By Ian McFarlane.
Queenscliff Music Festival 2016
It was the 20th anniversary of the Queenscliff Music Festival in November 2016 and it was a sold-out affair, with over 15,000 people in attendance. I’ve been going for nine years (but oddly enough have never written about it before). All the same, I reckon I would have only seen about half the acts featured in each of those years. As veteran attendees of any music festival around the world will tell you, there is always so much to see and hear each and every year.
And Queenscliff is no exception. As a stroll around the QMF 20 Year Memorabilia Display in the Town Hall revealed, the sheer depth and diversity of acts presented over the years has been staggering and mighty impressive.
The display featured photographs, posters, videos, T-shirts and loads of other memorabilia, plus folders and folders of newspaper and magazine cuttings over the years. I could have spent hours just reading through the folders but with a dozen stages/venues on the go, time was of the essence and I didn’t want to miss out on the acts I wanted to see. The logistics of documenting and archiving this festival is a wonder in itself. Professor Sue Beeton has also written a book on the subject, Then Dad Put Me On His Shoulders: The Story of the Queenscliff Music Festival.
The predominant feeling among festival goers was one of contentment. The atmosphere was relaxed, the acts were good and the weather was accommodating. Things kicked off promisingly on Friday evening with the likes of Kylie Auldist, Jordie Lane, Killing Heidi and Ash Grunwald. Aside from the more pop oriented Killing Heidi, indications were that this year would focus on the rootsier, more soulful end of the music spectrum.
Saturday held a caution for weather issues but all was fine. I headed straight to the Blues Train, Carriage A, for Geoff Achison. Armed with only his acoustic guitar Geoff was talkative and engaging, calling on tunes by Tony Joe White (‘Polk Salad Annie’), Robert Johnson (‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’) and, naturally, himself for the half hour trip. Newcomer Hollie Joyce in Carriage C for the return was fun. She led a 3-piece, with the other guitarist having to sit out as they all couldn’t fit in the limited compartment at the end of the carriage. With her shrill voice, scratchy guitar playing and nervous energy Joyce is on the way but attention to song writing is required. One song stood out, ‘I’m a Dog’ (“this one was written by my dad”), which was like Kathleen Hanna channelling the Violent Femmes.
Abbe May delivered a strong set of noisy indie rock, electronica and dub elements on the Hippos Stage. May has appeared at the festival before and her performance continues to impress. She wielded her white Gibson SG custom three pick-up like a true rock dog; for the big finish of her last song she executed a perfect cock-rock send-up by pointing the headstock at the audience and shooting out mock power bullets of sound as she swayed from side to side.
Americana came to town with the feisty Eilen Jewel. The singer/songwriter from Boise, Idaho was a delight to see and hear. There’s lots of twang and a touch of rockabilly going on with her rockin’ country band. Songs such as ‘Mess Around’, ‘They Can’t Take Our Music Away’ and her cover of Loretta’s Lynn’s ‘Fist City’ have become like old favourites. Her cover of Johnny Cash’s ‘Train of Love’ introduced an element of love lost into proceedings which was lifted by the sprightly ‘Rio Grande’. Then as if to assure the audience she was still the “Queen of the Minor Key” the melancholy ballad ‘Santa Fe’ held everyone in awe. Jewel pleaded with the audience, “with so much going on at home, do you mind if we hang around in Australia for a bit longer?”, to which we replied with a resounding roar of welcome!
ARIA Award-winning, indie pop legends George reunited just recently for the Brisbane Festival and their appearance at Queenscliff was greeted with enthusiasm. They took to the Lighthouse Stage with their expansive brand of jazz pop. Actually, the grand arrangements remind me more of Coldplay these days. Katie Noonan was in good form with her astonishing multi-octave voice, readily matched by her brother Tyrone. ‘Breathe in Now’ and ‘Special Ones’ remain beguiling tunes.
The appearance of Peter Garrett and the Alter Egos was probably the most highly anticipated one of the festival, and he managed to delight and infuriate in equal measure. With fellow Midnight Oil member Martin Rotsey and guest Abbe May on guitars it seemed we might be battered against the wall but there was as much restraint as there was energy emanating from the stage. Conversely, the rest of the band seemed under-rehearsed or essentially unsuited to the material at hand. Nevertheless, Garrett was loquacious and clearly delighted to be on stage so his enthusiasm was infectious.
Garrett’s songs from his debut solo album, A Version of Now, made up the bulk of the set but when song after song fell into a non-descript, mid-tempo chug things began to drag. An attempt at a tribute to Skyhooks with a version of ‘Ego’ was desultory. They managed to rescue the set from the precipice with a superb rendition of Divinyls’ ‘Back to the Wall’ during which May delivered a spellbinding solo. I know we should give Garrett’s solo material time to live and breathe and become familiar but with the other standout songs being the Oils’ ‘Don’t Wanna be the One’ and ‘Dead Heart’ I don’t put much faith in that happening.
Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen were sheer class all the way. Paul Kelly just has to be on stage and his charisma and bearing carry the day. With their album Death’s Dateless Night to promote there was no shortage of great songs on offer. Multi-instrumentalist Owen was seemingly everywhere at once, effortlessly switching between dobro, lap slide, electric guitar, piano and synth. Kelly called on Sweet Jean’s Alice Keath several times to add her gorgeous backing vocals. ‘Hard Times’, ‘Pretty Bird Tree’, Maurice Frawley’s ‘Good Things’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on the Wire’, The Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’, Cole Porter’s ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ and Kelly’s own ‘Nukkanya’ and ‘To Her Door’ resonated long after they hung in the air. Finishing with ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ was a masterstroke.
Old favourite Geoff Achison was back, on the outdoor Glaneuse Stage, this time with His Souldiggers and special guest Chris Wilson. He took out Saturday night on a definite high. The Souldiggers, with veteran bassist Roger McLaughlin, are a polished, versatile unit and when they hit those soulful, funky grooves few can match them. One of Achison’s newer songs ‘High Wire’ caught the ear as a future classic. Wilson added an unearthly dimension with his harp playing on the likes of ‘Messin’ with the Kid’ which had the audience up and dancing.
Aside from the rock stages, one could often stop by the Ozone Lounge to listen to DJ Vince Peach spin soul and funk discs. Of so many solo performers on other stages, I need to mention that the likes of Reuben Stone, Liz Stringer, Leah Senior, Sarah Carroll, Urthboy, Gabrielle Cohen, Simon Phillips etc were all part of the day’s diverse fabric.
Sunday dawned bright and clear and we were in for a sunny day. Sweet Jean took to the Glaneuse Stage early to a small but appreciative audience. Next up, singer/songwriter William Crighton and his band were intense yet engaging. He commandeered the stage like a wild-eyed preacher with his parishioners in the palm of his hand. The mix of moody Australian folk rock (‘Riverina’) and boisterous, noisy indie rock (‘Jesus Blues’) provided a dichotomy that probably shouldn’t have worked yet it did. Even at this relatively early stage in his career (one self-titled album) you can tell that Crighton’s a born story teller with quality songs on offer. If his voice possess a timbre that suggests the likes of Redgum’s John Schumann, then it’s the music that kicks things up a notch via a kind of crazed, mutant rockabilly / country undercarriage.
I don’t think I was prepared for the towering presence of Matt Andersen. The big Canadian just stood on stage and enthralled the audience with his acoustic guitar, a clutch of heart-felt songs and that voice. When he opened his mouth, threw his head right back (as if he were trying to make a Pez dispenser of said head) and delivered that sonorous, soulful voice it seemed like time could stand still and we’d still be impressed. Songs such as ‘Who Are You Listening To?’ and ‘When My Angel Gets the Blues’ are part cautionary tale / part existential angst. Occasionally he’d get a lively acoustic boogie going that lifted the set among the sadder, more thoughtful songs. I thought he was terrific.
Sunday afternoon headliners, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, were the clear highlight of the entire weekend. As a performer and songwriter Harper is the real deal, a genuine master craftsman who knows how to entertain a festival audience. The Lighthouse Stage, under the big tent, was jam-packed and we were treated to a set of joyous dance music. I managed to secure a spot about half-way in among the crowd, with large numbers of those festival goers who couldn’t get in content to sit outside watching things unfold on the strategically placed big screens.
It had been seven years since Harper and the Innocent Criminals had performed together when they re-united last year. The now road-hardened combo crackled and sparked, urging each other on to ever greater heights. They had the best sound and the best presentation of the weekend and there was no way one could fail to be impressed. The group’s patented mix of alternative rock, folk, soul and reggae roots had us dancing and grooving from the outset. Each time a song shifted into one of those enthralling percussive break-downs, a roar of sheer delight went up from the crowd. I walked away with Harper’s triumphant music still ringing in my ears. It was the end of a fabulous weekend.