I’d seen posters around for the Illawarra Folk Festival (caution: that link has a loud autoplay video, turn your volume down). I thought for quite a while about going but then decided against it. It was a bit of money, I’m more of a blues fan, and I’m seeing quite a lot of events this month already for Sydney Festival.
But then the good folks over at review site Yelp had a competition for weekend pass tickets. And I was able to take an extra day off from work this week because my employer has a policy of giving you a day off on the anniversary of your start date. So I entered the competition.
And I won. Hoo-RAH!
The festival was only about 80 minutes down the coast, so we booked a B&B for the weekend and headed out Friday morning. That day was the hottest in Sydney’s history, with the mercury hitting 45.8 degrees Celsius. It was only a couple of degrees cooler where we were, so we spent much of Friday at Austinmer beach. Mostly in the water.
But Friday afternoon and evening, all day Saturday, and half of Sunday we spent wandering the tents and sites of the Illawarra Folk Festival. This is the largest volunteer-run folk festival in Australia. It certainly has that “little festival” feel. The vibe was great. Everything was close together. It was easy to get to and park each day. None of the queues were too long. And show times kept pretty close to schedule.
The music acts ran a pretty big gamut, though all had some roots in folk. Most were Australian acts but a few were from overseas. I was as pleased with the quality of performers as I was with the laid-back festival atmosphere. Given its proximity to Sydney I would definitely visit this festival again.
Here’s a very brief run-down on the acts I saw at least a few songs from (in roughly the order I saw them).
Teifon & Gareth. Two 19-year-olds from NSW. Tangos, Irish reels, and lots of ukelele.
The Underscore Orkestra. Balkan/gypsy/swing band from the US. Lively and fun.
Karen Lynne Bluegrass Circle. A proper bluegrass outfit, no messin’ about.
Mike McClellan. A popular, long-running, award-winning Australian folk legend, apparently. Pleasant enough, but a little more genteel than I like.
Mzaza. Brisbane six-piece with French, Spanish, Turkish and other influences, and mostly sung in French. Loved the middle eastern instrumentation.
Vardos. Balkan string outfit, full of laments, laughs, and audience participation.
Shalani. This local girl is 10 years old. She sings others’ country songs, writes her own with her mom about the ocean, and is saving up to buy a pony. Sweet.
Fiona Boyes. HOT DAMN. One of the festival highlights. An Australian woman who plays like she was part of Muddy’s band. I’ve never heard anyone growl and yowl through Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin'” like that. Nor tell a story about how a Reverend Gary Davis song brought her and her partner together. Fiona is a wicked guitar player and had a huge performing personality, too. She is the real blues deal.
Big Erle. Rockin’ and rough-hewn blues-folk.
Dylan Hekimian. 18-year-old from Canberra. He plays a whip-fast acoustic guitar, with a whole lot of hand-slapping percussion against this guitar body. I took some video:
Gregory Page. Classy, jazz/blues/folk singer from the US. His stories and style and easy manner made for a charming, nostalgic set.
Mustered Courage. Really good bluegrass guys from Melbourne with great harmonies, and a fun cover of Queen’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls”. Here’s one of their other songs:
Ruby Boots. Nice country blues from WA.
The Ballpoint Penguins. Comedy a capella trio made me laugh with songs about jellyfish, bottled water, kids who won’t move out, and wine. I’ve got a feeling my mom might have told me about these guys before.
Ray Marshall & the Bluegrass Deputies. Ray is genuine old-timey bluegrass with some local help.
The Lurkers. Bluegrass, but not as you’d care to know it. This was the only act I really didn’t like. I left after a song and a half.
Tommy Polden. 13-year-old local writes thoughtful little songs about monsters and other things that kids think about.
The Go Set. Wow! More a punk band than folk, but they’ve got bagpipes and a bodhrán. They made the big tent explode, and rocked hard and fast. The crowd loved the high energy. And they finished with a cover of the best rock song with bagpipes: AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”.
Paul Mbenna & Okapi Guitar Band. Paul was a singer in Tazania before moving to Australia a few years ago. Now performing with the Okapi Guitar band, Australia’s longest-running Afro-pop group, they made joyful, funky, jangly, danceable African grooves. And jokes in Swahili.
Jeff Lang. I missed his full band set on Saturday because the tent was overflowing, but caught his Sunday morning set with just him and his bassist. He was a virtuosic folk/blues guitar player, with some intense sounds.
Terry Serio’s Ministry of Truth. Gritty, eerie country songs of danger. I really liked his voice: very emotive.
Dom Flemons. Festival highlight. Incredible. Caught his last song or two the previous day, so ensured I caught his whole set this time, and decided to call it quits afterwards. Flemons is from the US, and is part of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. He is the real deal: steeped 100% in old-time hillbilly music, Appalachian banjo styles, early jazz, and every bit of roots Americana that informed everything that came after. He was engaging, and wide-eyed, and charming, and really pleased to be here. He blew me away. Check this out:
It was an amazing festival to see for free. Thanks again, Yelp.