Live Review: Mullum Music Festival

27 November 2015 | 4:00 pm | Steve Bell

"All that remains is to mark off next year’s dates in the calendar so we can start counting down the days ‘til we do it all again."

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[All pics by Kurt Petersen, Anthony Moulay and Tao Jones. Mouse over for individual credits.]


The normally sedate streets of Mullumbimby are instead a hive of activity as Mullum Music Festival kicks off for another year, the picturesque town throwing open its arms to a horde of expereince-loving invaders keen for another dose of great music and small town hospitality. After checking in to our digs it’s straight into the action, and our festival this year is opened by a brilliant set at the wonderful Civic Hall by Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith (reviewed separately here).

Hat Fitz & Cara. Pic by Kurt PetersenIt’s a stunning opening gambit, after which we grab some dinner and retreat to the Courthouse Hotel to relax to some authentic blues stylings courtesy Hat Fitz & Cara (right), the latter showing great versatility by playing washboard and drums simultaneously during their great cover of Bo Carter’s Twist It Babe.

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Their voices intertwine wonderfully, Cara’s singing betraying no hint of the Irish brogue so evident in her between song banter, and all manner of strange instrumentation like tin whistles are introduced into the equation as they move through a string of rollicking tracks like Shakedown and Do Tell, the relaxed and jovial mood they foster a perfect precursor to the event proper.


After a relaxing morning we ease back into the action down at the Mullumbimby High School — the old stomping ground of one Iggy Azalea — whose gym doubles as the festival’s big stage, where we spy a joyous set by Melbourne indie folk trio Tinpan Orange. They open with a couple of new songs — Rich Man and Love Is A Dog — and Emily Lubitz’s voices entrances from the get-go, before they throw in a couple of older numbers in the form of Like Snow and the delicate Song For Frida Kahlo. The trio is minimalist in set-up but their music is far from skeletal, the arrangements imbued with richness and character, and they get people on the dance floor during the gently jaunty Barcelona, before Lubitz explains her conflicted emotions about licencing Lovely — a song she wrote for her husband-to-be — to sell washing machines in the States. They’re joined on vocals by three local lasses during the haunting Lovely People, the all-pervading spirit of community evident nice and early.

We catch the incredibly incandescent party bus — which loops up and down the main drag all day blaring party music and helping festival attendees rest their feet — back into the town proper and wander down to the gorgeous St Martin’s Hall to find Canadian singer-songwriter Jenn Grant going through her paces to an attentive throng. She delivers her folky narratives armed just with her an acoustic guitar and the help of her multi-instrumentalist husband Dan Ledwell, the pair combining naturally as they deliver moving tunes such as Bring Me A Rose and Heartbreaker with well-drilled aplomb. Recent tune No One’s Going To Love You (Quite Like I Do) is strong, so too the emotive Barcelona, but things go to the next level entirely when they deliver a keys and voice rendition of Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger (which works surprisingly well as a torch song). You could theoretically start to take seeing such internationally-acclaimed artists in these beautiful rural enclaves for granted, but to do so is almost impossible in real life.

Dustyevsky. Pic by Kurt Petersen

In the beer garden next to the Civic Hall, the Dustyevsky male choir (left) are holding court, the combined voices of this bunch of everymen quite intoxicating as they deliver their strange mix of shanties and foreign odes with undisguised gusto.

Inside the hall itself, it’s time for the first-ever Australian set by party-starting Oakland ensemble The California Honeydrops (below), whose soundcheck segues into a cruisy jam before our very eyes — you can tell immediately where they get their name from.

Frontman Lech Wierzynski is totally engaging and has the whole hall eating from the palm of his hand, although Lorenzo Loera on his right — who swaps between upright piano and keys — also brings plenty to the table with his rollicking keys lines and general goofiness.

It’s a fun mix of soul, R&B and even funk, smooth songs like the pro-weed boogie Junker’s Blues and Wilson Pickett’s Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You eliciting hollering and dancing from the delighted throng before them.

California Honeydrops. Pic by Kurt Petersen

The way they hazily wrap Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready around the soaring I Believe gets the whole room swaying, and despite the band’s protestations that it’s hard to fit their usual three-hour jam into their allotted hour they sure look like they’re having fun trying. When drummer Ben Belament straps on the washboard, they’re transported back to their early busking days, and the ensuing Pumpkin Pie perfectly captures their charismatic camaraderie.

Down the road in the perfectly intimate Drill Hall Melbourne duo Sweet Jean are delivering a hushed set of country and folk, the voices of Sime Nugent and Alice Keath meshing together effortlessly. Songs like Angels Come Get You and the banjo-led murder ballad Maureen are dark and spectral with an authentic old-timey bent, while Parachutes becomes eerie and Greetings From Goodbye descends into the equivalent of folk armageddon. We leave with Keath belting out a new tune about “being ready to rumble”, as good a time as any to make a hasty retreat back towards the town proper.

We Two Thieves. Pic by Kurt Petersen

It’s packed inside the Civic Hall as We Two Thieves offer up their trademark blend of country and pop, although with Mama Kin and Emily Lubitz (from Tinpan Orange) being joined by a gentleman on guitar, their name tonight is somewhat misleading.

The harmonies, on the other hand, are exquisite as they unveil songs such as Too Old To Die Young and Ned Kelly — the two songbirds taking turns with the vocal reins — and they continue through the heartfelt lullaby Field Of Blue and the self-help diatribe Slow Down.

There’s a lot of love in the room as they harmonise wonderfully again on Peach Tree, their roots-tinged music clearly striking a chord with the besotted full-house.

Ben Ottewell. Pic by Kurt Petersen

Wandering through the streets, it’s intriguing to navigate the endless array of buskers and carny types milling around, and there are plenty of house parties on offer too — it really feels like the town is living and breathing music, and it’s such a great feeling.

Back in the Civic Hall it’s standing room only as the respectful crowd waits for their appointment with former Gomez singer Ben Ottewell (right), who kicks off with the title track from his most recent solo album, Rattlebag. The UK tunesmith’s voice is gruff and expressive and fills the hall’s space with ease, offering up Gomez’s Free To Run – recovering elegantly from a fire alarm mishap midway through — and his own tune Shapes And Shadows to rapturous applause.

He throws in another Gomez track, Love Is Better Than A Warm Trombone — usually sung by his bandmate Tom Gray, but working well here — then gets into the ‘nature vibe’ of the event by following Blackbird with Starlings

The bearded and bespectacled Ottewell is totally unassuming, and his voice reminds at times of Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam as he drops Chicago and then a pair more Gomez numbers — Get Miles and Little Pieces — before finishing a wonderful set with moving paean Red Dress.

All Our Exes Live In Texas. Pic by Kurt Petersen

It’s getting late now and we drop by the Courthouse Hotel for one final nightcap, which we enjoy while being serenaded by the wonderful voices of All Our Exes Live In Texas. Their country-tinged music is defined by sweet melodies and angelic merged vocals, their overall aesthetic as uplifting as their group personality is lovely, and a steady flow of gorgeous originals are punctuated only by a fun rendition of The White Stripes' Hotel Yorba, which works well under their sweet touch.

On the way home, there’s a huge crowd gathered around some sidewalk buskers and we spy some of the guys from The California Honeydrops dancing around excitedly blasting on their instruments with complete abandon, and it’s hilarious to try and glean the first impressions of our country that they’re obviously experiencing in these idyllic surrounds. Music, music and more fine music.


We raise gingerly and head down to the street — ecstatic that yesterday’s clear skies and oppressive heat has been replaced by cloud cover and much more moderate temperatures — where we find the ragtag army of musicians who comprise the annual Street Parade gathering in all of their technicolour glory. The ragged gathering is the heartbeat of the whole festival, and it’s impossible not to smile as the strange congregation of stars and vagabonds shuffle up the main drag blasting glorious music from the most incredibly vast array of instruments.

Afterwards, we head over the Village Vanguard — the classy stage that’s located inside the super-hospitable RSL — and catch Emma Donovan & The Putbacks in all their pomp. The five-piece band play a smooth blend of country, soul and gospel and conjure up a big full sound, but they also know when to pull back and allow Donovan’s smoky voice to take centre stage. She offers the gorgeous The Promised Land, written by her much-missed grandfather who’s resting in this region, and the way she’s so clearly connected to the song is incredibly moving, as is her haunting a capella rendition of Aboriginal Woman. They finish with a great cover of Warumpi Band’s classic Blackfella Whitefella, which builds and builds into a glorious gospel finish to close a wonderful set.

Hauschka. Pic by Anthony Moulay

We grab a quick RSL feed before heading back into the dimly lit Village Vanguard to watch a performance by German pianist Hauschka, the moniker of German musician Volker Bertelmann. Today he’s offering an improvisational piece based upon his recent album Abandoned City, his brand of ‘prepared piano’ finding him placing foreign objects in the instrument’s strings to coax out strange sounds and textures. The noise he concocts is indeed strange and otherworldly, like the soundtrack to some terrifying horror movie from another dimension, and it’s strange watching him occasionally take his left hand from the keys to manoeuvre or place something in the strings or perhaps tweak at a small modulator sitting beside him. The resultant music is immersive and constantly morphing and building, the tension almost Lynchian as he constructs his wholly distinctive instrumental soundscapes.

Brian Nankervis and Suzanna Espie. Pic by Kurt Petersen

Out on the street, everywhere you look there are people clutching instruments — some left over from the Street Parade and some clearly about to be used in anger — but we drop back into the Courthouse Hotel to find Brian Nankervis holding court with his ‘On The Couch’ sessions, during which he interviews artists from the festival and gets them to play a couple of acoustic numbers.

We have a beer and listen to interesting chats with Ben Ottewell, Lucie Thorne and Oh Pep!, the latter of whom we’ll be reacquainted with later.

For now, it’s back to the Civic Hall to score a prime vantage point for a solo set from Brisbane singer-songwriter Robert Forster (below right), and earlybirds are treated to an acoustic soundcheck version of his former band The Go-Betweens’ Born To A Family.

Robert Forster. Pic by Tao Jones

When the lanky wordsmith starts the set proper, it’s with another Go-Betweens track, Rock And Roll Friend, and it doesn’t feel much more Australian than hearing these classic songs be belted out by their creator in this beautiful rural locale, a heady amalgam of passion and pride. In solo acoustic mode, the stories become paramount, Forster’s voice so familiar and comforting as he continues with A Poet Walks and Let Me Imagine You, a pair of tracks from his excellent new album Songs To Play, which work perfectly stripped down to their core essence.

The guitar sound is crystalline but it’s the words which drag you in, two more Go-Betweens tracks in the form of Head Full Of Steam and Darlinghurst Nights making real fans ecstatic. He adds some levity with I Love Myself (And I Always Have) — which he introduces as “a song about self-affirmation” — and then continues with Songwriters On The Run, I Can Do and the wonderful Clouds. Forster’s mannerisms may seem arch but his heart is warm and he displays a genuine empathy and love for his surrounds, and after the country joy of 121 he brings us home with a string of classics including Go-Betweens staples Spring Rain, He Lives My Life, Surfing Magazines and Here Comes The City. Superb.

We soon return to the comforting arms of the Courthouse Hotel to watch Melbourne folk-poppers Oh Pep! strut their stuff, their music a curious mixture of pop nous and alt-country flavouring featuring strong, hook-laden songs belted out with perfect conviction by guitarist Olivia Hally. Next to her, multi-instrumentalist Pepita Emmerichs adds a folk tinge with her violin and mandolin, and the four-piece are in tight form (no doubt due to having just returned from three months solid touring around America). The Race is fun and upbeat, The War is beguiling, I’m Gonna Lose Myself is sultry and closer Tea, Milk & Honey is all of those things at once. A band to watch.

Slightly rudderless now, just happy for the festival to take us where it will, we stop in at the Bowlo, where Katoomba-based soul/hip hop duo Jones Jr are playing to a full dance floor, who throw in some semi-choreographed routines to the point where it all looks like some crazed flash mob. It’s all silky and smooth, every song seeming strangely familiar like from the soundtrack to some soppy guilty pleasure chick flick that you’ve watched one too many times.

On the way back to town we drop in to the Drill Hall to see a few songs by Fred Smith — the warzone diplomat-turned-troubadour — and although all of his songs are moving, the number Sapper’s Lullaby, which is augmented on the screen beside him by photos of his friends and comrades who passed away serving their country on foreign soil, proves possibly the most poignant moment of the whole weekend.

There’s no better way to farewell another Mullum Festival than a couple of cold beers at the Courthouse, the drinks soundtracked by rising Melbourne alt-country outfit Raised By Eagles. Their music is chilled and melodic and they swap singers at regular intervals to add versatility, and there’s lots to like about tunes such as Penny Drop, Honey, Doorstep, Waterline and the ultra-emotive Watching You Fall. They swap moods at will, Green Ginger Wine all plaintive and yearning, before they up the pace with Waiting For Ghosts and close with the full rock treatment of recent single Jackie.

So another Mullum Festival bites the dust, and all that remains is to mark off next year’s dates in the calendar so we can start counting down the days ‘til we do it all again. I’m running out of adjectives for ‘cruisy’ and ‘fun', but ‘cruisy fun’ probably sums the experience up best anyway. And music, all that great music. A heavenly experience.

Pic by Tao Jones