Folk On The Road
A highly irregular series reflecting on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
Back to Cobargo
Cobargo Folk Festival (CFF) in early March 2019 was a breath of fresh air for many who made their way to the beautiful green valleys and rolling hills just north of Bega, New South Wales. Not too far south of Narooma, and within a five iron of a heaven.
For this peripatetic scribe, it was a homecoming of sorts to the world of Australian folk festivals. A temporary one, as it transpired.
CFF came towards the end of a week or so in the Eurobodalla/Sapphire Coast region, just after the last member of my immediate family had left their home of almost twenty years in Bodalla, on an estate overlooking the quite stunning ranges of the Deua National Park.
But it was also a proper return to folk festivals after roughly five and a half years of continually wandering up and down the Australian east coast, from the deep south of New South Wales to the middling far north of Queensland.
(A handful of hours at Slacky Flat, Bulli in 2016 and 2019 doesn’t really count, does it?)
In those intervening years, the closest I’d come to our festival culture was random assorted gigs, and attendances, media, and volunteering/MC-ing at regional Queensland festivals in Cleveland, Stones Corner, and Boyne Island.
Though all events had minor folk elements, it was wonderful to be back among the campers, revellers, singers, musos, and so, so many familiar faces in a dedicated folk festival.
One sage lesson learned in that time away (one that can be applied to many areas of life, not just festivals) is overcoming the dreaded FOMO.
Once a griever at any time spent away from a festival, I’ve learnt that ‘fear of missing out’ is a dish best served… not at all.
Arriving at the main gate to the Cobargo AP & H Society* at 1pm Saturday, it was a pleasure to learn that carparks and camping areas were chockers, and the best bet for camping was way down in the back paddock, around the corner, past the last performance venue shed, and down the hill.
* Google Maps is not very forthcoming on what the AP & H means. I’m guessing ‘agricultural’, but after that… yeah, no idea.
And most of all, to hear that buckets of fun had been had already, especially with a rip-roaring start to proceedings on Friday night.
Ok, here’s the serious frowny bit before we get on to the 96.36% of the good, the great, and the brilliant.
A question for all campers, caravanners, and operators of RVs as big as small houses: what’s your motivation for attending a festival?
Seriously. Why are you there?
If you’re there to immerse in the event, to attend the gigs, chat with the performers, hang out at the session bar with the punters and musos, give your patronage to the stallholders, and generally enjoy yourself – good.
If you’re there to lurk, watch a show or two, but mostly keep to yourself, and just dip a toe into the festival occasionally – good.
That probably suits your personality and you’re getting what you want and need. Fill your boots.
If you’re there to hermetically seal yourself inside your vehicle/behemoth-of-the-road, pump the AC up to arctic conditions, turn on your satellite TV while dinner cooks in your $20K imported Swedish oven/stovetop/ceramic firing kiln, well, that’s your prerogative. You’ve paid for your ticket; no one is there marking attendance rolls at front of house.
BUT if you then choose to make noise complaints if there’s even a bit of sound spill from festival central after 10.30pm, or you shake your fist at the kids on your lawn, or if there’s a little yahooing and the odd strum of a G-chord (or vocal chord) after the witching hour, I’m going to suggest there may be other ways more suited to how you choose to spend your weekend.
End of analysis of that aspect. All comments and questions are welcome.
Back to Cobargo. We were talking about it just now.
Apart from that minor gripe, we were all of us home on the range, and ne’er was heard much more of a discouraging word.
Apart from the grumblers who like their doof doof a little less bass-y. Cope, I say. The kids love it. (And I’ll hazard a guess that Campbell The Swaggie was in the thick of the techno mosh pit at some point.)
The chat around the streets and campsites was that the programmers had really pulled off some sort of master stroke with the lineup. The variety and newness of many of the acts was quite brilliant and very much appreciated.
If you go to many folk festivals every year, repetition can be an issue.
If you go to many folk festivals every year, repetition can be an issue.
If you’re a seasoned regular, you sometimes have to squint and wonder if you’ve been to five festivals this year, or two festivals plus one repeated three times. Not quite, but you know the feeling. That’s no fault of the festivals or the musos; it just is what it is.
A few familiar artists’ names were on the bill, and it was great to see and hear them, almost anew. But the bulk of the program featured acts I knew nothing or little of, except for maybe a fleeting reference on social media.
The program also featured a very strong local element, which is always advisable, while not stacking the deck completely in favour of the surrounding area. Again, popular consensus was the schedulers had achieved a very agreeable balance.
A little on the returnees and festival veterans.
Chaika were giddy with excitement as they pre-launched their new and upcoming album, Arrow, which fans of the band have been monitoring closely through image and video updates on social media.
“People can now either check it out online, or come up at the festival and say Hi! at the shows,” said Laura Bishop. (Watch their site at www.chaikaband.com for dates around NSW, currently kicking off in late April 2019.)
Laura is a big fan of this festival. “Cobargo is lovely. We’ve played here a few times. It’s a nice size; it’s kind of intimate but there’s enough variety of music and dance, and enough to keep you interested the whole weekend. It’s got beautiful surrounds, a lovely creek, and the people are great.”
And Chaika were indeed doing a roaring trade after their gigs in front of the venues, with punters snapping up their back catalogue, and keen to pre-purchase the new release. Hint: in lieu of a merch table, those ubiquitous white chairs sub in just nicely.
For those of you may have seen Chaika perform (even at a previous Cobargo) and thought, they look and sound a little familiar, you may have known and loved them in a former incarnation going back from 2011: Di Khupe Heybners. Try saying that one ten times fast.
Another real treat was to see Vendulka perform to enraptured audiences as she continues to mature as a songwriter. (It’s hard for us crusty oldies not to sound clichéd, but so many of us have seen performers like Vendulka when they were literally knee-high. Now, she’s almost into the veteran-of-the-road category.)
“I’m so glad you came to see me this morning,” Vendulka said at her Sunday gig in the Gulaga. “I thought I’d be bringing my sleeping bag on stage with me because I didn’t expect so many people to come up the hill so early.”
Try to keep them away. No chance.
And festival favourite and welcome local guitar maestro, Daniel Champagne absolutely filled the joint and wowed the crowd late on Saturday with a sparkling performance (no pun intended, no really).
For mine, Daniel has also come a long way with his stagecraft. After a burst of youthful exuberance when his star was first starting to meteorically rise, Daniel has really found a harmonious balance between frenetic energy and soulful balladeer-ing.
Having seen Daniel perform up and down the country for 12 years (usually as he was applying bandaid-like gaffer tape to a beaten, broken guitar), I can’t remember having enjoyed one of his gigs so thoroughly.
More on the new faces later.
Another of the simply spectacular aspects for mine was the placement of venues. Having been AWL for six years, I don’t know when they moved The Crossing stage (youth acts) to pretty much the centre of the festival, but no matter when it was done, it’s an absolute master stroke.
Back before the move, you had to really be going to the youth venue to be going there. You had to make a conscious decision to venture down the hill, onto the flat, and make your way to the smallish tent.
Now in prime position, the venue swelled with passers-by and a wider selection of the festival demographic, over and above the core youth venue audience of friends, mums, dads, and siblings.
And it was fabulous.
Three chord bashers, bands, some pretty intense doof-doof, and the place was going off like a frog in a sock on Sunday afternoon when the massed horns belted out a selection of up-tempo pop tunes. You could actually watch punters of all ages as they diverted from the main road to see what all the commotion was about.
Now here’s an element that you may not read too much about in festival reviews; I’m sure you’ll cope.
But the cleaners. The cleaners! What a tip top job they did. Out in force in the morning, noon and night, they kept the grounds looking sparkly.
As much as you can make an agricultural showground, rodeo rink, and old galvanised sheds look sparkly. Guess what? You can.
It’s not a hanging offence, but an aspect of festivals I’ve never quite been able to fathom is why festival-goers, even very nice, polite, and ordinarily tidy ones, have this tendency to treat any flat surface like a rubbish bin. Especially under their chairs in a venue.
There might be a purpose-built rubbish receptacle ten feet away (yes, wheelie), however, the bio cups, plates, utensils, cans, and bottles get plonked on the table, chair or ground. Baffling.
Never mind, the very cheery and friendly plastic-gloved clean-up brigade were unwavering in their quest to keep the place looking shipshape, and they did a marvellous job. (All bets were off during the volunteer and performer party on Sunday night, but that was set to rights not long after.)
As for new acts, you’d be doing well to top the rapturous response generated by Scottish newbies to our shores, Skerryvore. Following a rich tradition of going absolute bonkers with energy, noise and dance on stage, Skerryvore absolutely tore the place to bits on Friday and Saturday nights, and even had enough energy to pack in the stick-around punters later on Sunday afternoon.
The crowd was packed ten or 12 deep around the northern flank of the Mumbala tent, while inside was a sea of bobbing heads. On their way out, the band jumped on social media to show their appreciation:
Skerryvore: “We don’t think we’ve ever visited a country for the first time and had so many packed out and jumping audiences as we did this past week or two. You guys absolutely rocked!!!”
One act straddling the divide between new and old was Mensch, Monique. I’d seen the name and the photos but hadn’t looked carefully enough at the faces. Then, not long after arriving and stopping in to the festival shop to get a fingertip on the pulse, a caramel Saxon voice behind me said: “Hellooo! I know you!”
It was Jule from The Beez! No, that information is many years old.
It was Jule from Mensch, Monique!
Jule has partnered with long time life partner and father to their two children, Georg, and together they serve up a wonderful mixed soup of songs in German and English, with a hint of the buzz of The Beez, with very much their own individual sound and presentation.
I spoke with Georg and Jule at some length after their last gig, and you can read and hear more about that either now or soon at www.OverheardProductions.com.
(For purposes of clarification, ‘soon’ in this context means ‘in about six months’ because of reasons.)
We’re maybe stretching the friendship with the word limit here, but it’s worth it to get to what was possibly the crowning glory of the weekend. One of two.
There’s no way I can’t be subjective about Cobargo Folk Festival; I’ve adored it since first attending. It’s just a very special place and a very special festival.
The volunteer and performer party kicked off after the volunteer photo at 6pm on Sunday evening, and you’d go a long way to find a more joyous gathering of shiny, happy people.
Heartfelt thanks were voiced to the committee and organisers, including Carolyn Griffin, who did an amazing job of performer liaison, Ali Taylor and John Taylor (no relation) who revamped the festival’s security effort, Graeme Fryer who is hanging up his boots after many years guiding the festival, and Dave Crowden who is retiring after some tremendous years as Artistic Director.
It was a brilliant way to wrap up what had been an extraordinary weekend.
Time in venues making new musical discoveries is grand, but hours spent chattin’, yarnin’, laughin’, jokin’, and looking for lost Gs off the ends of words around the campsites is equally as special.
A six-year break from a festival or festivals is not recommended, but my word, the news and the gossip is refreshingly new. And fun is to be had for miles.
Cheers to Cobargo Folk Festival and the Yuin Folk Club.
That was one to put on the mantelpiece in the good room.
The next edition of the Cobargo Folk Festival takes place from Friday 28 February to Sunday 1 March 2020. www.cobargofolkfestival.com