Home to 150 residents, give or take 7,000, Birdsville is the birthplace of one of the most unique music festivals in the world, The Big Red Bash. Located just 35km out of the township, the festival takes place at the summit of the Simpson Desert’s largest sand dune, standing at 40m and famously dubbed ‘Big Red’, which not only sparks perfect photo opportunities, 4WD experiences, sunrises and sunsets, but provides a once in a lifetime rock experience. Australia’s famous Simpson Desert spans 176,500 km² and is surfaced with over 1000 sand dunes that straddle three states, but is only Australia’s fourth largest desert. How’s that for perspective!
The all-ages festival first took place in 2013, where Australian country great John Williamson independently serenaded a mere 400-or-so attendees, with its second year (my first time attending!) slowly creeping to approx. 1,000 attendees. Now, in its seventh year, the red dirt phenomenon has brought nearly 10,000 travellers from far and wide, east coast to west, to participate in the ultimate Australian music experience. The only way I can fully inform about this event is to write a mix between a travel piece, concert review, and feature. There’s no in between, and if there is; this is it.
To get the most out of its given isolated location, the trip to Birdsville is a wild adventure in itself. For most attendees, myself included, the general travel option is to take the rough and tough corrugated drive to the Mars-like town. Two of the three times I’ve travelled to the Bash, we took the road from Wollongong stopping at Cobar, Tibbooburra, Cameron Corner, Innamincka, and Betoota, before reaching Birdsville. For any future travellers, I would recommend this as the most scenic but probably the most hardcore route.
In classic Aussie fashion, each morning of the festival was greeted with the sound of a piper on Big Red as the sun rose, and some family based activities in the later morning, such as ‘Dunny Door Painting’ and a comedy routine by outback girls and co-MCs of The Bash, The Crack Up Sisters. Following a sunset screening of the Midnight Oil documentary “Midnight Oil: 1984” including a Q&A with director Ray Argall, the event was introduced to the Big Red Bash Band, the house band for the entirety of the festival, including some familiar faces such as Jak Housden, Dario Bortolin and Gordon Ritmeister. The next morning was awoken with a church service atop Big Red, and the three-day festival officially opened with a successful world record attempt of most people doing the Nutbush (dance) at once- a classic party line-dance that apparently only Australians do, so like I said, the ULTIMATE Australian experience. The united dance gained the attendance of 2,330 people (beating last year’s 1,719) and raised $25,000 for the Royal Flying Doctors Service.
Not only did the festival open with said record attempt, a Big Red wedding took place that morning. Big Red Bashers Nicole and Mark were always planning to make the trip to Birdsville with some friends, but never thought that their trip would turn into an impromptu wedding. “We were starting to plan in November, but we thought “you know what, actually, this is a thing we’d like and not something that everyone else wants” beautiful bride Nicole described her important decision, best man and maid of honour by her side. “…A lady had posted [in Facebook group] that she’s a celebrant and if anyone wanted to get married… Mark had tagged me in it months ago and I was like “yeah yeah funny” and then we were like “actually…”. Having been the second marriage for the two, the unique location made the unification even more special for the couple, who had replied to an add in the Bash’s Facebook group from a celebrant attendee. The surprise service atop the giant dune was the perfect way to begin Mark and Nicole’s new life together; just the two of them with nothing but love. However, Nicole did express her worry for the spontaneous gesture, but glad of the outcome, “Some people would be… upset because they weren’t invited but we thought, “you know what, this is something really memorable for us,” Nicole gushed, “…it’s so ‘us’ to do; something like this”.
After hearing the dismal news of Canadian-Australian singer Wendy Matthews’ absence from the show due to illness, the opening act for the show was last minute call John “Swanee” Swan, providing a mediocre but much appreciated step in performance. Joining the day one team, ex-Boom Crash Opera vocalist Dale Ryder arrived with classic power and strength, followed by the bow-worthy pipes of current Dragon frontman Mark Williams- in complete euphoria on stage- which evidently shone through and the audience took in every second of it. The Bash stage was then blessed by the effervescent presence of Noiseworks’ Steve Balbi and the Australian songwriting great that is Richard Clapton, headlining the night’s show. Clapton was grateful for the opportunity to perform at such a large scale live-event such as the Big Red Bash, commenting its importance in regards to the dying nature of live music in the ‘big cities’ on behalf of himself and the other acts; “I must say in the last 12 months… the more that music is being driven out of Sydney, all the music gigs are all going regional… it’s getting difficult for pub rock… it’s quite depressing… but I don’t dabble in nostalgia.” For Richard Clapton, his talent has blessed our concert halls, theatres and pubs for nearly five decades, and for the most part, they have been the “best years of our lives” and his, in turn. “It’s been a great ride,” reflects the Australian rock hero, “…and I still think it is a great ride”.
Day two was opened with the infamous Bashville Drags and Fashions in the Desert, followed by the powerful and ever youthful 80s girl group the Chantoozies, followed by yet another performance by co-host Mark Gable (where he played “Run To Paradise” for possibly the eighth time over the course of the festival so far), until the whirlwind of action, Chocolate Starfish, arrived. No one can rock a leather kilt like Adam Thompson can, and no one can quite captivate an audience beginning with purely a leather kilt like Adam Thompson can.
The Living End took the cake for festival highlight, being one of the best live acts I have ever seen, for obvious reasons (see below).
“Its big, its red!”, exclaimed the band’s frontman Chris Cheney, on his first impressions of the festival. Bassist Scott Owen describes Birdsville as being “…just like another planet… when you drive into the festival or you fly over and see all those cars, there is literally nothing around, and people come from all over the place to see these Australian bands… It’s just all incredibly fitting”
“It’s done really well as far as not leaving too much of a footprint as well… everyone’s pretty respectful which is pretty admirable, people who like the land”, Owen comments on the general nature of attendees, who are all largely Midnight Oil fans much like Owen, “…they’re like, the best example of all because you can look at them as a political band, because their message is so rich and clear and strong and well delivered, but you can also look at them as a musicians band as well… everything is just turned up to 11 with Midnight Oil!”
Similarly to Midnight Oil, The Living End strives to connect people to the world and to root music to its key issues, “… Music… it’s in the pubs, it’s in the cities, it’s in the blood of the Aussie culture… [it] has the ability to connect to people on a pretty deep and kind of universal level, so for the hope for what music can show people that there is a better world that we can work towards and take a step in the right direction to get there, that’s what we need to do and see things for how fucked they are, and take steps to make them better. Pay attention! Don’t keep your head in the sand! Its about fucking time people listened!”
“This moment is very special…” Cheney profoundly stated, “…Right now”
It’s safe to say that for most artists, the experience of the event and the charity earnings surpassed their financial gain, but for some talent such as six-song-wonder Steve Kilbey from European-influenced band The Church, the location and overall vibe appeared to cramp his style. “I didn’t create anything lush, I didn’t evoke that crowd,” Kilbey insisted, “My songs are set in luxurious hotels with pianos tinkling and beautiful women standing on the balconies… I’m like a juggler that’s been hired for a wedding”. Provided he is an Englishman at heart and “at home in a rainy field”, as opposed to what we would call a ‘true blue Aussie’, the scenery to him was seemingly unfitting to his aesthetic.
The true purpose and charity of the event has aided an overwhelming public response and success of the event and tourism holistically, drawing in the various talents and travellers over the years to have a taste of the phenomenon themselves. “The landscape here is really special and I know it’s something that people remember for the rest of their lives. We also have some of the greatest Australian acts that have come here to support the outback when they know they’re doing it tough” says Queensland Minister for Tourism, Kate Jones. “This is one of the very special events, we’ve really tried through the Year of the Outback we put Queensland’s outback on the map, and its major events like the Big Red Bash in Birdsville that really creates an opportunity for people to see the outback themselves.” “One of the challenges for us here in the QLD outback is that people have put the it on their bucket list, but making sure that they make the decision to come here and spend money is one of the challenges we face. That is why it is so important to bring back major events like this to get people to come and see the outback for themselves.” “I guess our message is really clear to QLD and all Australians: if you have the outback on your bucket list, make sure in 2019, the Year of the Outback, you come to Queensland’s outback.”
The 2020 Big Red Bash will run from Tuesday, July 7–Thursday, July 9, 2020, with tickets to the eighth edition of the world’s most remote music festival set to go on sale in October 2019.