12 April 2023

Folk Festival a heart-warmer on a teeth-chattering Easter weekend

| Ian Bushnell
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Musician Fred Smith

Canberra’s award-winning artist Fred Smith performs at the 2023 National Folk Festival. Supporting him on electric guitar is local music legend Dave O’Neill. Photos: Thomas Lucraft.

The Easter winter blast may not have been kind to the National Folk Festival at Exhibition Park last weekend, but the verdict is it is back to what it does best.

Managing director Chris Grange said that, from the musicians to the volunteers to the stall holders, and not least the festival-goers who supported them, everyone had a great time and the event had recaptured its community spirit after last year’s troubles.

Mr Grange said about 32,000 people attended the event over the Easter break, with Saturday the standout, and ticket sales were within 5000 of budget, with season tickets down 15 per cent and day tickets up 20-25 per cent.

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He attributed the drop in season ticket sales to the unforeseen staff turnover last year, when the festival should have been focused on marketing.

“Financially we made up the gap but this year everyone had such a good time that I am expecting season tickets to rebound strongly because of the word-of-mouth effect,” Mr Grange said.

It was probably a good problem to have, but the “venue full” signs were common over the weekend and there were long lines for headline acts The Waifs and Billy Bragg.

“I had anticipated that we’d have problems with Billy Bragg and The Waifs but what I didn’t really anticipate was that we’d have house full signs out in front of the Marquee [tent venue],” Mr Grange said.

That forced organisers to open up tent flaps there and at the Scrumpy venue to manage the spill.

This year, the Fitzroy pavilion was not used as a performing venue, a decision that will likely be reversed next year.

But Mr Grange said this did not impact the other venues, though it did affect the way the site worked and limited organisers’ options.

“The team really think we need to bring it back next year,” he said.

“So we’ll have the Fitzroy anchoring that end of the site and we’ll probably put the new ANU School of Music Youth Stage along that corridor as well and that will allow us to get more stalls into that zone too.”

But the keyword for this year’s festival was participation, with 1400 performers, including choirs and marching bands, and nearly 1000 volunteers.

“The big thing about this year is that the volunteer community is much happier and they’re all talking about what they want to do in 2024, which means a very large number of them are going to come back in 2024 and we will start to get some momentum in terms of experience and knowledge,” Mr Grange said.

“We should be capable of putting on a really good festival in 2024.”

An important factor for next year will be the post-COVID rebuilding of partnerships with other folk festivals such as Port Fairy, Cobargo and Yackandandah, which occur within a month of the National.

Mr Grange said this was vital to making joint proposals to secure overseas touring artists.

Personally, Mr Grange also believed there was a reservoir of talent in New Zealand that was not being tapped enough, evidenced by the popularity of the duo We Mavericks on the weekend.

He also believed that the festival did not necessarily need big headline acts to be successful.

But that was a question for the next artistic director and how the program was put together.

Who that person will be should be known in a month or so.

“We’ve been quietly canvassing the names for quite a few weeks now and there are a number options under consideration,” he said.

Mr Grange would also like to see more messaging about the other programs at the festival besides the music, such as the popular and loyal dance component, spoken word and circus performers.

“The things that people really enjoyed are things historically we have not promoted as strongly,” he said.

He also hinted at an announcement soon on the festival’s Indigenous agenda, with a lot of behind-the-scenes work happening.

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Generally, organisers were thrilled with the way the event went off and now would set about the task of evaluating what worked and what didn’t and improving where needed.

“We’ve set the pattern we want to apply for the next few years,” Mr Grange said.

There were rumbles, though, among the food vendors about competition being too fierce, which was great for hungry punters who were spoiled for choice.

But why were there three pasta or gnocchi vendors?

That’ll be on the 2024 to-do list.

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First time going in 20 years. On the whole, it was great, well done. A few observations:

The tent was no where near full. While watching the might rhythm hunters, there were about 50 + empty seats, the DF was not full at all. Great for me an my mates. Noticed this with other venues.

On the seats, The festival is deft aimed at old folikes who would rather sit and stare at the performers than those who want to get involved and dance. That kills the vibe.

ChrisinTurner1:49 pm 12 Apr 23

There were too many people admitted on Saturday for the venue capacities, with no Fitzroy venue. Too many people who purchased a day ticket only encountered “Venue Full” signs.

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