Mullumbimby Music Festival, November 17-20 by Nada van Kempen

Photo: Nada van Kempen

On the Friday night of the 2016 Mullumbimby Music Festival, Matt Andersen, the blues man with the power of coal miner and the softness of a mouse, said “We’re telling stories all weekend so you may as well know some about me.” Encompassing the essence of the Mullum Music Festival, Andersen kicked things off like an old friend telling tales into the sunset.

The sun was shining on the small town of Mullumbimby for the 9th annual Mullum Music Festival. Over the course of 3 days (and 4 nights including the opening night variety show), the small town on the Northern NSW Coast became a vibrant hub of activity.

Instead of an expansive piece of land with tents and bars, the Mullum Music Festival runs wild in the streets and uses already existing venues – the town itself becomes the festival site. The Bowlo, the High School, and the Civic Hall, to name a few, become a musical home-away-from-home for artists from all around the world, taking on the small stages and large crowds. And the crowds were large – the Saturday of the festival sold out, and the New Orleans style Street Parade on the Sunday had the road and footpaths overflowing with everything from swinging jazz to 80s dance flash mobs.

With everything in walking distance across a few streets, it seems that the formula for this festival is just right – small town, plenty of venues, community spirit, and good music to boot.

Across the three days, there was more music and dancing than you could shake a stick at. From almost every genre, there were soulful sounds from right here in our own Aussie backyard, and across the globe.

Genre wise, it’s a mixed bag with something for everyone. There’s a strong focus on Australian and indie music, along with folk and world music, but this year the sound of Americana crept into the program and onto the stage. The Wilson Pickers brought their country swing and banjo picking to the Village Vanguard with their upbeat and infectious track Pulled Apart By Horses winning the crowd over, and headliner Eilen Jewell embodied western crooner swing. Jewell swung her audience around with tracks like High Shelf Booze, but still managed to bring a rocking room to a gentle sway with the cruisy Santa Fe.

Madeline Leman and The Desert Swells were a welcome discovery, and despite their young age, fit the old country sound like a well-worn, comfortable boot. Acknowledging their idols with a nod to Eilen Jewell, the country quartet told tales from their EP Tennessee Diamond and frontwoman Leman charmed with her vocals and storytelling ability.

The women of the festival brought humour and energy to the stage and the streets, and Festival Patron Suzannah Espie hammered this message home. During her set, she brought up performers from across the festivals bill, all women (Cara Robinson, Clare Reynolds, Sal Kimber to name a few…), to harmonise and collectively break hearts. Empowerment and strength graced the line-up with artists like Sahara Beck, Nattali Rize, Julien Baker, and Liz Stringer rocking the Mullum stages.

Community spirit also took centre stage festival, proving why a formula like this for a music festival just works. Tullara, exceptional guitarist and singer songwriter, had her skills on display when a broken string almost stopped the show. There was no spare in sight – until audience member Matthew ran out to his car and grabbed his guitar for her. And the show went on. This small act of kindness from Matthew not only earnt a roomful of applause, but was the tip of the iceberg of what community means to a festival like this.

The famous rainbow Mullum Magic Bus did the rounds blaring disco hits and dropping punters between venues, kids were wandering and dancing in the street, community spirit was strong, and everyone was your friend. And the musicians were strolling around and having beers with the rest of us. The music rolled into the streets with buskers on each corner, barefoot beauties dancing into the night, and a market place with food and resident circus performers gave a place of rest for the weary punter.

But the music is hard to fault. A solo stand out was Tash Sultana. The 21-year-old multi-instrumentalist literally threw herself into her set, launching between multiple microphones, drum-pads, synths and guitars – and she has to. The huge sound that is becoming synonymous to Tash Sultana comes out of a one-woman show. If you closed your eyes you’d be forgiven for believing there was a full band, or at least another supporting guitarist and drummer – but no, it’s all her and a well-played loop.

Liz Stringer brought the essence of quintessential Australiana to Mullum. Singing of unrequited love with her 4-piece band, Stringer showed off her guitar chops at the same time.

A part of this year’s festival was the Play Mullum Song Writing Competition judged by the Rhythms Magazine Team. Entrants were asked to give their best break up song and local man Matt Henry took out the prize for his song ‘The Best That They Could Do’. Winning a set at the Mullum Music Festival on the Sunday afternoon, Henry played his winning song, among others, with raw emotion to an intimate crowd.

Another festival highlight was Yirrmal, a young Yolngu singer songwriter and guitarist, who left his audiences in awe and brought the feeling of connection to country to both his sets. Hailing from the Yirrkala community in North East Arnhem Land, Yirrmal’s upbeat rocking was perfectly mixed with solemn and spiritual moments. The title track off his EP Youngblood told the story of carrying his culture with him, while The Bridge, a song about acceptance and closing the gap, brought every single person in the room to a standstill.

As I said, there was something for everyone. Lior had the audience in the palm of his hands, and Henry Wagons had everyone rocking and rolling to Springsteen’s State Trooper. At one point, we lost him into the dancing crowd – the fun was just too good to miss. Festival favourites Hat Fitz & Cara charmed with their banter and blues, and The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer stomped and wailed their way into the night.

There were workshops, comedians, circus acts, and a street parade. This is so much more than just a music festival, but the artist lineup was stellar.

But most of all, the community spirit around this well-oiled machine of a festival was warm and welcoming. With its small-town vibe but big-town sound, you’ll see your favourite acts on stage and then you’ll see them sitting in the crowd enjoying the next set. That’s the beauty of a festival like this. Artists and punters alike are here for the love of music and to support small country towns.

There’s something about the town of Mullumbimby that makes this festival fit like a glove. Maybe it reminds people of their hometowns, maybe it is their hometown, or maybe it’s creating the little musical hometown that they never had – whatever it is, it brings people together for the love of music and community. And you can’t go wrong with that.