There’s an urgency in the air. A poignant warmth of energy amongst the streaming crowds that waft across each street, holding back the traffic, criss-crossing in groups that intersect and divide and combine as mothers push prams and kids beg fathers for ice-cream money and people accost friends they haven’t seen since the last festival. I’ve had a couple months off. Tied up in the day to day of finishing last year I neglected this thing that I love and it’s so good to be back. There was a point last year where I attended a glut of festivals, probably seven or eight in a couple of months, and I started to take it for granted. In the height of festival harvest feast I forgot what famine felt like, and how easy it is to slip in to the complacency of staying home to ‘finish off some work’ and ‘oh there’s always the next one’. This was a return and it felt particularly good.
I spent the weekend at Newstead where I was working with Irish lads The Ocelots. It was mainly a catch up weekend: catching up with an array of amazing musicians, some who I’ve known for years and some who I’ve eyed off from afar with awe. Catching up with punters, many of whom are more rabid about music than the musicians themselves and count time in festival experiences: “…yeah I’ve seen Eric Bogle once a decade since the 1970s” . Catching up with memories of what my favourite festival performers do, and all the little moments that fill in the slots between them.
There are the easy memories: stealing a moment to make half cooked pasta, seasoned with borrowed srirarcha in a footy oval camp kitchen. Leaving the festival to dive into the nearest body of water (not limited to: bluegrass pool parties at Newstead Live, an impromptu beach run at Illawarra Folk Festival, leaving Queenscliff to ‘surf’ at Bells Beach and then arriving back at stage sopping wet to perform, a particularly freezing river bath from Tanglewood where I stood shivering in ankle deep water hoping to wash off three days of red dust but not willing to attempt death by a thousand cuts, and of course diving into a defunct volcano at Tablelands Folk Fest). Resigning yourself to stolen moments of sleep, from the early morning tent sessions where sleep is stolen from you by the swarm of dawn galas, to the mid arvo nap where you steal sleep back under a tree in the ‘backstage greenroom’. Coating every moment is a swarm of sound. Different stages blast converging streams of noise and in between there are the Morris Dancers and roving groups of Bolivian Pan Pipe bands, all mixed up with traditional fiddle sessions and on street buskers. I remember one particularly enterprising family band at Bello Winter Fest where the family’s five children had been separated and each given their own little turf down a stretch of main street. The quality of music inevitably declined as you walked down the line, starting with a relatively capable teenage blues guitarist, descending through several fiddle players and a ukulele and finally ending on the star child, an adorably cute four year old girl excitedly banging a triangle in front of a large bucket full of money. You can draw your own parallels to the state of the music industry and what elicits the biggest emotional response.
Here are some particular moments I want to remember from Newstead 2020:
Attendees to this festival love singing, and I participated in impromptu sing alongs at nearly every show I attended (I was amazed at the first show to hear audience members start singing along before they’d been prompted. By the last show I took it as assumed that you could just start singing once you’d learned a couple of words) from Kerryn Fields, Michael Waugh, Rich Davies, The Ocelots, Tuck Shop Ladies etc. A big shout-out goes to the lady who sat next to me at one show and created a new harmony for every single chorus of a song. She started (quite naturally) on the fifth, then jumped to the third on the second chorus. For the third chorus she was singing in unison an octave up and by the last chorus she was happily warbling a wavering falsetto that slid silkily over top of everything and vaguely sounded like a theremin.
We found ourselves at the pub nearing midnight on Friday. The dying moments of Roger Federer’s Australian Open match were on the telly in the corner (fun fact, I served Federer a cheese toastie at the Players Cafe in 2008). I found myself pulled from conversation towards the glowing lights, and finally resigned myself to pulling up a chair and a pint to watch him take the match against Millman to overtime and then push point by point to a final victory as a crowd of thirty people yelled at the TV, high-fived each other and generally carried on. About two metres behind us was a fiddle session, where twelve musicians played pumping Irish fiddle tunes, getting louder and faster to carry over our hubbub. It culminated in Federer winning, the TV getting flipped off and everyone resuming quiet conversation as the fiddle session pulled to a close and the grumpy barman called last drinks. It only occurred to me later to ask one of the performers how long they’d played for that day (five hours straight since seven o’clock) and then to compare that with how long Federer’s match went for (four hours). How strange, that where one group of performers are lauded for their skills, plastered across front pages and celebrated for their endurance ability, another group fight and flurry to boost their volume over a crowd of drunk punters and play traditional music composed over a hundred years ago.
I left the festival late on Sunday afternoon to drive home, and as I pulled out of town I mulled over the memories. The term ‘folk festival’ incites a certain mood, a vague feeling of acoustic guitars and warm beers in plastic cups and tents that collapse in the night, but there is so much more to it than that. As much as I love to classify everything I come in contact with, each festival is the sum of a million parts and while the basic building blocks might be the same (singer-songwriters, dusty halls, worried looking folkies rushing down the road to catch the next set) its hard to encapsulate exactly what each festival is and what makes it special. While a festival like Port Fairy is amazing for the sheer number of patrons (and the drawing power that gives them to get amazing international acts in) and Tablelands is amazing for the location (glorious green rainforests in amongst the hills of Queensland), I have to say Newstead is amazing for its sense of community. The people behind it are some of the best in the world, and that makes it a world-class festival.