It was 11.57pm on the 31st of December 2007, and I found myself standing in a field. In silence. Holding a candle. Surrounded by 90,000 people doing the same.
I was at Woodford Folk Festival, 70km north of Brisbane, and the atmosphere was intense. And then it was shattered.
The Red Eyes burst on stage, broke the still with their dub-reggae beats, and brought the New Year in with a bang. And it hit me, right then, right there: I knew what I wanted to do in Australia. I wanted to work at festivals…
I’d visited the country before and seen most of the hot spots, so this time I was eager to avoid the traditional tourist traps in favour of the “real Australia”.
Step one was research; what, when and where? Then I began emailing avidly, enquiring after work; paid if possible, voluntary if not, with the intention of attending as a punter if positions weren’t available. And I was on my way…
First up was NOW now Festival of Spontaneous Music and Experimental Film (16-18 January, thenownow.net), in the Blue Mountains, which does exactly what it says on the (metaphorical) tin.
I arrived as a general volunteer, a sweeper-upper-come-washer-upper, but was swiftly promoted to “something more challenging”, and took on the (albeit limited) lighting of this fantastic little festival.
As the weekend wound on I found myself debating the definition of music as characters fromAustralia’s alternative arts scene drummed on sitars, wailed with violins and played the tin foil (it’s all about thinking outside the box!). The community spirit was a winner.
There were home-cooked curries, a bar which constituted a mini fridge and cash-box and a call each evening for those with cars to pick-up the carless so that everyone could attend the after-show house-party (which included Bjork’s drummer improvising on his kit in the cushion-clad living room). It made me want to stay forever. But further fests were calling, and I was off…
My next destination was Adelaide in March – one city, one month, three festivals. Madness, surely! The Adelaide Festival of Arts (held every even year, www.adelaidefestival.com.au) and Adelaide Fringe (27 February-22 March, www.adelaidefringe.com.au) are the steamy little sisters of Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
It may be smaller, younger and not yet possessing the acclaim of Scotland’s finest. But it is a lot bloody hotter in Adelaide in March, than in Edinburgh. EVER.
I worked front of house at the Festival of Arts and spent my sunny “arvos” stewarding the installations which speckled the streets.
The festival is all about internationally acclaimed artists, authors and strutting your stuff at the end of the day in the swanky Persian Gardens.
Quantity and quality. But the Fringe is the one for me. Street performers transform the centre with music and laughter, stand-ups travel from far and wide to attend and the fest’s Garden of Unearthly Delights provides a bohemian answer to the Persian Gardens with puppet shows, bands, and… (wait for it…) a silent disco! (Clue: it involves headphones.)
I worked at Womadelaide (6-8 March,www.womadelaide.com.au) as well, and in spite of the 40° heat, and hot-air-distributing fan as a substitute for air-con in the bar I was working at, for me it was festival perfection.
I threw shapes and chilled, whilst genre-spanning musicians displayed their talents in the dusty heat of the Botanical Gardens, supported by theatrical groups, eco-workshops and fire-displays. It brought a wee tingle to my spine as dusk drew in, fairy lights littered the trees and John Butler’s “Spring” wafted through the air.
From Adelaide to Byron, and the hugely-hyped East Coast Blues and Roots Music Festival (April 9-13,www.bluesfest.com.au), which only disappointed on the level that the town does for me in general. It’s far more commercial than I would have hoped.
It compensated for this, however, not only with the fact that we begun each day on the beach (no mud and wellies at Aussie festivals), but with a line-up that may never be topped; The Cat Empire, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Jules Holland and many more. A fantastic weekend.
I found myself in Melbourne in May, in time for St Kilda Film Festival (26-31 May,www.stkildafilmfestival.com.au), and for the Next Wave Festival (biennial, not till 2010,www.nextwave.org.au), which celebrates new and emerging artists and at which I worked as a production assistant. I gaffer taped A LOT of things.
Next Wave takes over the city subtly with elements appearing everywhere, hinting at an underworld of festival activity. The dance I worked on was based in the subway beneath Flinders Street Station, after hours.
House parties were held at properties transformed by experimental artists, and the closing night was a clever concoction of social experiments, lesbian boy bands and glow-sticks on the dance-floor. All the ingredients of a “ripper” night out.
However, as the nights became long, and winter drew in, festival season came to an end, and so did my Aussie cultural extravaganza. I didn’t earn a lot (Next Wave paid me in cider!) and I had to work crazy hours to fund my volunteering. But I don’t regret it for a second – and I’d do it again without a shadow of a doubt. The only alteration would be squeezing in more fests if I could.
I recommend the Aussie festival trail to anyone. You meet the locals, get involved with the culture and boogie on down with the best of them.