Folk Down Under: The Woodford Folk Festival

Publicist and promoter Richard Flohill got a chance to enjoy one of the world’s biggest folk festivals in Australia over the holidays, and kindly wrote up his experience for RootsMusic.ca

The Woodford Folk Festival is MASSIVE. 30,000 people a day, for SIX days; the major festivals here — the Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Calgary folk festivals— pale into insignificance. A total of 22 stages and all but one or two inside under tents; many of them have bars attached —  Aussies love their beer. The festival hires almost 600 artists in a wide variety of genres, ranging from major Australian music names and dozens and dozens of singer-songwriters to itinerant buskers, jugglers, poets and even the Rt. Hon. Robert Hawke, former prime minister of Australia and now 80 years old and full of vigour. (When I met him, I asked whether I should address his as Mr. Prime Minister. “Nah, mate” was his response, “Call me Bob”).

There are close to 2,500 volunteers — but, unlike those at Canadian festivals, they are not identified. No T-shirts, no badges (although the volunteers in the parking lot do wear reflective jackets, and the mainstage crews do have tiny laminates).  But the invisible volunteers do their tasks anonymously, for the most part, and the whole event runs like clockwork. Even in the mud, volunteers quietly picked up trash, emptied recycling bins, rounded up artists, and kept the impossible schedule almost always on time.

The site is 600 areas of forests, ponds, ill-marked paths — and all the structures are temporary, save the “amenities” (which is what the Australians call the toilets/showers). There are well over 100 restaurants, stalls, shops, crafts sellers, and coffee spots spread throughout the site, but mostly on the main “roads” that link the stages. Once the festival’s over, everything is taken down and disappears into storage off-site, and the animals (wallabies, toads, rabbits, butterflies, exotic birds) take over again.

Woodford is also known as Mudford, and it hardly stopped raining for the three days I was there, although the temperature never dropped below 40 degrees, even in the middle of the night. As a guest of the festival, I was given a small room in what is called the Woodford Hilton, a collection of construction site trailers, divided into cramped bedrooms. The amenities, alas, were a two-minute walk away in the rain, and there was always a line of wet, muddy, tired people with towels waiting for one of the two showers. On the second night, I smelled so badly that I woke myself up at 5.30 a.m., and got a shower without having to wait 20 minutes.

Ah, and what about the music, you ask?

The first point to make is that while the music is obviously important, Woodford is more about a gathering of the tribes than it is about the music. Australians are way, way more concerned about water conservation, recycling, and green initiatives of all kinds than we are even coming close to in Canada.  And Woodford features concerts (but very few “workshops” in the way we understand them in Canada), films, burlesque, a circus, dance of all kinds, vaudeville, an enormous spoken word component (Bob Hawke was one of dozens of participants), comedy, folk and visual arts, and an ambitiously extensive programme for kids.

In short, Woodford is community driven, not music driven. That said, there was a hell of a lot of music, but thanks to my continual jet-lag and the foul weather (paddling through mud in the heat and mugginess did not encourage the treks between stages) I didn’t hear as much in three days as I would in a single afternoon at, say, Winnipeg or Mariposa.

By far the biggest attraction at Woodford this time was the John Butler Trio, who packed some 10,000 into the Ampitheatre (the only stage not in a tent) and followed it up the next day with an appearance at the largest tented venue, with some 4,000 people. His encore included an appearance by a group of robed Tibetan monks, singing background chants.

Certainly Toni Childs, a pop singer who had some hits in the late ’80s and early ’90s, was a major attraction. With a tough band (including a couple of musicians from Victoria BC) she did a spectacular rock show in the same tent Butler appeared in, and to a similar-sized crowd. No show biz, though — bare feet, shorts, and a camouflage top. She prowled the huge stage like a tigress in heat, showcasing new material (she said she’d play the hits at her show the next day). Childs, who now lives in Hawaii (“Buffy Ste-Marie’s my neighbour,” she told me) is widely popular in Australia, and is making a comeback after 12 years away from music, coping with a condition called Graves Disease; I expect she’ll tackle the American and Canadian markets next.

And I got a nice shout-out from stage by James Blundell, a singer-songwriter who’s seen as country in Australia, and whom I met in Toronto many years ago, keeping in occasional e-mail contact.

There are few international artists at Woodford. Toni Childs and Kaki King, the extraordinary guitarist, were the only guests from the US, Ember Swift and Nathan were the only Canadians — and Ember, who leads a group called Lentic, is now a resident in China, and sang much of her set in Mandarin. Nathan, sweet and pretty, played to small crowds in one of the smaller tents.  And very few of the Australian artists are known outside of Australia, and with the obvious exception of Butler, none of them were major “stars.”

One final note about the festival: The folk who run Woodford are amazing – Bill Hauritz, who heads the affair, is affable and friendly, and holds court in the Director’s Tent, a civilized oasis a five-minute walk away from the stages and, of course, featuring a well-stocked and inexpensive bar. In addition to meeting Bob Hawke there, I also met the good people who run the Byron Bay Blues Festival and the Port Fairy Folk Festival.

Bill seemed genuinely upset that I bailed after only three days. Alas, my tolerance for mud — despite an excellent training course at Hillside last year — is less than it was when I was the AD at Mariposa in the 1988-1992 period when it rained for four of the five festivals I helmed.  And I did want to see a little more of Australia.

Australia has many parallels with Canada – a big place “with miles and miles of bugger all” (to use a Peter Gzowski phrase). It’s so far away from here that you half expect it not be very developed, not to be very “civilized.”

Instead, you have a modern, brightly lit, pale colour-painted, urban society that reminds you of the US without Afro-Americans (boy, is Brisbane ever “white”!), or a brand-new Canada when the sun’s shining. The British links remain a little stronger than the American ones — even though a significant number of Aussies want their country to be a republic, and finally forget about the Queen’s picture on the five dollar bill.

I always wanted to go to Australia, and I finally made it. Now, if I can persuade some Australian festivals to take some of the artists I work with, I might be able to go back as a guitar-carrier or road mangler. I can only hope…

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