Nimbin is to Australia what Planet Gong is to the rest of the cosmos, and I had the pleasure of visiting it for the first time on the weekend of September 15-17, which happily coincided with the town’s second annual Roots Festival. If you like your music earthy, this is the place to be—and it’s a lot better value than the yuppified (though still admittedly very good) Byron Bay Blues Festival which takes place every Easter an hour or so’s drive away.
High Street (in every sense), Nimbin
And what a drive: this part of northern New South Wales really is God’s own backyard with curvaceous hills, fragrant bush and slinky valleys which, under sunny blue skies, are beguiling enough but would look and smell downright voluptuous after a drop of rain. But I digress.
Nimbin Rocks (that’s enough puns—Ed.)
The town is certainly a hippy haven and cynical city types like me can quickly tire of its monomaniacal preoccupation with dope and related paraphernalia, evident at the various cafes (“The Bent Joint”) and shops (“Hemp Embassy”). There’s an underlying authenticity, however. It put me in mind of what my small and unprepossessing home town might have become, had I been able to fulfil my schoolboy fantasy of replacing its water supply with lysergic acid.
But enough about me. What about the music?
The first act I saw wasn’t particularly promising: an earth-spirit wearing dreadlocks and a loin cloth and smeared head to toe in mud, who snapped into life and played a ditty on the Pan pipes in return for some coin. A little way down the street was a different story: some very fine blues harp indeed courtesy of Billy James from Billinudgel. He told me he enjoys teaching as much as playing, and I would have signed up for lessons on the spot but for the fact that I live an hour’s flight away.
That was it for the buskers. I have the festival flyer to hand and I could easily count the number of acts for the sake of statistical interest, but life’s too short. Suffice to say there were far too many, spread across six venues, for any one person to see them all. The first stage act I saw were blues/folk duo Darktown Strutters who played a very traditional set with sweetness and respect. Frustratingly, I can’t seem to find any examples of their music online (plenty of other bands called Darktown Strutters, but not them).
Blues Arcadia from Brisbane turned up the heat at Nimbin Hall with their soulful blues punched out by Chris Harvey on guitar and the charismatic Alan Boyle on vocals. Rhythm and keyboards were great, too, although I can’t say I saw much action on the bassist’s fifth string. Expensive thumb rest? Hmm….
They were ably followed by The Taste from Cairns who blended hip-hop with rock, soul and funk. The horns featured in the video below were absent on the day, but no matter. They were a blast: I particularly liked the lead guitarist’s imaginative but restrained use of effects and Vanessa’s vocals. (Note to rest of band: this lady is woefully under-utilised. Use her or lose her.) They sold branded stubby holders as well as CDs: a class act. They made me feel old, though: clearly nobody who remembers, or has heard of, Rory Gallagher would have chosen that name for their own band.
The other thing that made me feel old was the fact that neither I nor my companions had heard of ANY of the bands appearing over the weekend. We decided to choose which acts to see based on how interesting or exotic their names were. This put Sweet Emily and the Judgemental Fucks at the top of our list. They didn’t disappoint. Tight, angular rock underpinned by Emily’s chunky guitar rhythms and sharp-tongued solo notes. Many of her songs gave insights into her personal life, some of them intimate, all of them colourful. Tourette’s Syndrome never sounded so good.
And so, eventually, to bed.
Another beautiful day in paradise, beginning with excellent chai at the Phoenix Rising Café and what turned out to be my favourite act of the whole weekend. Jolanda Moyle plays ethereal, transcendent modern folk using acoustic guitar loops, sarangi (a classical Indian instrument, somewhere between a violin and a cello) and a hauntingly pure voice with plenty of reverb. Definitely music of, and for, the gods. “You’re in love with her, aren’t you?” said my bride of 33 years. “Er, well…”, I replied. Rolling her eyes, my beloved and our friends took their leave in search of entertainment better suited to the mere mortals which, through no fault of their own, they are.
Back to the Bowlo for some pared back electric blues from Gold Cost duo The James Street Preachers. As the video shows, Jamie Kasdaglis (guitar, keyboard and vocals) and Matt Lye (bass, vocals) are adept at multitasking.
And to cap it all off, Missus Hippy and the Love Handles on the Aquarius Stage—the venue reserved for local acts. Talk about Old Wave music in all its dusty glory: this is the first band I’ve seen in which neither of the guitarists has a full set of teeth. That is not a put-down but a celebration of the fact that men and women of a certain age can still rock it up with the best of them. MHLH do so with original material which is variously timeless and topical, written by rhythm guitarist Doug (I’d play the outstanding My Dog, but the sound quality on my phone video doesn’t do it justice). Mrs H. (aka Biscuit) sounds like a blues mama from way back and exudes earth-mother warmth while lead guitarist Joey has a certain, shall we say, other-worldly appeal. Bob on bass and the drummer whose name I didn’t catch carried it all along very nicely. A highlight of the weekend and a band I would love to see again.
Another highlight: staying at Crofton’s Retreat. Thanks to Wayne and Paul, Bear and Jack. See you next year, guys.