Fairbridge 2018 Wrap-Up: 26 years strong and still holding a powerful space
The older I get, the more I realise what aspects make Fairbridge a magical festival experience. Having attended on and off for the past 15 years of Fairbridge Festival’s 26 year run, perhaps I do not achieve the coveted rank of veteran attendee but I would like to think that I have a burgeoning awareness for the precious intricacies that make the festival work so well.
As always, the organisers assembled a spectacularly eclectic program of talent for the 2018 edition, and similarly to 2017, I was especially blown away by the West Australian talent. The customary inclusion of well thought out tributes, jams, singers-in-the-round and in conversation events solidified the perfect curation of the festival. Showcasing our new favourite artists in unique contexts like the sing-along Neil Young tribute show which had Ruby’s rocking like a hurricane or the cycling jazz ensembles that nonchalantly tumbled on and off-stage from one member to the next playing anything from classic standards to the “Ballingup Blues”. A particularly impressive demonstration of new West Australian talent came in the form of the ‘Starhaven’ concert which managed to pack the local highlights of the festival onto one stage.
Heading up the sound at the Backlot stage on Friday night was local newcomer Noah Dillon. Placing his raw vocals and minimalistic lyricism within the context of a 5-piece, Noah sounded like a solo artist with a clean backing sound crafted to fit his songs. His gentle and gracious manner disguised his youth and even without the support of his band he held his own during the Starhaven concert. What was not achieved with straight technical proficiency, was achieved with a mind-blowing emotional presence.
Jacob Diamond has been a fixture of the Perth singer-songwriter scene for a packed fistful of years. Flitting between being a solo artist and another man with a full backing band (amongst other things), Jacob was impressively danceable at the Backlot and powerfully pared-back at Starhaven. With a vocal range and style nearing the likes of Jeff Buckley, backed up by serious lead guitar chops and a refreshingly obscure songwriting vernacular, I am one of many excited to hear his full length debut album. Creating crisp and cleansing textures with just his voice, a Fender Jaguar and (what I assume to be) a Line6 DL4 Diamond was a nice juxtaposition to Harry Jackamarra, the growlier, bluesy-er end of the Starhaven quartet.
Armed with a 5-string banjo and vocals not dissimilar to Springsteen, Jackamarra endeared us with stories of the top end of WA, slipping casually into conversation his stint as a crocodile skinner. Having heard Jackamarra’s songwriting described as ‘Australian Gothic’, I am at a loss for how else to present him. He has such a beautiful way of using the songwriting techniques of yesteryear to tell a story against a rural, sometimes harsh, Australian backdrop. If the concept of neo-country ballads hasn’t sold you, his quick claw-hammer picking style is sure to be a winner.
I was particularly excited to catch Carla Geneve, the final quarter of the Starhaven group, having seen her support Jen Cloher at Badlands earlier in the year. I felt that I had a good understanding of Carla’s impressive sound and ability but I feel that I must preface my gushings with this: Geneve was my unequivocal festival highlight. Her songwriting is an epiphany but seems to pack a harder punch when heard live against her amazingly present guitar tone and lovely band. Even when accompanied by her very tasteful backing bassist and drummer, Carla does a lot of gruntwork, combining wonderful chord voicings and purposeful lead elements.
In the lead up to the festival, I compared Carla to Stella Donnelly. It felt like an apt comparison to make after Stella’s 2017 Fairbridge performance and subsequent successes; but where Stella felt to be teetering on the precipice of something huge, Carla seems to be hurtling toward an interstellar launch ramp. Regardless, it feels almost frivolous to compare the two, as part of my love for Carla stems from how she exemplifies being a kid of Fairbridge.
One of the most powerful aspects of the Festival is the exposure that young kids, particularly young girls, get to a mélange of musicianship in which women are so powerfully present and heard. The access and variety to live music for the underage bracket seem to be lacking in Perth – and as much as I may begrudgingly grumble about feeling 15 years too old for the Backlot these days – the importance of Fairbridge in holding this space cannot be understated. I must admit that I got choked up as Geneve launched into a song on the representation of women in the music scene. As a kid attending Fairbridge, she was equally stirred seeing the women get up onstage and bare their art. It feels so beautifully cyclic that she may then be that inspiring figure to someone else.
Even when you’re singing loud, never stop asking the sound guy to turn your vocals up, Carla.
Enough with the diehard West Australian arts posturing and on with the international acts! Singing Irish folk songs with a Van Morrison-esque vocal delivery, was Gallie. The right kind of simplicity is drinking a Guinness and listening to Gallie play an acoustic guitar at Ruby's. In classic Irish fashion, Gallie's laidback manner with audience interaction resulted in one of my favourite quotes of the festival; “The older you get the less annoying country music gets” - I couldn't agree more.
Carla provided a much needed dose of Celtic resonance to the festival, whilst lively lads Ten Strings And A Goat Skin struck me as the quintessential Fairbridge act. Fiddle always has the ability to get the crowd well and truly moving and the Prince Edward Islanders proved this to be true.
Another surprise trio came in the form of a self-proclaimed math pop act from Sheffield in the UK. It is unlike Fairbridge to book an act with somewhat punk or emo leanings so I was surprised to see Ganglions on the lineup but I am so glad they made the trip out. All three members are incredibly technically proficient, their sound is constantly shifting but never once feels jarring. It is delightful to see Ganglions play live; they are incredibly tight bouncing between time signatures and sound great all having a crack at vocals but beyond that, they look like they're having a ball. It feels criminal that these guys haven't cracked 1000 Facebook likes, so if you feel inclined, give them a thumbs up from me.
It would not feel right to attend a Fairbridge without feeling moved by a vocal performance in the Chapel. The Lost Brothers managed this before they had even finished their soundcheck. Described as having vocal harmonies similar to the Everly Brothers, their is power to their ability to stay refined, sometimes two acoustic guitars and supurb harmonics is all that is needed. Couple this with nostalgic songwriting that would feel at home as the soundtrack to a chugging Western and you have a goosebump-inducing live act.
It would be impossible to talk about every wonderful act of the festival but some final mentions must go out to reigning favourites. Returning from last year as a highlight is the ever-reliable Andrew Winton. With his trusty lap steel and rockabilly stylings, Winton always packs out Gus's Bar to the point of overflow. No joke, we watched his set, standing in the rain, behind plexiglass; because he's worth it.
The Perth-based Praashekh Quartet take traditional Indian instruments, the tabla and the sarod, and eject them into the modern day using pickups and the jazz tradition of taking turns soloing. My partner was particularly impressed with saxophonist Mark Cain, who he called the 'Russell Coight of the festival'.
Fairbridge 2018 marks another unbelievably solid year for the Festival whose dedicated team of organisers can't seem to make a misstep. The highest quality of music, food, venues, and measured care make this festival the warmest, most inclusive cultural event outside of the Perth metro area.