Wedged three hours North of Sydney, The Gum Ball festival has long been one of New South Wales’ lesser known additions to the festival calendar. With a line-up featuring the likes of The Vasco Era and CW Stoneking, this year’s was a festival set to be Gummy’s biggest yet.
I’m at a music festival cooking eggs and sipping the day’s first beer at camp. The esky I sit on is 100 metres from the festival’s only stage and despite the few days of rain leading into the event and the odd sprinkle sending a sizzle over my fry pan, the ground beneath my feet is entirely void of mud. How did this happen? How am I drinking my own beer, cooking my own eggs and watching Melbourne folk-country three-piece The Wildes from the same location?
I’m at The Gum Ball, a day and two nights of Australian music hidden within the depths of Belford National Park, about 30 k’s from Maitland, the northern neighbor of Newcastle. Their premise is simple; don’t force a music festival into a location that doesn’t work, have a music festival in a place that’s perfect for it. The specked rain falls right through the bluegum’s that litter the property and continues through the sandy soil, allowing a rainy Friday night with The Bamboos to leave dry ground for a chilled sit-down with Lanie Lane the next day – no wood chips required.
The line-up this time around is delicately put together; a diverse and wise selection of successful Aussie acts from across the country. Saturday’s early afternoon features Eagle & The Worm, side project of the Custom Kings’ Jarrad Brown. With trumpet, trombone and baritone sax flavouring their raucous brand of indie calypso-pop behind Brown’s signature whine, they’re the day’s early highlight, bringing in the first of a handful of afternoon showers. Eagle & The Worm are wedged between two of the strangest festival acts I’ve ever seen in The Firemen and Blackest Sabbath. The Firemen precede the Worm, an act who introduce themselves with ‘we’re called The Firemen…we’re not really a real band, but my old’s own this place, so we can do whatever the fuck we want.’ Blackest Sabbath tell you all you need to know before they’ve even walked on stage, their Sabbath-by-numbers making it as good a time as any to revisit the esky in anticipation of Custom Kings.
The Custom Kings owe almost as much to the Beach Boys as Blackest Sabbath do to Ozzy. Their warm, vintage guitar tones and choral harmonies all reminiscent of the melodies Brian Wilson and co. crafted in the 60’s. Playing a set sprawling across their two records At Sea and Great Escape, Custom Kings are a minor victim of timetabling, sitting in the bridge between the lazy afternoon and the promise of the night to come, a night that belongs almost overwhelmingly to C.W. Stoneking & His Primitive Horns Orchestra.
Having seen C.W. Stoneking talked over, ignored and heckled in support and festival slots for almost five years, it comes as a welcome surprise when he’s unequivocally embraced by the few thousand Gum Ball attendees. Enigmatic, charismatic and full of southern Australian charm, Stoneking wraps the crowd around his finger with a mumble and a pluck of his banjo. With his horns section filling his Hokum Blues meanderings, Stoneking impresses with tracks from his debut double and the one to come, always received with rapturous applause and a blanket demand for more.
Stoneking is followed by internationally collaborative dance act, Space Invadas. Owing essentially their entire sound to Curtis Mayfield, Steve Spacek and Katalyst reach for a sound from the past like many of the acts on the bill and come up with a hit-and-miss mid-point between success and failure. Their set is marred by sound issues and Spacek’s inconsistent soul croon, their beats predictable but effective, a dichotomous introduction to the festival’s most powerful presence in The Vasco Era.
Just after the point where The Vasco Era merge a cover of Neil Young’s Needle & The Damage Done with Nirvana’s Lithium, a guy turns to me and tells me he has found a new band crush. He’s certainly not the first person to walk away from a Vasco set feeling that way; their blistering approach to gritty blues-rock enamoring festival audiences across the country since 2005. Noticeably booze-driven, front-man Sid O’Neill is ferocious in his delivery and laconic with his banter. They debut a promising new track from their upcoming record amongst pepperings of their first two, with that aforementioned impromptu merged cover spawned from an audience heckle. They finish in a hail of sweat and glory, the front row of the stage drenched in the stuff and heckling the band as they pack up seemingly prematurely…which isn’t the case at all, they just have a way of making you want more.
The night finishes with hollow sets by the Resin Dogs and Kora, but the Vasco Era aren’t exactly an easy act to follow. As the festival disperses to the silent disco, the many bonfires littering the festival site or their respective tents, the Gum Ball comes to a slow crawl and eventually, to its slow end. This is a festival that after five years in operation, is still somehow flying under the radar of the festival circuit, no mean feat considering the relaxed vibes and assured good times that are inherent in its attendance.
With campfires, bands, an esky full of beer and some of the most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet at a festival, The Gum Ball is not just one of the finest festival’s hidden on the Australian festival calendar, but one of the best times you can have in the bush for a hundred bucks.