Cobargo Folk Festival is set in a sleepy farming town that kind of feels like it’s a million miles from care. But if you’d rather that in metric terms, it’s at least a kilometre away from Sydney for every two people that call this tiny town their home, deep down in the south, edging close to the New South Wales – Victorian border.
The festival is held in the town’s rural Showgrounds, somewhere over the hill but not that far away. In fact it’s pretty close to where the colonial settlers planted themselves down in Yuin country back in 1829, and began to clear the heavily timbered hills for their dairy farms, shipping fresh creamy butter all the way up the coast to old Sydney town, to satiate the hungry colony.
It’s still largely dairy country today. The little round hillsides form a corral around a strip of hand cut timber houses. They frame the main road as it leads through a town that gets plugged with backyard fruit in lemon season. There’s even a timber bridge over Narira creek, though the creek doesn’t always flow.
As a music venue, it’s close enough to Bermagui to go for a dip between acts, yet it’s nestled in the hinterland, away from the strong sea breeze that cuts through the noon tide air. The festival vibe stamps that ‘far away land’ kind of magic feel on the ticket as you walk through the tunnel of ferns and fronds that make a romantic bower over the entry gates.
Like so many of Australia’s favourite folk events, Cobargo holds its own in the highly contested festival scene. This is Djirringanj country, where the people of the Yuin Tribal Nation commemorate the late Auntie Eileen Morgan with a welcome that features Djaadjawan Dancers, Robbie Bundle and the Stiff Gins.
The Stiff Gins are introduced by Sean Burke of Akolele on Wallaga Lake, a coastal hamlet that rests in the shadow of Mount Gulaga. Sacred Gulaga is the mother of the Yuin tribes, which was appropriated to the white-man name of Mount Dromedary for a century or more, before its cultural re-emergence.
Emma Donovan and Nadi Simpson of The Stiff Gins got their start at Redfern Music College in 1997. Their first release got them banned from radio because of just one word, they say, retelling their yarn with giggles until they are caroused into an impromptu rendition to show how that single word can sometimes bring you down. “Gather your things and walk out the door, I don’t want to see you f’n face any more”, the song goes. “We were young”, they giggle. “Very young,” they say.
These days they sing more about meditating and and less about sex. They sing songs about their kids as life grows in and around them, like 10 billion stars being called down from the ancient skies on the same day, for the same night, for an experience they made right here, in this place. Their voices are as clear as the flowing streams they are singing about, as they make their way through old inland towns, a long, long way from home. Their vocal lines will drench you as they call you in, and everything that is beautiful in this world will drift off the mother’s voice. Their spirit caresses the heart like a salt water wind returning to its place and breathing on your soul. Their tales follow their journey back to the heritage Australia forgot in its race to obliterate the most beautiful sapphires of our indigenous cultures and lands. They take the audience across the border of contemporary life and onto a traditional road, in yarns that span the continent and their spiritual home, the home whitefellas were in such a rush to cast off, like unaccounted bails of wool falling off the back of a road train, forgotten in a ditch somewhere along the way.
The big superband-style sound of On The Stoop is a real show stopper. In their accordion infused vaudevillian style they sing of how funny life is, and that in most instances, you should just get over yourself, and get on with being ‘you’, especially when it comes to taking a laugh at religion. Where the Stiff Gins got themselves banned from radio with one foul word, On The Stoop got themselves banned from playing in churches with their tune ‘Temples and Boardrooms’, with their funky, light ska riffs and punchy bass lines.
With silver threaded side burns lining his jaw, lead singer Joe Manton sings of the subtle hand of virtue, painting portraits that slip and slide around his lament for our times, as many of the musicians do, speaking out about the injustices of exchanging blood for oil in a world that screams “just give me the cash”. The smooth lines deliver heart felt lyrics, overlaid with thick schmaltzy harmonies that ebb and flow through the tight horns, crafted by a young red head chick, and a smooth hitter smacking it out up on the Gretsch kit as Manton makes one liners about one trick ponies.
Meanwhile bunions burst from thongs, and bare feet tap the grass – or what’s left of it after the sets are made, and the show goes on, with all its razzmatazz and bobby socks, the blonde bleached dreads, and the band’s response to the call from the audience to get more intense, with a little hint of Jaco bass, the crunchy leads, and all the sexy hooks thrown in.
To the cerise haired ladies and rather large men, the spiky mohawk-hair and the long lace shifts; the rusted out HiAce with no door handles parked under the bull ride sponsor sign, the little kids sitting hatless in the sun as they tear apart their mini catalogue guitars; the old man with the pointy jaw crouched below a half grown plane tree, still lush with the groans of summer though autumn has technically begun. Of course this is Australia and the trees will do as they please, not ascribe themselves to a European stance that declares the coming of autumn on this day or that. This calendar of comeuppance is not even aligned to the physics of our planet which officially delivers the equinox on the 16th of March. Not today, the 3rd of March, when the government declares that summer is already over. Yet the politicians are wandering around in the heat anyway, hoping you might vote for them in two weeks’ time at the state elections.
To the gentlemen in the designated smoking area far away from it all, where the children run between the rows of seats, crawling over the benches amongst the people snoozing with bandannas left to lie flat like sun screens across their faces.
To the long beards and the short trousers, and the one long sock with crocks, to the coffee grinders, their eftpos machines, to the harmonium sounds escaping under the flaps of the Magpie tent. To the kids crawling over the scaffold towards the Quaama Dry River Rodeo Committee sign, playing a game with imaginary cattle in the grey timber pens. To the fallen plastic chairs while Sally’s in the Galley, and the balladeers lament. To the pop up tents above dusty Subarus, the silver range rovers of an earlier vintage, the avenue of upright love hearts made from palm fronds and pink flags fashioned for Instagram, the babes in prams two weeks old, indoctrinated into the festival flow, though they would probably have been inducted even if their delivery had been delayed, as ripe bumps are no impediment to a good folk festival experience.
To the double bass and fiddle sessions held under the dappled shade of the one tree on the hill, playing Impromptu reels as the tradition flows; to the gaberdine high wasted dresses and tattooed arms carrying beers and kombucha up the road with a side of Daz’s Bliss Beat Curry, and plates of delicious, well priced offerings from the official food stand, where you can take a bet either way, vegetarian or lamb or both. Non bleached paper towels and plastic forks, a bet each way no matter which way you take it. To the applause wandering on the breeze as the winds shake the tents at their foundations and the bunting flags flap around. If they were prayer flags we’d all be all right. It’s a welcome breeze that shakes the heat out of the sun, though the sensible ones cover up their arms with long sleeved printed anthem shirts for one cause or another, while dads sit down with babies strapped around their torsos, to eat their tucker over the top of their baby’s heads, trying to catch the crumbs with a paper napkin. It’s quiet, it’s sparse, and though there are thousands here, it doesn’t feel that way.
There are showers for when it gets too hot and the creek is a little too dry for a dip, real toilet blocks, without queues at plastic portaloos, without the traffic jams of being in a bigger town. Though the oval is fully packed with triangle tents and camper vans, amongst the fleet of de-robed ambulances and old school busses making up the carnival camping ground.
The tin whistles breeze through the blades of grass shaking the crickets onto the dirt. The dreads may be wound up or left to flow down in the dance of it all.
And it’s you, and only you, who is lucky enough to be seated in this spot, in this place where you can see and hear all of this, though of course every other punter rests immersed in their own private perspective and their own version of the same colourful things. For this is the festival and this itself is Cobargo, as the crowd draws you on to the next main event.
Til sundown today, perhaps even midnight, in these little hills not far from the sea, this is the way it flows. You see old friends you’d forgotten. You chat and listen, as the little white clouds puff up on the horizon, tracing the curving line of the farm top trees, high above the pastures and lush green grasses of the hills around the town. Hats with feathers, baskets and boobies, kids swinging off the gates, men with peaked caps and pony tails, it’s all a part of the show.
When it comes to the experiences of Melissa Crabtree and Dayan Kai, you’d think there would be a change of heart from the jubilant festival feels. For the circumstances of their trip to Australia and travelling to the show were impossible to imagine.
Blind from birth, Dayan was refused a visa to travel to Australia unless he underwent a series of medical tests including x rays and blood tests, at his own expense. (Pre visa tests to prove what exactly???)
That was just the start. His home island of Maui didn’t house the correct machine to conduct the tests, so he had to fly, at his own expense, to another island where he could have the scans done. To make matters worse there were no connecting flights, so this had to be done in the most convoluted way imaginable, with Dayan accompanied by his partner Maya, because – did we mentioned he cannot see at all? – so obviously he cannot travel alone. Double the cost.
The life of the musician couldn’t be harder than what these guys are going through, and yet here they are, loving and living life as legendary balladeers. Arriving back home after he got the all clear on the scans, they were evicted from their house, where they home schools Dayan’s three kids. They had no luck at all finding a place to go with their ducks and chooks and collection of all the instruments Dayan has mastered (piano, guitar, mandolin, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and the list goes on…) as well as all the other elements of homey island life. After much persuasion the landlord agreed to let them stay until this month long Australian tour completes – but relief was yet to find them. Still waiting on his visa’s, the team missed out on booking all the sensibly priced tickets, and had to go with expensive international connections.
From there it was a down hill stumble across delayed flights, unplanned stopovers and broken down cars that left them stranded several thousand feet from the first gig, with the call going out across the Cobargo social networks for urgent help to pick them up. Somehow they got to the show in tact and on time, and with spirits so high you could hear their sounds drifting out across the wake of the festival, as velvety voices and slick solos hung their hooks up in the sky. In fact they delivered such a polished show that the audience didn’t even notice that Dayan is blind. And in true Australian spirit, the generous good folk of Cobargo pitched in with a bucket load of fundraising during the festival to help set things right.
Their memorable catchy tunes sing the good morning songs to welcome the ones who are born, filling all the aural spaces as they take you on a drive across the Mississippi. These are definitely the songs you’d want to to have as your soundtrack on that journey. Melissa Crabtree and Dayan Kai are touring Australia for a month, gradually picking up shows around the towns they are playing, leading in to Blue Mountains Music Festival and Yackandandah before they head back home.
South coast local Corey Legge is back to singing solo after his Swamp Stompersband ended its sensational run. The pressures and realities of van life were clean shaved right off this youngster at the end of a gruelling tour with his band in recent years, which ended in Katoomba one night, where he found himself writing new material on his mate’s couch, just wanting to go home. His long dark night of the soul came in the form of an existential crisis asking the gods what’s the use of trying anymore, when you’re 24 and feel like you’re reached the end of the road, when all that is left is lying on a mate’s couch, watching a rat run underneath your bed. He came home to the Bega Valley and reinvented himself as a solo act, which is giving him the time and space to get a fresh take on the realities of life as a muso. His act was followed by American duet the Rayos who ask, are we sleep walking through our lives? The audience resounds – YES! Though you’d have to say Corey himself has not succumbed to the banalities – not yet anyway.
Susan O’Neill (SON) is discovered standing up there on the big stage, telling her feet where to go, rolling out the loops and super imposed harmonies made possible only by complex technology, in her super short skirt with a sweet lady Jane blue chiffon overlay.
Her bass doubling achieves a sound no less perfect than a studio recording, impressive considering as she says we are all only animals after all. With advice to ignore the taxers of dreams, and to stop being afraid of our own lives, she dabbles with two mics, chasing down a melting sound that is bound to fulfil this gal’s destiny as a rising super star.
Some use loops as as a gimmick, an enhancer, but SON uses them as an instrument, an integrated part of the act, affectionately referred to as ‘The Band”. She plays along with the world’s tiniest tambourine, sharing yarns of being stuck in the snow, with a choice of harbouring in a church or a pub, leaving the audience to guess which one she chose.
And in a world where the trend is to sing with a forced hiatus at the back of the throat, and other fashionable affectations, SON falls prey to none of those passing trends, in delivers it all in a voice that is refreshingly free of affectations and fashions – it’s just a good strong honest voice that deserves international acclaim. It certainly demands a world wide ear.
After Womad and Port Fairy, she’s headed back to Ireland to seclude herself in a seaside mansion, alone, for a month to write songs. Maybe two, but the solitude of the lonely, desolate Irish beach is what she craves to complete her new material, – preferably without snow.
SON shows up later with fellow Irish compatriot Sharon Shannon, rolling out a trumpet solo, as you do when you’re a lyrically gifted singer song writer, loop mastering guitarist. Sharon’s line up sounded so powerful you’d pick for certain that they had a back line of great percussionists – although they didn’t have one at all – they were just sublimely rhythmical players.
Cobargo regular Scott Cook – the prairie home companion of a travelling balladeer – showed off his smooth showmanship and great ear for narrative, joined by Melbourne based Liz Frencham on bass, taking the audience into the long summer evenings when the wind runs through your hair, sucking on icy pops as you journey to a place where you can see forever on a clear night.
Malumba’s dolce sounds of classical guitar, double bass and violin offer an overtone of Villa Lobos as their rising melodies drop down in on the sounds of a Bacchanalian feast. The experience is infused with the gentle offerings of a kit drummer not afraid to hold back as he lands his open hands gently upon the snare. The band move inside and outside of a 12/8 feel, a little bit Russian Caravan, a little bit gypsy swing. Morticia and Gomez would be quite inspired by all the drama of this Andalusian intermezzo in high heat, as the musicians lilt into the hint of a dance before young Ruby takes to the stage.
Melanie Horsnell is found sitting in the front row of a darkened Gulaga hall with her daughter Gypsy, and the budding young photographer takes my camera to shoot Jordie Lane, (unsurprisingly, very well) though it was a surprise to find them there as rumour had it Melanie was still in Montreal. But it was just a quick trip to the home of the dual lingua franca for a folk alliance conference, and she was back at home in time to play her local Cobargo show.
And then, while Gypsy mastered the mysteries of shooting SLR in the dark without a flash, there was this moment between Jordie and Clare Reynolds, in a shattering rendition of the single The Winner, (released today) – this one incandescent moment, so intimate, so dripping with shattered emotions and broken lives, clambering for reconnection in a world that throws you smashed and battered so far from the pitch you fell you had won, this moment, this raw sound and intimate gaze that felt almost inappropriate to look at, let alone photograph, as Jordie and his Roland playing sweet mama rolled out such big immense, open chested harmonies, staring so deeply into each other eyes, infused in the one mic, with this one united angelic sound, so precious it could gently melt the wings of the white doves as they ascend to heaven. How can two people can stand alone before a crowd of silent listeners with only their voices and a few strings on a jangly guitar, the music paired back so far it is barely there at all, yet hold those silent thousands spellbound, lost in the moment, which goes on and on and on until it fades away into the black recess of the night? This is the miracle of music – and a testament to the superb sound quality of the engineers who craft quality live production, and the Gulaga venue crew achieved this exceptionally well. They captured it, we caught it, but it was Jordie and Clare who created it, made it, became it. And we have only them to thank for giving us back a part of our souls. You didn’t make a mess of anything Jordie, you’re the winners.
The festival’s guitar workshops brought the young at heart together with the young in years, sharing stories of cutting their teeth on the high fretted cheap guitars the middle child gets, when the family has no money to pay for music lessons or middle-child photos. “It was uncool to be seen carrying an instrument back then anyway,” American Richard Gilewitz says. He shares the stage with Nick Charles, Corey Legge, Daniel Champagne and John Hudson. Their styles span the genres and influences from old time blues and jazz to contemporary classics. Daniel gives a nod to his old teacher Dave Crowden and major festival sponsor Magpie Music, acknowledging the difference between inspiring, and very patient, dedicated teachers – and their counterparts, who have the capacity to stop students from learning and playing all together.
They play a round of Dave Stewart’s “Lily Was Here” together, before veering off into rounds of their solo work, featuring everything from Leo Kottke inspired tunes to Lindsay Buckingham’s Looking out for Love, which sees a shift in Corey Legge’s usual picking style, and Daniel Champagne’s releases a harmonious explosion of percussive sounds that transcend the tent and escape into the skies before we hear a round of Georgia on my Mind. This is nothing short of an indulgence of guitars – 30 strings pushing the notes around in an endearing sequence of short stories played their own way – noodling around the chord substitutions and harmonious inflections of the genres, always coming back to the blues.
Goanna’s Shane Howard met Bob Brown, pioneering Australian Green early in his career and was so swept up in the movement that he easily came to believe there is no greater job than fixing this mess the planet is in. He recounted the infuriating neo liberal putdown – anyone speaking up for the state of our world, it seems, can be silenced by the phrase “Get A Job”.
“Yeah I’ve got a job,” Shane Howard says, his indignant gaze slipping downwards under the broad brim of his feathered Akubra.
His eye raises up to meet the audience as directly as a cornered snake that’s ready to strike.
“It’s called fixing the planet – for you. And your grand kids. Taking good care of this country has to be something worth fighting for.”
It’s all a matter of the heart for this epic statesman of the Australian rock scene.
“When you die your heart is weighed against a feather”, Howard says. “If your heart is lighter than a feather then it’s time to ascend,” he says, implying that if you fail this test you’d better get back down here and sort the mess out while you can, since life is so often taken for granted. In any moment, all could be lost.
Shane Howard has dedicated his life to the environmental and the spiritual cause, like those he spent many years touring with, such as Carole King, who got her own private member’s bill through parliament to save the forests in Utah.
These are stories that travel close to the heart of the forest campaigners in the Cobargo region such as Sean Burke, who has spent most of his life battling to save the Great Southern Forests that are under constant threat from “timber mining”, including the sacred forests of mother Gulaga, which have finally been released from the grips of the loggers through the irrepressible work of Sean, Marco and their mates, and form part of the festival crew.
Music is so often the code to unlock the peoples’ heart, and often the only way to express the disillusionment people feel at the state of the world. Musicians have always carried the voice of the people through protests songs, whether Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, Billie Holiday or other lesser known saviours of the psyche. Closer to home it was the Fagans who hosted the festival’s protest song workshop with Dayan Kai and Melissa Crabtree, sharing their ballads of the road that help us all to touch the light.
From his biggest hit Solid Rock, to his present day works, Shane Howard’s psalms and anthems express the longing of the sacred heart of our first nations people; the ballads of the lost and downtrodden; the ones our present world system can not abide. He casts each nugget into the vault of the crooner, with a reassuring voice that the balladeers and poets of all time would be proud of, from Leonard Cohen to Oodgeroo Noonuccal, to Rumi and the other mystics. For we are all, from the intolerant to the dispossessed, we are one race, and our race to obliterate that reality is the ultimate race to the bottom of the gene pool. For in the heart of each of us, beyond the heroes and the wannabes, the winners and the outcasts, we are all in our own way searching for our personal Makarrata, our treaty, that brings reconciliation from within, reconciliation with our past and our common future, in a way that doesn’t pit brother against brother in the bitter, greedy fight for more.
“I will meet you in the red earth where two rivers meet,” Howard sings, declaring that it’s ‘time’ to draw on our government to fix the parlous situation we find ourselves in. It’s a perfect end to a star filled night like this, when the wicked fun of the kilt clad Skerryvore lads at the end of the line to chase the night home, and the curtains close on the 2019 Cobargo festival. **** This article was first published in Timber and Steel