Finding The Heart of Australia @ Savannah In the Round
Report by Leigh Hanna. All photos © Copyright 2023 Nicole Nighthawk – Nighthawk Creative
Leigh Hanna and Nicole Nighthawk checked out Savannah in the Round October 6-8, 2023, the unique music weekend in the Cairns Hinterland. Here’s their Day One report for Australian Musician
The one-hour drive from Cairns to Mareeba up the winding Kuranda Range sees a shift from tropical beach scenery, to damp rainforest canopies, to fields of mango trees that give way to open grass plains on the Mulligan highway. The heat of the day is rising as is the excitement of attending my first Savannah in The Round (SITR), one of Australia’s largest camping music festivals and my first ever country music event.
Rolling through the gates early on Friday afternoon, parking is pleasantly easy with a gold coin donation and only a couple of minute’s walk to the ticket booth, dust kicks up underfoot as I walk through the entry and slip into an ocean of cowboy hats.
Beside me for the weekend is Australian Musician magazine presenter and award-winning singer/songwriter, Nicole Nighthawk with camera ready in hand to capture the artists over the next three days and nights.
It’s time for a drink and a look-around so we go for a wander to get our bearings of the festival grounds and stages. Spotting three local distilleries with a fantastic selection of cocktails using fresh produce from the FNQ community, we settle under an umbrella refreshed with a delicious spicy margarita (the official cocktail of SITR 2023) by Mt Uncle Distillery and find a hidden gem amongst the food trucks.
THE BACKYARD STAGE
An unassuming exhibitor’s tent houses a Bose PA system and a makeshift stage. A small blackboard A-Frame out front tells me this is the Backyard Stage. Long and lean with a lilting stride, the friendly face of Tim Woodz appears. A roaming musician from Gippsland in Victoria, Tim is the curator of this pop-up tent providing entertainment between shows at the Big Top.
Heartwarming, chuckle-inducing, humble, and inspiring. Tim’s storytelling is honest. His stripped-back folk songs provide a beautiful perspective of the Australian experience and life on the road. We continue to return to Tim’s Backyard Stage throughout the weekend whenever a little time out is needed.
One thing that has already stood out at SITR above any other festival I’ve attended is the strong support for the local community. With over fifteen Far North Queensland locals on the official line-up, even more were given an opportunity to perform via the Backyard Stage, the Bull Bar, the Buskers Corner, and the Chillzone, a space set up by Cairn Voice Studio at the event for young and emerging artists.
Tucked amongst market stalls, we met a friendly face in the Buskers Corner. First Nations musician and artist Wayne Kite sat on the grass playing his guitar. An elder sat in the market stall nearby with a donation tin and Wayne’s stunning paintings for sale.
THE BIG TOP
Drawn to the Big Top with the sweet promise of relief from the Queensland sun, the distinctively Australian storytelling, and blues and roots beats of CMAA Golden Guitar winner Kevin Bennet and The Flood are setting the tone for our weekend ahead.
Barely a sweaty plastic garden chair is free as the crowd grows in anticipation of Kate Cebrano’s set. A flurry of pink floral shirts gathers under the tent of the Big Top. A gang of six caravanners from Newcastle in matching outfits. The three couples call themselves The Bangers. I ask no further questions regarding the origin of the name. The Bangers are no strangers to SITR, and it’s become an annual trip up the East Coast for them. This year, their draw cards are Kate Cebrano, Kasey Chambers, and Casey Barnes.
The crowd is deafening in the outdoor tent. Kate is fresh-faced and glowing in her long sleeved summer dress. There’s a rush to the dance floor as she opens on her 1998 hit Pash.
A lone male Banger leads the way to the front of the stage wiggling his hips to the beat. More follow. The energy is electric. In one and a half minutes, Kate has transformed the Big Top into a living organism as bodies groove and bounce.
Kate’s sensational tribal-like call is returned with enthusiasm. Four songs in, the dance floor is packed. Kate’s effortless voice lands goosebumps on my skin and couples slow dance to I Don’t Know How To Love Him.
The audience flowed in unison and hats are fanning flushed faces as the humidity rises under the canvas roof. A captivating guitar solo from lead guitarist Kathleen Halloran brings the set to an end.Kate and her band are flawless performers. Big sound. Big energy. The Big Top stage did not disappoint.
THE MAIN STAGE
The Mareeba Rodeo arena throws heat from every direction. The hard, compacted sand, the metal stalls and railing on the outskirts, and the searing sun above. Thousands of empty camping chairs sit expectantly in neat rows. The forward-thinkers arrived early to save their spot in the arena for the weekend before taking off to explore the other stages or simply hang in the campgrounds with family and friends between acts. Smart. I’ll store that in the memory bank for next year.
On the Main Stage, chart-topping, independent US country artist Alexandra Kay is wrapping up her first Australian Tour and pleasing the crowd with her light and sweet, yet powerful vocals and feel-good lyrics. Wearing tan coloured short shorts, cream western boots, and a delicate ruffled white singlet, her smile is contagious as she bounds across the big stage.
Before I go on, let’s talk about someone who turned out to be one of the standout performances of the entire weekend. His name is not on any lineup. He is not in any band.
He is Mike Webb. Mike and fellow AUSLAN interpreter Marnie from AUSLAN Stage Left, grace the main stage throughout the festival to provide interpreting services (sign language) for the hearing impaired. Mike’s passionate and high-energy dance moves are understandable in any language. His air guitar solos – the icing on the cake. Mike, you’re a star!
Between songs, Alexandra speaks candidly to the crowd about the hard road of being an independent artist but promises the rewards have far-outweighed the struggles. Alexandra is one of only a handful of international acts at this year’s SITR, but she looks at home on the stage.
At the barrier, I meet a family of six from Townsville. Four children under ten are dressed in James Johnston t-shirts and caps, they’ve scored the prime position for a set still over two hours away. Mum and Dad take turns for bar runs, and Nanna is waiting on the outskirts in a chair ready to chaperone bathroom runs. I’m impressed by the planned operation and dedication. SITR is becoming a yearly highlight for this music-loving family. I’m feeling all sappy at the notion of Australian music bringing families together to create lasting memories. Someone get me a tissue.
I’m knocked backwards as the huge EV sound system kicks in. ARIA and Golden Guitar winner Casey Barnes explodes onto the stage with Light It Up.
Wearing faded, ripped jeans and a Harley Davidson singlet, Casey’s casual look reflects the ease and comfort he feels on the big stage.
As the sun sets on the Main Stage, the excitement grows. Already wide smiles are somehow even wider and youths (who must have spent the entire afternoon doing makeup and hair) emerge looking preened for the night ahead.
In the new darkness of Friday evening, thousands of bodies move to the beats of Casey and his band.
Meeting with Casey’s lead guitarist Jeremy Barnes after the show, he was all smiles when asked about playing at the festival.
“This is my first time at Savannah in the Round. I had always heard good things about it and I was not disappointed. It was so good to bring Casey’s songs to life for a tonne of his fans who haven’t seen him live before. The energy and emotion we got from them was epic and it’s a gig I won’t forget anytime soon.
“And the fact that Casey’s gig is all really big guitar sounds, for me – who wouldn’t love playing really loud guitars on a big stage with huge production? It’s always a real buzz! I’m looking forward to doing this festival again.”
The team are racing back to the hotel to get a decent sleep before their 6 am flight to Rockhampton for the next show but Casey made the time to talk to us about his SITR experience:
“I love this festival, I have been involved with Savannah in the Round since the very first one and have since done it four times. It’s always so well done on every level.
“The other big draw card is that I get to connect with a lot of my regional fans who are always amazing and may not get the opportunity to see us when we do tour dates in major cities or other festivals that are too hard for them to get to. Getting the opportunity to play to those fans and to see their excitement makes what I do so rewarding!”
The audience is chanting her name, the lights dim, and the stage is bathed in a hazy blue glow. Silence envelops a mesmerised audience as Kasey opens with Barricades and Brickwalls. I might be the last one to the party but until you’ve heard Kasey in the flesh, you will underestimate the power she emanates.
Am I Not Pretty Enough is all but drowned by the crowd around me. Nearly every voice in the arena is singing. I think Mike the AUSLAN interpreter is crying.
Kasey’s heart-wrenching lyrics and performance are softened with a few laughs between songs. She admits,
“I’m the worst banjo player in the world but I like the way it looks when I wear it.”
Her now famous cover of Eminem’s Lose Yourself is a freight train of sound and emotion. By the time it’s finished, I’ve forgotten where I am… who I am. Kasey Chambers is special.
The fan base of James Johnston jostling for space against the barriers is surprisingly young. It’s wonderful to see so many young fans celebrating and supporting Australian musicians.
I meet with Mareeba local, nine-year-old Graycyn, a die-hard James Johnston fan. She puffs her chest to tell me that she knows every song by heart. Her whole family loves him.
The energy is palpable. James walks onto the stage to deep, heaving beats. Every word of his opening song Raised Like That was chanted by his adoring fans. I lean in to ask Graycyn’s mum what it is about James that makes the entire family such big fans. I learn, it’s the stories of rural life, or a trucker’s life on the road away from family, or being raised in farmhouses at the end of dirt roads. It’s the lyrics in James’ songs that these born and bred outback Queensland families find home with. He is singing their stories.
On the back of the release of his debut, twenty-track album Raised Like That and his growing fanbase, it looks like there’s no stopping the rise of this upcoming country music superstar.
Check out the Day Two coverage next
And more Day 1 photos courtesy Nicole Nighthawk – Nighthawk Creative