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.
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 ***
Yard of Blondes are preparing to release an album later in 2020, and they’ve just launched their second single ahead of the full record. Lowland, a jaunty, upbeat indy pop track (with maybe some darker themes just under the surface) is a great follow-up to last year’s release of You and I & I, a heavier, rockier track.
Yard of Blondes are based in Culver City, just near Los Angeles, USA but their roots come from across the Atlantic in France. Fanny Hill (bass, vocals, and one half of the French connection) got in touch about an interview, and a few days later on a sweltering late summer day in Darwin, Australia I was talking down the line with Vincent Jacob (guitar, vocals et aussi de la belle France).
Bill Quinn: G’day, Vincent.
Vincent Jacob: Hello. How are you?
BQ: Good, and as I found when I did a little bit of research about the band, I can also say: Bonsoir, ça va? Bienvenue, et c’est un plaisir de vous parler.
VJ: Oh, quel bon français. Bon! Ça va.
BQ: Un peu. Seulement un peu!
Now that we’ve gone down that [French] road, Vince, can you tell me about the origins of the band in France.
VJ: So, actually we started the band in the US, but Fanny and I, the founders of the band, we’re both French.
But we met in Los Angeles.
We were playing music separately in France, both of us, and then we landed in the US – we didn’t know each other – and we met. I guess we were there for the same reason; we needed to escape Europe for a bit, and we ended up in the sun on Venice Beach in LA and we met.
Fanny was here on vacation; she didn’t plan to stay, but we started making music together, and she wanted to stay, so we stayed.
We had friends in common, but they didn’t introduce us at all. We met randomly!
While sitting in the media centre, writing in the last post about how Overheard Productions got its name, Bill Quinn overheard David Cyrus MacDonald drop in to talk with the office staff.
About 3.6 minutes later, David and Bill were outside the donga by the Spirit of Woodford office, standing variously on the wooden palets or in the mud, dodging dangerous ants the size of small cats, and speaking over the sound spill creeping up the hill from Bluestown, chatting about Paper Lions, music advocacy, and the wondrous, wonderful Woodford.
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 ***
The audio from this interview was originally linked to a Timber and Steel article on 26 September 2013. This article is being added over six years down the track as part of a project to move most of Overheard Productions’ audio files to text.
Liz Frencham starts her Joy Spring tour in Newtown tonight, Thursday 26 September, and continues through September along the Eastern Coast and hinterland, stopping in at Newcastle, Canberra, Wollongong, Newtown, Glebe, Allambie Heights and Katoomba and then continues into Queensland with more dates to be announced.
Bill Quinn managed to get some time to chat to Liz Frencham about the tour and her upcoming recordings – listen to the interview below and check out her full list of tour dates (so far).
*** Audio file will be removed by end of February 2020 ***
Bill Quinn: On a very, very muggy afternoon in spring, it’s time for a spring tour, and who better to bring us that than the lovely Liz Frencham. Hello, Liz Frencham.
Liz Frencham: Hey, Bill. Nice to talk to you again.
BQ: Tell me about the tour.
LF: I’m a big spring fan; I’m such a fan of spring I moved to a very cold area in the central highlands of Victoria because the spring is so dramatic. You go from very, very misty, cold, no-sun type winters into this beautiful time where basically the whole town first of all gets peppered in snow drops, and then an explosion of colour as all the daffodils come up. And the little hyacinths with a red/purple colour.
You know it’s all happening; I like that. I feel like I can come to life at the same time too.
In July 2019 during the Darwin Fringe, I met a vibrant, funny, and larger than life character named Sveta* who was presenting her show ‘The Sickle Of Life’ as part of the Fringe lineup.
The next day, I met a pleasant, outgoing, chatty festival volunteer named Lana.
It took a good few minutes on that second meeting to realise that the performer and the volly were one in the same person. That’s a good as any recommendation for the skills of an actor as you could hope for.
The chance to see ‘The Sickle Of Life’ passed me by due to conflicting festival obligations, and as you’ll read below, it mostly passed others by due to circumstances beyond Lana’s and the audience’s control.
Not even the former Soviet Union’s security services could fix the problem.
But the show is coming to The Venue at Fannie Bay on Friday 6 December, and will hopefully return to the Darwin Fringe in 2020.
On a mercifully mild November Sunday morning, I met up with Sveta and Lana at The Fannie Bay Coolspot for a cup of coffee and a chat.
* See the bottom of this document for a very important security advice about this website.
Bill Quinn: I hope this interview goes OK, because the only Russian language I know I’ve learnt from Billy Joel: Live In Moscow and The Hunt For Red October. So I trust your English is better than my Russian.
Sveta Lyublyu Knokyablokov: Well, I’ve been learning English, so hopefully you can understand my accent.
BQ: When did you come to Australia and what brought you here?
SLK: I’ve only come recently because I have been in the search for love, and I know my true love is waiting for me. I’ve been looking for him all around Australia… well, maybe it last six months.
And I started in Adelaide, and then I went to the Brisvegas, then I went to the Gold Coast, and I’m searching for this man that I met in Moscow – that’s part of my story – and apparently, he is waiting for me here in Dariwnd.
That’s why I’m here.
BQ: Aha! Now are you talking [about looking for love] generally, or is there a specific person?
SLK: Specific man!
BQ: Ah, see I thought that the problem was you’d run out of men to find in Russia and had come here looking for love.
SLK: Oh, nyet, nyet, nyet. I am saving my treasure chest for special gem.
And you see, I am the last hope for virgin [pronounced ‘wirgin’] bride in Knokyablokov family. It’s getting a bit of a worry for the family, but I am saving myself for the right man, and that’s why I am here because I met him, and I’m here to find him.