@ Exhibition Park In Canberra, Thu-Mon April 5-9
I hope you’ve all recovered from another soul-recharging National Folk Festival! The usual run of happy stories flows from conversation to conversation. The Sessions Bar was packed with reeling trade-folksmen, the younger jammers enjoyed their self-imposed exile out by the fire and the buskers at the Busk Stops were more reliable than Action buses. The Majestic soared, of course, populated by too much local talent to name, and some inspired tie-ins from interstate acts and piano-gypsies The Tiger and Me. There was even some drama: as the rumour mill had it, the Rapskallion crew had too much Sliwowicz side-stage and heckled the famously gentlemanly Mikelangelo until his patience was severely frayed. Long story short, competing gypsy-cred claims led to a fiery showdown when the two groups shared the stage for The Majestic midnight cabaret. We are pleased to report that no blood was shed.
The Festival suffered some other more difficult problems, and on two of its biggest stages. Southern Cross Ten’s Budawang stage collapsed under the feet of a fairly sedate Celtic act, somehow leaving the Nash litigation-free as the players and instruments mercifully escaped injury. More pervasive was the missing Troubadour stage, a venue famous for daringly mixing up-and-comers in among the big names. Many a career has been jump-started by The Troubadour’s friendly curation; this year, sadly, it was not to be. Apparently, a stoush erupted between the Troubadour’s long-time organiser and the Nash’s Grand Honcho over the supply of wine. Historically, the various stages of the Nash have supplied the same wine pan-festival and the Troubadour’s edge has come, in part, from the provision of wines grown on the family vineyard. When the forces of standardisation were marshalled and the battle for the Wine Cup was going in the Nash’s favour, the Troubadour threw up its arms in defeat and deprived festivalgoers of a crowd-favourite venue.
Never to fear: there were more than enough highlights to go around and the word on the street has been overwhelmingly positive. Newcomers like Adelaide’s Bearded Gypsy Band and the re-branded Territorians of the Brass Knuckle Band found a fitting welcome at The Scrumpy. The Scrumpy punched well above its weight by sporting overflow late shows that would have fit happily into The Majestic, as well as my personal highlight, Peter Combe. Sure he’s a legacy act but there’s no criticising a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd bursting at the seams with honest joy. The sing-along was unironically heartfelt. The rising star that is Bearded Gypsy Band continues to grow into incandescence—you can see their instrumental mastery honing its edge. It’s a no-brainer to flag them as an act to watch, but who’s going to stop me?
Ultimately though, the Nash appears to be in a bind. The declining focus on world music has wounded the program and the end of ACT Government funding for The Majestic and the loss of The Troubadour could be exceedingly damaging for next year.
An image that will stick with me was watching an old couple, reputedly festival veterans of more than a decade, leave the ticket counter crying because rising ticket prices were sending them packing without making it onto the grounds. Scaring off the faithful crowd with pricing issues and hurting the curiosity ticket with programming issues looks like a pretty powerful one-two punch for the festival, particularly in the year of the Centenary. The Artistic Program Manager position has been advertised, with the by-line, “Do you have what it takes to program the NFF?” I hope they’ve got what it takes to get it back on track.