Live Review: A Hitch To The Sticks Day One

26 March 2018 | 5:25 pm | Bryget Chrisfield

"Where else on the planet could you partake in a 'Cats In The Cradle' singalong around a campfire led by Crane himself?"

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Melbourne - Broadbeach Truck Stop - Violet Town - Lima 

If our host Dallas Frasca's freshly dyed scarlet barnet isn't enough of a signpost, a coach parked in the Russell Street Extension with the A Hitch To The Sticks logo on its side reassures us we've come to the right place. As "VIP Human" lanyards and merch packs are handed out, there's a sense that this is gonna be one helluva memorable weekend (most probably with the odd patch of zero recollection thrown in for good measure). What happens on tour stays on tour? Let's just wait and see about that, shall we?   

Once on board and after a few introductions, Wayne the bus driver negotiates some pretty brutal peak hour traffic heading towards Tullamarine Freeway. Frasca doesn't give too much away about this evening's itinerary, but does request that we respect the celebrity guests on the bus (including Sarah McLeod from The Superjesus who could use a second mic since her banter is so bloody entertaining). "Don't be that guy, you know?" Frasca stresses. She also encourages us to go easy on the photos and filming, because we don't want to grant those not on the bus access to these exclusive experiences from their lounge room sofas.   

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When we finally start moving, Paul Dyason from Albury, who also fronts The Northern Folk, grabs his guitar and performs a few songs for us from the bus aisle while one passenger Luke (affectionately nicknamed 'Mike Stand') makes himself useful holding the mic up for Dyason while simultaneously trying not to knock the performer's teeth out. Dyason's earnest delivery immediately charms passengers and, as such, it's requested that he perform in different sections of the bus - the back, the middle and down front - to ensure we all score front-row seats at some point. His effortless vocals shine throughout this selection of songs and Dyason's banter generously lets us in on the inspiration behind his songs, one in particular - a standout track - referencing his time spent working at an aged care facility. And Dyason's arm is covered in wristbands, which suggests he's a festival fixture. We reach for our phones to give both his personal and band Facebook pages an emphatic like.   

A decision is made to pull over for a restroom/durrie stop at Broadford truck stop where we're given ten minutes to get about our roadside business. After a roll call to establish no one's gone bush, the coach peels away from the curb as we wave goodbye to Dyason who is getting a lift from here. Then suddenly, a hitchhiker appears holding up a sign. We all squint to see who it is since he looks vaguely familiar. As the bus gets closer we recognise it's none other than Nicky Bomba! Bomba has resided in Freeburgh for several years now, owning and operating Freeburgh Station Studios in the Victorian hills. Alrighty, let's let the Bustamento/Melbourne Ska Orchestra/Bomba frontman (just to name a few of his projects) on the bus then, shall we?    

As soon as Bomba boards, he opens his case, retrieves a banjo and sings us a cheeky song where you tend to anticipate the last word of a lyrical phrase is gonna be dirty, but then it quickly switches to become the first word of the next line. He's a born entertainer and immediately gets us involved in some mad singalongs and rounds. "You gotta get your fez in Fez/That's what my daddy says" - we're a rowdy bunch and need no encouragement to sing along. Another call-and-response song demands that we respond "co-co-nut" when prompted by Bomba. Also John Butler's former drummer, Bomba then picks up some drumsticks and begins "checking the integrity" of pretty much every surface inside the bus. We spy Wayne the bus driver looking back nervously in his centre rear view mirror. "Is that ok?" Dallas checks in with Wayne as Bomba - blissfully unaware - drums windows, drink bottles, luggage racks and backs of chairs. Wayne, now sporting a panicked expression, replies, "Probably not, is he doing any damage or what?"

We're happy to report that no damage was done to the bus at the hands of Bomba, although he does conclude this section of his performance by giving Wayne a spontaneous shoulder massage with his drumsticks. It's fair to say that Wayne doesn't look completely stoked right now.

After veering off the Hume Highway, we drive by a sign on the side of the road that reads, "Ducks And Polish Chook For Sale". As we enter Violet Town, about which Killing Heidi's hit song Weir was penned, the penny drops. Oh my god, are we about to meet Ella and Jesse Hooper's mum, Helen? She puts on gigs at her home, which is on a block of land so big that it contains two churches. A Thai food truck is set up in the grounds to serve us dinner and we drink the official A Hitch To The Sticks festival beer thanks to Malt Shed Brewery in Wangaratta. A friendly possum races past in the eaves-overhang as we wander into the church and take our seats.

Last year she celebrated 50 years of playing music, we're told, and the moment we experience Jo Jo Smith's exquisite vocal control with trademark raucous outbursts her longevity in this industry is no mystery. Smith's vigorous guitar playing also captivates. Hitchers "whoop" and holler mid-song, clearly gobsmacked. She wears a quaver pendant around her neck that we all wish to own. Smith's song for those affected by the Victorian bushfires affects us all. One of our first spontaneous A Hitch To The Sticks collaborations occurs when Bomba - who Smith points out she's never met until tonight - joins her on stage to supply some guitar-case bongo percussion. A "VIP Human" also holds out a tambourine for Bomba to periodically lean forward and wack. After Bomba suitably warmed up our vocal cords on the bus, we continue to sing along enthusiastically, particularly during the chorus of Smith's heartwarming Standing In The Love Light.

Smith demands a round of applause for Dallas, remarking of A Hitch To The Sticks' potential: "This is gonna go off!" While telling us about the inspiration behind "the only country song [she's] ever written", Smith reveals it was built around a phrase, "You're a long time looking at the lid," which a dear friend/former bandmate, who sadly passed last week, once used to spur her into action. Smith dedicates this song to her late mate tonight.

Post-set, McLeod waves a $20 note vigorously in the air wishing to purchase Smith's CD pronto and a queue of hitchers looking to do the same quickly forms.

It's a bit tricky rounding up the troops to get back on the bus and Smith appears while we're waiting for the stragglers, walking up the steps to receive a final round of rapturous applause. "A Hitch To The Sticks, what a buzz!" Smith enthuses. "You guys rock, I wanna get on the bus!"

As we depart Violet Town, Dallas can barely contain her excitement having just watched the artist who inspired her - and countless other musicians from the area - to pick up an instrument in the first place. But what's coming up next is "fucking sickballs", she gushes. "Please don't be that guy!" she reiterates. We roll into Midland Holiday Park in Lima, which is our final stop this evening. All then huddle around Festival Director Renee Delahunty, who has been hooning ahead in a separate vehicle to ensure everything goes without a hitch, to find out our room numbers and who we're shacking up with.

There's a campfire and chairs placed in large half-circle. A keg also promises good times. Once rooms are located, hangover remedies are discussed (already) as Beroccas are skulled, and Hydralyte and Aspro Clear are laid out on the table in advance. We learn one passenger has a single mysterious tablet - sorry, none to share - and we certainly wonder how she got her hands on a drug usually prescribed by oncologists to help stop chemo patients from vomiting. How next-level is that!

Ok, now it's time to investigate that keg! There's also three stools set up near the campfire. Hmmm... who could it be? Many are correct in guessing our campfire entertainment is this weekend's international drawcard, Whitfield Crane. He's accompanied by Frasca's killer guitarist Jeff Curran and another guitarist, Rohan Stevenson (aka I Built The Sky). Crane encourages us to shift our chairs in closer and then inquires, "Where's Harrison?" The sharpest-dressed man on the bus raises his hand in the air to identify himself. He's seated beside Crane, who goes on to tell us how the pair met in a Thai restaurant in Melbourne one night. Crane says he wasn't feeling himself at the time and noticed Harrison peering over at him. Harrison eventually approached, telling Crane he bore a strong resemblance to his favourite singer from his favourite band, Ugly Kid Joe. They got chatting and have kept in touch ever since. "Harrison, if you were a baseball card, I wouldn't trade you," Crane extols. "You're my card."

And, you know what? "Fucking sickballs" is an understatement. Where else on the planet could you partake in a Cats In The Cradle singalong around a campfire led by Crane himself? "You know we'll have a good time theeeeeeeen..." At one point Curran is in the middle of a sick guitar solo when McLeod yells out, "It's upside down!" Every time Crane thinks he's done, we want one more. "Do you like AC/DC?" he asks, before joking, "Are you Australian?" Curran quips, "Are you from the world?" A rendition of Ride On, such that we're unlikely to ever hear again, follows. The silence of this rural setting and the clear country air somehow amplify Crane's gritty vocals and add natural reverb to every last guitar strum.

But it would be rude not to demolish that keg (which we manage to do in no time at all). Some hitchers head straight off to bed post-show since this night has already peaked, although a few stragglers get to work building a chair installation.