While Byron locals were tearing their hair out, hindered in their daily tasks by an influx of both Christmas and Falls Festival visitors, unable to buy a simple loaf of bread without a 45-minute wait and spending the greater part of their mornings in traffic queues that stretched up to ten kilometres up the highway, a small valley to the north was enjoying peace, happiness, superb music and a very different festival vibe.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the Falls Festival atmosphere, or any other event of its kind. Big names, pulsating crowds and basslines loud and deep enough to eradicate cellulite are thrilling and dynamic. But some of us prefer an altogether more soothing cup of tea.
The Woodford Folk Festival is, as most of its attendees will attest, unlike any other music festival in the world. Each year, a small town fills the valley of Woodfordia, comprising stalls, stages, eateries and workshops all carefully selected by the organisers to fit with their stringent and ethical guidelines. It’s definitely not your average festival.
Woodford’s unique ethos makes it celebrated worldwide. Anything goes – you can let your hair down, be your most extroverted self, dress outrageously…and be totally accepted. Drugs and excess alcohol are frowned upon, families are not only welcomed but adamantly encouraged and an open-minded perspective is held by all. You can start the day with dawn yoga, drop the kids off at the children’s festival, go to a talk on permaculture, lunch on anything from steak to raw vegan pizza, ease into the afternoon with kirtan chanting, be thrilled, stunned and disgusted by an early evening freak show and then dance the evening away to world class acts such as Clare Bowditch, The Basics, Julian Marley or Brendan Maclean. ‘Something for everyone’ somehow falls short in describing it.
2013 marked the 20th anniversary of the festival locale, the little enclave nestled amongst the wooded hills providing everything you could wish for of a venue. Camp sites are well organised and appointed, shower blocks offer creature comforts rarely akin to camping, a general store supplies campers with almost everything they could require. It’s no shabby set-up and it enables the vast majority of people to attend regardless of their needs.
This year’s schedule comprised a small novella, the fold-out timetable doubling as a tent for those arriving ill-equipped. 21 separate venues followed a well-orchestrated itinerary, the incumbent iPhone app allowing punters to create their very own schedule from the profusion of events. Spanning seven days, the festival village is already well established beforehand, many arriving early, leaving late and taking up semi-permanent residency in the valley of Woodfordia.
The event-proper began on the 27th December to clear skies and scorching sun. Mercury reached for the 40s as attendees hopped from shaded pocket to cool tent, hydrating with coconut water, shielding themselves from harsh rays with parasols, a discernible plague of lethargy sweeping the event. But none could be shaken from the festival spirit. Crowds still packed the various marquees for the likes of Jordie Lane and Busby Marou, the amphitheatre-like hills bereft of punters in all but the umbral castings of the few trees present.
But, as they say – whoever these sage-like ‘they’ are – what goes up must come down and, with a resonant crack of thunder, the temperature, like the rain that followed it, fell. The iconic Holy Cow chai tent, an institution in itself, played refuge, first from the scorching sun and then the tumultuous rain. The masses crowded and cowered like rabbits in headlights as the strobe-like storm illuminated the skies. Poor Clare Bowditch must have drawn some Nostradmean sort straw – her set scheduled just as the lightning arrived, cutting power and plunging the entire venue into darkness for several minutes…twice.
Previous years have seen gum boots and rain coats the essential modus operandi of festival goers but this year, save a few light mistings, the rain abated, that single outburst the entirety of the storm’s temper-tantrum.
Each evening, the transient little village would come alive. Parades of lanterns, carefully crafted in workshops throughout the day, wended their way through the laneways, buskers would set up shop in vacant pockets between stalls, eateries would fill with families and friends to swap stories of the day’s activities and plan for the night ahead and of course, the stages would resonate with the myriad sounds of international performers.
Of those performers, the Woodford festival evokes a certain camaraderie which is, like so many other aspects of the event, unique. “This festival is such a blessing to be invited to and attend,” said Jordie Lane, the festival the latter bookend of his Festival of Small Halls tour. On the hottest day of the week, Jordie packed out the Bluestown tent, crowds hiding from the heat in its steamy interior and huddling in the shade of the few trees on the hillside overlooking the stage. Be burned or be damned seemed to be the mentality. Woodfordians have a tough mindset – whatever the week may throw at them, they are prepared and will enjoy themselves regardless of flash floods, heat waves or acts of God.
The cool of the evening definitely made music-watching far more enjoyable. Taking the long stroll out to the Amphi stage, passing through a breath-taking, enormous woven bamboo structure by Chinese artist, Wang Wen-Chih, crowds gathered for Beth Orton’s single Australian gig, the English muso making the trip exclusively for Woodford. A couple of covers, all the classics and a handful of new tunes fulfilled their hopes, but Orton is more than just a cute guitar-strummer. Between each and every song, she regales her audience with tales of travel, her love of her new, yellow raincoat or the disturbing amount of other people’s pubic hair she found on herself after a dip in Woodford’s water hole. To watch Beth Orton is to fall in love just a little.
Brendan Maclean’s inclusion in this year’s lineup was intriguing, even to the artist himself. A self-confessed pop act, he would seem to be an odd choice for a folk festival. But the resounding success of his performance was unquestionable. “Did we shock Woodford? Well, we did the splits, metaphorically and physically! It was nerve-wracking bringing pop to the festival. It’s high energy, it’s cabaret, and I think that can intimidate a folk crowd. But then they let themselves go and realise that their shoulders are bopping or their head is nodding along to it and they release! It may take you performing from midnight to one A.M. but you come outside and people are laughing and having fun, and that’s really all I hope for. I don’t know if that’s shocking, but it certainly changed people’s perspective of pop music.”
This open-mindedness is blindingly evident in every aspect of the Woodford Folk Festival. Environmental and ecological talks, spiritual guidance, obviously a huge variety of music, and even the attendees’ clothing choices make this a festival radiant with all colours of the rainbow. Pirates, elves, fairies, secret agents, freaks, aliens, monsters, dreadlocked hippy cliches and coiffed hipsters share space under a single canvas awning. It is a gathering of acceptance, whatever your life outside the valley.
“At first, Lee, my drummer, was terrified I was going to run home on my first day,” says Brendan Maclean, usually more akin to the cleanliness and all mod-cons of a Sydney-based lifestyle. “I wasn’t sinking in, I wasn’t letting myself get dirty or muddy. On the second day, Sarah, my keyboard player, was worried that I wasn’t going to get into the gig because I was terrified that the folk crowd wouldn’t love it. Then Nicko, my violin player, was nervous for me personally when I got broken up with. But then, once we got on stage, every single time, I just looked at the audience and found one person that was smiling and I went there with them.
“And finally, today, I got up at 6 A.M., I did the Love Walk, I went and had a chai tea, my shoes are all covered in mud, my eyes are full of dust and I couldn’t love this festival any more. I stood amongst the tents and the other artists and they were a real family. I didn’t expect to meet all the international artists and have them watch my show and I watch all their shows. That was really cool, that was really special. Woodford is a big family and it’s lovely to be a part of it, even if I am just a detached cousin or something!”
And that is what Woodford is – a happy gathering of freaks and family, of weirdos and oddballs and straight-laced grandparents. But, to paraphrase Apple Computers:
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy. How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? … Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
All Photos: ©SubCutanea
– This article first appeared on Common Ground Australia on Jan 6, 2014