Bruthen Blues & Arts Festival are keeping things intimate

“We don’t want burnout. We want it to be sustainable as something small, intimate and mostly volunteer-run.”

For three days each February, the population of Bruthen grows from 640 to over 3,000. Melburnians join regional Victorians in this small town that plays host to some of the biggest names in Australian blues music.
“It’s like no other festival in Australia,” says Eva Grunden, chairperson of the Bruthen Blues & Arts Festival Committee. “It’s small and intimate, but with some really high-quality blues music and a fun, festive atmosphere. You get swept up in this whole magical weekend with so much to offer.”
Small but not provincial, the town of Bruthen features two art galleries, a recording studio and a microbrewery, and shares Melbourne’s commitment to sponsoring the arts. Bruthen is also known for its hiking and cycling trails and its quiet, pastoral landscape. Since 1995, the Bruthen Blues & Arts Festival has offered visitors a family-oriented way to experience live blues music.
“People can come and have a really good weekend while spending very little money,” says Grunden. “That’s one thing that’s really important to us. You can come enjoy some free live music, give the kids a few bucks to get a [temporary] tattoo or jump on the jumping slide, and have a really nice day without it costing a lot of money.”
For three days, blues lovers are invited to put out folding chairs and picnic blankets along Bruthen’s Main Street for free performances from artists including Matt Katsis, Richard Perso and the Matt Borg Trio.
Festival headliners will include Canadian blues-roots singer Charlie A’Court and Melbourne multi-instrumentalist Chris Wilson, perhaps Australia’s most prolific harmonica player.
“Chris is one of the most powerful, passionate musicians I’ve ever watched,” says Grunden. “He’s so committed to the music. Watching him perform, you get sucked into this whole different space. He’s not a showy showman, but he’s got a real presence onstage.”
Wilson will be joined by veteran blues-rocker Geoff Achison, patron of the Melbourne Blues Appreciation Society. Bruthen’s music venues include the vintage Bruthen Inn Hotel and the Bruthen Mechanics Hall, a lovingly maintained relic of colonial Victoria, where Matt Glass and the Loose Cannons, Blue Child Collective, Nicky Moffatt and others will perform by candlelight.
Workshops will focus on guitar, didgeridoo and vocal technique. Wilson will lead a harmonica workshop, where he’ll share stylistic tips with players of all skill levels.
“It’s unusual to be able to get a workshop with Chris Wilson,” says Grunden. “He doesn’t do a lot of them. Sometimes people who aren’t even harmonica players will pay just to come in, sit at the back and listen.”
Introduced in 2015, the Walk Your Blues Away event uses art to start discussions about mental health. A guided excursion along the trail of a historic railway and across the eucalypt-lined Tambo River, walkers meet musicians and visual artists who use their art to stimulate positive thinking. Kids will have a treasure hunt with activities teaching techniques for responding to negative feelings in a healthy way.
“We’ve gotten so much super-positive feedback about that experience,” says Grunden. “You’re going for a walk and having a really intimate encounter with these amazing artists. The artists often share quite personal stories about mental health. It’s a very powerful experience.”
While most festivals fight to increasingly reach a wider audience, Bruthen is happy to stay a small town hosting an intimate and sustainable event. “We’ve had outsiders come in and offer to help turn the festival bigger,” she says. “We don’t want the festival to grow too much. We don’t want burnout. We want it to be sustainable as something small, intimate and mostly volunteer-run.”
Throughout the Bruthen Blues & Arts Festival’s 23 years, organisers have been careful not to bite off more than they can chew. Each festival is followed by a community survey to see how next February’s events can be tweaked for sustainability. The festival committee at one point considered fencing off the Main Street concert and charging admission, but pushback from businesses and the public was strong and immediate.
“This is about bringing people together – and, of course, really good blues music,” says Grunden.

The Bruthen Blues & Arts Festival, situated 300kms east of Melbourne on the Omeo Highway/Great Alpine Road, will be held from Friday February 16 until Sunday February 18.