This article also appeared in Trad & Now magazine in August 2021.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and almost three hundred hearts were filled with music, song, poetry, and good cheer in June as the Top Half Folk Festival (THFF) returned – after a year on sick leave – to celebrate their milestone 50th annual event.
Covid19 had cancelled the festival in 2020, and conditions were still dicey in the lead-up (meaning some interstate visitors could not make the trek north). But it all kicked off in brilliant conditions and sublime surroundings at the Mary River Wilderness Retreat on the June long weekend.
While I’m not on commission for the venue, I highly recommend you add this little accommodation gem to your itinerary if you’re headed to the top end.
Situated just over 100kms east of Darwin along the Arnhem Highway, the cabins and sprawling campgrounds are tailor-made for a folk festival or a stopover. And the management have been generous and constant supporters of THFF since it moved to that locality in 2000.
Well, half of it moved there. Let’s go back a step.
While the world is in various stages, tiers, and iterations of lockdown thanks to corona virus, Australia is one nation that’s managed to escape relatively lightly with restrictions.
That’s doubly or even more so for Darwin.
After what I’ve termed ‘Lockdown Lite’, hospitality venues were starting to open here again in May 2020, gigs were on again from June 2020, festivals with some restrictions were on in July 2020, and open air music festivals were live and kicking by the end of the year that dare not speak its name. (Even though I have. Others still call 2020 ‘Voldemort’.)
It’ll be a while yet before we see international touring acts flooding back to our shores, but nationally, musicians are starting to shake the mothballs and cobwebs off their touring paraphernalia, and live music is limping back to life.
A welcome returnee to the north, Daniel Champagne is a hometown boy from Brogo, New South Wales. Brogo for me was always a bit blink-and-miss-it on the map, and be careful to slow down quick because the highway takes a mighty dogleg off the end of the bridge, though Daniel is a font of information about this fascinating part of the far NSW coast. (That all came over a dinner of Darwin music-related people on a monsoonally wet top end night, and before the recorder went on. Ask him about it sometime.)
The last time I interviewed Daniel was in a radio studio roughly 4000kms away, and ten or so years and a half dozen lifetimes ago, so as the wet season rains poured down in Nightcliff NT, we sat at an outside table under the awning and got a more up to date state of play.
Bill Quinn: Daniel, as a temporary resident I can say: Welcome to Darwin!
Daniel Champagne: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
The Foodbank Hunger Report makes for sobering reading as we tuck into our smashed avo breakfast and second chai latte, or rip into a chicken parmigiana and included pint of tap beer. That bar bill you’re stumping up for could put food into the mouths of many starving Australians who might not have the luxury of three square meals a day.
If you’ll crave an indulgence, the author spent several years in the mid 2010s when $10 could and did provide enough groceries to keep going for three days. Necessity is the mother of invention, and you might be amazed at the creative ways some people are forced to employ just to provide themselves with the most essential sustenance to keep alive.
“Foodbank is Australia’s largest food relief organisation, operating on a scale that makes it crucial to the work of the front line charities who are feeding vulnerable Australians. Foodbank provides more than 70% of the food rescued for food relief organisations nation-wide.” – What We Do, Foodbank website, https://www.foodbank.org.au/hunger-in-australia/what-we-do/
In late June 2020, I met with Peter Pilt at the Berrimah warehouse of Foodbank NT to find out more about their operations with special interest in their work during the pandemic of Covid19. No further preamble is necessary. Peter is one of the most eloquent, passionate, and driven individuals I’ve had the pleasure to interview, and the audio needed no editing:
Bill Q: Good morning from beautiful Berrimah in the Northern Territory.
Now, for anybody who might be listening in around the country, it’s the start of winter in Australia, and I’ve got to tell you it’s currently 29 degrees and feels like 31 degrees. So if you’re suffering in the cold, hunched around the fire, so sad for you.
But anyway that’s enough of that. I’m speaking with Peter Pilt, and Peter runs the Foodbank NT out here at Berrimah.
Peter Pilt: Hey, how’re you doing? And hi to everyone listening.
In late June 2020, Jeremiah Johnson and I tried to do what I term a ‘guerrilla interview’: an off-the-cuff chat, no interminable plans to talk at some point in the future which may get moved up to 36 times, just a wham-bam, thank you, man for the good talk.
We got snookered twice. The first time by a dodgy connection from Coconut Grove, NT (me) and somewhere near Mareeba, Qld (Jeremiah), and we gave up after two or three minutes.
The second time worked a charm a few days later, this time from Bellamack, NT (me) and Cairns, Qld (Jeremiah). Most of that went out as a live Facebook video which you can view now at www.facebook.com/OverheardProductions, but you’ll have to scroll down or use the search function, or just click on the hyperlink earlier on this sentence. I’m all over WordPress like a cheap suit. Not so much.
The process of getting the interview onto the website – www.OverheardProductions.com – took a little longer. Let’s just leave the ‘guerrilla’ title for Facebook and call this version: Jeremiah Johnson Talks About Indie Music In The Time Of Pandemic. Fun Fact: I just went to Facebook to check the actual broadcast date, and Facebook helpfully reports it was: ‘About two weeks ago’. Great.
Bill Quinn: It is Wednesday the 20-somethingth of June. It doesn’t really matter that much since it will be in the text.
I’m speaking with Jeremiah Johnson in Cairns. G’day Jeremiah.
Jeremiah Johnson: G’day Bill, how’re you going?
BQ: Very good. Now despite pandemic, you’ve been a fairly busy boy lately. Tell us about that.
JJ: Well, I’ve just been consolidating probably about 40 songs in the music catalogue, trying to navigate the rest of the year as far as bookings go, and I have just taken a booking for my first live show in Cairns on the 24th of July, so that’s very exciting.
BQ: That is exciting.
Up here in Darwin, we’re a little bit spoilt because gigs have been back on for a little while. We try not to chuck it in other people’s faces. But what’s it been like there in Cairns? How have people been feeling about not having live gigs, both as performers and also the punters?
JJ: I can only speak from my point of view and that is that it’s been a really weird feeling to not be able to pursue your work and to not play music in front of people.
I mean, that’s what we like to do the most, so as far as the rest of the community is concerned, I’m not sure but I know that people love live music, they love getting out with their friends, and I’m sure that would be difficult, yeah.
I had met Meg very late one misty evening in the main street of Katoomba, as my kitten and I were having a late dinner before heading back to Sydney.
(Long story short: ‘Boris‘ was my temporary charge and I rehomed him a few months later in far north western Sydney. He has fond memories of the Blue Mountains.)
Meg was heavily involved in placing acts in Live and Local, and she spoke to me first about that event and then about Music Hunter.
Text of the interview with Meg Benson:
Bill Quinn: For those unfamiliar with the Blue Mountains of New South Wales,, you might not know that this area is just a hot-bed of music, art, talent, and festivals. If you’ve been around Katoomba, you might have already been to the ukulele festival, you might know that the Blue Mountains Music Festival has just finished.
But there’s so much more coming up this year, and it starts probably tonight, but on Saturday there’s something very important happening. To tell us all about that, Meg Benson from Music Hunter is with us.
Meg Benson: Hello, Bill. Thank you for having me.
BQ: Tell us about what’s happening on Saturday.
MB: I’m very enthusiastic to share our festival information for Katoomba Live and Local that’s happening this Saturday.
Our program itself is accomplished, experienced, seasoned musicians and also emerging, fresh talent. And 25 percent of our performers are under 25 years.
We also have quite a strong (about 12 percent) Aboriginal performers, we’ve got some multicultural performers, some South American music, Mongolian throat-singing, Turkish music, Celtic, jazz, blues, classical, hip hop, electronica – we have a lot of diversity here in the Blue Mountains.
And yes, it’s live and local.
So Live and Local is a strategic initiative that we can’t take the credit for, but it’s something we jumped at because for me, I was really happy to be a part of it because it’s part of my values to create opportunities for musicians that are dignified.
In one day, in Katoomba, 80 musicians are going to get paid $150 each for a 45 minute set – obviously some of them are in groups so they’re not all solo.
On top of that, we have community groups, larger ensembles, and some schools appearing as well – we’ve got a bit of ‘rent a crowd’ there.
So basically we’ve got quite a good cross-section of our community performing this Saturday between 2 and 8pm in the CBD of Katoomba.
The Live and Local initiative is something that was funded by Create New South Wales, and administered through the Live Music Office of New South Wales. And this initiative in Katoomba is led by council, and then their task was to engage with local music industry movers and shakers, which is me – Music Hunter, the event organiser, curator, and co-publicist.
BQ: 80 performers are getting paid to perform at a half to one-day festival; that’s quite remarkable.
MB: Exactly, that’s why it’s so exciting.
I think that’s the reason why I started organising events ten years ago was to create dignified opportunities for musicians. Some of them would find it hard to get a platform to play; they’re not really going to be wanting to play in a really noisy pub. They do want an attentive audience.
However, this festival is kind of unique. What I would normally present is where you might hear a pin drop. OR I do those loud, full-bodied dancing and full sound events in some pubs, and that’s a different type of thing again.
What we’re doing here at this festival is we’re not just caring about the musicians, we’re also caring about the local businesses, and we’re not doing a festival with street closures and bringing in musicians from other areas. All of these musicians are local and at least 50% of the band is local; in most cases it’s between 75% and 100%, depending on the number of people in the band.
So that’s pretty cool, but what we’re doing with the venues is we’re also activating the economic impact of our town by having the concerts inside existing businesses. Some of them are non-traditional music venues such as galleries, cafes. We have three galleries. We really wanted them to be a part of it.
We do have the Baroque Room, which is a traditional performance venue. We do have the church hall called Junction 142 which has a capacity of about 150 people in there, it’s quite a nice one. And Big Beat is our 100% deadly venue which is right in the civic centre arcade, a central part of the festival.
We have Aunty Jack’s which, in the past, did have a bit of a history with a bit of groovy jazz and things like that. But it’s been a pancake place, it’s been a Korean place. These guys are new so it’s going to be a really nice way to welcome them into the town.
We’ve even got one in the food court, we’ve got one in a tiny little cafe called The Elephant Bean which has got one solo act there.
So there’s really a chance to have a wander around Katoomba Street and check out our little business area.
BQ: You mention Create New South Wales, you mention the council. I’ve really been cheered in the last few years by seeing so many councils in travels through Queensland and New South Wales and ACT where they’re wanting to engage with independent musicians, they’re wanting to put a focus on business, and they’re wanting to get past that fly-in, fly-out that some festivals have.
It looks like you’ve got all of that in spades.
MB: Yeah, and so once again, this year the Live and Local model that was presented to us – and in fact the Live Music Office only administers this to councils – and this strategy was specifically made for councils in the western Sydney area and regional areas of New South Wales. So Mudgee, Orange, Hawkesbury, Camden, Parramatta.
And if you have a little look on Youtube, you might find a Parramatta Live and Local Youtube clip. You’ll definitely be able to find one after ours.
We’re pretty proud of the number of musicians we’ve got. We’ve attracted a fair bit of attention from the funders and ministers, so they’ll be rolling up in packs to our official opening and being official guests there, because I think everyone’s quite excited about…
Let’s just say we don’t do anything in halves up here!
We only do music really well up here. We already have quite a few people that give a lot to keeping it going. There’s three of us that are doing it pretty hardcore, and there’s probably another three movers and shakers that do it occasionally.
And something unique is happening up here and between us we’re creating an impact that is more important than whether we feel competitive in a small market place. And the need for creating more opportunities for the large amount of professional, talented musicians, there is a need for it.
Personally myself, I can’t meet all of that need even though I’ll be seen as someone who I felt like I was filling a gap when I started it. I got limitless requests and I realised it was a really big area, so when other people came out to play and started adopting a similar model to what I was doing, which was putting the right act in the right place and being an independent host not attached to one single venue.
That’s quite a unique thing up here, and so there’s a couple of other promoters up here that do that really well. And you know what? Since they’ve come on the scene, I haven’t actually had less people come to my events, so what I like is that together we’re taking that burden on. We weren’t deluded that we were going to get rich quick, but we decided to do it anyway, so we’re doing it.
So, it’s actually nice. Some of those promoters have been on the festival committee and there’s various other brilliant people: braddiedrich.com who’s helped with some data and graphic design. I’ve really enjoyed the collaboration and the sense of not being alone, and being part of such a brilliant initiative. When doing something that has so many good feelings and right ethics from the start, it’s really easy to get cooperation from people around you.
I don’t put my hand up to help at things when I don’t pay musicians. I might not get paid a lot in doing that, but it’s certainly not my hobby to organise things where people don’t get paid. So, for me to be involved in this and to experience how far that good will travels, that people are so excited that this many musicians are getting paid.
We’ve got a band like the Penny Dreadful. They’ve got a 14 year old drummer and an 18 year old and it’s really cool. They’re doing a 45 minute set, they’re being paid $600 and it’s encouraging for them.
BQ: Where can people find out about Live and Local online?
MB: We created a website and it’s KatoombaLiveAndLocal.com.au [expired site?] From that website, you’ve got options to connect up with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Facbook page is probably the most active one.
The festival is on one day between 2 and 8pm, so don’t think it’s at night time otherwise you’ll miss it. Having said that, if you do miss it, you can come to one of my other events that I’m running after that. Yes, I am crazy, but I already had that commitment before I said yes to this festival. So I’ve got an amazing gypsy jazz performer down at the Clarendon.
But anyway, we’re not here to talk about that!
BQ: Yeah, you can!
MB: [Meg goes on to talk about the utility of the website, however, it seems to have since disappeared off the face of the earth, and the Facebook page appears to have been stripped of all content.]
BQ: And I’m going to guess there’s a radio station that’s also behind you as well.
MB: Yes, we’ve had ads on the radio for the last month, and I just recorded three new ones yesterday morning and they’ve already been on air, just for the last piece of excitement, so people don’t hear the same old ads they’ve heard for the previous three months.
BQ: And that radio station is?
MB: Radio Blue Mountains 89.1FM! And that’s brilliant, and we’ve also given them a gold-plated invitation to have a fund-raising barbecue at Junction 142 – 142 is conveniently the number they are in the street (Katoomba Street) so you won’t lose them.
And they’ll be doing the barbecue there so you can meet some of the characters who volunteer. That’s very convenient, because that venue doesn’t have a cafe; musos and volunteers get hungry, and that’s very handy.
BQ: So that’s all happening on Saturday 7 April at Katoomba. It’s Live and Local. And look for Music Hunter – that’s not in the Hunter Valley where I am at the moment, it’s up in the Blue Mountains. It all happens on Saturday between 2-8pm, and do stick around for the ticketed events afterwards.
Meg, thank you so much for talking with us tonight on Overheard Productions, and have a fantastic festival.
MB: Thank you very much, and maybe we’ll see you, but if we don’t, we’ll see you next time!
While that’s bad news for anyone on site who missed his gigs, or for anyone who got along and just wants to see more, the good news for John is that he can now find a shady tree and try to keep cool for the rest of the festival.
“This weather is too hot for my blood!” he observed to the lunchtime crowd of Duck Eggs, as he referred to them, in a friendly way.
While pumping up the nachos at The Chef’s Table and their other gastronomical delights.
Bill Quinn was phonetically challenged….
I’m sorry, I’ll read that again.
Bill Quinn was challenged in terms of phone access which left John with some extra time to enjoy the shade of the Coopers Bar, but they eventually caught up for a chat:
*** Audio file will be deleted by end of March 2020 ***
*** Audio file will be deleted by end of March 2020 ***
I’m not certain, but it may be that Rabbit Radio has gone the way of the dodo. Their website comes back with an error message, and their last tweet was some time in 2016. Shame.
Bill Quinn’s Overheard Productions title is about many things, but mostly about the chance slivers of conversation or even a word or two that leads to a new discovery.
Standing in The Duck at The Chef’s Table, waiting on a plate full of life-giving nachos, Bill chanced to hear and then see Joey Channon, the stage manager at The Duck for the morning and early afternoon sessions, and had his interest piqued by Joey’s t-shirt (Rabbit Radio).
Two days later, and Bill and Joey were seated in the most salubrious of surrounds (on the slippery slope at the back of the gent’s toilets next to The Duck and The Travelling Sisters‘ caravan), chatting about performance spaces, and radio, and grass roots music development.
*** Audio file will be removed by the end of March 2020 ***
*** Audio file will be removed by the end of March 2020 ***
The Travelling Sisters are a lot of fun. I mean, when you get to hang out in a caravan for a week in the middle of a busy festival precinct you’ve got to bring the happy haps a fair bit, yes/no?
Laura, Elle and Lucy are The Travelling Sisters. See if you can pick out which is which on the audio recording below. Hint: Laura is the blonde. Typing out the text from audio over five years later, I’m not going to even try. Soz.
Mixing music, theatre, improv and audience participation, The Travelling Sisters fill that little caravan-y void where some punters might remember a couple of late night clowns used to perform out back of ‘The Duck’ (the venue formerly known as ‘The Duck and Shovel’).
Albeit that they’re performing at the more universally awake hour of 5/5.30pm (see below for days and times).
Bill Quinn caught up with Laura, Elle and Lucy the morning after a very special and important day in the Woodford lives of these three young performers.
Please excuse the sound spills. We did ask for trouble by agreeing that if anyone interrupted we would treat it not as a problem but as an opportunity.
*** Audio will be deleted by the end of March 2020 ***
*** Audio will be deleted by the end of March 2020 ***
If you stopped, looked slightly up and right, and mused, “Sister act? But dude, they’re all dudes!” then score five points for Gryfindor.
Coming out of Canberra faster than the Federal Highway or a politician with a dog-eared credit card, BKBB will explode everything you ever thought about brass bands, unless those thoughts are sexy, fun, dance, sweaty and more sexy.
Yes, brass is definitely the new black and if you knew sousaphone like I knew sousaphone, oh oh, oh I’m getting too old for this site because that gag was told me to by the midwife. At my birth.