Now in its 27th year, the annual Fairbridge Festival at Fairbridge Village has become one of Western Australia’s most popular music and camping festivals, and in 2019 it was clear as to why. It may be ‘folk festival’ at heart, but in truth it really is so much more. It was a celebration of community and culture expressed through music from local artists and musicians and a well-curated selection of eclectic acts from across Australia and the world.
Being held annually on the cusp of winter, Fairbridge Festival has a storied history of patrons banding together through rain and mud but there was barely a cloud in the sky this year. With the temperature up, so were the number of happy campers, with a steady queue of cars eager to enter the campsite early Friday morning, hours before any acts were due to hit the stages.
One of the biggest draws early on were east coast act The Maes at the Djindalux Stage, a Circus-styled big tent, which was not lost on Mae Maggie Rigby who exclaimed “I feel a bit like a circus (performer) in here!”, adding, “I don’t usually feel that way!” While it might have been the sun setting behind the rolling pastures and the silhouette of overlooking gum trees it did feel like their harmonies on songs like Wish I Had A Storm Boy and their cover of Karine Polwart’s Waterlily sent a chill through the audience that saw the temperature drop a few degrees.
Elsewhere, despite being a smaller stage, Ruby’s had the advantage of providing a seating area and a bar, as many people relaxed to enjoy a drink catching The Appalachian String Band that featured double bass, the fiddle, cello and guitar in a lush mix of melodies. And there was simply no beating the brick and mortar romanticism of The Chapel, one of the Village’s oldest and most iconic performance places. With simply outstanding acoustics, and its ceiling curving together toward the heavens lilted in turquoise light, it was particularly touching hearing the stories of The Dorsal Fins against a backdrop of stunning architecture along with a personal connection to the premises on which the festival was being held.
The Backlot Stage was a haven for some of the younger local acts and crowds over the weekend. Jack Davies and the Bush Chooks were a great example of folk music done Perth style, with an irreverently wordy display of Australiania that pleased the crowd immensely, much like a Peter Bibby show that you could bring your children (or parents) to without worrying about all the expletives.
Similarly, Albany-born Frank’s Fish Tank provided riotously good fun bluegrass folk in the modern age. Led by Frank on clawhammer banjo, her sister Rachel Hocking (Racoo, Salary) on fiddle and Jason Snook (Galloping Foxleys, Justin Walsh) on mandolin, the group meandered meticulously through songs about all things nature and bush.
Right in the thick of the action, the Mandja tent hosted a welcome to country that felt particularly touching given the history of the region in which the event was situated. It was a pertinent precursor to the next act in Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse who exemplified pride in Noongar culture and language with entertaining songs and stories from Indigenous Australians dating back before the days of colonisation, making all reflect on how precious the land that they were enjoying their time upon was.
A highlight for many over the weekend was Bush Gothic, a trio that restyles traditional Australian folk songs such as Henry Lawson’s The Ballad of the Drover and Slim Dusty’s Pub With No Beer into beautifully stark, yet vibrant gothic tales. On The Ballad of 1891 drummer Chris Lewis’ dynamic percussion attenuated the plight of the Union shearers, whilst the piano work and vocals of Jenny M. Thomas were reminiscent of Tori Amos on the convict transportation tale Australia, Australia.
One of the many unique characteristics of Fairbridge Festival was that many of the acts played over multiple stages across the weekend. While it was great to catch some of the international headliners on the main stage, it felt even more rewarding witnessing them in some more intimate venues. For example, at the Old Fairbridge Clubhouse the Grammy Award nominated Kittel & Co. delighted the tightly packed audience in a small space to one of the most spectacular displays of musicianship through the weekend, with fiddle playing that felt like liquid in motion, accompanied by a band that not just supported the exemplary display but enhanced it through complex arrangements of rhythms and melodies.
Keeping with this pace, another of the many highlights of the festival was Salvatore Rossano and Santa Taranta presenting SONU – Songs from the Homeland, an album that chapters the many diverse stories of Italian migrants to Australia. Accompanied by brilliant musicianship on accordion and frenetically paced mandolin, they shared tales of old love songs, tales of migration from heart-wrenching to joyous.
Back at Ruby’s, the sisters of the Little Stevens provided a beautiful blend of harmonies in a way only siblings can, reminiscent of First Aid Kit and coupled with the lush funk vibes of groups like Alpine.
Later on the same stage, it was welcome to see an electric guitar and pedalboard as Dan Howls ran us through a blistering set of originals, along with the odd Tom Waits cover that suited his gravelly voice to a tee. He even got his parents on stage for the last song as the crowd swarmed to the front to dance, and yes there was even a little headbanging which was likely a first for the weekend.
Meanwhile, on the Djindalux stage, four piece Jig Jam also gave us a very danceable take on Irish music blended with bluegrass and harmonicas. They were followed by Late Night Laughs with Martin Pearson who strummed his acoustic along to some funny personal diatribes and covers including a popular take on Kenny Roger’s The Gambler.
It was clear the home stretch of the first evening belonged to Perth locals Butter, who got the younger crowd grooving down the front of the Backlot Stage with their funky take on hip hop and jazz. The deep vocal stylings oozed the coolness of King Krule, and the bass was particularly integral and outstanding. The already buzzing crowd kicked things up a notch when local R&B sensation Jamilla joined Butter onstage to sing in recent co-lab Melt. It was a high height to come down from with many disappointed to find out there was no more music to come on the night. But of course the morning would bring a whole new swathe of goodness for all to savour.
In the light of a new day there were plenty of people crowded into Club West to catch and sing along to Pub Choir who delivered classic gospel songs and hymns in a wholesome and inclusive manner, getting both believers and the heathen to sing together in unison.
Back at the Backlot, Fremantle supergroup Big Cry was an intriguing act to watch, comprised of members from popular local bands like Salary, Shit Narnia, Calmly and more. The result was fairly mellow but well-constructed indie rock where vocalist Hugh Manning’s vocals navigated the group through tunes that could be likened to the mildest moments of post-punk acts like Bear vs Shark, but with synthesisers, and rounds, and a well-received shout outs to the many magnificent volunteers that helped make the festival happen.
Perth duo Kings and Queens hit the stage at Ruby’s blending harmonies and fingerpicking in an old school bluegrass (think O Brother Where Art Thou era) American style with a semi-hollow body guitar melded with uplifting gospel tones and the twang of Emmylou Harris.
In the Djindalux tent, English six-piece Art of Duo saw each of the members take turns in performing tunes two musicians at a time. The highlight was the combination of panpipes and the nylon string guitar as others gradually joined in for something they called the Shetland Swing, jokingly referred to as the “Shetland version of mambo music.” Meanwhile in the Mandja tent people lining up for the food trucks stopped in awe at the sound of the Providence Gospel Choir, in elegant robes belting out the moving hymn How Great Thou Art.
If there was anything you could possibly be unpleased about with Fairbridge Festival it was that there were simply too many good things going on at any one time and you could never witness it all. The international headliners like Kittel & Co. blew audiences away, national acts like The Maes and Bush Gothic added a world-class, yet truly Australian quality to the experience while local upcomers like Dan Howls, Butter and Jack Davies deserved their place amongst the weekend’s highlights.
The extremely well-designed site and community vibe of the entire Festival was also a marvel. From the thought-out locations of each stage, the assortment of activities on offer and the dizzying array of street foods and market stalls, the Festival genuinely felt like a community which resulted in the event being extremely family friendly. Unlike other events that aim to be family-friendly, and lose something of their spirit in the attempt, Fairbridge’s keen eye on its core values ensured the event continues to be a huge draw for families and their kids, and their kids’ kids well into the future. All in all, it was a well-curated, diverse, inclusive and ultimately unforgettable weekend and something the organisers, patrons, performers and all involved can be immensely proud in being part of.
BRAYDEN EDWARDS AND MICHAEL HOLLICK