Festival for old and new folk

JK Hopper, who refers to himself as a "swagman of the bubble persuasion" will be at this weekend's National Folk Festival.
JK Hopper, who refers to himself as a "swagman of the bubble persuasion" will be at this weekend's National Folk Festival. Photo: Stuart Walmsley

Through almost half a century and several round trips of Australia, the National Folk Festival has been on just about every journey imaginable: literal, metaphorical, spiritual and - if the conditions are right - inter-dimensional.

And though it's had a permanent and cozy home at Exhibition Park in Canberra since 1992, the festival's restless nature still requires organising staff to become temporary nomads each year.

''We're at the BIBO stage, which is bump-in, bump-out,'' festival managing director Sebastian Flynn says. "One of the challenges is relocating - we have an office in Mitchell, so we have to migrate out of the office into Exhibition Park.

''Everyone works very, very hard for two weeks, where we live on-site in caravans and put in long hours.''

After a year of preparation, logistics and general administration, the festival is now in its intense countdown phase of getting everything in place and ready to go.

''As I speak to you now, I'm just in the Office of Regulatory Services picking up the alcohol licence, and there are many, many caveats on that, I can assure you, on secondary service of alcohol and under-age drinking,'' Flynn says.

Even the festival geography can't sit still, it seems, with Flynn and his team reconfiguring the layout to face down Flemington Road, which means that intimate stages such as the Majestic are drawn in closer to the festival's epicentre.

''What we believe we're doing is getting more interplay, so there's a sense that younger people are getting to appreciate the music of the more seasoned folk players, and vice versa,'' Flynn says.

Additionally, the reconfiguration means there's no need for a late-night curfew to keep the residents of Watson happy.

''People buy a ticket once a year for a four-day, five-night event, so they really want to be able to kind of burn the candle at both ends and party into the early hours,'' Flynn says. ''So now that we're heading in that direction, we're able to do that.''

Given its ever-widening popularity and attendance figures, it's for the best that the event has been allowed some room to move after-hours.

''I think the term 'folk' has become a much broader catch-all nowadays, there's not such a sense of a need to adhere rigorously to a particular tradition - although it's great to be able to interpret a tradition,'' Flynn says. ''I think young people are carving their own niche now, and that's what we're trying to take advantage of, and offer them some kind of a place to do that.''

By the same token, Flynn says the event continues to attract ''a very long-standing core group of people'' who have followed the festival since its earliest days.

''There's no pulling the wool over their eyes, you have to deliver a program that really caters to that traditional appeal, as well as catering to a younger audience and, in particular, a broader audience,'' he says.

To that end, the 2013 line-up features some 20 international performers, alongside scores more acts that have been sourced from around the country.

In light of the city's birthday celebrations, artists from the Canberra region will be afforded a heavy share of the spotlight this year, with centenary director Robyn Archer set to put in a performance of her own.

''Robyn Archer will be doing an address from the Budawang, and she'll play a little ukulele cameo, which is her usual style - and she'll then introduce this young group called Ukes of Today,'' Flynn says. ''So that's a great accolade for a bunch of young guys who are barely out of primary school, to be up on the main stage of the festival.''

The festival has also managed to book a number of international artists it has sought for many years.

''For example Paul Brady, who has been in many line-ups of well-known traditional Irish groups, who went on to become a very successful contemporary songwriter in his own right … some really great headline artists we've been looking to secure for a number of years, we're feeling really good about that,'' Flynn says.

Some festival favourites are also making their return this year, such as Melbourne duo the April Maze, and British purveyors of traditional Jewish music, the London Klezmer Quartet.

The group has been invited back by popular demand after a wonderful reception in 2012, which violinist Ilana Cravitz says has made the quartet ''quite surprised and extraordinarily pleased''.

''It was a really great, really folky festival - there was a lot of dancing, a lot of jamming, there were loads of opportunities to play with other people and really share tunes, share the experience,'' Cravitz says.

According to the official timetable, the London Klezmer Quartet will be performing once a day during the festival, and will also host a workshop.

''You come across people, you make new friends, you hang out - this year, we're going to be playing with Ernie Gruner … so we're looking forward to doing a half-hour slot with him on one of the stages,'' Cravitz says. ''I think it's a unique [festival], it really has its own flavour. We keep encountering people all over Australia who say, 'Oh, see you at the National.' It really has a very faithful following.''

The hands-on experience of the National Folk Festival means punters can just as easily become participants, Flynn says.

''Many festivals are about going and sitting back and maybe watching Bob Dylan or a time-honoured hero,'' he says. ''But our ethos is, people should be able to leave the festival as excited as when they arrived, and the prospect of going and furthering their own expression through having done a workshop or learned to play the guitar or the mandolin.''

While putting together the festival and stocking its line-up with fantastic acts is something Flynn enjoys, it's also a job that keeps him busy right through the long weekend.

''It is a nice feeling, but I suppose it's like one's own party - you never completely kick back,'' he says. ''There's a certain kind of vigilance required, and from that point of view, one has to be very aware of what's going on on many levels.

''But having said that, there's always an opportunity to maybe grab a few minutes here or there to maybe take in something of an artist that you've liked for many years.''

The National Folk Festival

WHEN: Thursday, March 28-Monday, April 1

WHERE: Exhibition Park in Canberra

TICKETS: At the gate

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