Festival Touring in a Sunburned Country
Richard Flohil Visits Australia, Travels with a Band, Visits Music Festivals, and Avoids Spiders.
Photograph by Michael Wrycraft.
Australia is very much like Canada — a big country with miles and miles of bugger-all in the middle. That, in part, was a comparison drawn by Peter Gzowski, the still-revered host of a long-running CBC radio programme called Morningside.
The travel writer Bill Bryson, in his excellent 2000 book In a Sunburned Country* was more specific. After the obligatory description of all the animals that can kill you in Australia, he said: “In short, there is no place in the world like it. Australia is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile, and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents…”
Alas, I had not read Bryson’s book when I first went to Australia, in the dying week of 2010. I had been invited by an old friend, John Sinclair, an agent who thought — given my experiences with festivals in Canada — I might be able to “consult” on a festival called Woodford. And I could check out some of his artists with the possibility of bringing them to Canada.
Not having the slightest idea of what was in store, I flew to Los Angeles (LAX is surely the worst airport in North America), hung around for five hours with a dear friend, then braved the 16-hour flight to Sydney.
Australia’s past as a penal colony did not prepare me for the surprise of Sydney; at the other end of the world, I expected some sort of colonial backwater. Instead, I found a bustling, diverse, sky-scrapered city that instantly reminded me of Toronto, full of different neighbourhoods, good restaurants, amiable coffee shops, and friendly, open-hearted people.
Neither was I prepared for the Woodford Folk Festival, which makes even the largest of our folk events in Canada — the Winnipeg and Edmonton festivals —look like vicarage tea parties.
Down Under story #1
Everyone knows that your passport picture rarely looks like you. Kieran Goss, a wonderful Irish folksinger, has a particularly bad passport photo. Officials look at it, then at him, then back to the picture, shaking their heads — at which point Goss pulls the face he’s wearing in the picture. Satisfied, officials let him enter.
When he arrived in Australia on tour, the immigration official was not amused when he felt he had to pull what he called his “passport face,” “Security is important,” the official said angrily. “This is not a time for joking about! Do you have a criminal record?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, ” Goss responded, “I didn’t know you still had to have one.”
The Woodford Folk Festival starts every year at 9 a.m. on Boxing day, and ends with fireworks six days later at midnight as the New Year begins.
Attendance is some 30,000 a day, and almost everyone camps. There are a total of 22 stages, with all but one or two inside under tents; many of the stages have bars attached.
And the festival hires almost 600 artists or bands in a wide variety of genres, ranging from major Australian music names and dozens and dozens of singer-songwriters to itinerant buskers, jugglers, poets. There are relatively few foreign performers — two groups from Canada and two artists from the U.S. when I was there.
Woodford is community driven rather than music driven, although I still remember a storming concert by Toni Childs (a now forgotten American pop singer who now lives in Hawaii), a remarkable session by superlative guitarist Kaki King, and 10,000 people in an open amphitheatre for a concert with Australian superstar John Butler.
But this festival is really a gathering of the clans, if you will. Apart from the music there are demonstrations, films, a circus, a huge kids’ area, storytelling sessions, and lectures with an emphasis on environmental issues.
And beer tents.
Down Under story #2
Australians are informal; they rarely stand on ceremony. Backstage at Woodford, sipping beer and nibbling on pretzels, I am introduced to the Right Hon. Robert James Lee Hawke, the 23rd Prime Minister of Australia.
An iconic left wing politician, he had led the Labour Party to a landslide victory in 1983, and was re-elected for three more terms.
Eighty years old, handsome with a shock of white hair, and with two attractive younger women on his arm, he was a commanding, impressive figure.
Nervous at meeting such an famous Australian, I ask: “how do I address you, sir?”
He shakes my hand firmly, and responded: “Ya call me Bob, mate.”
Woodford is held on 600 acres of Aboriginal land in a rain forest. The festival is built by volunteers, and with the exception of the genderless metal toilet and shower facilities, everything is torn down within the first days of the new year — and the animals and birds who normally live there return to their home.
The festival has 2,500 volunteers, but — unlike their equivalents in Canada — they are not identified as such; they don’t have designated festival T-shirts, badges or laminates on lanyards around their necks. They do their jobs efficiently, and also set an example to their other festival-goers.
The one problem with holding an event in a rain forest, despite the fact that it’s mid-summer in Australia, is that it’s wet— and if for no other reason Woodford is locally nicknamed Mudford. It rained consistently for the three days I was there; I left with friends to explore a little more of the sunburned country.
And I returned to Canada seven days later. My daughter, who drove me home when I arrived, told her sister that she had not met her dad at the airport, but greeted an exhausted, stumbling zombie. Festivals, and 26 hours in the air or at airports, will do that to you.
It was another six years before I had the chance to go to Australia again.
The Jerry Cans, if you don’t know, is a band from Iqaluit, the capital city of Nunavut, the giant territory in Canada’s Arctic.
When I started working with them, I described them this way: “Imagine a band that sings in Inuktitut, a language only 20,000 people speak. Think of a folk band that is powerfully political. And which sounds like a cross between The Pogues and an acoustic version of The Clash…”
Hyperbole, for sure. But it worked —my agent friend John Sinclair used it and won an instant response from WOMAD festivals in Adelaide and New Plymouth in New Zealand. And with Canada Council contributing the cost of air fares, the Jerry Cans were on their way.
What I didn’t say was that the band had only one Inuit member — the slight but impressive Nancy Mike, who used traditional throat singing as an “instrumental” sound in the band’s mix, and also sang backup and played accordion.
Her (then) husband Andrew Morrison described himself and the others as “a bunch of white guys who’ve lived up here for most of our lives.” Born in Alberta, Morrison had lived in Iqaluit since he was two; completely bilingual, he wrote the songs, led the band, introduced the tunes in English and was an energetic and engaging front man.
Steve Rigby, the band’s drummer was the party animal; Gina Burgess, the fiddle player, was probably the most accomplished musician on the tour; Brendan Doherty (nicknamed Dotes) was the rock-solid bass player.
Apart from the band, we had Andrew and Nancy’s two adorable kids, Vivii and Laivi, a baby sitter (known, as Riit, with her own album on Six Shooter records), and Dotes’ partner, Lauren Troutman as tour manager.
A year later, we were all back in Australia, playing four major folk festivals and traveling between Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and the Blue Mountain festival west of Sydney. As is the case with most tours, we stayed in a wide variety of accomodations — the Hilton in Adelaide, a cockroach-infested dump in Manly Beach, a welcoming Maori community in New Zealand, and an Ibis Hotel in a Canberra suburb with half a dozen wallabies on the front lawn.
Down Under story #3
In Sydney, the band’s amiable driver, simply named Tizza, regaled us with information about the huntsman spider. Eight legs, black, ugly and as big as your fist. And most Australians tolerate them if only because they eat the tiny poisonous spiders that can kill you.
“I went on holiday to Canada once,” he told us, and you have to imagine his Australian accent. “When I arrived in Vancouver I realized I had packed one of them in my suitcase, and I think I’d cut off two of its legs when I closed up the case.It had crossed the Pacific and was still alive. I thought, poor little bugger, so I wrapped it in toilet paper and put it on the balcony.Thirty seconds later a seagull flew by and ate it in a single gulp.”
Later he sent me a note. “But did I tell you about the time I was driving me Land Rover, and one of them crawled up me leg into me shorts and bit me nuts?”
Fortunately, I didn’t see a single spider on any of my three trips Down Under…
To tell you the truth, in my mind both tours merge into one, full of memorable incidents over a total of almost eight weeks. Here are some of them.
• The opening ceremonies at WOMAD in Adelaide are led by an Aboriginal elder. Wearing track pants, with painted white markings on his chest, back and arms, he speaks for 10 minutes in his native tongue, and he sounds angry. Then there are dancers and a didgeridoo player.
Afterwards, a 10-year-old Muslim girl, in her school uniform hijab, runs up to him, hugs him around the waist, and skips away.
• At the WOMAD event in New Zealand, the band sound checks at noon on the stage where Elton John had played 10 days before. There are 20 people watching, but half an hour later there are hundreds of people cheering, including a man in the front row waving a giant Maple Leaf flag…
• Sitting backstage, with an enigmatic smile as he taps his feet, is David Suzuki, Canada’s most famous environmentalist. He greets us all with genuine appreciation.
• At an airport, Nancy leaves her accordion behind on the conveyor belt. I earn my place on the tour by recognizing she doesn’t have it, running back, and retrieving it.
• Having two adorable small children with us gets us through security, immigration, customs at record speeds — always accompanied by smiles from officials who rarely have much to smile about.
• At the Blue Mountain Festival it pours with rain, non-stop, for the first two days. And on Sunday, when the sun finally emerges, the ground is sodden, and the giant tent where headliner Paul Kelly is to sing, is slowly sinking into the mud.
The performance schedule is hastily rearranged, and The Jerry Cans play for 200 people in a nearby hotel’s ballroom. Instead of their usual up-tempo dance-oriented show, they sing and talk about real life in the Arctic, the appalling suicide rate there, the desperation of young people, the preservation of Inuk culture. It was the best show of the tour.
• A midnight walk with Gina Burgess on Manly Beach, with crashing waves (this is, during the day, a surfers’ paradise) and a full moon.
• Prince Edward Island’s Irish Mythen — a singer who has never needed a microphone — celebrates St. Patrick’s Day with an unscheduled concert in a nearby bar. Bless her, she does not sing “Danny Boy” or “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”
• In between festivals, the band plays local pubs to small but enthusiastic crowds. In Byron Bay, drummer Steve Rigby exchanges his Jerry Cans T-shirt with the flowered blouse of an inebriated young woman. The resulting show is applauded by the entire bar.
• At the National Folk Festival in Canberra, the band plays in a 2,000 seat tent, with massive production, major lighting effects, giant television screens on both sides of the staged. And, later that day, I get to meet an Australian hero of mine: Dobe Newton, the leader of the veteran band The Bushwackers. He promises to send me his band’s newest record; it still has to arrive.
There’s more, much more. And the takeaway from all of this is simple: find a way to get to Australia.
And one last word, from Peanuts creator Charles Schulz: “Don’t worry about the world coming to an end. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.”
What a wonderful; sunburned land!
The Jerry Cans perform Ukiuq
* Published in the UK with a different title, Down Under.
Richard Flohil is a retired publicist, concert promoter, club booker, and all-purpose music nerd, based in Toronto. He is also a story teller, and he shares tall tales with The Sound Café readers every month.