Tony Hillier

Hillier's Hotline

Issue #7 February 16th 2010: Festival Fever



Well, the first ten years of the 21st century are safely behind us — now for the next decade! As far as the live music scene in Cairns is concerned, your correspondent predicts that 2010 will be a real watershed year for the city — at least in terms of its festivals.

The success of the inaugural one-day Cairns Blues Festival in 2009 has paved the way for a bigger event this year, with the promise of even better to come in future years. The East Coast Blues & Roots Music Festival started in a more humble way, and look where it is now! Bluesfest reaches a new zenith at Easter with its 21st event to be held at a new green site at Tyagarah, 10kms up the coast from Byron Bay. Check out the gargantuan program at if you don’t believe me. The second night, with Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa et al (Al Di Meola that is!) in the lineup, is a guitar buff’s wet dream. Incidentally, Cairns’ high flyers, Kamerunga, will be performing on the Good Friday bill and on the opening night, alongside the Buena Vista Social Club and other leviathans, before jetting to Canberra for the last three days of the National Folk Festival, but enough of them.

There’s also good news on the Cairns Ukulele Festival front. The organisers’ grant application to Cairns Regional Council was also successful, and now it’s full steam ahead to the inaugural Ukefest on weekend July 3-4. More in a minute.

MoantribeGeoff Achison

The third non-Council run festival of national importance is currently at the crossroads. Staged, most successfully, as Reggaetown for the past few years, the September festival is contemplating the idea of expanding its format and becoming the Tropical Roots & Rhythm Festival. The final decision hinges on current grant and funding applications. It is to be hoped that he co-ordinator, Mickie Sellton, is successful in her quest for a festival of that nature because it has the potential to become a far northern counterpart of WOMADelaide. Tjapukai Park is tailor-made for the task.

The draft program for the 2010 Cairns Blues Festival, set down for the Queensland Labor Day long weekend on May 1st & 2nd, is already in place and can be viewed at the event’s website — The second incarnation is a two-day event, again to be held at Fogarty Park on the Cairns Esplanade, where it is perfectly positioned to capture maximum attention and passing trade. Advance tickets will be available from March 1st through the official website and with links to Ticketlink .

Over 20 acts have already been locked in, including one of your columnist’s favourite Aussie blues guitar players, Geoff Achison and singers/harp players, Chris Wilson who headline the opening night. The inimitable Dallas Fracas, making a Cairns Bluesfest encore, and that evergreen band, the Backsliders, will bring the Sunday session to a climax. Two exciting new names worth checking out are Bex Marshall, a female English guitarsliger of renown ( and the Mason Rack Band ( It’s good to see that there will be a strong local supporting cast, including Andy Collins, who missed last year’s opener because of a prior engagement in Argentina. To whet your appetite for the big gig, the Cairns Blues Festival committee is staging a Roadshow on Saturday 13th March at the Cairns Showgrounds Figtree Bar, featuring “four amazing blues acts”.

The bill for the 2010 Cairns Ukulele Festival , to be hosted by the Cairns Ukulele Club on the first weekend in July, is also taking shape. The organizers have already revealed the name of one of the headline acts, the Grammy Award-winning Hawaiian uke maestro, Daniel Ho . Entertainment Cairns can now tell you that Australia’s own four-string ace Azo Bell is also locked in, along with his band, the Old Spice Boys. And the festival’s patron, Seaman Dan, will be coming out of retirement temporarily to perform a set, backed by his manager and MD Karl Neuenfeldt and faithful sideman Will Kepa — on ukes, of course! Uncle Seaman’s gig, to be held on the Esplanade, will be free to the public. “I wanted to make sure that everyone in town has the opportunity to enjoy Seaman Dan live,” says festival co-ordinator Gaby Thomasz. The inaugural Ukefest will culminate on Sunday July the 4th — an appropriate day indeed — with a concert at the Tanks Arts Centre, to be headlined by the aforementioned American master Daniel Ho and the Old Spice Boys.

Ukulele performers and bands wishing to perform at the festival are encouraged to apply now: , and don’t forget the festival will be attempting to break the world record for number of ‘ukulelists’ playing simultaneously. Grab yourself a uke if you don’t already have one (Music City in Sheridan Street stocks one of the best collections in the country).

“We intend to put on a festival that will appeal to people from all walks of life, and all ages,” says Gaby Thomasz. “This will be a family-friendly event, especially, with special workshops, activities and performances for children. The ukulele appeals to children, and as a festival we would like to encourage children to take up a musical instrument. Other workshops will introduce adults to the ukulele or offer specialist tuition to more advanced players or song writing. In the pipeline are also charity events and art exhibitions. An open mic session and singer-songwriter contest is guaranteed to bring some surprises. We will also host a Pacific Island style ukulele picnic, bringing together the various cultures from around the region, featuring performances from a large range of acts from local schools to island community groups and other renown performers.”

Far North Queensland is the perfect setting for a festival devoted to an instrument that is synonymous with tropical living. All those who have made derogatory remarks about such an event could be forced to eat humble pie, especially when it makes headlines around Australia. Part of the raisons d’être for staging major festivals in Cairns, apart from sating local music-lovers, is to garner interstate and international publicity for the city, and inject much needed revenue into the local economy. The Cairns Ukulele Festival promises to do all those things.

If the Tropical Roots and Rhythm Festival, set down for September 4, goes ahead its co-director, Mickie Sellton, envisages a one day music festival, featuring a range of roots styles as well as reggae, and a Cultural Music Summit, along the lines of the highly successful Australasian World Music Expo, held annually in Melbourne. The Summit, she reasons, would establish a number of “highly beneficial” economic music links, including touring and festival circuits for “world music artists” from Australia and the Pacific Rim. Again, Cairns is the perfect centre for such an event.

The Tanks Arts Centre sets up what promises to be a momentous year next month with a series of fine concerts. Having been blown away by their virtuosic and symbiotic playing at the World Expo last November, your correspondent can especially commend Djan Djan, who perform at Cairns’ premier performance space on Saturday, March 20th. With Malian maestro Mamadou Diabaté’s magical kora trading lead breaks with Jeff Lang’s incomparable slide guitar, and vice versa, backed by Bobby Singh’s impeccable tabla playing, their set was a stand-out at the Melbourne event.

Another act positively not to be missed at the Tanks next month is Toni Childs, who performs shows there on Friday March 26th and Saturday the 27th. I caught one of her sets at the East Coast Blues Festival last year and it was superb. The songs from her latest album, Keeping The Faith, dovetailed beautifully with some great blasts from the past, such as ‘Don’t Walk Away’, ‘Stop Your Fussin’, ‘House of Hope’, ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ and the prescient ‘Zimbabwe’.

Tony Hillier