Totally Autumn: A Day On The Green

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by Liza Harvey

You can’t argue against the prosperity of a festival while sitting in the Newcastle autumn sun, consuming large pints of cheap beer and listening to some of the best DIY music Australia has to offer. Totally Autumn was set out to win from the beginning of the day.

The day itself could not have been any more perfect. It was a classic image of Australiana; the sun-bleached building of the Croatian Wickham Sports Club (fondly named ‘The Croat’ by the locals), pitched against a blinding blue sky, with a welcoming bowls lawn set out in front. Nothing could be more distracting for an indoor festival than the temptation to sit on The Green and down the reasonably priced beer all day long. Pavo, the local bartender, is an extremely accommodating gentleman.

While Newcastle might not be the first place you think of for great music, once there it seems obvious only Newcastle could pull off such a festival. Their yearly calendar boasts a repertoire including This Is Not Art (TINA) festival, The Young Writers Festival and Sound Summit. Totally Autumn is just a new edition, with Eat Skull (US), Slug Guts (QLD), Holy Balm (NSW), Angel Eyes (VIC), The Sleepwalks (QLD), Bare Grillz (Newcastle), Alps (Newcastle), The Fighting League (NSW), Dead Farmers (NSW) and Rites Wild (SA) just a few of the acts gracing the lineup.

There’s a kind of cheekiness and inventiveness reflected and inherent in the local Newcastle scene. It’s exciting, inventive, experimental and full of mischief. It’s like watching a group of nine-year-old boys deciding what kind of adventures they’re going to create for the afternoon. As Evan Hill Porteus, drummer of Bare Grillz, told me one very early morning after a furious set of karaoke tracks during their last tour of Brisbane at the beginning of March, “I think we may have ruined Brisbane, this is what we do every weekend!”

The Bare Grillz set is nothing short of this. It’s the sign of a true champion when guitarist Matthew ‘Bird’ Cother throws his SG to the back of stage when the neck comes flying off it in between Robert Pattinson Foot Tattoo and Lee Majors, and he picks up a lingering guitar resting to the side without a flinch or thought. Evan dedicates the whole set to Bird’s new bleach-blonde hair before jumping in to a brand new song, the crowd reciprocating their appreciation.

Totally Autumn presents the last opportunity for all to watch the Alps Band, and they let it go without regrets. While Alps mastermind Chris Hearn promises that he’ll be playing solo again “around the place here and there”, the rest of the band (made up of Bare Grillz’ Bird, Evan and Robert Nedeljković) will be taking their places back in the audience. The last Alps album Alps of New South Wails was the only record of Chris’s to feature a full band, steering away from his solo keyboard ditties.

No one can argue against Chris Hearn being the King of Newcastle. His takeover of The Croat has seen to an explosion and development of music in Newcastle, attracting local, out-of-town, interstate and international bands to play weekly gigs at Spring Break. Totally Autumn is just another of his killer creations, along with the summer festival Summer Vibes. Out of the 400 or so crowd that took over The Croat for Totally Autumn, the majority of those are from out-of-town. This really speaks for Chris’s super skills in organisation and he can probably now write The Arbiter of Taste on his business card without sounding wanky.

Hands down quote of the day is provided by Canberra’s The Fighting League’s Dom Shanahan (aka King of Canberra) with “Get tropical, cunts”, before jumping into one final nail-biting 70s punk/80s indie song. The award for most disappointing performance from a band and/or solo artist on the night goes to Brisbane lads Slug Guts. They’re about one hour late for their set and perform with little zest. Considering they’ve just returned from wowing American audiences at SxSW and their second LP Howlin’ Gang has just been released through Bedroom Suck (Joe Alexander, co-creator of Bedroom Suck, is now also their drummer), there really isn’t any excitement to be found at all within their set. Not even excitement of the coolest and most apathetic kind, as usually expressed by the members of Slug Guts. I also fear that the dancing involved during the Holy Balm set is more of the daggy drunken type than any legitimate desire to move.

Headline act My Disco are absent from Totally Autumn, but with a hefty excuse. Vocalist and bassist Liam Andrews was hospitaliaed only three weeks ago following a traffic incident, and with a North American tour only a few weeks away I don’t blame the Melbourners for wanting to play it safe.

The Croat speaks from a place in a different era in Newcastle’s history. This is an idea that recurs and takes over the city aesthetically. But that’s kind of what appeals about the place the most, like it’s showing that its history isn’t a clean-cut one. King and Hunter Streets (the main city hub) are filled with crumbling, boarded up 1800s and early Art Deco buildings. Neighbouring these are hideous ultra-modern space age things, like the Southern Hemisphere’s largest (and possibly most ridiculous) KFC. How a place so rundown and oppressive could foster some of Australia’s most interesting, fresh and creative art and music is probably thankful to Renew Newcastle – an artist space initiative started in 2008. Oppression in any form – political, financial, social or cultural – tends to breed the most innovative and original form of creativity.

If Totally Autumn is anything to go by, Chris Hearn’s next Croat creation, Winter Chills, is going to blow your fucking socks off. Make friends with the locals, save up some cash, book your tickets, fill up the tank with petrol and get down there. You’re going to cry like a little girl if you miss out on the next Newcastle adventure. Trust me.

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