Live Review: Woodford Folk Festival

5 January 2016 | 1:09 pm | Michelle ShantiJake Sun

It’s been yet another triumph from one Australia’s all-time great festivals.

As another year draws near its end, the week of cultural celebrations that is Woodford Folk Festival begins. The weather leading up to the event has been some of the most ideal in its long history, providing the perfect conditions for the occasion. This time around, there’s an added sense of merriment as Woodford celebrates its 30th anniversary.

There’s something to be said about achieving such a milestone in a climate of crisis that has seen so many of Australia’s major festivals recently collapse. It surely comes as no surprise to the faithful, though, for Woodford strikes deeply on so many levels. More than just a music festival, it’s near got it all: art, poetry, circus, theatre, a variety of talks and a huge range of workshops including art, dance, martial arts and much more. Over the week, this site of vast cultural and communal connection provides an alternate little reality to experience, learn from and get lost in. 

Brisbane’s Doch couldn’t appear any more delighted to finally be on a Woodford stage again for the first time since reuniting after a six-year hiatus. This youthful, seven-piece eastern-European Gypsy band play a mix of borrowed Balkan tunes and originals. Their horns, fiddle, banjo, and drums create an exhilarating cacophony of riotous sound. And although it is only 11.30am, there is a good-size crowd, all on their feet, jigging away to the infectious roof-rattling beats.

Packing out the Small Hall, Dylan Wright seems in his element. Although intimacy of the space translates his music well, he is deserving of a bigger venue.  Hailing from Sydney's southern beaches, he seems well in tune with nature and the sea, which translates well in this environment. His laid-back charm and soothing vocals are a joy to experience.

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The first day’s major headlining slot by Josh Pyke is marred by the rain and the venue is sadly only filled to a tiny portion of its capacity. It makes for an unsuspecting sense of intimacy but something of the opportunity for a grand celebration seems lost. Still, there are a good number of pleasures to be had and, from the elative opener Make You Happy to closer Middle of the Hill, it’s a diehard’s delight.

Tijuana Cartel introduce themselves with Spanish guitar and horns, then the drums kick in and it's get-up-and-go-crazy time. They are the last act on a rainy, muddy night but there are still plenty of people shaking it to their groove.  As their name suggests, their music has a very Latin influence mixed in with Afro beats, and dashes of Middle Eastern sounds and psychedelia. Their sound is both full and potent, and by the conclusion of their set it’s of great comfort to know that they have a total of five festival appearances throughout the week.

Adelaide’s Timberwolf, aka Christopher Panousakis, steps things up with a three-piece backing band in tow tonight. “I’m Chris. This is my band. I’ll take my top off”, he quips. Such confidence is backed up by an assured musicality. A heady blend of folk and rock is infused in sweet blend of blues and it all comes across quite well in the outdoor surrounds of the Amphitheatre setting.

With such a fast rise to international stardom, there’s a lot of hype surrounding Courtney Barnett and tonight’s set makes it all seem more than justified. It’s one thing hearing her studio material but a completely other world of electrifying energy is accessed in the live setting. Elevator Operator kicks things off on a strong note and from here on in the set builds toward intense displays of rock fury. Barnett’s slacker train-of-thought lyrical approach is given all the more potency as it drifts effortlessly through the swirling aural debris of a band that has fine tuned their weighty assault. A set so powerful it surely converts many a non-believer!                

The Blue Lotus stage is a fantastic little hub that plays host to a variety of workshops and talks that are geared toward personal development and growth. One of the many standouts of the week is the DidgeBreath Soundscape Healing session. Participants lay on the floor and are guided through a breath-focused meditation by the sound of didgeridoo and a soft, slowly spoken voice. A great remedy for those looking for a bit of body tuning but who find the early timeslots of yoga classes a bit too much of a stretch after a long night of excitement. 

Sydney-based string quartet FourPlay channel the energy of rock through their playful set. From humble beginnings to playing the main stage of a major music festival such as Woodford, their 20 years together have been a feat of ascension, and the tightness of their performance is telling of this long, accomplished history together. They peak with a cover of Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name, and the fact that they’re an instrumental group doesn’t stand in the way of them mimicking the vocal lines with great success.   

It’s a wonder that it’s taken this long for Michael Franti to perform at Woodford given that they’re such a suited match for each other. This stripped-back set-up sees Franti armed with an acoustic and stomp box. The sound is filled out a little by his fellow Spearhead bandmate, J Boogie, on electric guitar but the end result comes across a little flat. Franti, however, projects so much heart and makes such an effort to connect to the crowd that he is able to shine beyond this setback and make the performance a blinding success. Though he pivots between the intensely personal and the political, reflecting on family trials one moment and the atrocity of the refugee situation another, the set finds unification in the over arching themes of love, compassion, and positivity that flow throughout. Say Hey (I Love You) and Hey World (Don’t Give Up) are among the many gems that hit hard in the chest and receive ecstatic responses. From out of nowhere Franti yells, “Hit it J” and a booming backing track turns the event into a dance party for the last few songs of the set – this could have seemed a tad tragic or cringeworthy in the hands of another but once again Franti beats the odds and makes it work. For the joyous finale he jumps down in the crowd and performs a lengthy version of My Lord among the crowd. 

One of the many engaging talks of the week is psychotherapist Helen Back’s Beat Depression Without Drugs. Drawing from her recent book, Happy Apples, she challenges the increasingly problematic practices of Doctors’ whom prescribe antidepressants as a first resort. She runs through a numbered list of practices and tools that she has found through her research and experience to be essential ingredients for daily well being. Rather than being purely remedy-focused, her work seemingly has preventative potential, helping to bring awareness to daily patterns that are unbalanced. In an age of increasing anxiety, research that sheds alternative perspectives on the subject is more valuable than ever and Back’s trajectory seems headed in an insightful direction.       

Mongolian musician Bukhu Ganburged draws from his rich melodic heritage and puts on a vocal and traditional stringed instrument display for a small midday audience at the Folklorica stage. The variety and richness of sounds produced by his throat singing techniques is astounding, and if as if that weren’t already enough he has nose signing in his repertoire too. A few hours later he appears again on the Songlines stage with his band EQUUS. Hearing his skills put into the context of a band sheds them in new light, and the cross-cultural mix of the four musicians together is an exotic treat.

Right from the start of Dubmarine’s high-energy set, it looks like they’re in fine form. Kazman’s rapping is counterbalanced sweetly by the vocals of Billie Weston, and as both prowl across the stage they appear as if mystical glittering creatures. With borrowed horns from fellow Brisbane band Bullhorn they are 12-piece incarnation tonight. They push this massive sound to the limits and reach a number of orgasmic crescendos. The intensity of their set keeps on giving and keeps the crowd on their toes, shakin’ it with total abandon.

The Newcastle/Sydney duo Boo Seeka are a wonderful choice to bring in the new year. Each of their previous three sets throughout the week had quite the impact, leaving audiences members singing through the follow days, but it all seemed to be building up to this glorious moment. They weave a dreamy mix of indie-electronica that is infused with soulful sensibilities. This mix really takes hold of the bodies on the dance floor, but it’s the infectious seduction of the vocals that creep into your head and take swimming around the depths of a lush dreamscape for days to come. Deception Bay, Fool, and Kindom Leader all come across like songs with real staying power. If they keep grooving on this trajectory they’ll go a long way. One of the true highlights of the festival. 

There are few bands on the bill this year that are as fun and funky as Vaudeville Smash. Their six sets throughout the week are a blessing but none more than the 1am New Year’s time slot. Their sophisticated concoction of funk is a delectable dancing treat for the whole body. Frontman Marc Lucchesi’s banter between songs is filled with jovial charisma and there’s a strong sense of humour flowing through their music. The hilarity reaches its peak on closer Zinedine Zidane — a wonderful absurdity of a song inspired by the legendary French Footballer.

At only 24, Marlon Williams has a musical maturity beyond his years. He wears a lot of hats, both literally and figuratively, spreading himself across bluegrass, country, blues, cabaret and rock. And he is accomplished at all. Marlon, on semi-acoustic, kicks off with a Bluegrass cover.  The sound is made more authentic by the inclusion of the mandolin, fiddle and double bass of his stellar backing band The Yarra Benders. The inclusion of a softer, country-tinged number from his debut album highlights the rich, deep tone of his voice. This depth keeps on giving and keeps his audience enthralled every bit of the way.

Country/folk singer-songwriter Loren Kate had her very first performance at Woodford during an open mic slot.  Now to our delight she is back as a featured artist. With acoustic and sweet earnest voice she seduces the room and draws them into her world. Her storytelling craft is emotionally honest and captivating — a ‘therapeutic’ weave that draws heavily from personal experience and travels unexpected journeys.

The grounds are brought to a standstill for the Amphitheatre’s Fire Event, which marks the end of the festival each year with a dramatic showcase of music, theatre, and pyrotechnics. This year, they seem to have stepped up their game and delivered an especially phenomenal performance that is a fitting way to cap of the 30th anniversary. The festival orchestra churns out a moody soundtrack as the large-than-life assembly of puppets, dancers, and mysterious creatures play out a cryptic narrative. A monolithic tree stands left of stage. It appears to be the last in the forest and a sinister character is intent on exploiting access to it for personal gain. A giant man is brought to tears by this oppressive display of greed, and a new shoot is birthed from his tears. As the narrative draws to a close the tree explodes with a glorious display of spinning-wheel fireworks and then soon ignites into an exquisite tower of flame that reaches into the sky.

The Woodford week of festivities can seem like a bit of an endurance on approach but the broad scope on offer makes it fly by like the best of times. There seemed to be an improvement on visual design this year and the location change of a few stages worked wonders in the end. It’s been yet another triumph from one Australia’s all-time great festivals, and the solid turnout is a comforting indication that it’s sure to return again next year. Here’s to 31 and beyond!