The Living Tradition
Chip 5 Down Under
- by Sam Thomas Issue 31 February/March '99
As part of the Chips' current touring projects, the "stripey trouser crew" set up a tour of the Australian festivals in March/April 1998 helped by Australian act, The Sensitive New Aged Cow Persons and Mara! Music, to promote their music and madcap entertainment; the idea behind the tour was to concentrate on the "English traditional" side, as a follow up to the Chipolata 3 touring Oz in '96 performing at children's, street and folk events.
The notion of having two summers a year is an idyllic one ... but to achieve it requires a great deal of work; late night 'phone calls, long faxes and ansaphone messages. Granted, from now on, e-mail and new communication technology will make things a damn sight easier ... but anyway the gigs eventually fell into place and an eight week tour was set up to perform at a selection of universities, community festivals, folk and arts programmes all over Oz, in addition to a seven day stint at the Royal Easter Show on the new Olympic site in Sydney ... aaarrgh!!
The project was a complete success. The five man show is presented, rather than a street act, as a band on stage, complete with mics, monitors, sound checks, etc. We pump out a selection of up-tempo folk tunes, theatrical routines, the odd good time song funked up ... all high energy. It's like a '90s vaudeville. As the Chips come from a performance background, we make the most of the stage and aim to grab hold of people and take them with us. The energy with which the band performs infuses the music as well. It's about irresistible enjoyment. We look like we are having such a great time that the feeling spreads from the stage onto the faces of those spectating. Well, we all love to party. This is what makes the thing so popular, the blatant celebration and the vibe is created from the first few notes played on the melodeon. No-one knows what to expect (... trying to explain it to promoters is ridiculous!) but five minutes into the show, everybody loves it - entertainment in its truest form. Here are these English traditional tunes, played with a passion and style that is not commonly associated with an Englishman's reputation. Surely this is the idea ... to take tunes and do with them what you will, to be true custodians of an evolving traditional form ... the ambassadors of folk funk; fiddle 'n' box and live drum 'n' bass. That's about what it sounds like.
Australia has a very laid back culture, the climate and space makes that so. It's an amazing diverse and beautiful place, the size of the country is mind boggling - so few people in such a big place. The Oz audience lapped it up tossed aside their stubbies, postponed the beach, put their barbies out and got on down and, what I can't stress enough, is the reaction to the music. OK, in our favour, there are ex-pat communities dotted around all over the country, we are an international act coming from the motherland ... and of course everyone speaks English.
Anyway where did us folkateers get to on our "Oz we like it tour" '98? I will choose the highlights of the tour (as you don't particularly want to hear about the midweek gigs on college campus in direct sunlight playing to a handful of disinterested students, or the day when we turned up at the Opera House, Sydney for the festival of cultures and it was cancelled due to rain!)
I'll begin at Port Fairy Music Festival, Western Victoria - a well respected, well run, high profile international occasion in folk music terms. Most appearances take place in a 1,000 capacity marquee and each act has a 30-45 minute slot. This creates a showcase feel and a panic for performers and technicians alike. It's not enough time to get to know your audience - we'd introduce ourselves, everyone getting into it, and then it'd be time to go.
The general feel is sanitized, and speaking to Jamie McKew, organiser, the festival has reached static point as regards new audiences because the same people book their ticket from one year to the next, so the audience is just getting older. No worries financially, but with its own special problems. What is beginning to happen is that the festival in the town has much more life and colour than the one people have paid for - the unofficial festival outweighs the official one ... this is something they are trying to address.
Port Fairy Festival is also the festival of the "folk chair" (a camping style folding chair with short legs), ideal for watching your favourite folk act. There are literally thousands of folkies walking around with them tucked under their arms. This puts a bit of a damper on wild frenzied dancing! It is now our dream to build a massive sculpture in the centre of this festival site comprising gnarled and mangled folk chairs, with signs above the entrance foreboding "NO FOLK CHAIRS ALLOWED".
Despite all that it was a top weekend. The best gig we did was in the kids' tent where we whipped the kids into such a frenzy that we had a junior mosh pit at the front of the stage. Wicked. We were well presented on the British front, with Anam, Rory McLeod and The House Band all playing over the weekend, but there was little space for sessions which always creates a funny vibe. The festival looks after the artiste well but there a few things that could do with being left to spontaneously happen rather than everything being part of a schedule.
After the drive back from Port Fairy, we hung loose in Melbourne. All along the Great Ocean Road, totally amazing. Scenery that changes every ten minutes. One minutes it's like Cornwall, the next Canada, semi-tropical at times, then sweeping valleys and cliffs, all accompanied by the raging, frothing southern ocean. Melbourne rocks! It's a town with a real feel, and not too much attitude. The areas of Fitzroy and Collingwood are made up of small long houses (shotgun-style like New Orleans) and the thing to do is cruise down Brunswick St or Smith St (running parallel), grab a coffee and see what's happening. You can stay for hours. That's the deal, everyone is doing it. Street performers, musos, DJs, artistes both traditional and techno make up the melting pot that is Melbourne.
A trip in a van to Sydney from Melbourne takes at least eleven hours and that's always a time to get to know your band members really well. Thank God for the air conditioner (pronounced "egg nish na"). The fact that there is a whole load of space in Oz and relatively few people means there aren't as many festivals for a start ... So they're thinly spread and that means lots of travelling!
Sydney, in comparison to Melbourne, is glitzy, fast, big, camp, loud and more full of shit! It's a difficult place to find accommodation but is where a lot of the gigs are. The general feel is faster which is fine if you're ready for it. We played at the Rocks, a posh market, where they have a noise regulator (so not to upset the shop owners and the business community) and as I mentioned before we tried to play outside the Opera House on the one day it rained! The place is great, don't get me wrong, it's just that it's a big city vibe. There's a lot of time spent in traffic jams, mobile 'phones; accommodation is expensive and hard to find. The city is immersed in pre-millennium, pre-Olympic hype. Take us to the country, let us feel the grass between our toes.
Jamberoo Folk Festival, NSW. Two and a half hours drive south of Sydney. Great little festival (very similar in feel to Dartmoor), not quite stages made out of tractor trailers but very nearly ... The pace was slow and the acts were local apart from ourselves and Anam. It was cute! We did more than we were asked to do which is always a sign we are having a good time.
One thing Oz has which is missing from the English folk scene is a wine bar venue. This is were the best gigs take place ... relaxed, informal, a really good idea. On the Saturday night of Jamberoo, we turned this civilized intimate performance space into a sweaty mass of tanned folkies dancing as badly as they could muster. Who would have thought that a respectable English country dance band like Three Around Three could evoke such Bacchanalian images, such Latin passion, eh eh! Famous for a day in Jamberoo. Rural fame is the only fame in my book. They know what they like in the country and that suits us.
Back to the city, Sydney and all its traffic, for the next two weeks. We stayed with James Fagan, Nancy Kerr and the Fagan family whose hospitality was overwhelming. Then a quick trip to Byron Bay for a Wednesday night gig at the Great Northern Hotel. "The Backroom" was possibly our favourite venue in Oz. Byron is a growing tourist destination at the foot of Mount Warning in the groovy Northern rivers area. Hippy central; a new ager's dream. Byron comprises slick, slinky clothes shops, top eateries, tans, shades, smoothies, sea, and sun and of course, surfers. The Chip 5 acclimatised nicely, and took a few days well earned rest before returning to the real world ...
... which was a seven day contract, two shows per day at the Royal Easter Show, the largest commercial event we have ever played and the biggest one in Australia. Thousands upon thousands of whining families, traipsing around looking at cattle and seeing who has the biggest pumpkin. A very surreal experience altogether. We went down very well. In that sort of situation, I think our genuine honest approach is out best asset. We appeal to people because, in amongst the marketing and advertising, the Chipolatas jump around, playing their happy music. It's real and live. This is comforting to think that on the verge of cyber communication there is still no substitute for the minstrels, magicians, and musicians of this world. Let's hear it for live entertainment!
Gagging for the bosom of the folk world, we hit the National Festival in Canberra. The whole festival takes place in the Canberra Showground; the venues vary between marquees and aircraft hangars (exhibition halls) and the standard of catering is superb. Argentinian, Asian and Australian cuisine are featured plus the famous Juice and Jaffle bar, pedal powered juicers. Far out!
There is a huge session bar where there are constantly no less than ten different sessions happening simultaneously. There is a well presented programme of events and workshops, with a true family vibe, and not in a naff way. The atmosphere is excellent. Australian kids possess a sense of space that is related to their environment. The generations co-exist well at this festival because the programming is good (and well thought out).
Our shows were huge. We played some concert spots that turned into dance parties, and the biggest ceilidh we have ever experienced; over 1,200 people stripping the willow to a Chipolata big band - a sea of bobbing heads. It looked great from the stage. When we played the wine bar we created a dust cloud from folk dancing hard on Canberra dirt and all this was down to an undercurrent of teenage energy, similar to our recent blooming on the folkscene. Loads of young people fully into it. The weekend ended with a huge farewell concert encompassing Koori (Aboriginal) performances, choirs, Rory McLeod, climaxing in a song or two from our very own Roy Bailey. The Chip 5 played a thirty-minute set to end the first half, and then we had a stage invasion. Yes! forty to fifty 14-17 year olds jumped onto the stage and started leaping about obscuring the other two thousand seated audience. A stage security situation. Folk hysteria! Well, at least it's traditional.
To cut a long weekend short, we had a belting good time in Canberra (of all places). Canberra is a purpose built capital, very much like Milton Keynes in architectural appearance and it is not a place renowned for the craic, but despite all that, the National Folk Festival did us proud.
We go west now, like brave young men into a new frontier land. The west (WA) is different - Perth, its capital, is tall and shiny, clean and sparkly, and taking into consideration that it is the most isolated city in the world, it doesn't feel like it. People are less stressed out than in the east (if that's possible). There's even more space, even less people. This means that you can penetrate a scene much easier. With only three million in the whole of WA, which is as many as there are in Derby or Heathrow in one day, there are not enough people around to create competition. We played Fairbridge Festival in Pinjarra, one and a half hours south of Perth.
The site is a purpose-built village for orphaned children of the First World War. Basic houses, dormitory-style accommodation, marquees erected around the site and like the National, everything in one site. Again there is a family vibe. They are recovering brilliantly from huge losses from previous years. So it's in a tricky place between a laid-back "no dramas" approach and a quite tightly organised feel. More importantly, this is the site where a Koori massacre took place. As part of the opening ceremony the local Elder spoke of looking forward, reconciliation being the keyword.
This size of festival is ideal for the Chips as it is family orientated and you begin to see the same faces at each show. This keeps us on our toes as you can't tell the same joke over and over again! Especially to children, as they are the most honest audience wherever you are in the world. Versatility is also in our favour at this type of event as we switch between late night dance sessions to full colour street shows within the space of a weekend.
Western Australia is a very special place. People have moved here for a better life but because it is so far away from anywhere it doesn't have a multitude of events, so when something good happens, everybody is into it. I would compare it to the Shetland Islands in regard to the positive attitude people have towards making something happen.
Our last weekend of the tour was possibly the most intense, and therefore the most enjoyable. After a relaxing week spent chilling out in the Margaret River, and recording some tunes for Tristan and John Reed's recording project, we hit the road for Albany. We played a Friday night gig in a pub (after the six hour drive from Fremantle) to meet Don the promoter and a few of his friends, the barman, some of our friends, a smiley middle aged couple and the soundman. We played at the Earl of Spencer earlier in the tour with 'the Sensitives'. Don was very keen to have us back with the Chip 5 and did us a huge favour by giving us a last minute gig. He had another band previously booked so gave us an alternative venue. Don deserves a medal!
Saturday: off to Denmark (the town not the country). Hippy Central again ... "they'll love you there mate" .. and they did. From the fluorescent tube lighting of an Albany pub to the tipees and lanterns of Denmark's Tree Walk Festival. This event has been running for the past ten years. It began when a group of people walked from Perth to Denmark (300 miles) in protest at the felling of native trees in the South West. Basically there is a party when everyone arrives - a cosmic time was had by all. Anyone who has ever wished they grew up in the '60s and '70s should come to Denmark. It has taken over from Fremantle in being the new age capital of SW Australia. Sunday 7am, we leave Denmark having had little to no sleep. First gig of the day, Fremantle Arts Centre, a Sunday afternoon family concert. We arrived to a full capacity audience, lots of families with picnics and snacks shaded from the sun ready to be entertained.
Jasper had a number five shaved in the back of his head for the tour and not only did an entire family turn up in full Chips costume but the sons had shaved the numbers 5 and 4 1/2 on their scalps. Now that's dedication for you. This gig was a farewell to our very supportive family crowd of WA who were all begging for us to come back soon.
Slightly frayed around the edges, the Chips took a few hours that afternoon to recharge their batteries. Some went swimming, some slept, some schloped off to prepare for the final performance. The Final Fry Up at the Fly By Night Club in Freo. This gig was a test for us. We promoted it ourselves, something we have never done in England, so the pressure was on. The doors opened at 8pm and, to cut a long story short, there were 440 paying punters through the doors of the 500 capacity venue. Wicked! We supplied a complete evening's entertainment. Starting off with Tristan (melodeon), John Reed from the Cowpersons (cittern), Peter Grayling (cello), Jock and Eliza (fiddle) on a mellow tunes set followed by Eliza doing solo stuff and some Chips cabaret routines. There was also a special guest appearance by the Sensitive New Age Cowpersons which brought the house down. The audience loved it and at some points you could hear a pin drop. We had them eating out of our hands.
The final scene was of a sweat covered crowd, red faced Chipolatas, exhausted and so excited at the same time. A few thank yous were said and the energy flowing between the audience and us was equal to that between us and the audience. The more you give us the more we'll give you. That was the deal and the deal went down and it went down well.
Watch us make you feel good!
The Chipolatas will be returning to Oz in Dec '99.
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