Live Review: A Festival Called PANAMA

16 March 2016 | 3:27 pm | Luke Conroy

"PANAMA disrupts the profit-fuelled trend of festivals that herd in audiences."

It's the beginning of the Labour Day long weekend in Tasmania and the afternoon highway is full of vehicles overloaded with bikes, kayaks, food and camping gear, each navigating to various holiday escapes.

For 1,250 ticket holders, their escapes are set to collide somewhere in the Tasmanian forest for A Festival Called PANAMA. The three-day event is sold out and promises revelry in the forest through national and international performers, and locally produced food and drink. 

Day 1

Wandering the festival site on sundown there is a somewhat curious and unfamiliar vibe, as common rituals of rowdy drunken disorder are absent. Rather than a slurred call for more drinks, it is more likely you will hear the whistle of a jug ready for cups of tea. Hipster, hippy, young or old, there seems to be a calmness and respect throughout the festival.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

The Bedouin Tent, carrying over its former glory as the site of a Circus Festival, is the hub of Friday night's activity. Whetting appetites for main stage sets later in the festival, Melbourne five-piece Crepes blend low-fi, surf sounds in an infectious way, while Brisbane outfit Rolls Bayce present a mix of soulful vocals, tight guitar riffs and psychedelic jams. The night peaks with Tasmanian electro-pop duo S L O W. As their dreamy vocals travel through powerful, dance-inducing synths, bodies inevitably get sweaty.   

Day 2

The day starts calmly with a heavy mist overhead and a sense of stillness. It is a fitting atmosphere for participants of the 9am Lakeside Yoga. As bodies transition between downward dog and warrior pose, the grounds slowly grow with life as others' rituals of awakening see festival-goers at the coffee stall, knitting under a tree or reading by the lake.

Opening the main stage is Machine Age, aka Adrian Mauro, from Brisbane. It is a high quality way to begin, as he skilfully blends glitching industrial sounds and powerful, reverbing guitar while showcasing a fantastic vocal range.

The afternoon continues with the moody, fuzzed-out surf rock of Tasmania's Heart Beach, the dark, delicate sounds and soaring vocals of Olympia and Crepes delivering on their previous night's promise of more solid sets.

Between sets the audience feasts on Tasmanian produce, local whiskys, craft beers and apple cider produced onsite. Certainly soggy chips and tinnies have their place at some festivals, however this authentic touch and focus on locality and quality adds a further sense of connection to the space.

Entering the evening, New Zealand's Marlon Williams performs a festival highlight set. Donning a loose white singlet and trucker cap, Williams and his band perform a mix of country, blues, folk and bluegrass. His distinctive NZ accent morphs into a southern twang within songs, as he passionately delivers tales of love and loss. At just 25 years old, Williams' set is impressively mature, passionate and engaging.

The Creases, from Brisbane, deliver sun-drenched sounds and slacker indie-rock in the best sense, providing the perfect platform for the nighttime grooves of Hiatus Kaiyote. Vocalist Nai Palm is sultry and soulful as her vocals carry the crowd through sounds that sit somewhere between funk, jazz and R&B. Fresh from attending the Grammy awards, in a moment Hiatus Kaiyote conjure a palpable energy in the middle of the Tasmanian forest.

Closing the main stage, Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 further fuel this energy. The set starts with individual introductions for the entourage of immensely talented musicians who create an array of afrobeat sounds. One song into the set, Kuti appears fashionably late in a completely outrageous and amazing Rastafarian-coloured suit. Throughout the set he crafts moments of absorbed dancing, occasionally stopping to instil words of wisdom and humour in the attentive audience.

From here the audience must choose their own adventure, details that might later be happily hazy. We drift back to tents, dance to DJs, watch circus performers and huddle in a small wooden cabin to drink whisky and enjoy a selection of musicians.

Day 3

In the morning line for wood fire-powered hot showers, stories of forest festivities are recounted. This is not to mistake 'hot showers' with 'luxury showers'. Rustic in the best sense, one user politely informs the next to take care for the family of huntsman spiders nestled in the corner.

Hanging on the main stage today is a large forest wreath adorned with a sign reading PANAMA, decorated in texta by children  in the Kids Space the previous day. It's a small touch, but speaks volumes for the eye to detail and community that drives the festival's sense of warmth towards its audience.

Before long the afternoon rolls in and with it the familiar laidback vibe of the previous days. People find various spots among the trees in the natural, intimate stage area — it's an idyllic and beautiful place to watch music.

From such positions the audience witnesses the blissful harmonies of Sweet Jean and a set of cruisey sounds and infectiously joyous chorus sing alongs from Tasmania's Quivers. Soon the crowd is awakened and drawn out to dance with another high-quality set from Rolls Bayce, dancing and tambourine trickery from Slum Sociable and the delicate vocals of American Natalie Prass, who channels Dolly Parton as her set manoeuvres expertly in tempo.

Meanwhile, lakeside, the PANAMA clothes swap gets underway. Using a policy of 'give a piece, take a piece', a healthy anticipation grows for the official start of the fashion spree. Colourful dresses, sequinned jackets and tiny shorts leave with body shapes and genders that might otherwise seem mismatched. 

Figures adorned in these new outfits soon emerge at sunset and are met with the sounds of The Harpoons who provide a soulful, slightly tropical, electro-pop groove to the night.

For the main stage's final act this sound and atmosphere is wound back in time. CW Stoneking, full of old-style swagger in a white suit and gold bow-tie, takes the stage and charms the audience. Led by his stiff-jawed drawl, the audience is wilfully transported in mind to a smoky bar in another era. It is a set lacking the punch of usual festival headliners, but is a punch what we need? Perhaps not, as this quality music allows the audience to smile, sway and swagger into the night with equal joy.

The night closes again with Tigerlil's Cabaret Of Living Wonders in the Bedouin Tent. Here, the audience witness twirling buttocks, new age forest philosophy and a (literally) sparkling routine involving improvised dance, a chastity belt and a metal grinder. Again, some memories are brilliant but perhaps best left hazy.

Overall, it is hard to fault this festival that dares to be different. Under the direction of Holy Holy frontman Tim Carroll and Dan Rooke, key curatorial decisions have been made that simply trust in the space, the audience and the quality performers - and it works.

PANAMA disrupts the profit-fuelled trend of festivals that herd in audiences and instead gives them time to breath in and soak up the beautiful space. PANAMA exists as nostalgia-induced departure from the well-trodden festival culture and it is at once, simple, unassuming and utterly unforgettable.