Meeniyan is a small town in south Gippsland about 150 km out of Melbourne, with little more than a gallery, a great wood fired pizza place, a jewellery store, hardware, a pub and an op shop. With a population of just over 1,000, and nestled between Foster and Leongatha, it’s an unlikely location as a hub for arts in the region. In recent years though the Lyrebird arts council has been responsible for bringing the likes of Martha Wainright, Calexico, Megan Washington and Bombino to the Meeniyan town hall, and in fact later this month they’re welcoming Kurt Vile. It’s great to see many of these international artists playing outside of capital cities, and having lived in Gippsland for a few years myself (admittedly 20 odd years ago) I remember the feeling of being starved for good music.
The Summer of Soul is their festival. In previous years it has boasted the likes of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Tim Rogers and the Bamboos, Paul Kelly and The Melbourne Ska Orchestra, all at Mossvale Park, just a left turn on the road between Leongatha and Mirboo North (yep where the Grand Ridge beer comes from). Mossvale Park is a picnic area, an oasis of greenery, surrounded by farms, blessed with large trees, green grass and a creek running through it. It’s difficult to think of a better place to experience live music.
With 37 degree heat, the shade was at a premium, yet so was the community spirit, as when we walked in with our esky stocked with fluids and fruit (its BYO alcohol if you want), someone caught us debating where to position ourselves, “go over there, there’s plenty of shade under that tree,” she offered, “and you can see the stage too.” It’s pretty much what this day is all about. It’s family friendly, people friendly – kids were running around having a great time playing in the spray from the local fire brigade’s hose or improvising in the free music tent, playing vibraphones and all kinds of percussion instruments. Everyone and everything was remarkably chilled out, I never heard a voice spoken in mild annoyance, much less anger.
The first four bands were female fronted, surely a festival record. Melbourne’s Motown inspired That Gold Street Sound managed coax out a few brave dancers into the piercing sun, tempted by the singers knee length gold boots and a particularly epic triangle solo. The singer from the seven piece Do Yo Thangs is a local Gippslander from Drouin, and their harmonic future soul has found a home on Hope St recordings. Curiously their video for their single One Plus One featured the killer moves of dancer Chuck, who was actually in attendance and pulling the same moves when they played, though admittedly he was also doing so for the rest of the day. Melbourne Rock and southern funky soul outfit The Sugarcanes also battled against the immense pounding heat, with a rousing set that boasted a killer Cindy Lauper ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ interlude.
GL, a synth pop duo featuring live drums and vocals could not exist if Madonna had not issued her self titled first album in 1983. Yet the drummer who plays tight like he’s been programmed contributes periodic breakbeats, and it’s a curious amalgam of influences that is initially jarring, given the band nature of previous sets, though quickly wins over the crowd who despite being blasted by solar ferocity decide they can only huddle in the shade for so long. The appropriately named The Meltdown offered brass heavy country soul, possibly the largest sound of the afternoon, a New Orleans tinged gospel throwdown, as the sun started to get low and the space in front of the stage became habitable.
Yet for this writer the day was all about Mali guitarist Vieux Farka Toure. Of course he is the son of Malian royalty, the great Niger delta bluesman Ali Farka Toure, yet he has forged his own musical path courtesy of his remarkable guitar playing that has seen him labelled ‘the Hendrix of the Sahara.’ Increasingly Farka Toure has westernised his desert blues sound. When he last played in Australia at Womadelaide in 2013, he was joined by slap bass and a bombastic rock drummer. This time it’s a trio, a more subdued American bass player and Malian percussionist playing both kit and the traditional calabash. His music felt designed for this heat, his remarkable blues licks wafting through the trees as he grinned happily and joked with the crowd. It was the most soulful performance of the day, possibly because it was such a cultural exchange – soul in another guise, demonstrating Farka Toure’s unique ability to bring together worlds in his music. Whilst he built up some momentum through his set, he purposely shattered it by playing a tune from his late father, a typically stark blues piece that was simply jaw dropping. He closed his eyes and sang to the spirits and it was emotional and affecting, highlighting not just the power of Ali’s music but the connection and loss that his son feels. There was barely a dry eye on my face. After this he sensed we wanted a release and offered a groove based upbeat number before waving goodbye.
But the damage was done. We left two songs into Cat Empire Felix Reibl’s band. We wanted to hold onto Vieux and Ali and knew nothing could come close.
Yet for a chilled out outdoor people friendly musical experience in a beautiful location, this festival, run entirely by volunteers, with the only beer for sale from Grand Ridge brewed just up the road, and local wineries represented it’s hard to surpass this soulful taste of South Gippsland.
Photos by Carla Martins