Passport To Airlie – Darwin Heat (Darwin Railway Club)
Friday 13 September 2019, Darwin Railway Club
Airlie Beach Festival of Music is held in November, however, in the lead-up, the organisers stage what is arguably Australia’s biggest battle of the bands competition.
And you’d have to argue very convincingly to beat this: regional finals in (take a deep breath): Darwin, Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Nimbin, Newcastle, Sydney, Illawarra, Melbourne and Adelaide.
And budding musos are all vying for the chance to participate in the final at Airlie Beach in November.
As well as the performance opportunity in 2019, the overall winner gets to return to play the main stage the following year, receiving four nights’ accommodation, VIP main tent passes, a $1000 performance fee, and a spot on Music View TV (Cairns).
If you’re a regional muso aiming to get your music to a wider audience, it’s well worth a shot.
Which is why nine acts were on show on a mild* Darwin September evening towards the end of the dry season. (* For non-Darwinians, ‘mild’ in this context means that the mercury had slipped just south of 30 degrees centigrade by kick-off time of 6.30pm, and the humidity may have been fractionally less than 50%. Welcome to early Spring in the tropics.)
Darwin Railway Club (‘the Rails’ to locals) is something of a mecca for Darwin music aficionados, nestled in the middle of leafy, residential, suburban Parap. It’s one of several venues in the northern provincial capital that caters for live, original music, and the punters flock here for local and touring acts.
With nine very different acts, the job of appraising and assessing the talent on offer was an unenviable one for the judges.
How do you separate a soloist playing rock guitar from a four piece punk band?
How do you compare a singer-songwriter guitarist with someone playing didge, flute, and a handpan/hang drum? (Handpan For Beginners: picture two woks soldered together along the rim.)
How do strong, emotive lyrics compare with a band’s rocking ability to blow back your hair with their wall of sound and make your trouser legs ripple? (In a G-rated fashion, of course.)
How do you assess audience reaction at 6.30pm when people are still wandering in, versus in the middle of the night when numbers have swelled, then towards the end when some are starting to drift out?
10 judges from the Darwin music community managed to do just that based on 10 criteria, assessing everything from instrumental proficiency to audience reaction. Their ranks included 2018 competition winner Kyle Maher.
Each act had about 20 minutes or so to stake their claims for a trip to Airlie in 2019, and the appreciative crowd ebbed and flowed over the four hours and a bit, with a healthy mix of ready-made performer fan crews, club regulars, and blow-ins for the night.
Speaking with roughly half the performers after their performances, two strong themes emerged that were like music to the ears (pardon the pun) of a newish-to-town music scribe.
Firstly, there’s a strong feeling of community among local performers, with a supportive camaraderie underpinning the music scene.
Secondly, live original music is very much alive and kicking in the saltwater city, and gigs are there to be had. It’s not just a merry-go-round of covers sessions, which seem prevalent in some markets, for better or worse.
(Just a quick Overheard At Passport To Airlie from my notes here. My mate leaned over as the third act came on and said, “I think the announcer said this band is from the Netherlands”.
Me: “No, the band’s name is ‘Ben Evolent’!)
With no skin in the game, no dog in the fight, with no personal allegiances, and as an admirer of all forms of music, your scribe was a very much the impartial observer. A sole early observation was that while the soloists gave their all and impressed many, there was a palpable, detectable lift from the audience when the first act to feature a rocking backline kicked in.
You’re probably not going to find it on an assessment sheet, but maybe toe-tapacality, boppability, and groovaliciousness may get a look in when separating the wheat from the other wholesome grains.
Conversely, it may not.
In no particular order other than performance listing, I spoke with some contestants over the course of the night.
Ben Evolent is the performance name for a solid four piece act serving up a melange of folk, blues, and a splash of alt-counry, with Josh Tarca at the helm, originally from South Australia.
Unusually, but refreshingly, Josh does not come from a background of doing covers for his ‘rent gigs’.
“Original music is all I really have. I’m not very good at covers! It’s been a journey playing originals, and you do pub gigs, and they get to know the songs.”
“Sometimes you get people thinking they [already] know [my] songs, and that’s great. But it’s not the song they’re thinking of!”
Josh is the first to comment on the availability of local original gigs for musos.
“I guess if you’re prepared to work hard at it, they’ll give you a go. You put your hand up for any gig, and I’ve played most venues in town. It’s a great scene up here.”
This is Ben Evolent’s first shot at Passport to Airlie, having been in Queensland last year for the 2018 heat. While Josh loves Darwin, he acknowledges it is hard to get into interstate festivals because of the sheer cost of getting himself and a band to, say, the east coast.
Ben Evolent are about to release an album, and the single ‘Shiver’ is out now.
Alice Cotton came to singer-songwriting via an unusual entry point: she was studying classical flute.
Alice became involved in musical therapy (she studied with fellow contestant Crystal Robins), and through that started songwriting and doing her own material, finding more fulfillment from the creative process and ability to get gigs.
Alice had lived in Melbourne for about seven years but returned to Darwin earlier in 2019 to be closer to family and because she missed the warmer weather.
“I’ve found Darwin really good [for original music]. I was in Melbourne – the music capital of Australia – and I wasn’t sure what to expect when I came home, but so far it’s been awesome.”
“Crowds are really supportive, and they want to be a part of it too. I’ve done a few gigs and people are like, ‘I want to do your stage design, I want to do your merch!’ People are just excited that you’re doing your own thing. I haven’t done any covers since I got here.”
“I did a few once because I did a three-hour set and I thought, ‘I don’t have enough songs that I’ve written!’ So I did some old time songs and Gillian Welsh. But there’s a big appetite for original music. Not all the pubs are supporting it, but it’s changing.”
Emma Rowe graduated from being a ‘sad teenager’ when her mum bought her a cheap guitar and said, “Here! Put your sadness into this!
And it worked.
Not born here but arriving very young, Emma loved growing up in Darwin including her induction into the music scene.
“We all know and love each other, we’re all really supportive, and I love feeling supported by my scene. I think that goes for the whole NT too. We know all the musos in Alice Springs and in Katherine. We’re all just really connected and really communal.”
Emma enjoyed writing stories as a child, and says she started writing songs before she even knew she wanted to be musical.
“It was weird. I don’t even know how that came about… oh, yes I do. I was listening to a lot of Eminem!
So I thought, ‘Yeah, I can be like Eminem!’ At eleven years old.”
Emma believes she has found more opportunities for doing her own music in Darwin than she would interstate, including opportunities to play on the radio, to support touring acts, and to play shows like festivals and Passport to Airlie because of Darwin’s smaller size.
Like others, Emma has moved interstate but found herself missing the Top End: “my scene”.
“I’ve toured and I love touring. It can be difficult when we’re so remote. Because you have to work harder to make sure people in Perth know who you are! It’s still fun and I think it’s worth the work.”
“I heard about the Passport to Airlie heat last year and thought, ‘That’s cool; I want to do that.’ So I kept a look out for this year’s entry. It’s so diverse, and that’s really beautiful showing that our small scene provides so much diversity in the genres.”
“I want all of us to win!”
Crystal Robins has played music for as long as she can remember, growing up in Sydney, playing in bands and studying music at the Australian Institute of Music in Sydney, followed by a masters in music therapy, heralding a career move that brought her to Darwin about two and a half years ago.
“I’ve just started playing my originals live. We’ve been doing the covers for a bit over a year. There’s lots of gigs in Darwin; it’s a smaller music community, but it’s a lot easier than Sydney. Sydney’s a tough scene to get into.”
Crystal’s been writing songs for a long time and has been wanting to get to recording some. “It’s been a really great experience playing my own songs live; easier than I thought it would be.”
Crystal played with music partner Mel in the 2018 competition, but wanted to do her solo stuff this year with a band. In fact, she only asked performers Roxanne and Shilo the previous week to accompany her, so they had a steep curve to learn the songs and fit in a couple of practices.
Appearing second last in 2019, Crystal had a long wait before taking the stage. “It was quite nerve-wracking because there are so many great musicians and song-writers here, but it was great to watch them all.”
Strangely for a competition of this type, the evening zipped along quicker than expected and the acts are soon running ahead of schedule. Though the judges came to their decisions fairly quickly, the tabulating of scores took an extended time, in no small part because the margins were agonisingly close.
Finally, Darwin competition organiser Andrew ‘Legs’ Arthur strode out onto centre stage to announce that votes had been counted and the judges could announce the winners.
In bronze position, soloist rock woman Emma Rowe.
In the runner-up spot, four piece band Ben Evolent.
And the winners on the night, off to pack their bags for Airlie Beach Festival of Music in November: reggae-roots-groove trio Ward Hancock Trio.
The winning performers had come from the tricky last performing act position to just sneak in to top spot.
Ward was absolutely stoked. A home-grown, born and bred Darwinian, Ward backed up many of the sentiments expressed by others about the receptiveness of his home audiences to original music, and to the nurturing nature of the local music scene.
“I found a guitar when I was about 12 because I wouldn’t stop playing an old ukulele that my parents had. I started on drums then gravitated onto guitar because it was a bit cheaper, and a bit quieter.”
“I always liked writing songs more than learning songs. It was a bit of a problem when I started doing weddings and cover gigs, because I knew no covers! I’d always try to get by with originals. Now I’m a lot better at doing covers.”
“There are lots of great opportunities living up here. I think one of my first bigger gigs was at the Noonamah Tavern. My earliest memories were of big tough guys drinking in the beer garden. Bikies. I had no idea, but I had some great experiences with it, and cut my teeth on that.”
“I had great mentors like (Darwin music legend) JK, and Michael Henshaw who did sound tonight – he’s a great supporter of the music as we were growing up. Mickey at Happy Yess, and countless other Darwin locals. The older musicians really support younger musicians here.”
A seasoned tourer with his band around Australia, this was Ward’s first attempt at Passport To Airlie, and needless to say he’s savouring the opportunity to appear in the final in November.
“A couple of years ago, JK told me about Airlie Beach – that’s the place to be; you’ve got to go there. I nearly bought a ticket and went a few years ago, but now I feel I’m ready for it.”
Apart from a last beer or three to wind up the evening, that was the Darwin edition of Passport To Airlie done and dusted for 2019. We’ll follow the progress of the Ward Hancock Trio at the final in November with great interest.
Meanwhile, you can catch all the evening’s acts at venues and around Darwin, and further afield in NT and the country by following them on social media, grabbing a copy of the monthly Off The Leash music and arts guide, and from wherever you get your music news needs met.
Extended versions of the individual chats with the five performers above will appear here at Overheard Productions in the very near future.