A few recollections from three weeks in southeastern Australia.
But Australia still lets me in, apparently, as they did in 2020, 2013, and on several other occasions before then, the first time being 2008, when our dear departed Alistair Hulett organized a seven-week tour of Australia and Aotearoa for the two of us, centered around the Woodford Festival near Brisbane.
This tour began and ended in Brisbane. In Australia, if you rent a car, you must return it in the same place where you got it, or the drop fees are astronomical. People often fly from one major city to the next, because of the vast distances between most of them. The continent of Australia is roughly equal in size to the continental US, but with about a tenth of the population. This tour needed to start and end in the same place because Kamala Emanuel and I were doing it in her own little Hyundai. After touring together and playing music in various other parts of the world, we were back on the home turf of my singing partner of many tours now, who moonlights as a doctor in her spare time.
Our first gig was the day after my arrival, on March 21st in the small city of Toowoomba, about an hour and a half's drive west -- inland -- from Brisbane, amid the forested hills there. A wonderful arts space and performance venue called the Swamp Collective started up during the pandemic there, and is going strong. We sang to a small gathering of folks in what was once the living room of a house, with a wall removed to turn it into a bigger space for such events. Surrounding us in every direction were art studios and arts and crafts of all sorts. Outside the building, more freestanding art studios scattered about, along with a lush grass backyard, a shed, and a big garden full of edible things.
We headed south, splitting up the ten-hour drive to the Sydney area with a little visit with Kamala's mom, in the woodsy northern coastal area of New South Wales. As we drove through this area in 2020, the evidence of the massive fires that had left so much of Australia charred the year before, along with the bodies of an estimated three billion other animals, was all around us. At that time, we met and stayed with people who were unmistakably traumatized by the experience of living through that, and by their new, very precarious, fire-prone reality in those parts of the country.
On this trip, the fires seemed much more distant, as the latest "natural" disasters to befall this part of the world have involved the element of water. Kamala's sister was one of so many thousands in Australia to lose her home -- twice -- to floods. I have a tendency to stop often when doing long drives, and visit little towns along the way where Google Maps tells me there's an espresso place, which Australia has more of per capita than anywhere I've ever been, with the possible exception of New Zealand. One nice one we stopped at was in a village that clearly was recently popular among tourists, but now was largely empty, due for one thing to all the streets being torn up and under reconstruction since last year's bigger-than-ever floods, which filled many buildings with water well up to (what Americans know of as) the second floor.
By that Saturday evening we had reached the Sydney area, and were on the familiar, winding road that passes through the Royal National Park and ends at the tip of the peninsula just across the bay from the Sydney neighborhood of Cronulla, where you'll find the little village of Bundeena, in which can be found the welcoming home of a couple of wonderful folks I met on my first visit to Australia fifteen years ago named Peter and Pamela.
At five the next morning, as with every other morning I've ever had the pleasure of spending in Bundeena, I was awakened by the amazingly loud, insane cackling of a bunch of local kookaburras. There are many other very loud birds that are native to Australia, but the kookaburra is probably the loudest and the weirdest among them. At the cafe just down the street, flirting with customers, eating the leftovers, and going after any garbage can with a lid that isn't properly battened-down are gangs of adorable and cunning yellow-crested cockatoos.
Based out of Bundeena over the next week or so, we had gigs in Sydney, Katoomba, and Wollongong, before we'd be heading further south, to other parts. Certainly the grandest of the gigs on the tour was the one in Sydney, in the Sydney neighborhood (or what the Australians call "suburb") of Marrickville, at the home of the Addison Road Community Organization.
I had been to Sydney many times, certainly on every visit to Australia. This is the city where the man who introduced me to Australia, Alistair Hulett, certainly had the most history, having lived there for 25 years, and having long been the front man for a popular local Celtic punk band called Roaring Jack. But what it was that brought out the hundred or so folks that attended the festivities seemed mainly to be the organizing prowess of the dynamic collective of people who are the organizing force for this particularly impressive and large compound, which is a collection of several buildings and lots of outdoor space. There's a weekly outdoor market, lots of food carts run by folks from around the world. The Ethiopian food was delicious, I can attest.
Addison Road has been a center for all kinds of community organizing and movement-building for a long time now, but it played a key role very recently, during the pandemic, in housing and advocating for international students who were stranded in Australia after the universities and the borders both closed. The assembled crowd included people representing two generations of Afghan refugees, for whom this place seemed to be a second home.
Two days later it was my first visit to Katoomba as far as I can recall. Not my first visit to the region, which they call the Blue Mountains, though. Alistair and I came here on that first tour, and I remember him explaining the geology of the area to me. He had been employed in the past doing what they call bush restoration, which involved knowing the difference between native plants and invasive ones, and how to get rid of the invasive ones and cultivate the native ones. He also had a good grasp of the geological processes that created the Blue Mountains, though I don't remember the details.
Katoomba is easily recognized as not only a beautiful town in the lush mountains south and west of Sydney, but as an alternative sort of place, which I already knew it was, because of hearing about it for the past several years from Stephen Langford. Stephen was the main one who had been making arrangements for the house concert we did there in a very spacious living room, and I had already been hearing about his good times in Katoomba, since he had started spending a lot of time there during the pandemic, mainly going back to Sydney to participate in protests or court cases related to his chronic tendency to deface a particular statue of Lachlan Macquarie in the central business district there.
Wollongong was another visit to a folk club I had first played in with Alistair. Some of the same folks are running it who were doing so fifteen years ago, and it's in the same venue as it was back then as well. A venue I particularly remember, because it's a Retired Servicemen's Hall, and when we played there the first time it was my first exposure to the phenomenon of being interrupted by a recorded message playing from a loudspeaker instructing us all to stand up, be quiet, and remember our military dead (“lest we forget”). I had the feeling at the time of suddenly having been transported to North Korea, but being the only one in the room who felt this way. The announcement finished, and things returned to normal.
We left Peter and Pamela's enchanting abode in Bundeena to head towards the nation's capital, Canberra, where Sophie Singh had organized a concert for us that was strategically planned in the first place to happen the day before the annual Palm Sunday rally in support of refugees, which takes place in cities across Australia. From what I gathered from other people who attended Palm Sunday rallies in other Australian cities, the Canberra rally is one of the bigger and better-organized ones.
Sophie was not only the organizer of one of the most well-attended shows on the tour, and one of the main organizers of the rally, but she was also the person who had originally introduced my music to Peter and Pamela a couple of decades ago. The concert she organized featured another artist named George, who had clearly spent a lot of time around music from Africa, Latin America, and North America. The sounds of Senegal, Peru, and Memphis could all be recognized in his easy-going improvisations. He only played the didgeridoo for his last song, which was the only thing I found mildly disappointing about his set, which could have included more of that rocking didg playing he was doing. Maybe the locals hear too much of that enchanting instrument, but I don't!
We broke up the long drive from Canberra to Melbourne by stopping for frequent coffee breaks as usual, and also to spend a night in the spacious home near the town of Aubrey of a former secretary of the local Trades Hall, a very entertaining host who wanted to make sure the USA was indeed as much of a madhouse as it appears to be, and I happily confirmed all of his suspicions. I had been introduced to Chip online through another Trades Hall secretary, in Ballarat, when I was looking for somewhere to stay between the two cities.
Our most notable coffee breaks on that leg of the journey were both basically accidental, though only partially so. I was just looking for somewhere to find espresso. But of course, more espresso is more likely to be found in a town with more tourism. Gundagai and Glenrowan are both villages that have some of that.
In the case of Gundagai, the tourism is at least partially related to a beautiful set of statues on the main drag, representing the Aboriginal men and one of the canoes they employed in the successful rescue of dozens of stranded white people, who had been caught off-guard when the whole village flooded big-time and scores of people died, in 1852. When the whites came in the first place, locals told them not to build there, that it was flood-prone, but they ignored the advice.
When we pulled into Glenrowan I discovered that not only is the village home to several fairly mediocre espresso places, but far more interestingly, it is the locale where the great Ned Kelly made his last stand against the cops who had caused him so much trouble all his short life, and where he designed his improvised body armor that he used for the occasion, to great effect. The fun thing about Glenrowan is all the other suits or improvised Ned Kelly body armor that can be found in front of various shops.
In Melbourne we played at the Black Spark Cultural Center, a wonderful art gallery, performance space, and book shop run by a collection of very self-motivated and brilliant anarchist youth. They've had this space since 2021 or so, just a recent phenomenon. They're doing great stuff in there, though they don't own the building or anything, so it seems they're in the precarious situation of renting from a landlord in a capitalist country – hopefully they can figure out how to keep this thing going! What especially impressed me was the lack of interest in identity politics among these fine upstanding anarchist youth, and their definition of “community” as a physical phenomenon that happens in a neighborhood, rather than online.
Walking around the area we discovered a gorgeous park that winds its way along a river and includes lots of gardens, a cafe, and the coolest playground I've ever seen, anywhere, full of gigantic and wild structures for kids to climb in and around, which were made largely with wood and rope and old rubber tires and such, by some amazing craftspeople, one of which looked like a giant centipede.
The folks we stayed with in Melbourne used to run an anarchist book store in London, England, and had an impressive collection of anarchist songbooks they had collected over the years. Many of the songs in them focused primarily on slagging Trotskyists. I really prefer the songs that go after the capitalists, landlords, and imperialists, generally, but they were very nice hosts and very interesting songbooks.
The one hotel stay on the tour was arranged by the folks at the Ballarat Trades Hall, where we played when we were there, whose members had built the hotel. This historic trades hall, the oldest one in Australia, had been at the center of the Australian labor movement pretty much since there was one. During the pandemic folks got all high-tech, and outfitted the place with what looks like a room from a TV studio, with lots of computer screens connected to different cameras that are mounted in the main hall, pointed at the stage, which is decorated with a beautifully-lit, large flag of the sort that flew above the Eureka Stockade during the 1854 uprising on the gold fields nearby.
The next morning, Brett from the Trades Hall met us at the recently-built museum just outside town, which is dedicated to the memory of the Eureka Stockade, and all that that involved, in terms of the participants, the soldiers who died as well as well as the rebels, and the political changes that resulted from the uprising. When Brett introduced us to the museum curator, it turned out he was already familiar with the song I wrote about the event, and he took our pictures in front of the original Eureka flag, which is displayed in a dimly-lit room in the museum.
The next few days featured a lot of driving, along with a brief night in Bundeena, and another in Coff's Harbor, in the home of another friend of Pamela and Peter's. When we got to Lismore, in northern New South Wales, it became quickly evident why the recent floods in the area had been called the Lismore Floods. This town was the epicenter, and so much of it was destroyed or damaged. The house we sang in had been mostly underwater and had to have all kinds of work done on it to make it livable again. Pretty much everyone who came to the show who was from Lismore, which was most of the crowd, had stories to tell of their homes being underwater, and most of their worldly possessions having been destroyed at some point over the past few years, often more than once.
Lismore, and Nimbin, where we stayed that night, are also both centers of the cannabis scene in Australia. Cannabis is still illegal in Australia, unlike in so much of the US or Canada these days. The legalization of cannabis in places like most of North America has resulted in an abundance of inexpensive and high-quality cannabis products legally and easily available for consumers like me, but there have been down sides to the whole process, such as the fact that small-time operators have been pushed out of the business, whatever business they may have been in, such as growing or selling cannabis in some form or other.
Nimbin felt more like Humboldt County, California used to than anywhere I've been in a long time, other than Christiania, in Denmark. Like Christiania today, or Humboldt County two decades ago, you'll find in Nimbin a funny combination of people and storefronts promoting cannabis and hippie culture generally, and then the sort of underbelly of any illegal drug trade, involving some fairly tough-looking characters who you wouldn't want to steal anything from.
Kamala got to practice her Spanish in Nimbin, as our hosts included a Salvadoran lady who made us the most delicious papusa breakfast, and showed us around her magnificent garden, which she had beautifully reconstructed since floods destroyed it some time ago. Mari's partner, Warwick, had written a promotional piece about our gig in Lismore which was very nice, but which also invented a little bit of my back story, including a bit about me having been deported from Australia in the past, which hasn't happened yet. Hopefully it makes for some interesting rumors down the line...
The first gig in Brisbane was in the last place I played a concert anywhere for people live in person before the pandemic closed everything down, in March, 2020. We had a significantly bigger crowd this time than we did then, which included a very entertaining opening set by a local musician named Andy Payne, whose “don't kill people” song is an instant classic. The multi-talented Alex Bainbridge recorded all of the proceedings at this Green Left benefit very nicely, both audio and video.
The final gig on the tour was another folk club I believe I played in with Alistair a long time ago, which had, like the one in Wollongong, already set up their season before they learned that I was coming to town. They were alerted of this by an organizer with Extinction Rebellion these days, also a brilliant climate-focused musician, Jenny Fitzgibbon, who had also put together a gig for Alistair and I a long time ago, when she lived in the town of Maleny. This meant that we were once again opening for another act, which meant getting to hear more great live music, this time a duo touring from Melbourne called the Weeping Willows, who reminded me very much of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, with their soaring, gorgeous harmonies, singing most everything in a sort of duet style, and with lots of expert guitar and accordion added to the mix.
I'll avoid giving you any moral of the story here, but I hope you've enjoyed this little travelogue.