Brunswick beat: Music festival ready to rip

There’ll be dancing in the street when the 25th Brunswick Music Festival fires up next month. Chris Hingston meets the men who got the party started

Inside the Retreat Hotel, Brunswick Music Festival founders Peter Leman, Dan Bourke and Dobe Newton pore over the program of acts they helped assemble in 1989. The Brunswick pub is an apt locale to reflect on that first festival – it served as a kind of spiritual home for the two-week event that celebrates its 25th year next month.  

It’s here that plans for a Brunswick Music Festival were hatched over cold pots of beer and, later, where countless festival acts performed.

What began as a weekend celebration of the inner-north’s burgeoning music scene has morphed into a musical extravaganza, boasting 28 shows over two weeks and becoming  a Brunswick institution. The annual Sydney Road Street Party, that kick-starts festivities, draws crowds of 50,000.

The original program – featuring Melbourne artists such as folk singer Judy Small and the Purple Dentists as well as international acts such as Tommy and Phil Emmanuel – might have faded, but the trio’s dedication to the event has not.

The festival had three directors in its inaugural year, all of them musos. There was Newton, part of Australian folk and country music act The Bushwackers, Bourke of the Purple Dentists – known as Melbourne’s first world-music band – and George Galiatsos of the Brunswick-forged Apodimi Compania. 

 From year one they struck upon the winning formula that’s still used today: a blend of local, national and international bands designed to spotlight Melbourne musicians and highlight the broad cultural mix of the greater-Brunswick community.

“We had a line-up in the first festival that would stand up today,” says Leman, who was the City of Brunswick’s community arts officer when the festival began and has stepped in as director of this year’s event after long-time director John McAuslan was sidelined by ill-health.

Absent from today’s gathering is Galiatsos, whose band left Brunswick to make it big in Greece. Apodimi Compania’s weekly sets at the Retreat in the late eighties are the stuff of local legend. The band would play rebetika – “the Greek blues” – as well as Greek folk and dance music to a room heaving with people and cigarette smoke. “It was magic, a great venue full of larger-than-life characters – everyone wanted to go and play there,” says Leman, who in a roundabout way introduced the band to the Retreat, after they recorded an LP as part of the council’s Brunswick Recordings program and needed a venue to launch it. 

Leman says the Brunswick Music Festival piggy-backed off a number of council arts programs, such as the Music of Migration concert at Brunswick Town Hall, that launched in the mid-1980s and helped foster the live music scene. 

“People began to identify Brunswick as a place for music and performance,’’ he says. ‘‘We were developing a very strong community of musicians from all different cultural backgrounds and musical styles. By 1988 there was such a diversity of music being made in Brunswick the idea of a festival became almost inevitable.” 

Galiatsos, speaking from Athens, also remembers the thriving music scene. He says while Apodimi Compania had its Retreat residency, a few blocks away other bands were also finding an audience. “There was not just Greek music, there was Lebanese music, there was music from all over.”  

Although his band shifted to Greece in the mid-’90s, Galiatsos and Co have travelled back repeatedly for the festival. “We have this almost silent agreement, to come back and play at the festival,” Galiatsos says. “It’s more or less like coming home.”

This will be a bittersweet festival for the band. It is their first time back since the death of long-standing member and multi-instrumentalist Hector Cosmas. The 25th festival will host the first annual Hector Cosmas Memorial Concert. Galiatsos says that Cosmas’ death was a big loss, but the concert will be dedicated to Greek music and ensuring the cultural connection between Brunswick and Greece remains part of future festivals.

Dobe Newton, whose band The Bushwackers regularly played around the inner north in the ’80s, says it was “probably brave” of the local council – then the City of Brunswick – to ever agree to fund the festival. The City of Brunswick’s successor, the City of Moreland, is still a major sponsor. 

“We were always conscious that we were spending ratepayers’ money,” says Newton. “At the end of the first festival, when we were pretty exhausted and really happy, it was a highlight just to realise we hadn’t lost any money … and that they wanted us to do another one.”

Newton believes one of the reasons the festival continues to thrive is that while it has grown, it has never lost its heart. “We wanted it to be a true representation of what’s happening in the community,” he says. “It’s a community festival at heart, if it loses that it becomes just another event.” 

The festival, like Brunswick itself, continues to evolve. Some venues like the Retreat and Mechanics Institute are constants, other stalwarts like the East Brunswick Club have closed – ready for development. 

Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Lucy Wise, 22, is looking forward to playing at the Spotted Mallard on Sydney Road – a new venue for the festival. “It’s got those wooden floors, that cabaret-style seating … the atmosphere is going to be really great,” she says.

It’s Wise’s second festival, and the first full gig in Melbourne with her band the B’Gollies this year. Wise says loves how the festival pairs local artists with international acts. “It helps to start conversations between artists that can lead to all these different opportunities.”

In 2011 she shared a bill with US bluesgrass band Crooked Still and this year she will play with English folk singer songwriter Seth Lakeman. “It’s a real pleasure to be part of this year’s 25th festival,’’ she beams. ‘‘It’s really a celebration of all the world-class music the festival has been bringing to Melbourne.” 

That Wise is using crowd-funding website Pozible, where fans can donate online to help fund her second album, shows how the industry has changed since Apodimi Compania committed its sound to vinyl in the 1980s. 

Many of the names from the festival’s first program have returned for the 25th; the Purple Dentists are reforming, Irish folk musician Andy Irvine will return, and Australian folk star Judy Small will play again. Small’s role with the festival has grown over the years; she is now chair of Performing Arts Moreland – the not-for-profit organisation set up by the council to manage the festival. 

In 1989 Small had just re-located to Melbourne when she played the Mechanics Institute at the first festival. She can’t recall the songs she covered on the set-list, but the festival certainly made an impression. “It was very hot ... and it was great.” 

She became a festival mainstay and this year will return after a year’s hiatus from playing live. Instead of the Mechanics Institute, she will step onstage at the Brunswick Uniting Church where she will be accompanied by the Brunswick Women’s Choir. “I’m really looking forward to it,” she says. ‘‘There is a little bit of nerves and excitement, I haven’t felt that in a while.’’

Planning the 25th festival has not been without the occasional hiccup, though – renovations meant the Brunswick Town Hall was off-limits this year and long-time director, John McAuslan’s illness saw Leman step in to run the show. But for Leman, such obstacles don’t detract from the festival’s milestone. “It grew from humble beginnings into a significant event. The fact that we’ve reached the 25th year and that we are such an established and well-known festival – that is a real highlight,” he says. 

His stint as director comes after a long and varied association with the festival, having taken on roles including street party stalls co-ordinator and festival website manager. Although he admits stepping in for McAuslan has been tough, he says it is nice to take a lead role in the silver anniversary year. In particular he’s looking forward to reuniting with the three original festival directors. “A beer at the Retreat is a very strong possibility.’’ 

FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

London Klezmer Quartet: The all-female band will bring the traditional sounds of Eastern Europe to Brunswick. The quartet share billing with Melbourne’s Klezmer-fusion act The Zaporozhets. The Spotted Mallard, March 23

Archie Roach: Archie Roach makes a triumphant return to the Brunswick Music Festival. The acclaimed Aboriginal singer-songwriter first joined the festival line-up in 1990, and is back to showcase his new LP Into the Bloodstream. Estonian House, March 17

Sydney Road Street Party: The famed street celebration may not be as old as the festival that spawned it, but it’s certainly as popular. Expect a diverse spectrum of music, roving live acts, food from around the globe and more than 100 stalls. Sydney Road, March 3

Andy Irvine and Paul Brady: The festival will climax with a duet between legendary Irish singer-songwriters Andy Irvine and Paul Brady. Irvine, a special guest of the first Brunswick Music Festival, and Brady, back in Australia for the first time since 2006, will each perform a solo set before taking to the stage together. Estonian House, March 24

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