A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
#33 Northern Beaches Music Festival
First published in Trad and Now magazine, March 2012
It’s always a good sign when you get a good vibe from a festival merely by walking through the front gate.
And so it was on the opening night of the second Northern Beaches Music Festival in Narabeen on the northern beaches of Sydney in February.
My first impression was ‘compact’ — in a good way. Venues are situated so closely within the confines of the Berry Reserve at Narrabeen, all five performance spaces were easily within no more than 60 seconds apart.
Walk in the front past the free stage and you were immediately at the main marquee. A quick stroll further on and you were in the downstairs Berry venue, up one flight of stairs and it was the large Lakside venue, and the ‘Tramshed’ (home of The Shack folk club) was a pitching wedge away.
For all of that, sound spill did not seem to be a factor.
Still very much in its infancy, NBMF is the brain child of Paul Robertson, and his background in theatre, TV production and outside broadcasts is evident in some of the organisational nous that’s behind the festival.
As someone on social media urged during the week leading up to the festival, Sydney-siders were urged to get along to what counts as her only (quasi) metropolitan folk festival.
Folkies were there on and off stage in admirable-ish numbers, though it’s a clever ploy to go with the moniker of ‘music festival’ as this proves slightly less limiting, if only by dint of naming convention.
‘Folk’ can still carry connotations of long beards, sea shanties with 96 verses, and an obligatory reference to Botany Bay in the chorus of every other song.
NBMF had a little of that but also a nice sprinkling of contemporary singer-songwriters, rollicking rock combos, blue-singlet-ed bluegrass, and a little vaudeville.
I may bang on about this a little too often, but a doff of the cap is indeed warranted in the programming configuration. From 7pm Friday to 7pm Sunday there was only one style of timeslot: 45 minute bracket with a 15 minute bump-in, bump-out buffer. (Except the last act of the day that could take the whole hour if desired.)
No scheduling mishaps over whether it was a 55, 45 or 30 minute set. No acts butting up against each other or acts somehow sculpting ‘two more songs’ into a 20 minute epic and over-staying their welcome.
A stage-manager/MC’s dream come true. Other festivals, PLEASE take note.
Schedule. A. Break. After. EVERY. Set.
As for the content, the programming pixies had put together a very talented lineup.
This became immediately evident on Friday night when the 10-11pm slot required that much sought-after self-cloning technology that would SO simplify a festival-goer’s existence.
After consulting the oracles, the tea leaves and the I-Ching, it was upstairs to see Chloe and Silas in the Lakeview, and the reward was one of those special occasions that makes you immensely grateful to be a) alive, and b) in the rich, heady world of independent music.
The dose was repeated the next night when Fred Smith performed a flawless set in a Berry room that was packed to overflowing.
This was the only time I was aware of sound spillage. With both doors closed to let Fred’s gentle chords and words reach us, and not to be drowned out by the raucous wonderfulness of the Green Mohair Suits, we all sweated out a few gallons each.
At least the beating of programs as make-shift fans was roughly in time with the music.
A few interesting points of comparison of NBMF with other festivals that, rightly or wrongly, sprang to mind.
Two things were absent in the festival’s configuration: a bar* and on-site camping. (* For thirsty punters, there will be a bar at the 2013 festival.)
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a different thing.
In terms of camping, not having to maintain a site around the clock is much less of an overhead (financial and physical) on the organisers. This makes it an undertaking that they can lock the doors to at night and leave until the morning.
There’s talk that an association of some sort with the local camping ground/caravan park might work for 2013.
And as for the on-site bar (or lack thereof), the punters seemed to be adequately adept in the skills of hunter-gathering, and Pittwater Road with its strip malls, grocery stores and bottle-o or two was not even a stone’s throw away.
The festival was cannily co-located with a market on both the Saturday and the Sunday. That suited the festival punters for ample food choices and a little light distraction if needed.
Whether there was any cross-fertilisation back the other way was debatable, but at least there was some awareness-raising courtesy of the free stage (operating in the 15 mins/hour buffer zones), and from the amazing outside broadcast effort from Radio Northern Beaches (88.7/90.3FM) that broadcast for most of Saturday.
I don’t have the hard demographic stats, but an educated guess was the average age of the on-stage talent was slightly younger than your run-of-the-mill folk festival.
Added to that was the masterful injection of raw youth with the ‘Young Bloods’ competition, preliminary heats being held at four local hotels in the run-up to the event.
The finalists showed their wares on the free stage on both mornings and the winners were on the main stage on Sunday afternoon. Congratulations to Malo and to Max Carpenter, placing first and second, respectively.
I can’t think of too many festivals that would say, ‘Well, we’d really like to have less numbers, you know?’ and of course, a few more people there that weekend would have been great. But rarely did any venue feel cavernous or sparse, to my mind.
Atmosphere and resounding applause sadly don’t keep the organisers warm at night when they’re counting the takings and surveying the outstanding invoices.
Manly was unhelpfully staging a large international surfing carnival with free mainstream live music down the road, and while this might not have been targeting the same demographic, it did divert the much-needed local press attention in the lead-up.
There were so many performers on offer and such diverse talent that it would be hard to pick a favourite, but they’d be doing well to top the diminutive Jenny Biddle from Melbourne.
Jenny entranced audiences on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon with her original blues, roots and acoustic sets. She was simply captivating and it was no wonder she was a week later crowned ‘Melbourne’s Best Busker’ for the second year running.
When you think about the competition in that talent-rich town, that’s a monumental achievement.
Small festivals like NBMF are important to foster local, original talent and this one is very focussed on showcasing what the youth of the region have to offer. It’s also vital to give touring musicians another much-needed outlet to show their stuff.
It will be a grand thing for the northern beaches and for Sydney in general if NBMF continues to grow and develop, hopefully with some added support in the years to come.
Definitely in my calendar for 2013.