A Punter’s Perspective 26 — Overheard at the National Folk Festival 2011

National Folk Festival 2011
National Folk Festival 2011

A Punter’s Perspective

Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage

#26 Overheard at the National Folk Festival 2011
First published in Trad and Now magazine,  May 2011

From the get-go, I need to make a fairly major disclaimer: I have been deeply in love with the National Folk Festival for six years, and that devotion and affection shows no sign of letting up.

Admittedly, it’s a tricky romance and only six years in, I’m still a novice.

And to be fair, she doesn’t always love me back. Love’s not the only emotion (nor association) that beats you up.

And yet I’m always there since 2005.

I used to say that Exhibition Park in Canberra at Easter is the only time I can reliably say with any sort of certainty where I’ll be from year to year.

Call it the weather. Call it the programming. Call it the venues – definitely call it the venues. Call it one thousand disparate, subjective, indefinable and indescribable reasons.

The National in 2011 just had a certain vibe about it.

For some that started with the mid-week master classes; and for others it started as the trickle of folkies turned into a torrent, and EPIC started filling to capacity.

I heard someone say the pre-festival sales were up to record levels. (Don’t quote me.)

That the ‘streets’ didn’t feel that crowded is not indicative; I believe the quality of acts was so strong that more people were tethered to their seats rather than milling about outside, looking for something more interesting.

More strength to Dave O’Neill and his artistic selection support.

But for all of that, and with disclaimers of deep abiding love for the National aside, we can always sit back (panting slightly) and appraise.

Some questions were left hanging, and I stress they are QUESTIONS for which I have no good nor definitive answers.

I have opinions, but you know what they say about opinions. I’m more than happy to keep these to myself.

Because if you don’t like my opinions, I do have others.

Q1. Why did the spoken word elements of the festival get such scant attention?

On hearing about the yarn-spinning competition needing participants, I went looking for it in the program.

I needed a microscope and a theodolite.

Every other major element of the concert: song, dance, concerts, plus several themes – they all got separate sections in the program.

But the spoken word – the crux, the backbone, the mainstay of folk – passing on oral traditions via the word – it just did not rate much of a mention at all.

Why? Pourquoi? Waaroom? Perche? (Actually that last one may be a fish, not a question.)

The poets and yarn-spinners and raconteurs did the best they could under the circumstances, but it just felt like so much more could have been achieved with a little more publicity or even acknowledgement.

Q2. What was the thing with The Troubadour?

After opening the draft program I realised an alternative venue had been slated, named ‘Drowsy Maggie’s’. Or ‘Drippy Mary’s’ or ‘Dregs of Maundy’ or some such.

Several people in the scene puffed themselves up and made indignant comments and veiled opinion-sharing along the lines of, ‘I have private knowledge of such things, but may not utter the detail of such concerning the venue that dare not speak its name’.

The inference I took was that I would personally have some knowledge of the gossip and inner machinations o’ these things.

I knew bugger-all. And still don’t.

I’m ecstatic to retain this state of blissful ignorance for two reasons. Make that three.

The Troubadour (National Office) was open for business for the duration.

The Troubadour continued its very fine and laudable reputation of being the hub and nub of some of the finest acts, the most amazing experiences, the unforgettable moments, the best vino and vittles.

I savoured and celebrated every minute spent there.

‘Sit in The Troubadour, don’t move, and the festival will eventually pass you by.’

I don’t know why I threw quote marks around that one, but it sounds like someone said it.

I did, for starters.

Try this on for size. Throw ‘Troubadour’ and ‘National Folk Festival’ into a web search and then strap yourselves in for a long day/night/weekend’s worth of entertainment.

Oh, third reason for the ecstasy. There’s a strong feeling, ground-swell of opinion, hope and belief that the Pattisons and their travelling show will be back in 2012.

I’ll raise a glass of Burke and Wills chilled white to that. (White wine drinkers are people too. Don’t oppress us!)

Q3. Why were so many stallholders disgruntled? Why did one pack its bongos early and head home? What would it take to make them gruntled?

Why did others shake their heads and mutter about ‘just breaking even’ or looking to mitigate their losses?

Weren’t the numbers up? Weren’t the streets and alleys and by-ways and alternative routes to the venues supposed to be choked with punters?

Have we, as a nation, nae shaken off the shackles of the global financial crisis?

What up?

Again, I don’t have the answers, just the suppositions. And like the opinions that daren’t show their face to the light of day, I’ll just sit on those.

And invite comment on this and those above.

Water-cooler/session bar/camp-site chatter and grizzling have their place. And our collective spleens (and other organs and tracts) can do with a venting from time to time.

Enough with the questions.

How about the plusses, because there were so, so many and they were so, so many more positives than questions, enjoyed and exalted by so, so many more people.

The venues. Production Team be praised.

As a student of proxemics and semiotics, and as an educator of business communication practices, I have to tell you that the first time I walked into the Bohemia Bar on Thursday night, I grew a smile you could not remove with an angle-grinder.

[Trucking] awesome.

And I got a similar frisson of delight when I happened upon the Scrumpy Bar and saw the layout.

I got a tang and a pang of sorrow when I saw the YouTube vision of ‘The Barons of Tang’ in that venue, in a kind-of ‘Wish I Was There’ way.

But you can’t be everywhere. And cloning technology – it is only for sheep (it’s for sheep).

And to even mention one band name would be to induce guilt at not mentioning others.

Suffice to say I now know that traditional Japanese instruments can be played with putty trowels.

And certain young women from Canada are good and lovely.

And bluegrass absolutely rocks. Especially if you’re Peter Rowan. (“San Francisco, are you ready to rock….and pick….and revolve around a condenser mic?”)

That will do for now. I do have a few anecdotes I wanted to share, but that’s my lot, so look for the rest via the web-site below.

My love affair continues. I may not be at EPIC every Easter from here until 2055, but if there are no other dalliances turning the head and heart, I’ll be there with my love.

Always happy to share with a few thousand others, of course.

That sounds a little wrong. Move on. Owt more to see.

Bill Quinn


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