It’s one of the most talked about events in the region and I can now see why after experiencing my first Illawarra Folk Festival.
From humble beginnings at Jamberoo in 1985, the four day event has grown to be one of Australia’s largest festival run entirely by volunteers.
The music officially kicked off on Thursday to blistering heat, followed by storms which finally cleared Saturday evening.
The inevitable mud throughout the grounds added to the festival vibe, with most revelers unfazed by the ankle deep muck.
Wandering around between the 14 venues was like discovering a diverse mini-city extending far beyond Bulli Showgrounds and into the lush surrounds of Grevillea Park.
Tents occupied land between marquees, with international food and market stalls also sprouting up in various places.
Each musician on stage was greeted with largely crowds, an eclectic mix of adults and some children letting the music inspire their souls.
The incredible mix of genres were exactly what organisers had been spruiking. Folk, world, roots, Celtic, bluegrass, gypsy and even jazz mixed in to one event - all leaving satisfied smiles and bodies grooving in the audience.
I let me ears determine which direction I would survey next, leading me to find artists I’d never normally listen to.
“I’ve been hearing about this for years and years but this is my first one,” said drummer Alex Masso.
I came across his band the Queen Porter Stomp at the La Petite Grande pavilion. They were playing to a full house with dozens of music-lovers hanging outside at the doors to catch a glimpse of the jazzy six-piece.
It’s the first Illawarra event for the group of music teachers who hail from Sydney’s inner west.
“I think i’m a bit hooked on folk festivals now. We just played at Woodford [Folk Festival] and now this one and we love it,” said band trumpeter Louise Horwood.
It was the “inclusive” vibe Ms Horwood loved the most, where “everything goes”.
“Outside the box is fine and traditional is fine, and it can mix and match. Everybody’s eager to have a good time, people can’t wait to get up and dance they want to support you, they want to listen and they’re genuinely interested in the music,” she said.
A middle-aged woman interrupts our chat to give praise to the young horn player, whose New Orleans-style sound she said was fabulous.
That exchanged summed up the attitude of most people at the festival, whether they were there to play music or have music played to them.
FESTIVAL NUMBERS DOWN ON LAST YEAR
A wet start to the weekend put a dampener on overall numbers to the 31st Illawarra Folk Festival, but it didn’t dampen the spirits of those who attended.
Festival artistic director David De Santi said final figures wouldn’t be tallied for several days, but number were down on last years record of 11,500.
"However, we are delighted with how the festival lineup has been received. Of our 170 acts 40 had never performed at the Illawarra Folk Festival before. The audience reaction has been fantastic, with lots of standing ovations,” he said.
"We have been able to give 70 local acts the opportunity to perform, which is very satisfying."
People trekked to Bulli Showgrounds from all over Australia, with organisers estimating about a 50/50 split between Illawarra patrons and tourists. Southern and south western Sydney were strong drawing areas.
All 400 campsites were booked out prior to the beginning of the four-day affair with around 1000 people living amongst the music across the weekend.