18 May 2023

Folk Festival reclaims its soul, and that's good for Canberra

| Ian Bushnell
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The 2023 National Folk Festival at Exhibition Park: more than just a music event. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Numbers may have been down, there could have been another stage and the early winter blast was bone-chilling, but the 2023 National Folk Festival proved to be an enduring and joy-filled Canberra story after two years of COVID cancellations and a contentious 2022 event.

Organisers were happy with the 32,000 who passed through the gates, despite Season tickets being 15 per cent down, attributed to taking the eye off the marketing ball late last year when some unfortunate and unforeseeable personnel change occurred.

But there is no doubt that the Katie Noonan-steered event last year was a turn-off for regulars who may have decided to pass this year.

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A South Australian friend of a neighbour who never misses the festival vowed last year not to return, and she was probably not alone.

That may have been a harsh judgment, but it did reflect the unhappy place the festival found itself.

The goal this year was to put the festival back on track as a community-based event and restore the full range of activities to its program.

Above all, organisers wanted to recapture the spirit and enthusiasm of the festival that for some was so lacking last year because the National is not just a music festival where people simply turn up to see and hear performers, nor do artists just come to perform, but to run workshops, catch other acts and enjoy the vibe. It is an immersive, participatory experience for all concerned.

Over the four-and-a-bit days, that familial experience was clearly on display. Most people went away having had a great time and they heard some incredible music.

Not that everything was perfect.

You can’t order the weather and the miserable Friday would have produced some no-shows.

If there were complaints, it would have been that the venue full signs were all too common, despite fewer people.

There were long lines into the headline acts – The Waifs and Billy Bragg – and some punters simply gave up.

That was anticipated, but the smaller venues filled up more quickly than previous years, making it difficult for Festival goers to get from gig to gig as is the usual practice.


Dance made a big comeback this year. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

For some reason, the Fitzroy pavilion at the northern end of the site was out of action, which must have an impact on capacity or at least concentrated activity at one end of Exhibition Park.

That will be rectified next year.

The other question for organisers is: does the festival need big-name headliners that cost a lot at the expense of other talent? Discovering that new or previously unknown talent is one of the joys of the festival.

The answer is probably some are better than others.

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But if the test was about the festival reclaiming its soul then organisers can say mission accomplished.

That should translate into more Season ticket holders next year and a return to the 40,000 to 50,000 that previously came through at Easter.

This isn’t just important for folk music lovers but for Canberra because the event is an integral part of the national capital’s visitor economy that COVID battered so terribly.

Having it back, especially in a form the community can embrace, is a relief.

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The National Folk Festival is very expensive but worth going at least once. If you’re fan of folk music, it’s worth going on a yearly basis. I highly recommend signing up early and being a volunteer, I’ve done it 3 times and it was a great experience!

Stephen Saunders8:11 am 14 Apr 23

Very pleased it went well. What with the weather, limited number of (international) acts that interested me, and the prices ($142 day, $114 night), didn’t quite find the energy.

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