FAIRBRIDGE FESTIVAL @ FAIRBRIDGE VILLAGE, APRIL 20-24
We load up the car, the long-suffering Honda Jazz, who just sighs and accepts the absurd piling of tents, mattresses, guitars, amps, bags, flight cases, food and drinks, humans.
Despite the uncommonly weighty load it’s a quick journey to Pinjarra, and beyond to Fairbridge Village. Fairbridge Village, where an annual congregation of gnarled minstrels, dusty free spirits and family-minded food truck patrons is occurring. Once known as Fairbridge Folk Festival, it’s now Fairbridge “Festival of Inspired Music,” which I think is better, if a little unwieldy. How do you delimit “folk,” after all, without stifling innovation - or indeed, without recourse to a Eurocentric model? “Inspired” seems a more meaningful, friendlier umbrella to get under.
Saturday I just get a taste: a wander through the eucalypt-lined, busker-heavy roads, a bit of Los Car Keys who race to a crowd-rousing conclusion dense with guitar, pan flute and thundering latin percussion. I have to return to Perth for some crucial nuptials but luckily Fairbridge is a smorgasbord that keeps going, deep into tomorrow and Monday.
SUNDAY — after a pause at Pinjarra Dôme I arrive in time for “Alex and Alb Morning Wakeup,” which is Axel Carrington (Rag ’n’ Bone) and Albie Pritchard (Shit Narnia) trading songs as the sun inches up its ascent. Though many of their respective songs are dark and doomy (the angst of punk channelled through the lonely aesthetic of guitar-folk) their personalities are grin-inducing, especially in tandem. It’s a thoughtful, funny and very special start to the day.
The stage they’re on, the Backlot, offers up consistent goods as the day unfurls. There’s the soulful swaggering jazz-funk of DEMON DAYS. Then, the melodically intriguing, by turns heartbreaking, funny and thoroughly clever songwriting of STELLA DONNELLY, who draws a tremendous crowd (and throws in a Basement Jaxx cover because why not). BENI BJAH follows with his timeless tangent of hip hop realness, and at 2.30 I scoot past the tangle of food trucks and sit in the small but beautiful Faribridge chapel to hear MISS EILEEN & KING LEAR. They’re a brother-sister duo from Melbourne, and though their songs are nothing to urgently call your Aunty about, there’s an alchemy between their voices, simple chords, Lear’s stand-up drumming and their mutual razzing between songs that makes the whole thing memorable.
Back up on the backlot there’s the bright-eyed, pop-rock-orchestra songwriting of SALARY, who apart from sounding big and great also make artistic use of Autotune - perhaps the first time that’s happened at Fairbridge. Hey, if it’s good enough for Sufjan…
The sun disappears. I manage to catch the tail end of ramshackle local country-weirdo collective THE FRUITY WHITES, what a beautiful thing they comprise. Back over at the Chapel, Groot Eylandt’s EMILY WURRAMARA carries a full house into the atmosphere on her songs of love and hope, sung crystalline in both English and Anindilyakwa.
The Backlot again. Here we catch perhaps the most viscerally impressive act of the whole festival - Quebec’s LES POULES A COLIN. A five piece comprising keys, violin, bass, guitar, banjo, galloping foot-percussion and harmonies, they craftily synthesise trad-folk influences and relay them with the blistering energy of a stadium rock act. They’re followed by local troupe RU, who combine just as many layers (here including saxophones, brass, drums and plenty of harmonies) to create something more serene, sprawling and eclectic - a haunting and engaging counterpoint to Les Poules’ onslaught of rhythms.
I’m feeling a little mellow and sleepy at this point, but after watching a few minutes of BRASSIKA I can’t help but throw some dusty shapes. They spin a tasteful web of energetic grooves, underpinning intelligent songwriting and crafty lead lines. Over in Gus’ Bar, the sloshy saloon at Faibridge’s geographical centre, I soak up another round of Demon Days before joining in with the Mucky Duck Bush Band - a Guinness-fueled bush dance to wrap up the evening.
Monday floats along at a more relaxed pace. We catch Albie again, by himself as NEW NAUSEA, spinning evocative tales of mundane sadness and relief, pegged to the contours of the WA landscape. I catch the jaunty, mixed-bag folk/pop of BELGRADE, and the spirited songsmithy of LUCY PEACH (with her lush-sounding band) in the chapel. Over in the cosy corner known as Ruby’s Bar we catch the LITTLE LORD STREET BAND doing their country-informed power pop, songs of heartbreak and charged quotidian detail spun through layers of deft guitar, rolling piano and Creedence-worthy backbeat. We catch a few songs from OPEN SWIMMER, whose minimal guitar work bolsters straight-shooting, slo-mo choirboy melodics…and then have the privilege to play the closing set in the chapel, along with Daoiri Farrell (who collapses reverence for Irish folk tradition, and irreverence in general) and Jack Harris (who melds intricate guitar with songs about distant love ones, haunting landscapes and Andre the Giant).
It had been a while between drinks from the Fairbridge cup - this site, a place of regular childhood visits, suddenly feeling new again. Among the tents, the cows, the $5 turkish mezza plate, the free outdoor library, the home-made preserves, the trees and the cottages, was the crucial impulse of the festival: fostering new forms of creativity, and subcultural idiosyncrasies, while honouring age-old cultural conditions. This year, in its 25th iteration, the programme struck up a better balance than perhaps I’ve ever seen it strike. And it didn’t even rain. Beautiful.