A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
#31 Watching the passing parade at Illawarra
First published in Trad and Now magazine, January 2012
There’s an old saying that goes, ‘If you sit in one spot at a festival, eventually the whole festival will pass you by’.
This is especially handy for making unplanned musical discoveries and for finding lost friends if (heaven forbid) you can’t hunt them down by mobile phone.
(I’m still working on a device that turns everyone’s mobile phone off or to silent as soon as they’re within 100m of a festival. Patent pending.)
As I found at my sixth Illawarra Folk Festival (their 27th), sitting in one place is also a great source of inspiration when you want to get material for an article.
To clarify, I never ever ever set out to try to encapsulate a whole festival in 1400 words.
To even think about attempting to speculate it is at best ambitious, mostly because there’s not one festival, there’s more like 9500 individual festivals (to quote a figure from the Illawarra Mercury).
Each individual’s experience will depend on their choices out of myriad venues and acts.
That’s to slightly state the obvious, but I thought it worth mentioning again this habit of mine for just cherry-picking bits and pieces with usually an eye and an ear for anything that’s in any way quirky.
(I was recently taken to task by a reader for being apparently flippant about festival proceedings, especially for mentioning what was available at one place for breakfast. So there will definitely be no mention of the $6 breakfast burgers featuring bacon, egg, cheese and chorizo that were a staple of my start to the day. Glad we sorted that one out.)
By way of disclaimer, I’m hopelessly in love with the Illawarra Folk Festival.
I first attended in 2007 somewhat by accident and misadventure when a new gearbox precluded my heading south to the Chewton/Newstead area of Victoria and instead chose the much closer Illawarra.
I missed the Jamberoo era, but it’s always interesting and illuminating to hear the inevitable discussions and comparisons of the current Slacky Flat event versus the variously good old or bad old days.
Rather than run around this particular Illawarra fest, for a substantial slab of Saturday, I just plonked myself under the Grandstand at a table and observed.
The first people to catch my notice reminded me of me when first discovering festivals. The bloke was trying to match an extensive hand-written list of acts and times with his official program, highlighting this, circling that, annotating here and there. There was some pretty hardcore spectator planning going on.
‘Aren’t you going to schedule in a lunch or a dinner break?’ his partner enquired.
These did not seem like priorities in the world of that particular punter.
Two blokes then shared my table and proceeded to discuss and deconstruct the performances and performers to date. Sometimes it’s nice to have your own observations backed up and validated by random strangers. One was expounding the virtues of what I believe were the find of the festival: the Bearded Gypsy Band from Adelaide.
‘Who are they?’
‘A bunch of young blokes. They look like they’re about 23 years old.’
(They actually range in age from 17 to 21, but close enough for folk.)
And I had to pass this next observation on to the woman in question (Holly Downes) when I saw her later in the day:
‘I really dig The String Contingent. There’s a girl on double bass; she’s the best bass player I’ve ever seen. She’s brilliant.’
Isn’t it wonderful, artists, to know that these sorts of conversations are taking place? For every punter who comes up after the gig to say you’re great, there’s a dozen or a hundred others having private conversations like this on your merits.
Zondrae King the poet shared my table for a while. We were both due to judge the Woolly Yarns Competition in the Grandstand Bar later. That’s a competition for who can spin the best story, by the way, not a knitting contest. Just to be clear.
Zondrae gushed about the Poets’ Breakfast that morning, and was also thinking about the upcoming competition which is traditionally marked by not-so-inconspicuous bribes from the participants, often in the form of the sponsor’s product from the bar.
‘I’m hard to bribe,’ observed Zondrae. ‘I don’t drink and I won’t take money. If someone gives me a neck massage, they’ll do well though.’
For the record, no neck massages or schooners of Pale Ale changed hands during the competition, and we had to award it to Kevin Donnegan on (gasp) merit.
At a nearby table, Scott ‘Feral’ Sneddon was honouring a more recent festival tradition: painting beards and goatees in fluorescent paint you could see from Sydney.
Possibly the moon.
Anyone with facial hair who stops for long is fair game, and there were several new inductees into the fold. It seems to have greater effect on the silver-haired varieties and there’s no shortage of those around at a folk festival.
Dave Wilks the bodhran man stopped by to exchange pleasantries and to give an update on his drumming partner in crime, Kevin Kelly, who I thought was going to be here.
‘He’s just come back from Abu Dhabi, but he’s at a pagan festival this weekend, so he’s probably dancing naked around campfires.’
Scary visual images begone.
Going for a short walk into the Grandstand Restaurant I have two ‘Huh?’ moments. Firstly, Lime and Steel are doing a swing version of ‘The Parting Glass’ – that’s a take on that old standard I’d not heard before.
Or considered possible.
And then I’m accosted by a very serious gentleman who wants to know what’s on the menu for lunch tomorrow. I look from him to the row of bain maries which are empty (and will stay that way) and mumble something about the food stalls over near the Global Green.
When you wear a lanyard, you get an assortment of questions fired your way.
Over by said food stalls there are a couple of not-so-young, not-so-old guys who were just brimming with that lively, whacky energy that festivals seem to attract or encourage.
One of them had made up a new word: ‘Siouijada’ (pronounced ‘See-wee-yah-dah’) which is an amalgam of Spanish, French, German and Russian forms of the word ‘yes’. He’d turned it into an almost Hare Krishna style chant and the two of them were chanting as they waited for their gozleme, and then bouncing around the festival intoning this overwhelmingly charming (and slightly silly) affirmation of the affirmative.
And wherever you went (or tarried) there was inevitable talk of the weather, after an energetic downpour on Friday night that soaked many a tent, followed by a torrential hammering on Sunday morning that flooded some out, bogged many more, and destroyed a few constructions.
‘How did you go with your tent?’ performer Martin Pearson was asked. OK on the first night. ‘But I’m going to need more towels. And possibly some sandbags.’
Early on Sunday, Martin found that all those then empty chairs in the bar area were great for drying out various items of clothing. The grandstand railing also resembled a Chinese laundry.
But to borrow a very hackneyed phrase, for the most part it didn’t seem to dampen too many spirits. And by the time of the finale on Sunday night there was still a large and raucous crowd.
It was at the finale that I had my defining ‘Oh Lord’ moment for the extended weekend when Dougie Maclean sang a flawless version of ‘Caledonia’ with backing from the festival choir and orchestra. It was something spiritual and there were lots of un-dry eyes around.
That’s just a smattering of observations from Illawarra 2012. They come thick and fast about now, so I’ll leave you with the recommendation to hunt down the Bearded Gypsy Band at Womadelaide and/or the National Folk Festival.
Photos and other minutiae: http://www.facebook.com/OverheardProductions
Various interviews: http://soundcloud.com/overheard-productions