Event Reviews

Illawarra Folk Festival @ Bulli Showgrounds 12-15/01/16 (Live Review)

Written by Alec Smart

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The 32nd annual Illawarra Folk Festival took place in the grounds of Bulli Showgrounds, near Wollongong, in weather ranging from searing tropical heat to bursts of torrential rain.
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Over 180 artists, including local, national and international artists, entertained on 13 stages, performing a variety of music styles.

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Handsome Young Strangers

HANDSOME YOUNG STRANGERS Photo: Alec Smart

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From Rory Faithfield’s thoughtful, soul-searching ballads, to the raucous political rants of Jay Wars & The Howard Youth; from Andy Irvine’s complex mandolin melodies, to Winter Wilson’s graceful harmonies; from the Jaga Band’s Eastern European cimbalon-flavoured polkas and horas, to the New Orleans and Latin jazz and funk honks of the Junkadelic Brass Band; from Handsome Young Strangers’ rambunctious shanties of sheep shearing and bush-ranging, to the narrative-driven songs of Dingo’s Breakfast, the festival catered to multifarious tastes.
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Shows were hosted between several large stages, which featured dance areas when the crowd wanted to burn off surplus energy, and smaller, more intimate, seated marquees on the upper periphery of the Bulli Showgrounds’ site, accessed by a continually revolving mini-bus service.

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WALLIS BIRD

WALLIS BIRD Photo: Alec Smart

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The initial heatwave at the start of the festival saw some of the northern European performers sweating like an Australian politician at an expenses inquiry, but rolling storm clouds frequently doused cool rain, yet because all the stages were sheltered, it was difficult to get drenched.
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Whist there was a diverse field of talent to choose from, most performers played multiple times over the four day festival, which meant that while it was easy to follow your favourite acts, you had plenty of opportunities to sample the unfamiliar.

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TINPAN ORANGE

TINPAN ORANGE Photo: Alec Smart

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For example, as I was roaming the site, I heard an Indigo Girls’ song that sounded very much like the real deal, and ventured in to discover the angelic voices of Shalani & Chloe singing selected covers and their own euphonic post-teen compositions.
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Their version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah brought tears to the eyes and provoked a standing ovation when they performed it at a Leonard Cohen tribute one evening.
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Another highlight was the German-Australian duo The Sauerkrauts, derived from comic folk band The Beez, who performed accordion-led renditions of popular German rock hits by bands such as Kraftwerk, Nena and Rammstein, as well as hilarious original numbers, all whilst wearing traditional lederhosen.

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WILLOW

WILLOW plays cigar box guitars Photo: Alec Smart

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I also enjoyed a humorous take on the psychedelic late 1960s, presented by Joe & Harmony’s Trippy Hippy Band, which played mandolin-enhanced versions of famous songs from that era of counterculture, including hits by The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell, and, of course, The Beatles.
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Perhaps the main attraction, at least in terms of crowd curiosity, was dynamic Irish songstress Wallis Bird, making her first appearance at the festival in the midst of her debut Australian tour. With a soaring, soulful voice and warm personality beneath a shock of spiky blonde hair, her expressive songs captivated all.

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CROSS RHYTHM IRISH DANCERS

CROSS RHYTHM IRISH DANCERS Photo: Alec Smart

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At one stage during a heartfelt performance, a clarinet unexpectedly accompanied her from the back of the crowd, adding a layer of emotional depth to an already delightful song.
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Elsewhere, Melbourne trio Tinpan Orange drew high praise for their mellow folk-rock blend, whilst Brisbane band Sissybones, which featured Scottish multi-instrumentalist Innes from guitar-mandolin-vocal duo Jody & Innes, moved with ease between country, Celtic and psychedelic compositions.
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Personal favourites included Irish mandolin maestro Andy Irvine and West Australian Rory Faithfield, the latter of whom was once one of the young pioneers of the burgeoning Sydney punk rock scene in the early 1980s – heady days before two decades in Ireland saw his songwriting transition from angry political rockers to gentle, emotive ballads.

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BLACK JOAK MORRIS DANCERS

BLACK JOAK MORRIS DANCERS Photo: Alec Smart

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Rory tells amusing anecdotes of his misspent youth while his stirring melodies are performed employing digital guitar loops that enhance his great singing voice.
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Andy Irvine
, touring with fellow prodigy Luke Plumb, as well as being a master of stringed instruments, is a supremely talented lyricist and storyteller. The duo performed a mix of covers and new material, as well as highlights from Irvine’s past bands Planxty and Sweeny’s Men, many of which involved challenging scales and complicated time signatures.

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SIM AND LUTHER

SIM AND LUTHER Photo: Alec Smart

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Dance acts – from Cinnamon Twist’s racy bellydance routines to the high-kicking Irish steps of Cross Rhythms Dance Company and the rowdy gambols of the Black Joak Morris Dancers – also hosted participatory events, where you could wiggle your hips in synchronicity, or boggle your belly if you were less adept.
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Food stalls featured cuisine from all over the world and the bars served the folkies’ favourite, Coopers ales, to fuel dancing feet, whilst in the grandstand bar, multiple musicians mingled together with acoustic instruments – accordions and mandolins, fiddles and flutes, guitars and bodhrans – to play freeform folk and country.

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SWAGGY CAMPBELL

SWAGGY CAMPBELL, busking poet Photo: Alec Smart

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All in all, the Illawarra Folk Festival is a national delight, and, because it caters to all ages with dedication to recycling and healthy eating, is one of the best organised of any music festival in Australia.
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~ Alec Smart

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Check out Alec’s gallery of the Illawarra Folk Festival HERE

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Check out Alec’s other galleries HERE

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Check out Alec’s other reviews HERE

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AMNPLIFY – DB

Alec Smart

January 22nd, 2017

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Alec Smart

Photojournalist & Features Writer. From 1990-2012 I served 22 years hard labour in the UK, where I broke rocks as a journalist, photographer, features writer and editor, for occasional scraps. Currently based in Sydney, I specialise in live music ['world', punk, folk, ska], travel and reportage, but will undertake publicity and weddings at gunpoint.

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