Nymagee Outback Music Festival – A Day In The Dirt

Same Head, Different Shirt

excerpt from Same Head, Different Shirt. www.mickdaley.com

…..It was about this time that I’d been travelling to Newcastle to play as guest bellower and sidekick with The Australian Beefweek Show – a kind of country rock Australian version of The Pogues – their modus operandi was to get as drunk as possible wherever they played, be as loud and obnoxious as they could, and by the end of the show get completely naked. They also wrote some killer songs and played with a vulgar panache that was irresistible – I loved the attitude and the sound.

I knew two of the blokes in the band – Pete ‘Bufo’ Hansen and Chris ‘Washy’ Greenhalgh, from the old Bushpunk days. We’d frequently toured to Newcastle and played on large bills with their bands – respectively Bufo Marinus and The Wash, who’d actually been Triple J darlings at one point in time. Washy and I had a lot in common, including an ex-girlfriend who we both still love and admire.

I’d played some wildly interesting gigs with Beefweek, including in the middle of a forest doof at dawn during torrential storms, on and falling off the back of a truck in Bourke and at a horse stud in the Hunter Valley to a bunch of stupefied Irish wranglers – all very drunk and inevitably naked affairs.

Anthony ‘Mudgee’ Mudge, lapsteel and guitarist for the band, also played on ‘Humdinger’ and later some shows in the UK and Portugal with me. But neither he nor Bufo were able to get out to a very special gig in outback NSW that the band had been offered.

Nymagee is in the geographical centre of New South Wales. The site of a brief copper mining boom and even briefer gold strike, it at one time had an estimated population of about 5,000 Chinamen, Cornishmen and itinerant indigents of all pigments. But in the early 20th century the transportation magnates had decided to stop the vital railway at Cobar – and Nymagee became too expensive a proposition to freight ore from.

What was left was a gigantic slag heap and a pastoral industry in gradual decline, by 1999 a mere memory of the dynastic properties which once hosted tennis parties, football games and grand dances where marriages and feuds were contracted. As the drought tightened its grip on the country throughout that century the people had fled into exile in the cities and still habitable rural areas closer to the coast and by degrees the rabbits and the devil-head burrs became the only thriving concerns.

Now only a pub and a few houses comprised the township where market gardens, three pubs, a butcher shop and a bank once flourished. But Jay Dunn, daughter of a local landholder and an enterprising musician herself, had decided to revive the tiny hamlet’s fortunes with a music festival held beside the slag heap.

She knew one Tonchi Mcintosh, a talented and charismatic folk-singer from Bourke who now lived in Newcastle, and Tonchi just happened to know Washy.

Tonchi, the broad-shouldered visionary, a burly, six foot two son of a Mexican aristocrat’s daughter and a Kiwi academic/farmer, is an extraordinary songwriter, folksinger and activist. His album, ‘Bridges’, produced by Shane Howard of the Goanna band fame, is for mine one of the best Australian albums ever, a deep, soulful, uplifting album on a par with anything Paul Kelly or Nick Cave ever made.

He also liked to knock about with some wild characters and he and Washy used to play a lot together. So when he got wind, through his Bourke mate Hully, a prodigiously talented outback poet in the lawson, Patterson et al mode, that there was to be an outback festival in Nymagee, he let it be known that there was a gig to be had out bush. The money was terrible, it was a bloody long way away and the conditions were likely to be abysmal – Washy jumped at the chance. Only trouble was, Pete Bufo had quit the band and Mudgee had gone AWOL on an extended drinking spree.

Washy had asked me if I wanted to go out there, so I in turn asked Leigh Ivin if he was interested. He said sure, it sounded like an interesting proposition. I gave him a copy of the Beefweek CD ‘A Russian Lunch Affair’, and he already had my own ‘Humdinger’ a few songs from which the band was playing, Beefweek’s drummer, Pete Moffit, was keen for an outback jaunt, so I rang Washy, told him we had a guitarist, and we were on.

On Saturday morning the something of October Ivin and I loaded into his XB Ford and we drove up the Princes Highway to Newcastle. It was a blistering hot day and when we pulled up at Washy’s house next to Fort Scratchley above the harbour at Newcastle, only a stiff sea breeze kept the fug at bay.

Washy lived in a beautiful old terrace house that’s probably now a yuppie condominium, one of those real estate anomalies owned by a stubborn old timer who refused to secede to the Steel City’s refurbishment renaissance.

He lugged out his bass rig and beautiful, rare Maton bass and Pete hauled out a drumkit and somehow we all squeezed into the Ford, which had an immense boot for a sedan.

I don’t remember much about the trip – we would have smoked a lot of dope on the way – just that it was very very long and very very hot. It takes about ten hours to drive out into the desolate mallee country and for Ivin and Washy and Moffit it was the first trip. I’ve worked out here in the past as a jackaroo and shearing roustabout so I knew the country – in fact my sister and her family live on a farm at Tottenham, only about a 100 kilometres away.

We landed late at night and stumbled into a bizarre, confusing stage area, peopled by very drunk organisers and PA guys yammering conflicting directions by torchlight. We were ushered directly on to the stage, drunk, stoned and disoriented and proceeded to deliver a startlingly unrehearsed, shambolic delivery of the Beefweek songs and our own.

The entire affair seemed to last only minutes but probably rambled on for an hour. It would have been all academic to the equally drunk and mystified punters out there in the pitch-black haze, watching us reeling about in fitful light, unleashing bursts of dazzling noise in disjointed, amusical volleys and ranting cryptic lyrics down the archaic PA.

The stage itself was a cannibalised shed, tacked together and baring extremely dangerous wooden and steel fangs at all angles – a modern OH&S nightmare.

Anyway, we had a ball, and afterwards retired into the darkness to smoke cones and drink beer in our accommodation, two ancient rickety caravans in the lee of the copper mine slag heap.

We woke at dawn to a surreal vision – a hungover, Boschian horror movie. We were, quite literally, surrounded by redback spiders, leering at us from every joint and rafter of the tottering caravans, under the mattresses, in the window frames, leaning from the roof. Outside a ruthless staring sun obliterated all comfort from the land and the pitiless, shimmering slag heap dominated a cruel, jagged landscape stitched by fences, stippled by burrs and emaciated, whimpering sheep.

Innoculated by breakfast beers and bongs, we ignored the deadly arachnids and sat in the feeble shade of the caravans talking with Tonchi and peering out at the bizarre festival, where a succession of creaky covers bands and country singers played to about five drunks from the makeshift stage.

We were just pulling another set of cones when I saw an enormous policeman with arms like legs stride past the window and I hurriedly stowed the bong in a redback nest. The copper, all six foot four of him, poked his head inside and asked how we were going, squinting through a cloud of narcotic effulgence. Either he had never encountered marijuana before out here or he chose to ignore this musician’s vice, because he seemed satisfied with our polite answers and strode away without a backward glance. We took this as a cue to further hedonism and carried on for the rest of the day.

Tonchi had introduced us to Hully – Andrew Hull, a bush poet in the mould of Lawson and Patterson, who throughout the day regaled us with several of his lively and irreverent portrayals of modern bush characters and their melodramas. Tonchi and Hully grew up in Bourke together and have collaborated on various artistic projects – including a walk along the Hungerford Track though outback NSW in the footsteps of Henry Lawson and countless swaggies and vagabond jackaroos in bygone days – an adventure that nearly killed them both. And thus we passed the rest of the afternoon, till in the early evening it was possible to venture out into the ebbing inferno and back onto the stage.

Our performance this time was marginally coherent and wildly extravagant, featuring wild solos from Ivin and an alternating vocal attack as Washy and I traded song for song, building up into an epic ‘Ballad of a Wrong’Un’ and ‘Grief’, a rampaging Beefweek staple about low-grade pot.

The audience this time was slightly larger also, comprising a mob of puzzled farmers and their wives, some excited children, Jay, the festival organiser and her friends, and a contingent of shearers from Condoblin who were wired on some imported speed and acid, several cartons of VB and a complete lack of food, water and sleep for days.

They greeted our noisy rock and roll onslaught with ragged cheers and some frantic, dust-kicking dancing that was completely indifferent to the rhythms we were playing.

When we finished all the songs we knew they were clamouring for more and quite specific about it, clambering onstage to ensure that we played some ACDC. We didn’t know any, but collectively decided we could piece together a fair approximation of ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’.

We launched into it with ferocious abandon, and so did the shearers, leaping about in a cloud of dust till it became apparent that one of them hadn’t made the rebound from a particularly energetic tumble and was lying still in the burrs and dirt.

They gathered around him, guffawing and playful at first, while we raged on through the PA. But then, after nudging and lifting failed to rouse him they decided they needed a bit of shoosh, and when gesturing at us failed to bring it about, they jumped onstage and clamped big hands on our instruments.

We stopped playing and looked on wearily as people gathered around the prone body. Repeated resusicitation efforts failed and the burly copper was summoned. He too failed to detect any life and in lieu of an ambulance, loaded the dead shearer into the paddy wagon and hared off to Condoblin hospital, over 100 kilometres away.

As the dust settled and we stumbled about, packing gear and sculling beer, we knew history had been made. This was the start of something. We just weren’t quite sure what.

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