Off to Canberra for the National Folk Festival

On the road…

I head up to Canberra on the Wednesday (April 4) to get to the Folklore Conference on the Thursday. After a diversion to the centre of Melbourne to pick up a passenger (Wim) who offered to share the fuel costs. The weather is sunny and warm so it looks hopeful for the festival, though as Canberra is just over475 km away (about 300 miles) it could be quite different. It’s actually about 650 km by road (about 400 miles) but the road is pretty good all the the way, dual carriageway all the way except for two short sections, so the trip took about 8/9 hours with a couple of breaks.

One slightly weird stop was at Holbrook, which has the upper part of the Oberon Class conventional subumarine HMAS Otway in the town park. The point of this was that the town was named after a British submariner who won a Victoria Cross in WW1 for sinking a Turkish battership in the Dardinelles. The town had been called Germanton (i.e. German Town) after a German immigrant, John Christopher Pabst, who was the publican of the Woolpack Hotel. Like many towns with german names they changed it during the first world war – as did the the British Royal family (who changed their family name to ‘Windsor’).

The National Folk Festival (Canberra)…

After stopping off at the festival site to drop off my passenger and pick up my ticket and camping pass I head off meet up with Ian Blake who has kindly offered me a bed and – more importantly – a bathroom during my stay.

In evening I head down to the festival to have a look around and link up with Mandy Connell  and her merry crew only to find myself on-stage at the Flute & Fiddle venue as part of the band (along with Ian Blake on Sax and Marilla on vocals). This is despite the fact that the Festival hasn’t officially started yet. So it looks like it’s going to be a good one…

Thursday was taken up with the Folklore Conference which took place at the Australian National Library and featured talks on the role of music at the Australian Antarctic bases and expeditions by singer / songwriter Bruce Watson and a lecture about the bush poet (and Labour MP) John Keith McDougall who was a contemporary of Henry Lawson. This was presented by Dennis O’Keffe who has just published a book “Waltzing Matlilda – The Secret History of Australia’s Favourite Song”  which I had bought in the local ABC shop as part of my research into the idea of doing a vaguely historical show of Australian song and spoken word. At lunch time there was a concert called “Yarns and Melodies” with a couple of pretty authentic Aussie country / folk characters.

In the afternoon I ‘nicked off’ and walked up to the new Parliament House which I hadn’t seen before. The inmates (i.e. the federal MPs) weren’t there, but I had a wander around and a coffee on the terrace. I couldn’t help but compare it with the Palace of Westminster in London which I visited a few months ago to lobby my MP about the Lost Arts Campaign. As you might image the Aussie Parliament is a lot more relaxed than it’s British counterpart – also a lot more spacious and lighter than it’s predecessor.

On the way back to the car I pass the Aboriginal Embassy on the grounds between the old and new buildings. This has been there since before I left for England in 1979.  As I wander past I muse on the fact that their ancestors also colonised this land by sea, the first humans to do so apparently. It doesn’t effect the justice of their case, but might be considered an example of ‘what goes around, comes around’…

Meanwhile, back at the festival…

Back to the festival for the evening and another gig with Mandy, this time for the VIP Event before the main opening concert. The festival is a ‘green field’ type event except that there are a few permanent structures at the showground which can act as venues.

As I mentioned in my last blog, one of my main aims at being at the festival is to suss out what the state of the social dance scene is. After the VIP gig I check out one of the Bush Dance events and it all seems pretty staid, with an ageing audience and a low altitude band. I’m pretty sure that this audience wouldn’t be into the kind of stuff that I do in the UK. I was beginning to think that if I wanted to work over here then I’d have to apeal to a different audience.

I also get a chance to see the band that Ian plays with at the Flute & Fiddle venue – Cassidy’s Ceili – which sounds pretty good, despite Cassidy wrecking her foot in the preamble to the gig – the show must go on! The repertoire consists of some fairly tasty ‘old school folk rock – right up my street…

Sitting in with the band at the National...On Friday I get to play with the Old Empire Band which is led by Peter Logue on keyboard. There are about 16 people on stage – including Brian Peters and two percussionists – so we’re quite tight for space. I wheel out the electric for this and quite enjoy the music – getting a number of compliments from band members which was nice. A lot of the tunes were familiar as they are from the New Victory Band and similar repotoire. I played a lot of these tunes when I first played in the the UK with the Cluster of Nuts and Roger Watson was still using some of them when we worked together more recently. Still, looking at the audience I’m not sure how Bluetongue / MoonDance Bush Ceilidh would go down…

‘The Nash’ is a great festival as it has a load of things going on at any one time including at least three sessions in the ‘session bar’ as well as at least five ‘blackboard’ venues which have a mix of booked acts, acts which have come down ‘on spec’ to showcase and ad hoc collabourations of performers just taking advantage of the moment to try something new. While I’m not a great fan of musos doing something for no pay, this gives everone an opportunity to have a go. A bit different from the ‘closed shop’ that you get at British Folk Festivals.

Anyway, getting back to my mission of sussing out the social dance scene, by Saturday I was getting the distinct feeling that there wasn’t any space in the Aussie social dance scene for anything as raucous as the sort of stuff that I do in Brit-land with MoonDance. However I popped in to see the Rapscallion album launch (Vagabond King) and was immediately reminded of the gigs that we’ve been doing at GuilFest in terms of the sweaty energy generated by the audience. I spoke with one of the festival organisers later in the week who was very keen on the idea. So as long as I can my act together…

Sunday saw another gig with Mandy at the Bohemian Bar which when down very well, though the stage was pretty crowded. This was a much longer set of one hour so we went though a fair amount of material. I had the electric again and put a killer solo into a rather tasteful harmony song.

Monday saw me performing under my own name at the ‘Stock Camp’ venue with the assistance of Ian Blake on sax and a spot with the lovely and talented Marilla Homes  for a somewhat under-rehearsed version of Summer Time. In the evening we had a final session with Mandy’s band – nicknamed ‘The Minions’ – which had gradualy grown in size over the weekend until it managed to get ten players on stage for the last gig at the Scrumpy Bar. All through the weekend I was knocked out by the wonderful voice of Lindsey Meldrum  who was helping out Mandy on backing vocals and credits also go to Stirling Gill-Chambers on fiddle (Spooky Mens’ Chorale), ‘Charles De Vermin’ (Rapskallion) on mandolin and Leonard Podolak (banjo) from the Dry Bones.

Acts I saw a the festival I would recommend checking out are;
Gleny Rae & her Tamworth Playboys
Mark Cryle & The Redeemers
The WhooHoo Revue
The Lurkers
Jeff Lang
– Dry Bones

My next blog will cover the trip from Canberra to Sydney via Orange and Oberon…

About Brian Heywood

Brian Heywood is a free range musician who specialises in edgy roots / country / celtic fusion music. Previous work has received comments such as "... aggressive, top notch fiddling set off by periodic guitar explosions." - Tom Nelligan, Dirty Linen Magazine (USA), "Just when it seemed as if newer electric British roots bands were getting thinner on the ground - Very welcome and very good." - fROOTS Magazine (UK) and Steve Barnes Fairbridge Festival Artistic Director (Australia) - "... a rocking band - I was delighted with the audience response."
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