Of course, there were wild rains and waves of searing heat (and sure, I may have returned to a flooded tent after my first night of revelry, but I’m willing to share the blame with my own “It’s dark and that *looks* like a tent” camping philosophy). But that’s the Woodford Folk Festival package. If some part of you doesn’t drown or catch fire, you’re just not doing it right.
Returning to the festival for my ninth outing, I was reminded just how unique Woodford is within our festival calendar. There are plenty of other musical cavalcades across the year with their share of outstanding artists and escapist adventures, but this festival manages to be so much more. The atmosphere, the camaraderie, the huge sweep of activities and performances; hell, even the location itself helps to set Woodford apart (for proof, look no further than the dawn ceremony on New Year’s Day, when you climb a nearby hill after, say, hours of riotous dancing to Mr Percival to see Tibetan monks chant the sun into rising). The festival ground itself is a circus of dazzling lights and sound, of green slopes and street performers regaling folk before a multitude of vendors selling foods and drinks of every description. It’s also huge; getting lost between the front gates and the Amphitheatre, Woodford’s largest venue, is a happy probability. By the end of the (essentially) week-long festival, you may have found your bearings, but there is almost certainly some unexplored pocket you’ll only learn of long after the festival has wound down.
For the 2017/18 lineup, as always, there was no primary headliner. This year’s biggest name was arguably John Butler (solo), who can certainly captivate a crowd even without the energy of a full band – and boy, “Kimberly” really is one hell of a song. But the construction of his setlist was a weird beast, without any real sense of coherence, and the confused movements of his audience was telling.
In contrast, the audience for The Northern Folk were a clear weathervane for the Melbourne ten-piece. As one of the festival’s hardest working acts (performing at least once a day), they were a clear crowd-favourite and highlight of the entire week. Rarely have I seen such use of the full stage-line – though of course, it doesn’t hurt when you have enough band members to rebuild society after the apocalypse – and the strength of their performance was second-to-none. Full points; they win the stuffed bear.
From such madcap exuberance, it was quite a change of gears heading down to catch another Melbourne showcase, the quietly-engaging Charm of Finches. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Agnes Obel and Sufjan Stevens, the two sisters (the eldest of which excited to shortly be turning 18, can you believe) were a captivating, melodic taste of haunted folk tunes who are already festival veterans and whose fanbase is sure to swell.
Woodford is always a festival of such extremes. On any given night you can wander from the ferocious talent of Sampa the Great, to comedians such as Demi Lardner and David Quirk, to Japan’s most popular Celtic band, John John Festival (who quickly found themselves being one of the unexpected acts on everyone’s tongue).
Props must as always go to Jeff Lang, who was a juggernaut of the 2015/16 festival and whose return was no less spectacular. Lang is one of those musicians who play so confidently and so well, you can almost fool yourself into believing you could simply pick up a slide-guitar and do it yourself. Indian-Canadian singer-songwriter Alysha Brilla was a late-night favourite who, along with the likes of Dubmarine, made the New Year’s Eve celebrations one to remember.
It wouldn’t be a Woodford without a handful of appearances from that peculiar legend himself, Bob Hawke. At 88, the former PM seems a little shaky on his feet these days, but still managed to lead the thousands-strong chorus of Woodford revellers in a rousing (slightly fuddled) version of “Waltzing Matilda”. Last year, he promised five year’s worth of such sing-alongs, so expect to see him return until at least 2022.
Lord, who else! Irish Joe Lynch was as endearing as ever, one of the most romantic and enchanting storytellers we have. Mama Kin Spender (with special guests, All Our Exes Live in Texas) had the crowd on their feet with ease, while Holy Holy and Vaudeville Smash managed to pack some epic audiences (the latter in particular easily won the youth vote, and tore up the stage at every appearance).
Given this was a notably quieter Woodford (especially compared to last year’s record-breaking attendance), I was at first concerned for Montaigne’s sparse crowd at the Amphitheatre. But by two songs into her eccentric, energetic set, the crowd had swollen dramatically and she became a highlight of the festival.
Would I go again? Of course. A year without a Woodford Folk Festival bookend is unthinkable now. There is nothing quite like Woodford anywhere else in Australia – indeed, internationally it also maintains a personality of its own – and once you experience it yourself, well, it finds a way of seeping into the rest of your year. You start counting the days until Boxing Day rolls around once more, and you find yourself pitching a tent under storm or stars or staggering sun to feel that magic just one more time.