A Punter’s Perspective 09 — After the Party (NFF 2008)

National 2011469A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage

#9 After the Party (National Folk Festival 2008)
First published in Trad and Now magazine, April 2008

By Bill Quinn

After the band has played ‘Waltzing Matilda’
They’ve torn down the streamers
And left you alone
And the carpark’s deserted
And the weeds they’re growing
I’m still here
I still love you
Come on; I’ll take you home.

From ‘After the Party’, from the album “Etched in Blue” (1987).

Reprinted with kind permission of John Schumann

I’ve always thought that some of the truest words are said in jest, or at least with little thought. Some of these utterances unexpectedly reveal the deepest meaning, and illuminate the most clichéd and the most banal of banal sayings.

On topic, and ‘front-brain’ for this punter ever since the 2008 National Folk Festival, is the often repeated claim that musos, organisers, volunteers and punters ‘grieve’ when a festival closes.

‘Are you OK?’
‘Yeah, just in mourning for the [insert name of latest festival].’

Sometimes they really do die a little inside as the tents come down and the sound gear packs up.

It sounds a touch melodramatic, but this proposition has been validated by some light investigation, and by comments solicited from a selection of festival-goers, not just at the National.

Individuals’ comments and conversations reported below have deliberately not been attributed – the contributors know who they are. I thank the respondents but appreciate (and hope you do too, dear reader) that this can be a very personal topic.

A couple of musos left the National site mid-Monday afternoon with faces longer than a wet week.

“We’re depressed; we have to leave,” said he.

A quick, clarifying question confirmed the low feelings were as a consequence of the leaving, and not vice versa. Family matters had trumped the festival experience, and priorities had favoured the loved ones off-site.

With last, wistful glances at the festival ground, as the session bar had just started to warm up for the afternoon, as the buskers cranked it up for one last squeeze of the public’s disposable income, and as all manners of sounds spilled out of the adjacent Troubadour and Palladium venues.

The pair observed a silent moment’s mourning for good times not yet had, despite the treasured times now committed to memory.

Another folkie family found the time and capacity to leave the festival grounds and return to the world of the muggles, devoting attention to other pursuits from time to time over the course of Easter.

For this family, other musical projects, study and maybe simply an injection of solitude and sanity, were allowed to take priority.

Must try it some time.

Comparing our vastly different upbringings, a woman related her experience in growing up totally immersed in folk music and song. Her repertoire in the singing sessions was stunning, but she waved off the compliments and explained it as inevitable, given her complete inculcation in the words of a thousand ditties, shanties and ballads.

Famous names, faces and voices were constant kitchen and lounge room companions, and the outcome is now a roll-call of standard chorus songs to share, plus many more on the more obscure shelf.

More than that, this woman’s complete joy and love of the music were palpable: you could be totally deaf and still appreciate how the music and lyrics moved through her as she sang, just by watching her physical engagement with her chosen songs.

Her experience is not isolated, and anonymous talents revealed themselves every night in the Singing Room and in other sessions.

A first-time punter revelled in the cacophony of sound, light and magic being weaved at every turn of his first festival. After many attempts, he’d made it and managed to drag friends and compadres along. All of them were buzzing with the joy of discoveries, shared and solo.

A week later he was still vibed up from memories of his first time, and was looking here, there and everywhere for how to get the rush back, to get another hit without waiting until next Easter. Happily there are other dealers of adrenaline and blood sugar rushes to be had all year.

Occasionally, a slightly harder edge could be heard from a seasoned old salt of 20-odd Nationals, as she or he would attempt to rain on some newcomer’s parade.

It’s not the same anymore; you should have been here in [insert random year here] – now that was a festival!’

Such mutterings are best left where they fall, with a big deferential grin and a shrug of the shoulders to the speaker, and an imperceptible edging away from the same.

Then run, newbie, run. Save thyself.

The old salts can still get away with such jibes if they’re done in the right spirit. At a folk club in Brisbane a few days later, a “veteran” (aged less than 30 years) looked out from the stage into a sea of older faces in the crowd and chided derisively: ‘I remember the time when this used to be a folk club. Now you young’uns come in here with your fancy music and your beat-box!’

A table of random punters thrown together in that club compared festival experiences, including the need to leave for home at varying times for whatever reason, not least to make the long haul back northwards.

Distance dictated one left early. Sanity required one stay until after stumps and shell out money well-spent on a return by air. Another owed his allegiance (and livelihood) to the crown, and departed earlier to take up the tools (and boarding passes) of trade.

A well-known muso described this year’s National as ‘mind-blowingly wonderful on a lot of levels’, a bit ‘life-changing’, and a process of ‘going full circle’ in her times at that festival.

‘I always thought of myself as an all-round musician; now I think of myself as a singer/songwriter.”

Her pride in truly arriving as a solo artist was augmented by watching another session musician emerge. A regular on the stage, she played and sang by his side as an audience watched in rapt appreciation, and another young musician came into his own.

What does she feel as the curtain comes down on another festival?

‘Grief. Seeing people I might not see for up to a year. Wishing I’d done this or that. And relief too. The frantic lead up to the festival is over. The grief is there, but it’s mixed in with exhaustion and a real high too.’

A week later she was recuperating at home with the ‘flu. This seems a common syndrome; when the body’s allowed to rest, when the carnival is over, the mortal defences come down.

Then it’s tissues and hot lemon tea all round.

For this punter, this year’s National cost me dearly in personal and emotional reserves. Parting was indeed sweet sorrow, at 1.30am on Tuesday morning, drawn by the inexorable lure of a 5am alarm call for the next leg of an interrupted national day job road-show. Six state capitals and Canberra over three weeks; if I’d made it to Darwin, I could have collected my complete set of steak knives and an elephant stamp.

Why do these things happen at National time?

Driving down Northbourne Avenue with a head full of cotton, with an empty tank (and not much petrol either), listening to the next favourite album starting to creep into my consciousness.

Still buzzing from an emotional parting from the singing session, buoyed by the concern of a group that felt the hurt of one of their own, and had healed as only they knew how: with joyous, participatory song.

(Apologies now to anyone who took offence at the vaudevillian actions that Brent and I workshopped to the strains of a shared rendition of ‘The World Turned Upside Down’.)

A handful of hours later I gazed mournfully from the window of the 6.40am flight to Sydney. After many years of watching Canberra fade away below a parade of aircraft, there’s still some new view to be gained, some different aspect to consider, depending on the time of day/year, the light, the weather, the direction of ascent/descent.

On this grey, cool morning, it was a revelation just how small the airport, the industrial zone next door, and the defence headquarters now looked. Everest-like mountains once towering above the small child now appeared as mere blisters on the landscape below.

But as the roads rolled or snaked away, it finally dawned (pun intended) that the poorly-lit, drab sector of roads, buildings and pacing track below were in fact the site of the National, which at 7am were doubtless still the domain of at least some last gasp festival party stalwarts.

It all seemed so small and insignificant.

And mostly over.

Why the long face? It’s about to revert to car fairs, farmers’ markets, regional showground and eventually, be decimated in the annual orgy of the rev heads.

Sometimes you just need some distance, and indeed, you need to rise above some experiences and places, if only to get some perspective.

See you at the next one, all you people who have songs. And tunes. And voices and hands to carry them.

Bill Quinn


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