For those who have a keen interest in folk music and its traditions in Dunedin, Whare Flat Folk Festival has become an institution. Although Jo and I have been playing our own brand of country folk for a few years now, with family and other musical commitments over previous new years we had not yet had a chance to attend the festival. Now in it’s 43rd year running, 2017/18 would be our first and what an introduction it was!
Whare Flat Folk Festival is situated twenty minutes out of Dunedin, nestled in the Silver Stream Valley at Waiora Scout Camp. It is surrounded by native forest, the sounds of running streams and birdsong make it an ideal place to relax, switch off and enjoy the sharing of music. We arrived at about 3pm on the afternoon of December the 30th. Our vehicle full to the brim with camping equipment, food, drink supplies and most importantly - musical instruments. Upon our arrival we soon discovered why it was such a good idea to get in early to obtain a good spot for camping. The sites were already filling up quickly with enthusiastic regular attendees. It did not take long for us to hear the sounds of banjos, double basses, guitars and mandolins filling the air.
After setting up camp and exploring our surroundings it was time for dinner. At Whare Flat dinner is served in the Scout hall where punters and artists get a chance to break the ice and mingle while waiting in the queue for food. The atmosphere was welcoming and friendly looking about the hall, with many familiar faces and many new.
At 8pm it was time for the welcoming performance in the Marquee. Folk Club regulars played to a spellbound audience. (One thing in particular I enjoy about the the folk club audience is the engaged listening). By this time most of the friends we had invited to the festival had arrived and together we were enjoying the music and a few quiet beverages.
I had been told that usually after the evening concerts there would be jams (sessions) aplenty around the campsites. Knowing this I ventured away from our dwellings and came upon a song circle happening in the Scout Hall. As soon as I walked in the door I heard the voice of Mr Hyram Ballard say, “Come on in, Jared. Grab a seat and get that guitar out”. There were roughly ten musicians sitting in a circle, sharing songs and joining in on each others compositions. We played for about two hours. It was infectious. About an hour in, Jo and her younger sister, Jess, who came down from Hamilton to join in the shenanigans, walked into the hall to see what was going on and lent their own songs and voices to the mix. We were having the best time and it was still only the first night. We felt we were off to a pretty good start to say the least.
We woke the next day to light rain which did not dampen anyone's mood in the slightest. We ate breakfast, drank coffee and got stuck in. Artists not only performed at the festival, they presented workshops. There were three sites to choose from, the marquee hosting concerts, the Scout hall housed workshops as did the Troop den. Knowing this we checked the program given out upon arrival to see what events were happening throughout the day. We settled on attending an Old Time music workshop given by the Pigface Family Stringband. Flora Knight, Sean Donald, Kat Mear and Aaron Searcy all enthusiastically engaged their audience and taught us a great deal about how musicians interact in the frames of Old Time vs Bluegrass music. Bringing your own instruments was encouraged and the workshop concluded with both the band and the audience gathering into a tight circle to play a few tunes much to the enjoyment apparent on everyone's faces.
We then ventured down to the marquee to see a performance given by an old friend of ours, Grim Fawkner. Grim’s show was one of the many highlights of the festival for me. His songwriting, stage presence and humour were all spot on. He even ventured out into the crowd, walking from one end of the marquee to the other with the audience hanging on his every word. He finished his set with a tear-jerking ballad that had an obviously moving affect on his audience. We headed back to headquarters (our campsite) to get spruced up for the night. The rain had stopped and we all wanted to look our best for the Barn Dance that night.
As I had stupidly injured my knee on the first day, I did not engage in the dance. It looked like a LOT of fun. The barn dance or, new years eve ceilidh, has been part of Whare Flat tradition for 40 years or so. Groups such as Catgut and Steel, The Dunedin Scottish Fiddle Orchestra and the Pigface Family String Band provided the stellar soundtrack. The barn dance lasts for around four hours and those in attendance showed little to no signs of fatigue. When the clock reached midnight we welcomed in 2018. It was then time for me to take the stage with Tahu and the Takahes.
We played for about two hours or so and had an absolute blast. It was one of the most foot stomping, sweaty, enjoyable sets I’ve played with the band. Tahu MacKenzie whipped the audience up into a frenzy. I could not think of a better way to spend a new years eve. Needless to say, after our show I was exhausted, so I went to bed. It was when I finally put my head down that I began to hear some familiar songs off in the distance coming from near the Scout hall. It was Jo. She and Jess were not tuckered out like me, so they had decided to go and join in on a session. I could hear Jo’s song “Baby back home” coming through the air with horns, keyboards and wonderful harmonies. It was a great way to end the night.
New years day, 2018 was sunny and hot. It was also the day Jo and I were due to perform in the marquee. We enjoyed some lunch and laughs with our companions and prepared to take the stage. We were tuning up backstage when Mike Moroney of The Chaps and Catgut and Steel stopped by. I was tuning up my electric guitar and began thinking of the Bob Dylan Newport Folk Festival incident of 1965. I looked up to see Mike watching me. I said, joking “Is this ok?” Looking at my guitar. We both chuckled. The times had indeed a changed. We played an enjoyable set to an equally receptive audience. Afterwards we thought it would be a good idea to cool ourselves off with a dip in the swimming hole.
That evenings jam after the variety concert was in the Honky Tonk Tent which was situated just outside the Scout hall. I took along my Dogbowl guitar and my companions and I had a great hoedown. There was a small P.A. set up for vocals as well as a small drum kit. The Pigface Family Band warmed the tent and then one by one people joined in either by dancing, singing or picking up an instrument. This was our third night at Whare Flat. Music. Music. Music. This brings me to the last day and final night of our amazing time at Whare Flat.
Tahu and the Takahes were set to play that afternoon and Jo and I were part of the panel for the songwriter's workshop alongside Bill Morris and Nadia Reid as well as perform in that nights variety concert. It was a busy and enjoyable day. The songwriter’s panel was a wonderful experience for us. We each shared a song and explained how we approached writing our songs. Hearing people such as Bill and Nadia discuss their songwriting was both inspirational and motivational. There were differing approaches to the craft but each were effective.
We had time to squeeze in a busking workshop given by Grim Fawkner. Although I was a bit gutted because I had to leave to set up with the Takahes at the Marquee. By all accounts, Grim was witty and engaging. With Tahu and the Takahes we played a slightly mellower set given the time of day and still managed to sweat up a storm. We exited the stage at 4:30 and by that point it was time for Nadia Reid to play for Whare Flat delivering, as always, a superb set to a packed Marquee. Nadia’s success as a performer and songwriter for me shows how far a musician can soar with the support, guidance and nurturing environment that the folk club and Whare Flat Festival can offer our local talents and how important they are to the rich fabric of Dunedin’s music.
The variety concert which followed was equally epic. A personal highlight for me was seeing The Chaps play. The Chaps consist of well known Dunedin musicians John Dodd on bass, Mike Moroney on guitar and mandolin, Hyram Ballard on guitar and Anna Bowen on fiddle. Apart from the virtuosic musicianship, the Chaps left us in fits of giggles with their hilariously witty stage banter.
Faith i Branko closed the festival with a truly awe inspiring set of Serbian Gypsy Jazz. At the end of their set Faith i Branko had the audience shouting out for more. They played two encores and closed Whare Flat Folk Festival in grand style. Although we were beginning to feel the effects of the last few days and fatigue was setting in, we were dead set on attending the final session in the Scout Hall.
We went back to our camp after the variety concert, armed ourselves with guitars and a couple of refreshments and entered the hall. We shared songs by Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, Neil Young, The Pogues, Richard Thompson, The Grateful Dead and many more. The highlight of this session was Mike Moroney playing a medley of The Beatles White Album (Wow!). One by one musicians succumbed to jammer's fatigue with sore fingers and heavy eyes. I spent the rest of the evening talking to Mr Moroney about the history of the festival, all the while feeling very lucky to have been a part of it. (Thank you, Mike).
The next day it was time to leave. We picked up our suitcases and packed up our tents (for those of you who know, sorry, I couldn’t help myself). Jo and I left feeling musically invigorated. We have played a few shows at the Dunedin Folk Club and for us this was even bigger. I don’t think either of us realised how vast the world of folk music is and how strong a presence it has in Dunedin. What I have rambled on about here is only the tip of the iceberg at Whare Flat. The musicians I have mentioned are the ones I managed to see and there were so many more. The sense of community and tradition was strong. The sound people, stage managers, cooks, kitchen hands, camp mothers and all those who had a hand in organising this event do an amazing job and Jo and I feel very lucky and humbled to have been a part of it.
If you are a music fan who has not been to Whare Flat Folk Festival you should do yourself a favour and go. We need more of this sort of thing, please.