27 March 2023

'Bigger, brighter and bolder' National Folk Festival has shaken off last vestiges of COVID

| Dione David
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Workshop by Balkanski Bus at the 2022 National Folk Festival in Canberra

The National Folk Festival is back in full swing. Photo: Adam Purcell.

The National Folk Festival is back to pre-pandemic proportions for the first time since COVID turned live music on its head.

Stall numbers this year are double what they were last year, the festival is poised to launch its own app, and the highly popular evening tickets will soon go on sale for the first time since 2019.

But one of the best indicators, according to Festival Director Chris Grange, is the volunteers.

“We have 850 signed up so far and counting,” he says.

“We expect 900-plus by the time we open the gates, which is back to historical levels, and that helps us deliver the best possible festival.

“The folkie is a volunteer-led organisation. In the office, we just direct traffic, but the real work gets done by our volunteers.

“Everything is turning out bigger, brighter and bolder this year.”

Gelato stall at the 2022 National Folk Festival in Canberra

There will be double the number of stalls at this year’s folkie compared to last year. Photo: NFF.

About 1500 performers, volunteers and festivalgoers have booked onsite camping so far – another thing to return in full force after being stymied for years.

“Camping lets people immerse themselves in the festival. It makes things buzz at night,” Chris says.

This year, local gin distillery Antipodes will join principal sponsors Bentspoke Brewery and Lerida Estate to run the bars during the festival.

As usual, roaming performers, including circus acts, street choirs, dancers, parades and marches, will bring every corner to life.

And for the first time in four years, the Kids Fest portion of the event returns with activities, workshops, crafts, entertainment and its own stage and artistic program, especially for the young ‘uns.

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Chris reckons the Session Bar will be among the most popular corners.

Held in one of the bars, it’s where talented musicians host jam sessions open to all.

“Some people will spend 80 per cent of their time at the festival just doing that. It’s something we’re really proud of,” Chris says.

“Alcohol service closes at 3 am, but the venue itself will stay open all night long. People will play music in there through to sunrise.

“It kind of embodies part of the beauty of a folk festival. It’s not just about what happens on the music and dance stages – it’s the experiences and environment we create around those activities,” he said.

That said, organiser Graham McDonald reckons the musical line-up is set to “surprise and beguile”.

man with mandolins

The folkie is designed so no matter where a person wanders, they’ll see, hear, smell or taste something to delight them. Photo: Adam Purcell.

Graham, who went to his first National Folk Festival in Sydney in 1975, says this year, reverting to a “tried and true” format, bringing together young singer-songwriters and traditional folk musicians who’ve been at it for half a century or more.

“That’s part of the joy of folkie – you have incredibly skilled young musicians alongside people who’ve been doing it for decades, and they learn from and inspire each other,” he says.

“Folk is an oral tradition, after all.”

Among the big international visitors, Billy Bragg will take to the main stage.

“He’s an icon of political songwriting and has been for 30-plus years,” Graham says.

“We’re delighted to have him for two shows and sitting down with Rob Willis, a renowned oral history collector from the National Library who is wonderfully skilled at getting people to talk about themselves in a way they won’t expect,” Graham says.

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Returning after a couple of years is Indigenous singer Jessie Lloyd. Graham says she’s not to be missed.

“She will be presenting songs she has collected from Indigenous communities in Queensland,” Graham says.

“These are called ‘mission songs’ because they were all mission statements of those communities.

“It’s a fascinating glimpse into Indigenous music making and skilled documentation of a largely unknown sub-genre.”

Alinta Barlow, who last year sang the Ngunnawal translation of ‘My Island Home’, is returning while singer Gina Williams, one of some 400 people to speak Noongar, will be performing and holding Noongar classes for kids.

The program, too jam-packed with highlights to name them all, is often accompanied by opportunities to sit down with artists and have a beer of an evening.

But Graham says the festival deals in discovery, allowing people to encounter artists or styles of musicality they might otherwise never have known of and be wowed.

“I’m more excited about this national folkie than I have been for many years.”

The Folkie is held on the Easter long weekend from 6 to 10 April. To book tickets, download the program or listen to the official Spotify playlist, visit the National Folk Festival 2023.

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