Park hosts, Rogan and Bronwyn, who provided terrific food and ensured that enough beverages were available to keep everyone happy. They even organised a special delivery of Guinness when stocks got dangerously low. My kind of people. My thanks also to the dedicated band of Top End folkies who organised the weekend’s festivities. The meaning of life is 42 and this was the 42nd Top Half Folk Festival. It couldn’t fail really could it!!?

I’m off to give my liver a rest, until the next one that is.

Dave Alloway
Dave Alleway

Review: 41st Top Half Folk Festival, Alice Springs

Songs From the Attic/Shed
Image Courtesy of Barry Skipsey

As I awoke bleary eyed and rolled out of my swag on the cold, crisp morning of the Queens Birthday Monday I suddenly realised that the Top Half Folk Festival was over for another year. The weekend had flown by in a blur of folk music and whiskey and it was time to pack up the hire car and make the weary trip from Glen Helen to Alice Springs and once again face the real world.

The Top Half Folk Festival is held alternately in Central Australia (Glen Helen) and the Top End (Mary River) and this year it was the “bottom half’s” turn. Showcasing some of the Northern Territory’s best established and up-and-coming folk music talent, along with special guests from interstate, the Top Half is everything that’s wonderful about a small regional festival – intimate venues, a family atmosphere and beautiful acoustic music filling the equally stunning surroundings.

The official program of the Top Half takes place over the Saturday and Sunday of the Queens Birthday long weekend (with the unofficial program continuing in the Glen Helen Homestead over three late nights) with a single venue hosting a selection of concerts, workshops and other folky goodness throughout.

Day one saw a heady mixture of traditional and contemporary folk to delight and inspire the audience who were trickling in from Alice Springs throughout the morning. The day kicked off with the famous Poet’s Breakfast hosted by the equally famous Jim Smith (VIC) and then was followed by a fascinating maritime themed workshop from WA duo Lesley Silvester and Mike Murray (an odd choice for a desert festival but who doesn’t like a good sea shanty?).

Next up local legend Dave Evans (Bloodwood) presented one of the highlights of the festival, interviewing West Australian group The Loaded Dog with hilarious consequences (and even a few songs thrown in for good measure). I use the term “interviewing” loosely with the majority of the presentation seeing Evans and The Loaded Dog trading friendly barbs and generally trying to outwit each other. The result was not only a great introduction to The Loaded Dog’s music (for those of us who hadn’t heard them before) but a fantastic introduction to the more formal concerts for the rest of the day.

Ted Egan and Jeanette Wormald
Image of Ted Egan and Jeanette Wormald Courtesy of Barry Skipsey

The two Saturday concerts were peppered with some absolutely delightful music spanning folk in all its forms from trad (Darwin’s Moonta Revellers) to contemporary (South Australia’s Don Bruce) and even klezmer (local band Rusty and the Infidels). Highlights from the day included the troubadour stylings of Edan Baxter and Jamie Balfour (Alice Springs) on resonator and lap steel, the irrepressible Ted Egan (Alice Springs) singing some of his most cherished Australian songs, Jeanette Wormald (Alice Springs) who had been coaxed out of semi-retirement from professional music to play a gorgeous set of contemporary country music and Dom Costello and Michael David (Alice Springs and QLD) who absolutely blew me out of the water with their Celtic inspired contemporary folk.

The festival’s special guest, WA singer songwriter Peter Bugden, appeared in two slots over the weekend including closing the Saturday night concert and a solo slot at lunchtime on Sunday. As charismatic as ever, Bugden charmed audiences with his unique mix of humour and poignancy. At one moment Bugden would have the audience rolling in the aisles to one of his stories or tongue-twisting songs and then the next moment they would be enraptured by a song full of heartbreak and longing. While Bugden hails from Perth he has had a long association with the Territorian folk scene and his performances solidified his standing as one of the Top Half’s favourite “blow ins”.

Sunday proved more of the same high quality performances starting once again with Jim Smith’s Poet’s breakfast before launching into a day of workshops and concerts. Paul “Stewy” Stewert once again assembled a “cricket team” (top image) of festival musicians (including members of local folk music heroes Bloodwood) for a workshop featuring songs from the depths of his impressive record collection. The workshop had the audience commenting how dismal their record collections were in comparison and many of the musicians frantically writing down the names of the all the new songs they had to learn.

Timber and Steel
Image of Timber and Steel Courtesy of Barry Skipsey

The two Sunday concerts were once again a mixture of the old and the new (both in terms of the music and the acts) and really demonstrated why audiences keep coming back. Highlights included South of the Berrimah Line (Katherine) combining old timey, country, Celtic and contemporary folk music with wonderful instrumentation and harmonies, Australian folk legend Margaret Walters (NSW), Phil Beck (WA) whose beautiful finger picking style and affection for the sadder side of folk music reduced some audience members to tears and the-band-that-became-a-blog Timber and Steel flexing their nu-folk muscles. The night was closed out by local rock/blues/folk/country trio Built for Comfort who had the crowd rocking in their seats and singing along to all the words.

Session Bar
Image Courtesy of Barry Skipsey

Many of the Top Half’s best moments occur off-program in the Glen Helen Homestead or the “Session Bar” as it’s commonly referred to. After each evening concert draws to a close the crowd descends on the homestead, musical instrument in one hand, a frothing pint in the other, and plays, sings and dances well into the early morning hours. At any given moment you can be treated to set dancing, traditional Irish fiddle tunes, a Capella singing and pub classics resonating through the building and out into the MacDonnell Ranges beyond.

Playing music, dancing and singing until 3am every morning and then ensuring you’re up in time to catch the Poet’s Breakfast takes its toll, hence the bleary eyes from this reviewer on the Monday morning. But the lack of sleep and below zero temperatures most mornings did nothing to dent the feeling that we had been a part of one of the best little festivals in the country. And the fact that it will be held in the tropical north next year has already inspired us to want to do it all again. Congratulations to the Central Australian Folk Society and the Top End Folk Club for another amazing Top Half Folk Festival. Long may they continue.

41st Top Half Folk Festival This Queens Birthday Weekend, 11th-13th June

Top Half Folk Festival
Image Courtesy of Barry Skipsey

One of Australia’s great little folk festivals is happening again from the 11th to 13th June. Now in its 41st year, which must make it one of Australia’s longest running folk festivals, The Top Half Folk Festival alternates between Darwin and Alice Springs. This year it’s Alice’s turn, and the venue is once again The Glen Helen Resort. Just 132klms west of Alice Springs is the magnificent Glen Helen Gorge, fashioned by the famous Finke River and nestled amongst the magnificent MacDonnell Ranges, a perfect backdrop for a festival. The Top Half Festivals have never been large in numbers but make up for this with their friendliness, quality of music and uniquely Territorian flavour. Over the years many of Australia’s top folk performers have performed at the festival and this year’s list of confirmed visiting artists is promising to make it another ripper.

Peter Bugden is the featured guest artist. Peter has lived in Perth for many years and is well known around Australia for his singing, guitar accompaniment and wonderful laid back introductions that have had many an audience in stitches. Also featuring from Perth will be Loaded Dog, Mike Murray & Lesley Sylvester, and Phil Beck. From NSW we have Margaret Walters, Francesca Sidoti and the-band-that-became-this-blog Timber and Steel. Also appearing will be The Dingos Breakfast Duo consisting of Roger Montgomery, John Angliss and Martin Pearson (wait – duo?), Don Bruce from S.A. will be there and a contingent from Bendigo are also driving up. The usual suspects from Darwin will be driving down, Tony Suttor, Peter Bate and Paul Stewart to name but three, and Alice Springs locals Ted Egan, Barry Skipsey and the odd Bloodwood* member or two, may well be found near the bar area.

The weekend opens with a welcoming BBQ on Friday and a free for all music/song session and continues through Saturday and Sunday with a mixture of concerts, presentations, poetry, craft, and mighty jam sessions that go on into the wee small hours. Monday is recovery day and a chance to fully appreciate the beautiful surroundings or simply to lie down and get some sleep. The usual facilities are all available out at Glen Helen, however accommodation is limited and it’s best to book before going (Shelagh at Glen Helen can be contacted on 08 8956 7489)

If you want further information about the festival contact Dave Evans or Scott Balfour (the B and D of Bloodwood) at tophalffolkfest@gmail.com

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