The flags are finally up and flying, adorning the long main streets of our pretty little town. Over the next 24 hours, music lovers will roll in from far and wide, setting up cosy camp under whatever shade they can muster to fend off the dry summer heat.
From the verandah, the sounds are of a town putting on the final touches while the visitors assemble their temporary homes. The crunching of gravel under tyres and thumping of car doors, the aluminium clanking of tent poles accompanied by melodic camping chatter, the booming ‘test one, two’ over the PA, guys yelling to one another about equipment, the hammering of pegs. There’s a distinct festival buzz in the air.
A handful of tents are eagerly pinned along the wide rim of the football oval. Others, mostly performers, are clustered together in neighbourly rows in the horse paddocks by the lane. A few visitors seeking solitude might already have ventured further afield, across the banks of the barely trickling Loddon River, and pitched under the whispering gums of the racecourse.
Rent-a-loos and garbage bins magically materialize - tucked discreetly among the magnificent elm trees that line the nature strip. The arrival of food vans is announced by an urgent and vocal hunt for power outlets.
Over the last seven years, the locals have grown to love this time of year, when the vibrant central Victorian township truly comes to life. As Australia Day weekend swings around, the Newstead Live music festival explodes with a colourful crew of wordsmiths, singers, artists, dancers and players, and the result is captivating.
As it gets into full swing, poetry readings lull us awake each morning from the Troubadour stage - a spatter of slow enthusiastic claps assuring us that a few early risers have made it. The mysterious jangling of Morris dancers (mum’s favourite cultural spectacle) tickles the air down the main street, drawing you in like a siren’s call. There is colour everywhere – banners, capes, top hats, flags, signs pointing this way and that. I spot three oak trees proudly dressed in colourful crochet. The craft bombers have been at their stealthy nightworks again.
Market stalls fill the primary school grounds in a wide circle, offering authentic Thai food, face-painting, lovely vintage cakes and jams by the equally lovely and vintage ladies of the historical society, the sausage sizzle, lucky dip, and the notoriously contentious meat raffle. A kid dressed in complete pirate costume hurls past me, swinging her full sized plastic sword and ‘aaarhging’ enthusiastically. I wonder whether I’ll spot any evidence that cow poo lotto – the fundraising genius of farming towns – made it this year?
As temperatures soar, the adoreably entrepreneurial kids from the blue weatherboard house set up shop. With wide gappy grins, a wobbly fold-out table and cardboard signs reading ‘HoMemADe LEmOnaED oNly 50c’, they’re sold out by midday. Dogs bark at the violins as they chase circles around one another. Kids chase the dogs. Parents keep one watchful eye on the kids as they flip through the program.
Rival impromptu bands materialise on opposite street corners of the pub and the café. Musicians perch on hay bales wrapped in dusty twine, or tattered instrument cases. Clutching a ukulele, I ask if anyone knows what the tune is. “C…F…G” a double bass player mouths widely at me, while the guy on the bright yellow plastic trombone (a ‘p-bone’ he later clarifies) gives me an encouraging eyebrow nudge to join in. The sound and tempo morphs along with the mood of the day and late into the night, as a parade of harps, guitars, harmonicas, fiddles and accordions join the fray.
After three solid days of performances and workshops at each of the festival's eight venues, everyone is exhausted. The festival might be small but it packs a lot of punch. Having never committed to a genre, each year is sufficiently different from the last to leave you wondering, and there are always surprises. It can also be a bit hit-and-miss, but it's alwaysgreat to see local and fledgling acts on the program too.
The sun beats down on us as we wedge our things into the boot, wave goodbye to the parents, and kick up a cloud of dust in their driveway on the way out. Settling into the journey, I smile at the irony of our need to return to the city for a rest. By the looks on everyone’s happy but weary faces on the way out of town, the festival has worked its magic. I imagine that after all the tents are packed away, trucks are loaded and flags rolled up, little Newstead will happily return to its normal slumber, until next year.
1. Half an hour of the intensely poetic music of young Werribee lad Jack Gramski (‘like Bob Dylan, but he can sing’), who I predict will be cramming venues as his intense but charming steam-punk brand of folk develops. Oh and here's a video I took of 'The Jack Gramski theme song'.
2. A blues guitar workshop in my mum’s art studio by humble master Nick Charles who quashed the reputation of the capo as a musicians tool of shame and demystified what he called the ‘black forest’ of the upper fretboard, making the jump from ukulele to guitar seem not so scary after all.
3. Stumbling on the incredibly versatile, melodic and personal tunes and tales of Tassie girl Monique Brumby, who is a total charm.