September 15, 2022

Thriving Live Again 

Corin Shearston

A desire to create is a strong driving force in the lives of many Blue Mountains residents, living on Dharug and Gundungurra land.

Both the official data and the anecdotal evidence tell us that this place is a creative hot spot. The creative industries is the seventh-largest income generator in the Blue Mountains, contributing around $279 million to the local economy annually. We’re also the only world heritage-listed city in the world to achieve the title of City of The Arts. Therefore it’s no wonder we’ve got such a rich music scene, which attracts local, national, and international talent to a constant stream of homegrown festivals, gigs, and unique high-altitude venues.

While growing up in our town, I’ve seen live acts from all over the world play at our venues and at our major annual festivals. I have also experienced a wide variety of DIY outdoor events and house gigs. Having been a drummer in multiple rock and metal bands for the past 15 years, my bandmates and I have performed at pubs, bars, theatres, homes, backyards, and bushland – even skateparks. Many of these public locations continue to host bands, which keep attracting new audiences.

The solitude found in the natural vastness of our region is of great benefit to the creative mind. As a result, many freedom-loving locals contribute to DIY, generator-powered gigs in remote bush settings, unused tunnels, and abandoned quarries, creating meaningful new cultural formats. At the same time, thousands of local youth grow their identities through different subcultures, which leads to a plethora of new bands and acts.

Following two years of cultural disconnection because of the Covid-19 pandemic, local performers have finally brought colour back to our streets, offering new musical experiences to the inquisitive. The hard work of promoters like Retro Rehash, Fusion Boutique, Barney Collins, and YOUR MATE Bookings helps to keep gig posters on poles, walls, and windows – just in time for the return of weekly busloads of tourists who get to enjoy not only the Blue Mountains’ natural landmarks, but our vibrant culture as well.  

The effects of Covid-19 lingers for many local musicians, who saw gigs cancelled and incomes lost because of the lockdowns. Bands couldn’t even rehearse together in person, and for many, boredom and isolation became the norm. For others, the lockdown provided time to develop new songs, film clips and social media livestreams, while expanding their sonic horizons.

Blue Mountains electronic pop/folk musician Alia Sharp emerged from lockdown feeling reinvigorated and recharged. Her new audiovisual-dance project with performance artist Emily Yali, titled Yalia, received a funded residency at the Blue Mountains Theatre in Springwood under the Blue Mountains City Council’s Propel initiative. They’re now set to hone their craft through the residency next year, before revealing their efforts in a live public performance. “As emerging artists, we’re hoping to improve our confidence and industry knowledge, while gaining an insight into professional industry standards and improving our performance skills,” Sharp says.

Emily Yali & Alia Sharp | Corin Shearston photos by Maja Baska

Others, like Blue Mountains musician Jimmi Carr, a solo artist and leader of rock-funk trio the Jimmi Carr Band, also fared well. “I tend to be a reasonably solitary animal anyway, so I managed through lockdown more unscathed than some,” says Carr.  

When restrictions slowly eased, many surviving bands re-entered their rehearsal studios with renewed focus and drive. “As soon as we could be in contact with each other, we rehearsed,” Carr says. “Any time the lockdown kind of eased, venues were desperate for musicians.”

Former-local singer Lulu Levins-Skehill, frontwoman for electronic post-rock quartet Sonori, agrees: “because we couldn't see each other for so long, we desperately wanted to play…everyone had a renewed sense of motivation and commitment after lockdown.”

Like diamonds formed through long and intense pressure, Covid-19 produced many shining cultural achievements, albeit unintentionally. We struggled as much as any other community, but as a creative place, many of us used the extended lockdowns to play, imagine, and create, and we have emerged stronger than before. The mountains’ re-energised music scene has spawned new festivals and revised veteran music events in Katoomba, such as the Winter Magic Festival and the Blue Mountains Music Festival, both running since the mid-90s.

After a two-year hiatus, the Winter Magic Revival Festival made its triumphant return in August this year, reclaiming Winter Magic’s position as our region’s largest annual event. Festival president Greg McManus said the festival’s focus was “on regenerating Katoomba for local businesses, while employing local artists.” To that end, the massive music and art event hosted 140 different acts across 13 stages, including headlining homegrown talent Hermitude and Urthboy, as well as many other local artists and musicians.

During lockdown, Retro Rehash kept music fans engaged by curating online playlists of Blue Mountains music, known as Sounds of Our Towns (SOOT). Earlier this year, SOOT extended its reach into the physical, and now hosts gigs with a focus on emerging musicians who are unfamiliar with larger stages, guided by its creative director and charismatic MC, Willem Hendriksen.

One young musician to have played for SOOT and the Winter Magic Revival Festival is Taylah Harrington, lead singer and guitarist for the punky pop-rock trio Trash Baby. “I think the audience feedback was empowering,” Harrington says, reflecting on Winter Magic. “People told me that they felt quite emotional.”

While visionary local talents strove to keep music fans connected during the last two years of uncertainty, no amount of online content was ever going to replace the exhilarating feeling of being at a live gig. Keeping us connected while keeping life interesting, live music is a vital main vein for our community, and it flows in rich streams from Mt Victoria to Lapstone and beyond. I hope that this new reality now encourages many new musical dreamers to flourish into the singers and players who set our minds humming and our feet dancing.

Koyla Chan - photo by Inertia Photography

Members mentioned

Maja Baska