Fairbridge 2016: puddle packed and full of folkin’ fun times
Every year since the age of around 7, I’ve made the annual pilgrimage down to the muddily renowned folk and world music spectacular that is Fairbridge Music Festival. So, when I was asked to cover the 2016 festival, you can bet your best pair of gumboots that I leapt at the chance. Running for the past 24 years, Fairbridge has earned a name as a heavyweight in catering to youth and families. Countless workshops, food trucks, market stalls, and busking children lend to the warm and collegial community atmosphere that blankets Fairbridge village annually for a rainy weekend in April. This year was no different, picking away heartily at the delectable program I present a regurgitation of my festival highlights.
Kicking off my 4-course menu of venues is Ruby’s Bar where there is always a toe-tapping good tune and a fiddle to be found. With a Guinness in hand, I managed to catch some fantastic acts here. Bearded bard Jordan McRobbie seemed like he was trying to emulate John Butler via Newton Faulkner. Nevertheless, his brand of roots served as great elbow bending music (read: drinkable).
Although too many cooks ruin the broth, 6 bar staff just seem to get the party going. Galloping Foxleys are a sextet of ex-Mojo-ian bar staff who always come onstage with smiles. Simple elements come together magnificently in the form of sing-along folky bangers, they’re certainly a vibrant and fun act to have a mild boogie to.
Freddie White provided a mixture of biting acoustic ballads that never go beyond the vein of easy listening. Waiting for a coffee on Sunday morning, I overheard a girl describe him as “a lovely old singer man”; perhaps erring on the simple side, this description is not so off the mark. Freddie has been touring for quite some time and with good reason: this is a man who still has stories to tell. At his best with a tongue in cheek ballad on the go, Freddie proved to be a genuine and charming performer. Maybe less so were Andy Baylor’s Cajun Combo accompanied by festival patron Lucky Oceans on the steel slide guitar. On taking to the stage, my partner remarked that the Cajun Combo “looked like lawyers on vacation” and I could only agree with him, older white men in cream fedoras and colorful button up shirts emit an aura of mid-life crisis-y cruise ship music. These guys are all undoubtedly great musicians but after a lifetime of playing the blues and roots, being onstage seems more of a career than a passion.
It is always a religious experience to hear a pared back acoustic set in the Chapel, punters sit in awe pew-side absorbing the phenomenal vocal clarity of the acts chosen to perform here. Year after year, I always have a goosey B-eliciting moment in the Chapel and Fairbridge 2016 certainly delivered some spine-tingling gems on that front. Philip Henry and Hannah Martin proved to be a harmonious highlight, effortlessly weaving astonishing control over their instruments and voices with modern slants on historical tales. Philip breathed life into the humble harmonica, playing akimbo (yes, 2 at once) whilst simultaneously belting out a hybrid of whooping and beatboxing. Whilst Hannah sung with a glowing warmth often over-layed with a fiddle or banjo.
Acoustic wonderments continued in the form of Nadia Reid, a 24 year-old Kiwi song bird with an old soul. Her deadpan humour between songs hinted at the acerbically tender tone of her music. I think she officially won me over after admitting to her latest resolution to stop using pseudonyms in her songs.
In recent years Djindalux has taken over the main tent sensibilities from Manja, attracting the ‘big-ticket’ acts of the festival with its grand circus-like setting. It was here that Andrew Winton played a packed out album launch accompanied at times by his wife-manager-vocalist-percussionist, Karen Winton. The highlight of his set was a very upbeat and audience assisted rendition of Lou Reed’s ‘Take a Walk on the Wild Side’ played on the Wintonbeast; a monolithic 7-string steel lap guitar and bass.
Colourfully experienced musical duo Tony McManus and Beppe Gambette were equally nimble pluckers. Picking at both guitar and heart strings with a fast yet sure deftness, their complimentary compositional narratives bent and wound through one another like they were old dance partners. Beppe and Tony served as perfect examples of the kind of musically mediated merging of cultural expression that is so often on display at Fairbridge. Talking with Doug Spencer during the ‘In conversations’ event at the Clubhouse, Tony commented that most of the duos impetus comes from their complimentary styles and outlook on music. The way these musos gel on stage is tangibly felt by the audience, off to my side I noticed John Butler sitting through the set nodding with silently cool approval, and heck, if they impress JB, they impress me.
Preggie ledge Devon Sproule was the circus master of quirk at Djindalux and a veritable festival highlight. Devon played her beautiful-toned (and drool-worthy) 1954 Gibson ES-125 with a sturdy tenderness that matched perfectly to her delicious lyricism. Her raw singing ability harks of Boy’s Valeska Steiner with an added spicy southern twang that wanders over vowels as if they’re the rural Canadian wilderness. Her voice dips in unexpected moments and soars in unapologetic off beats, crafting a delightfully unpredictable aural landscape that causes her audience to release their anticipations and exist solely in her melody. I heard Devon described (in quite a reductionistic way) as a ‘female Kurt Vile’ but I think she’s a beast entirely unto herself and is certainly one to watch in the future.
Guitar Heaven was a beautiful smorgas board of stringed delights featuring all the above acts along with Freddie White. It was fantastic to see so many accomplished artists share the same stage, taking it in turns to spin yarns and showcase their skill. Notable mentions go to Edie Green who rocked out the Backlot. The stage formerly known as Youthtopia has an outdoor bush doofy stage for the youth and young at heart. Alongside the stage is the Chai tent, a lovely space for up and comers to put their name down for an open-mic session and for watchers-on to chillax on mismatched quaint furniture with a chai in hand (but only if they wash their cup afterwards, we’re all very collegial here at Fairbridge).
One-man band and wanderer Uptown Brown was also extremely entertaining to see bop along through crowds whilst Phil Duncan’s Paint Storm was worth slowing down to appreciate.
Relegated to the ‘sad I missed out/only caught a part of’ basket is the scrumptiously strange violinist Jaron Freeman Fox who was accompanied by the Opposite of Everything and looked to be obscure, Canadian, and very proud of both points. The reunion of festival institution and all around fun and funky gypsy-rocketeers Double Entendre would have been deliriously fun – they were certainly a favourite of mine a decade ago. Less upsetting to miss out on was the delights of the dining hall which introduced the Supperclub Revue this year. In parting with 40 bucks, punters were provided with reserved seating and a two course meal set to four acts of the festival. To me, being stuck in one stage flies in the face of the waft-in waft-out nature of the festival, where you’re free to stumble across your new favourite band. But hey, different strokes for different folks.
In true Faribridge tradition, rain cometh on the Sunday. Tony McManus turned to me in a particularly torrential downpour to remark how ‘biblical’ the rain was getting, I told him to bunk down because it never fails to rain on the parade. The Junkadelic Brass Band and the Sambanistas (along with any kids and adventurous parents dragged along for the ride) is the delightfully fun parade. Raining or pouring the parade kicks off the final night of the festival for a bittersweet yet jam-packed farewell. The beat of the exuberant drummers thumps a promise that we’ll be back next year, and the year after that.