Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Feature - A Tale Of Two Blues Festivals

Published in the Shortlist section of the Sydney Morning Herald (Friday 20).

As the Great Southern Blues Festival gears up for its return after a two year hiatus, rival event, the Sydney Blues & Roots Festival, could be under threat.

Australia is no stranger to the blues festival. The rawness of the music itself, the gathering together outdoors, the ready availability of booze, all combine to create something as natural to us as going to the beach, or kicking the footy.

As a result, we’re certainly not short of our fair share, particularly in the central NSW region, from just north of Sydney down to Narooma, some 350km south.

Running at various times of year you’ll find the Sydney Blues & Roots Festival in Windsor, the Great Southern Blues Festival in Narooma (this year back after a two year hiatus), the Australian Blues Festival in Goulburn, the Thredbo Blues Festival up on the mountain, and the Blue Mountains Music Festival in Katoomba.

It’s the Narooma and Sydney events however, which will be interesting to watch this year. Narooma began as a single-day event in 1996, gaining momentum until an ill-fated move up the road to Batemans Bay in 2009 stalled proceedings, causing the event to shut down two years later.

Sydney, which began in 2009, was able to take advantage of the gap in the market, and as co-director Gary Mannix says, they grew “from 1200 punters in 2009, to approximately 4500 over the weekend [in 2012].”

This year however, Narooma is back. It’s an event held in very high regard around the country, highlighted by the fact that, at time of writing, 80% of tickets have been sold. It’s here to take back its place in the market, and so the question is, can the fledgling Sydney event survive?

“As a promoter, you do worry that it’ll affect your bottom line,” admits Mannix on the GSBF’s return. “But I’m thrilled Narooma is back, I’ve been going for 14 years, and if it wasn’t so close to mine, I’d go this year to support it. As a promoter, it just makes you work a bit harder to put on a festival that rivals, or betters, Narooma.”

Mannix goes on to say that their ticket sales, as of the end of August, are in line with last year’s event, their biggest to date. This seems to suggest that there is indeed room for both these events, something echoed by John Durr, head of premier Australian blues label Black Market Music, whose artists regularly grace stages at both events.

“I think there [will be room for both], but you’ve got to find your own mojo,” he says. “If you love guitar and volume, Narooma is your gig. If you want something softer, a little more subtle, Thredbo is your gig. That’s why there’s room for everyone, but you’ve got to have the smarts.”

This could well be where the Sydney event could lose its footing – has it established enough mojo, enough of a niche in only five years, to survive the reemergence of one of the country’s oldest blues festivals? Particularly one aiming at the same demographic, hosting a number of the same artists, and running only three weeks prior?

“Our niche is as a destination event,” Mannix reasons, citing the carnival atmosphere in the Mall in 200-year-old Windsor. When lined up alongside the picturesque surrounds of Narooma, Katoomba and Thredbo though, does it really compare?

“I don’t think Sydney is a true destination event,” says GSBF director Neil Mumme, “but I take my hat off to them. Anybody who does a festival has got my support, because I know what goes into it.”

Mark Lizotte, better known as Diesel, will be playing the Sydney event this year, both in solo guise, and with harmonica legend Chris Wilson. As far as he’s concerned, Sydney as a city, needs the Sydney Blues Festival. “If we can’t have a blues festival that’s Sydney-based, it’s pretty sad really,” he says. “And I don’t think there are too many [festivals]…  there are just a lot of people who want to go and see some blues music.”

“Well, I think [Narooma is] more about the southern part of the state,” Lizotte then muses on whether Narooma coming back will affect the SBF, citing distance as something that’ll keep them separate. “And Sydney draws people from [the city] I would imagine… although I’ve not seen the stats, so it’s hard to comment. [But] there’s a community there… it’s got a heart and soul, and it’s easy to say there’s too much already, but people just want to see some blues, and it should be appreciated for that reason alone, I think.”

It remains to be seen then, whether both events can continue to thrive. As Mumme points out, “Come November, we’ll see how it all pans out.” Indeed. And in the meantime, the winners are the punters, and of course the musicians. For you can never have too many places to play and listen to the blues.

By Samuel J. Fell

Event Info:

Great Southern Blues Festival
October 4-6, Narooma
Artists: The Holmes Brothers (US), Russell Morris, Backsliders, Watermelon Slim (US), Popa Chubby (US), Fiona Boyes + more

Sydney Blues & Roots Festival
October 24-27, Windsor
Artists: Diesel & Chris Wilson, Russell Morris, Charlie Parr (US), Charlie A’Court (Can), Ash Grunwald + more

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