We chug down the crowded asphalt towards Nannup – pausing for pastry-laden repose at the Miami Bakehouse pit stop, overtaking plump camper-vans, narrowly dodging fearless kangaroos. As we slip into the South the sunbeams on the gum leaves fade from bright white to golden to dusky pink-grey, and by the time we’re entering the town, there’s no sun left: instead, the many-coloured festoon lights, the humming bulbs of the Nannup pub, the unforgiving fluoros of the Bowls club, the crawling headlights, the precocious sparkle of the Milky Way and the cannabinoid gleam of the moon. We walk down the busy market street, where hemp-clad vendors peddle crystals and clothing and chai and exotic pancakes, before reaching the amphitheatre – a big fenced-off field with a grand stage, ad hoc bars and sprawling healthy grass. It’s in this pleasant enclosure I meet up with D and S – I’ll be playing with them this weekend – and Sh, who’s overseeing the operation.
We sip spiced rum to the tail-end of JANE TYRREL’s set (I’ll come back to Jane) and drink in MARLON WILLIAMS who, like his name, sounds classic and dignified and folky but with an artful, ineffable twist. One moment he’s delivering straightforward ear-soothing acousticism, and the next imbuing it all with uncommon operatic fervour reminiscent of Oliver Mann, or reimagining an old New Zealand TV show theme. Tops. We do our set, emerging mostly unscathed; WINTERBORNE supply a dose of radio-ready rollicking folkspiration, before KALLIDAD rouse the arena with a polished offering of hyperactive, dramatic, intricate flamenco-metal. Soon enough we’re in the band vehicle, rolling through the night to the nearby shed that will be our makeshift sleeping quarters. Remarkably, I have the best sleep I’ve had in weeks, and wake to the twit and bzzt of birds and spot-welding.
The welding is courtesy of R, who’s a sculptor, inhabitant of the property we’re sleeping at, and currently building a crucifix for a friend. He welcomes us into his home, fixes us tea and coffee, spreads promite and honey on seedy toasted buns. Soon enough it seems apt to return to the town and the festival, so we do – absorbing the impressive trio STRAY HENS (whose take on old English balladry is impeccable and surreptitiously modern) and FANNY LUMSDEN who spins vintage country sounds while dialling back the lyrical cheese. Ostensible drawcard ERIC BOGLE is deft and endearing, but ultimately pretty drab with his relentless folk waltzes and uninspired arrangements. Far more compelling are yirrkala band YIRRMAL AND THE YOLNGU BOYS – young Yirrmal boasts an amazing vocal range and gritty tenor bellow to rival Barnes or Farnham, and his guitar playing is on point. The accompanying Yolgnu Boys, on bass/guitar/djembe/cahon/clapsticks and backing vocals may not sound like the tight Aus-rock band the songs often seem to call for stylistically, but their parts cohere into something rich and infectious and singular, proving perhaps more satisfying in the end…easily a weekend highlight, rounded out by a joyous Yothu Yindi cover. We dine on the local fare, rummage through the Op shop (everything $2), play in the town hall, catch CHRIS COLEMAN’s witty, considered song craft and imbibe cheap bundy cans at the bowls club. TJINTU DESERT BAND are a superb way to see the night out – slick but raw and heartfelt bush reggae, ripe with all-consuming groove and lyrics relaying life and lore from the Central Westen desert. Spirits are high; they’re cheered on for an extra song and then an encore-proper, in which they deploy surf classic “Wipeout” performed with distinctive Tjintu flavour.
Sunday is as mellow as it ought to be; D becomes grand champion on the AC/DC pinball in the video shop, we invest in $2 op shop apparel, we drink pretty-good coffee and eat very-good ice cream. JORDIE LANE impresses readily with his dexterous, impassioned, melodically lush storytelling and JACK CARTY spellbinds a marquee crowd with a less-is-more approach, neatly composed songs, a stirring Jeff Buckley cover (Lilac Wine) and a nice shirt. Later, over in the town hall, there’s JANE TYRREL again, who’s one of the few performers this weekend flying the electronic flag. Her tunes are layered, painterly, haunted by the friendly ghosts of trip-hop and jazzy beat music, meanwhile distinctly now-ish a la Kimbra or Bonobo. A former member of The Herd, Tyrrel seems to thrive in solo form (though, as it happens, there’s an accompanying guitarist providing an extra dynamic here). Coming from a very different – but no less mellifluous angle – is RUTH MOODY, also of the Wailing Jennies, whose songs are pristine as a waterfall, delivered by herself and band with architectural precision and tastefully spare arrangements. Even those who find nothing to like in the bluegrass, country or gospel inflections, the crystalline harmonies, the earnest sentiments – even they would surely be impressed by the sheer execution, the virtuosity on fiddle, slide and acoustic guitar, double bass, mouth. Bands of this technical calibre are few and far between.
And it all folds over on itself – a paceless, unfurling, leisurely weekend of country air and sensory satisfactions suddenly condensed and slipping out of view. We pile into cars and set out on the long road, eyes peeled for roos. The final stomps, howls, twangs and soughs dwindle in the karri-tops, the township soon to farewell the hullabaloo. But this quite remarkable place seems ever-welcoming to stringpluckers, sing-songers, freaks and troubadours. Come next summer-autumn crossfade, it’ll all unfurl again, brimming with light and sound and smell and toothy grins – almost as if not a day had passed since.