It was probably in 2006 when I first heard Colum Sands play at the National Folk Festival here in Australia. His carefully crafted and insightful song about the troubles in Ireland, Last House in Our Street, was a trigger to collect all of his albums. It was a good investment.
I wasn’t intending to go to the National this year as juggling five young children has made it a challenge. However, when I heard Colum on the radio in the weeks beforehand, promoting the festival, it suddenly became a much more attractive option.
My wife and I and three of our sons (12, 4 and 1) went along for the Friday. Hearing Colum play some songs from his new album along with Buskers and the funny song about the donkey was worth every cent of the ticket. My wife was also brave enough to meet Colum and get the newly purchased copy of Turn the Corner signed.
This post isn’t intended to be a report from our day at the festival, but more about the nature of this particular festival. Every year that I have attended, it has felt like stepping into Diagon Alley. A world where socially conscious people sit and listen to well-crafted music by everyone from the 10yr old with their first ukulele, to masters of the art. People are patient, generous and friendly.
Sometimes the odd ‘normal’ Canberran buys a ticket by accident and can be spotted wandering in a daze, like a muggle at a Quiddich match. I don’t know if this phenomena is common to all folk festivals, I haven’t been to many others but the ones I have been to don’t compare to the National. The slogan for the 50th anniversary, “5 days in a perfect world”, certainly rings true for me.
Despite living in Canberra since 1994, it was not until I was asked to help teach some morning Qi Gong exercises and coordinate a Chinese Dance display in 2006 that I discovered this incredible alternate universe. As one who has dabbled in the magic arts, I do wonder whether it is the concentration of so many people of a certain type, performers, organisers, volunteers and general attendees that creates the otherwise unexplainable vibe.
I’m sure that any one of the performers could put on a great concert, but I doubt if people would walk away with the same feeling that comes from spending some time at the National.
My son lost his Ukulele within the first 15 minutes of being at the festival. On Tuesday I had a phone call from the lost-property folks letting me know that it had been returned. As I said to my wife after my son noticed it was missing, “don’t worry, this is the National, these people don’t steal stuff”.
I should mention a few new performers that we enjoyed listening to. The harmonies provided by the three lads from The Young’uns were superb. It is great to have acts of this calibre come over from the UK and their selection of left-leaning songs was brilliant. I had to record my own version of John Ball, after hearing them perform it.
Co-cheòl also impressed. Unfortunately the venue (Lyric) was probably half the size of the audience trying to get in. Fortunately my son and I had pre-positioned. With success on their Pozible campaign, they should have a debut album out in the near future. Multi-instrumentalists and with a solid choral background, their songs were heavenly to listen to.
We made sure to catch up with past festival favourites of ours, Cloudstreet and The Roaring Forties who put on a Cicely Fox Smith special that I was very pleased to sing along loudly to. The downside of a single day ticket is that you inevitably miss some performers, so it was a great disappointment to miss the Wheeze and Suck Band and also the Fiddle Chicks.
An important event that didn’t occur until the end of the festival was the presentation to Tony Eardley of the Alistair Hulett social justice songwriting award. You can see Tony’s excellent song “Sally Cross The Water” here. I first heard Tony sing Portugal Beach at the 2008 National and had it stuck in my head for 7 years until I finally met him in the Blue Mountains last year and purchased a copy of his album Desire Lines.
Maybe this feeling is unique to me, but I suspect others feel similarly about this event. It is only sad that every other day is now just one which isn’t spent at the National.