A Punter’s Perspective #43: Overheard at the 2013 National Folk Festival

The iconic National Folk Festival bunting
The iconic National Folk Festival bunting

A Punter’s Perspective

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

#43 Overheard at the 2013 National Folk Festival

First published in Trad and Now magazine, April 2013

I usually stop short of epithets like ‘the best’, ‘the greatest’ or such like. But in a relatively short experience of the National Folk Festival (my ninth of a possible 47), this year’s was definitely the most anticipated Nash I’ve personally known of.

A number of variables made the lead up to this one a little tantalising. The organisers made no bones about the fact that it’s been testing times for the National. Some may shudder at words they’ve used like ‘consolidation’, ‘challenge’ and ‘sustainable’, but I’m actually a bit of a fan.

If there are threats to a festival’s viability, you can either fix a smile and adopt a ‘Move on, nothing to see here, all is well’ approach. Or squat on your heels, furrow brows, chew bits of bark and declare we’ll all be rooned.

Or you can call a spade a spade (not a manual earth-moving device) and accept there are indeed challenges and forge ahead.

Disclaimer: I’m observing all of this from some distance, and am NOT privy to any of the National’s internal machinations.

(Sorry, just to change the subject totally, but I was just flipping between screens and found a user comment on my ‘National: Two Weeks And Counting’ blog article in March that had somehow evaded moderation. It’s purportedly from a Dutch woman who states, “WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for air condition inverter”.

Isn’t spam fun?)

So. We were talking about anticipation.

The Flute and Fiddle -- standing room only
The Flute and Fiddle — standing room only

Part of the response to keeping a lid on costs was to reconfigure the layout and use of the Exhibition Park in Canberra site. This is nothing new, and in my short time attending there have been tweaks and twists. But this year’s was more noticeable.

The Coorong was returned to a dance venue, the Fitzroy became instrument lock-up and other admin use, and the Mallee no longer reverberated with dancing day and night, and its main function appeared to be storing beer kegs.

The flipside of this was that c-word mentioned before: consolidation.

And for mine it seemed to work, married as it was with another c-word: compact.

Where the space behind the Session Bar had previously been mostly parking and performer camping, it became a quasi-hub of the festival to rival or equal the expanse of bitumen in front of the main Budawang venue.

Maybe more so, as the lively and colourful Piazza dance stage was relocated into this new area, to be surrounded by clothing and arts stallholders, and adjacent to many of the food vendors.

I heard many mutterings and witnessed many brow-furrowings before the festival, fearing this squeezing up might result in over-bearing sound spill. But if it did I was oblivious to any incidence or third party reportage.

Having said that, I didn’t take a decibel-ometer nor my own shell-likes down to the Carnival Stage at night to see how any acoustic acts may have fared against the relocated Majestic, yoinked off the oval, pitched over the grandstand, and sat in the far end by the stables.

No need to stick with radation, or tradition
No need to stick with radation, or tradition. The natives get a little inventive with the signage.

Speaking of the oval, camping was restored to the centre field this year, and though there was plenty of room for all who pitched their lean-tos there, I’d love to know whether this provided a knock-on effect noticed by us campers in the outer: there generally seemed to be a lot more space.

I can remember Nationals in years gone by when we were all cheek-by-jowl, and Gawd help you if you arrived any later than dusk on Friday. Venues seemed packed, early reports of numbers were healthy, yet in camper world we mostly seemed to have a bit more real estate around us.

At this juncture, you may have noticed a certain lack of focus on the actual performers. That’s no accident.

The line-up/program is one of the least of my considerations at any festival and I’ll leave others to comment on the program, save for a couple of salient highlights later.

Suffice to say that in her first year as artistic director, Pam Merrigan appeared to provide an ample smorgasbord for the punters, and if you couldn’t find something to please your tastes, you may have been at the wrong festival. (And aren’t there some festival choices on the Easter weekend these days?)

One tactic that was a little courageous was to share performers around the venues which occasionally meant that high profile performers were in venues where demand for a seat (or merely entry) greatly out-stripped supply.

While the Session Bar was not always its teeming, heaving self, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many ‘Venue Full’ signs at the one National.

In some ways, that’s a good problem to have. That a crowd’s reach should exceed its grasp or what’s a heaven for?

On t’other hand, for those whose festival is defined by getting to see certain performers, you’d rather have them gruntled than disgruntled.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who rarely venture from the sessions around the camp-site, or those eternally catching up with friends in the public spaces. Typically ones that include beer tickets.

Rosie McDonald performs at the Bohemia Bar
Rosie McDonald performs at the Bohemia Bar

Which brings me to a recurring happy theme since its inception:  what a wonderful thing is the Bohemia Bar.

I’m an unabashed fan of blackboards. To gaze at a board chock full of performers and muse that you’ve never heard of any of them. It’s a lucky dip for sure, but how many of today’s program performers started out beating these very boards? Probably more than you’d think.

One casualty of the return of camping to the oval was the other major blackboard venue: the Tantric Turtle Café. I didn’t speak with the owners to gauge their reaction, but their new site plonked into the middle of a bitumen car-park seemed at odds with memories of lolling on the grassy oval in 2012.

I’m sure it didn’t affect the coffee or muffins, and it certainly didn’t impact on the talent. Maybe just a little extra numbness and shifting of the buttocks on the carpets for the punters.

All in all, rarely was heard a discouraging word to these ears. Mostly it was a heap of admiration for several unmissable acts, with The String Contingent, Red Molly and Alisdair Fraser and Natalie Haas being the names I heard most raised in praise.

My personal favourite went to a couple of older stagers in Fred Smith and Liz Frencham who had the Trocadero spellbound for an hour with their 10th anniversary of the ‘Into My Room’ album.

Another magic moment was a very rare visit for this hack to the Infinite Song Competition. That’s not a critique of the format or content, but more a recognition that I’m rarely there in time before the venue is packed out.

Mal Webb performs in the Infinite Bee Gees Song Competition
Mal Webb performs in the Infinite Bee Gees Song Competition

In this particular heat, Mal Webb brought the house down before he’d even struck a note thanks to a hairdo that… no, words fail me. Hopefully the visuals appear adjacent to this text for you.

And then the ‘Ukes of Today’ took the stage. Four lads whose cumulative age would not quite reach the individual score of many in the audience (approx. 52). The combination of two ukes, a flute and bass was diverting enough, as was the concept of a 14 year old singing, “You Don’t Know What It’s Like to Love Somebody”.

But. When these guys hit the first chorus and the harmonies, the Marquee tent fairly erupted in richly-deserved applause. It was nothing short of awesome.

And when the chorus came around again, the audience was palpably and visibly leaning forward ready for another dose, only this time with some comedically-timed sight gags that may have had the crowd in the Budawang turning around and wondering what the hell was going on outside.

As for the ‘Wish I Was There’ event of the weekend, that would have to go to Sunday night in the Session Bar. I’d turned in for one of many early nights, but the stories and social media buzz during and after the night and early morning were electric, proving again a belief I’ve held for a couple of years: brass is definitely the new black.

The force was strong in these ones, and as I walked through the Session Bar at 7am on Monday, I counted three separate groups still going stro….. er, still going.

I’m yet to see or hear of any official post mortems, but hopefully a fortuitous confluence of favourable  elements, a strong program, that strategic consolidation, and some healthy numbers mean that the 2013 Nash was deemed a success and sets things up nicely for 2014.

Session Bar: The Carnival Is Over
Session Bar: The Carnival Is Over

2013 National Folk Festival highlights reel by Cranbery Goodess

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