Folk experiment in Queanbeyan has bright future

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Rufino and Mikelangelo. Photo: Martin Ollman.

WHEN managing director of the National Folk Festival, Helen Roben, catches up to brief the incoming director, Katie Noonan, she’ll have good news to report.

For “Good Folk”, the two-day concert series or “folk experience” held in Queanbeyan over Easter, achieved the joint purposes of entertaining a lot of people and signalling that the National Folk Festival is alive, well and not going away any time soon.

To be sure, there were a few grumbles from purists missing the experience at Exhibition Park in what was a scaled down event of 22 concerts, who asked why it couldn’t have been held in Canberra.

Buskers on Crawford St. Photo: Martin Ollman.

But the mini-festival, held in partnership with Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council, also proved to be a resounding affirmation of Queanbeyan as a lively town full of pubs, eateries, music-compatible streets and good performance venues – ”celebrating folk culture, while supporting musicians and local businesses”, as the organisers had it.

I caught up with several booked events, but mostly used the weekend to wander around and take in the buskers and quality street stalls along Crawford Street.

An adjunct pop-up day of concerts at the “yellow house”, The Hive, also in Crawford Street, provided art, food and drink for those heading to larger venues, and though not officially part of the festival, it was compatible with it.

The sessions marquee. Photo: Martin Ollman.

A short walk up Monaro Street revealed a lively sessions bar where old-style folkies jammed in a marquee pitched on an unused bowling green at the “Campbell & George”, the radically refurbished bowling club adjacent to the town’s croquet court. That had the familiar feel of the normal Easter Folk Festival.

While doubtless the NFF will keep its figures close to its chest, all the events I attended were well patronised. Some were packed out, including Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, Fanny Lumsden and Guuy and the Fox.

Guuy and the Fox in The Q. Photo: Martin Ollman.

It was encouraging to see young faces in the ticket lines, for all the shows at The Q, The Bicentennial Hall and the Royal Hotel were paying events. Unlike the sessions bar, these concerts hinted at an updated, cool and contemporary interpretation of the word “folk”.

Those venues, located near the intersection of Monaro and Crawford Streets, were subjected to an effective test run over the weekend as patrons rushed from one show to another, hoping to get the best of the fest.

Both The Q and the newly upgraded Bicentennial Hall have greater capacity, plus technical and lighting facilities, and that made some of the shows quite spectacular indoor events.

Fanny Lumsden. Photo: Martin Ollman.

These are well-equipped, well-known venues owned and operated by the council, and their mutual proximity make them perfect for any such future event.

To me, however, it was the upper room at the Royal Hotel which offered the most exciting possibilities. A well-equipped cabaret space, it is nonetheless just a room, but one with a workable bar, access to restrooms and the capacity to open windows during the day, allowing a more informal, relaxed atmosphere.

Chloe and Jason Roweth. Photo: Martin Ollman.

On the Sunday morning, for instance, veteran husband-and-wife folk duo Chloe and Jason Roweth from Millthorpe engaged in casual chitchat with the audience, had them singing along to John Dengate’s “Bill From Erskineville”, sang about the Kelly Gang (“you meet the best people singing bushranger songs, Chloe said) and played a medley of mazurkas from New England. Daughter Megan recited poems, including one about a cockroach.

I put the same venues to the intimacy test by going to a night-time performance by Canberra’s Kim Yang, who sang mostly her own original songs, including her confronting “Garden of Eden” song about the recent bushfires. Sweet voiced, Yang is a quickly rising Canberra folk star who, like her fellow balladeer Lucy Sugerman, who also performed at the festival, has quickly learned to become a seasoned entertainer.

It remains to be seen what both the festival and the council make of the recent event’s potential for the future, perhaps as an adjunct or prelude event to the main National Folk Festival, which we can confidently expect to run in Easter 2022.

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Helen Musa
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