LAST October I returned to the bush surrounds of Dashville for the first time since the pandemic for the socially-distanced concert series known as Sky Ball.
As I sat alone in the dark on a camping chair in my "party pen", it was impossible not to feel deflated. The acts Kim Churchill, Lachlan X. Morris, Eagle & The Wolf, and Dave Favours & The Roadside Ashes all delivered rousing sets, but the communal spirit was absent.
That intangible quality that makes music festivals such a joyous experience was absent. Thankfully that experience returned in abundance last weekend.
The Gum Ball was back, the grand daddy of Dashville's musical calendar. And what's more there was dancing and mingling and everything that makes The Gum Ball so unique compared to larger multi-day festivals such as Bluesfest.
Besides scanning a QR code on entry and bottles of hand sanitiser scattered around the arena, Gum Ball felt very 2019.
Besides scanning a QR code on entry and bottles of hand sanitiser scattered around the arena, Gum Ball felt very 2019. That almost utopian time when the most troublesome bug you could catch at a music festival was chlamydia.
The crowd of 1200 was well below the COVID-safe capacity, so punters had ample room to camp, stretch out on camping chairs and allow children to play at the skate half pipe and sand pit.
It was an eclectic crowd. Parents with children ranging from babies to teenagers featured heavily among retirees and 20-somethings. There were country bumpkins, hippies, inner-city hipsters and average Joes and Joannes - all appreciative to be enjoying live music again.
That appreciation was returned in spades from the stage. Almost every musician who addressed the mic expressed their relief to be back after a tortuous 2020.
Newcastle punks Jones The Cat had previously performed at the smaller Thrashville, and had no qualms about stepping onto the bigger stage on Friday afternoon.
The four-piece's modern take on '90s skate punk bands like Pennywise and Strung Out crunched in the right spots, especially on Bitter Prick and their cover of The Beastie Boys' Sabotage.
Lachlan X. Morris has long been one of Newcastle's most impressive young songwriters, but his live shows have improved considerably in past six months as his music has become more psych rock-influenced through his six-piece band, complete with flutist Jennifer Hankin.
For pure fragile beauty, night one belonged to Coda Chroma, the alias of Ballarat indie-pop artist Kate Lucas. Coda Chroma produces lush music made for submersion. Certainly many at Gum Ball fell deeply.
Americana band Los Ragas were solid but more suited to the alt-country crowd of Dashville Skyline.
The same couldn't be said for Melbourne country-rockers Cash Savage & The Last Drinks. Savage and her motely crew have twice played Dashville, but this was something different in terms of intensity.
Savage roamed the stage like ferocious cage fighter, splitting out the band's most hypnotic cuts like Rat-a-tat-tat and Good Citizens. What Savage's vocal lacked in finesse was superseded by pure emotion.
Such was the power of Cash Savage & The Last Drinks and the crowd's reaction, that it left headliner The Beautiful Girls with the difficult task of closing the night.
After the unhinged power of Savage, Mat McHugh's chilled brand of surf-rock felt bland and very 2005.
Overnight the rain started, and kept going and going. In fact, it drizzled non-stop across Saturday keeping Dashville wet and winterly.
There's was plenty of music to keep the brave souls entertained, led by an electrifying early-afternoon set from Kurri Kurri's Tori Forsyth.
Over the past two years Forsyth has cast off her gothic alt-country style to embrace a '90s rock sound. On May 21 Forsyth releases her second album Provlépseis and her set was dominated by her new material.
The single of All For You had the crowd dancing and the unreleased Shapeshifter with it's punky chorus of "you've gonna save yourself", is sure to become a live favourite.
On her knees belting it out into the microphone, Forsyth sounded and looked like a proper rock star.
Another highlight of Saturday afternoon was Melbourne band Cousin Tony's Brand New Firebird, who mixed new wave synth glam with indie rock tension.
As the clouds finally lifted and the sun set, Wiggles legend Murray Cook and his band The Soul Movers kept the party growing. They were followed by cabaret folk artist iOTA, who performed in pajamas, surrounded by candles and Peter Rabbit.
The energy peaked for rising Arnhem Land surf-rock band King Stingray, who are led by the descendants of Yothu Yindi. Frontman Yirrnga Yunupingu might have constantly complained about the cold, but this was a red-hot set. So much so the audience demanded a rare encore, but the band were out of songs.
Even delivered a typically professional and vintage rock'n'roll show. No wonder Paul Kelly and The Church have recruited Even frontman Ash Naylor for their touring bands, the man's guitar work was slick.
Emma Donovan & The Putbacks turned down the tone for a chilled set of soul, but the rock theatrics returned when Harts closed Saturday night with a set of Jimi Hendrix classics.
It featured a near note-perfection renditions of Hendrix's Voodoo Child, Purple Haze, Foxy Lady and Hey Joe. Harts' more delicate vocal did lack the gravitas of Hendrix, but his guitar playing was immaculate.
As everyone returned to their tents, Dashville chief Matt Johnston took the mic and thanked everyone for returning to Gum Ball. His earlier relief, had turned to euphoria. Music festivals were back. Amen to that.
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