Queenscliff jumped to life Friday night, welcoming the first eve of the three-day Queenscliff Music Festival, now in its 23rd year. Spread across the town, the festival itself features a main arena, as well as flowing out to a handful of pubs and venues throughout the seaside town.
As the festival grounds began to fill, opening acts took to the stage, soundchecks cutting across the rush. Just 30 minutes after gates opened, Geelong locals The Sweethearts lit up Hippos Stage, bringing their soul, blues and funk to kick-off the festival vibe. Allensworth followed soon after, the warm and husky vocals of lead singer Jamie Allensworth captivating audiences. Karen Lee Lewis opened the main Lighthouse Stage, before the Welcome to Country recognised and thanked the traditional owners of the land. Mojo Juju brought an explosive act to the Lighthouse Stage, belting out tracks from 2018’s critically acclaimed Native Tongue. Joined by brother ‘T-Bone’ Ruiz de Luzuriaga, Juju was a gratifying stage presence; demanding attention and deserving it. Gate lines trailed back into town shortly before Tim Finn made an appearance on the main stage, much to the delight of the audience.
Groggy-eyed crowds began to make their way back from the campground on Saturday morning, soon to be awoken by a supreme line-up of rock, blues and soul acts – and everything in between. The Bar Choir opened the Lighthouse Stage, a light-hearted act with crowd participation to get the day started. Fenn Wilson and his band took to Hippos Stage, on the back of his debut album release Ghost Heroin. Wilson’s dark, deep vocals backed by a super-group of blues youths cut across even deeper than on record when felt with the vibrations that only live music can provide. 2019 Alison McKenzie Mentor Program recipient Cooper Lower performed an incredible acoustic set at Circa 1902, applauded extensively by not only the audience that spilled into the street, but by mentor Ash Grunwald. Nathan Seeckts performed his acoustic country blues set in The Pavilion supported by a single slide guitar. Complete silence signalled the attention of the room; Seeckts’ beautiful lyricism the highlight of his skills. Troy Cassar-Daley stole the audience from all other stages, while the full horn section of Fools rang from Hippos Stage like a beacon calling lovers of Americana rock and soul.
The Ethan Farmer Band made their Queenscliff debut, appearing across three stages. Despite Circa 1902 only having a small stage, Farmer’s three-piece produced an astonishing sound. Those unfamiliar with Farmer’s guitar ability were surprised and soon entertained, his name being one to remember. Award-winning folk duo GraceJean had The Pavilion filled with foot-tappers; their carefully constructed tunes varying from fast, ringing tracks to slow, beautiful numbers. Kicking off the evening Lighthouse Stage session, Ash Grunwald filled the marque and did not disappoint. Opening with ‘The Dolphin Song’ (making its live debut), Grunwald included songs from his extensive catalogue including this year’s Mojo. With special guests Harry James Angus (of The Cat Empire) and the horn section of Fools, Grunwald was a QMF highlight. He clearly loved being on the stage, which is exactly where he was wanted. Slamming solos, the grooviest bassist the stage had seen, and a smile the whole time made for a set that no-one wanted to end. Allensworth again bought a crowd to the Glaneuse Stage, before The Cat Empire had anyone within earshot roaring. If you thought ‘Hello’ was a killer track before, you should hear it live.
QMF was sold-out for a reason this year: it was one of the best collections of diverse musicians the Bellarine has seen in years. When the sun was out, the atmosphere was perfect. Musicians and audiences merged to one; everyone was there to be entertained, or even to learn. Each person left with different tastes, strained voices and new merch.
When: November 22-24
Reviewed by Thom Devereux
Photos by Edward James