A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
#8 Braidwood Folk Club
First published in Trad and Now magazine, March 2008
By Bill Quinn
Many Canberrans beat a path from home to the south coast of New South Wales, so most know the main street of Braidwood like the backs of their hands. They’re typically racing through on a Friday evening (with a coastal destination in mind) or Sunday evening (en route back home to hoover the beach out of the back seat of the car).
Somewhat fewer make the trek on a Thursday evening, say, the third Thursday of the month. But if they do, they’d be well-advised to peel off at Wilson Street, past the park (site of several million traditional coast trip loo stops) and on down to the Anglican Hall, the current meeting place for the Braidwood Folk Club (BFC).
For a bit of geographical positioning, Braidwood lies about 90km slightly to the south east of Canberra, and just before the Clyde Mountain, the proving ground for many a learner driver of the region. If you really want to get the picture, track down a copy of the 1987 film ‘The Year My Voice Broke’ as it’s filmed on location.
Having passed through Braidwood roughly 27,000 times since the age of eight, I finally took a chance to stop in to the folk club last September to see Women in Docs, and then again in February to see Bob Fox, the latter currently on a two-month tour of Australia and New Zealand.
With the National Folk Festival barely a handful of days away (and you can see both those acts at the National, by the by), it felt like a good time to take look at the other end of the spectrum: a smaller, rural venue, and the home of the holders of one of the better smaller festivals in the country (Music at the Creek, held in November just down the road at Majors Creek).
Foundation members Sue Rendell and Michelle Munn provided a little background history. The BFC has been meeting since its first sessions on Sunday afternoons in 1991 at Gordon Pritchard’s home at Mongarlowe, a picturesque locality about 10kms out of Braidwood.
And maybe they should have lingered there a little longer, because in 1992 when they moved proceedings to their first formal meeting at the Commercial Hotel in town, the night was shut down prematurely over some laughable red tape: there was an exit sign missing. But they kicked on at another member’s house for what became quite the legendary night.
From there, the meetings bounced around different days and different venues: the courtyard at the pub, the pizza place, the Anglican Hall, the Grapevine Café and then about three years ago, they settled back into the Anglican Hall.
It’s a superb little venue and the lack of a PA doesn’t detract from the experience as the acoustic sounds fairly resonate off the wooden walls and floors, and the rather striking turquoisey/aqua-coloured church pews that line the sides of the hall.
You’d be forgiven for inferring a bit of real estate-speak to hear the place described as ‘intimate’. But it’s definitely an apt description of the mood generated there, rather than being merely a euphemism for ‘small’.
Firstly, you get a great view from any seat, ranged as they are around tables of different shapes and sizes, all beautifully adorned with various tablecloth designs, and a vase of whatever flower is in season or around at the time. Plus mood-setting candles, of course.
Secondly, there is just a palpable sense in that cosy place that you’re in someone’s slightly over-sized (and moderately ecclesiastical) lounge room. And of course, when you’re all arranged around the lounge room, you want to have a chat and involve everyone, and that fact was not lost on Roz and Chanel from Women in Docs.
“This is the first gig we’ve had for a while that people talk to us!”
Or ‘with’, for that matter, as there was definitely conversation going both ways between the act and the audience. (It was a stark contrast to the previous evening when I’d been at a rock gig at the ANU, and there may as well have been a brick wall in front of the two big name acts for all the acknowledgement or regard they gave the punters.)
That sense of relative ease was a hallmark of the evening, with a fine balance of personal songs (each with a story of their own), a few big rousing singalongs, and a few longer tales about eye-opening trips to China with Radio National and suchlike.
Roz related the story of her grandfather in World War I and then sang a highly emotional song about immigration and making a new home in a far distant, far different land (‘This land I call home/Isn’t right for me/Will it be home for me?/Will it be right for my family?’) which had an affect on many, including one who had to step outside; or maybe something was in his eye. “It’s OK, I’m having a leak,” he said, heading in the opposite direction to the toilets.
The two nights couldn’t contrast much more in terms of weather, because in the middle of February, for Bob Fox’s first gig on the Australian mainland, it was much balmier. Bob mused that just over a month ago he’d been freezing in the depths of a northern English winter, as he stood there now in the Anglican Hall in shorts, t-shirt and sandals.
(One thing that constantly strikes me about folk is how up close and accessible the acts can be. It had been a few years since I’d seen Bob play at the National and soon thereafter at ‘The Merry Muse’, so when I passed a bloke out the front wearing an alarming orange shirt, and leaning casually against the fence sending text messages, the penny didn’t drop that this was the famed singer from Sunderland.)
On this night, BFC club president Arthur Baker was looking well-pleased. The hall was full, it was a pretty good night for Braidwood, and they were glad to have the pulling power of a big name.
Is it rare to get the marquee acts through here? ‘Oh no,’ Arthur said. ‘We quite often get the big acts coming through on their tours. Especially if they’ve got a weekend gig booked elsewhere in the region, we find we can get them on a Thursday night’.
Bob Fox’s set meandered enticingly through over 30 years of material, which he’d strategically chosen to showcase his five available CDs. ‘Because before I left home, I told my grand-daughter I’m going to Australia to play my music and sell some CDs so I could, like, maybe buy her some shoes…’
The Braidwood crowd were in fine voice again and helped out on such familiar numbers as ‘Dance to Your Daddy’, or sat in hushed, emotional attentiveness during ‘Child of Mine’, a beautiful song by fellow Sunderlanders Anthony and Gerry Kaley, a song that every parent should hear, about that bond between parent and child.
There was a moment of… well, probably not irony but something like it, when Bob sang ‘Jack Crawford’ and explained Jack’s part in the Battle of Camperdown in 1797 when the sailor had defiantly nailed the colours of the union to the top of the mast of the HMS Venerable. Bob’s concert was held on the day after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had delivered the official apology to the Stolen Generations, so Bob was giving us a history lesson about the Union Jack, while behind him the large Australian flag had the word ‘Sorry’ in bright, bold letters slapped across the top left corner.
Later, as Bob reclined against the hall’s kitchen counter with a glass of post-gig red wine, I asked him for an observation about Australian audiences. ‘I think the great thing is that they’re so accepting of so many styles of music. There’s just this great acceptance and willingness to try anything and give it all a go.’
And that seemed fairly apt on a night that had featured some poetry and a few old Australian bush songs from John Weeks the MC, and even a couple of tango numbers from local dancer Erika Mordek.
The final impressions on both nights at the Braidwood Folk Club are lasting ones: Braidwood has the best club night pack-up crew. And they’re not a sparse few club stalwarts; it’s almost the whole audience that gets involved. The tablecloths were off, the candles out, the chairs stacked, the rubbish removed and the floor swept. Ten minutes after the last encore has faded and you’d never guess anyone had been there. It’s enough to make other club organisers weep. (The Braidwoodies should hire themselves out.)
It truly does pay to get off the beaten track once in a while and check out the smaller clubs. If you’re within cooee of Tallaganda Shire on the third Thursday of the month, drop into the Anglican Hall and see what’s on.