‘More venues than anywhere in the world’: High Street’s massive new Eighty-Six festival amplifies the essence of Melbourne

Get the latest from Beat


‘More venues than anywhere in the world’: High Street’s massive new Eighty-Six festival amplifies the essence of Melbourne

Words by Andrew Handley

The inaugural Eighty-Six festival sees venues along the titular tram line hosting events through Northcote, Thornbury and Preston.

“I’ve always thought Melbourne needed a venue-based festival,” says Co-Founder and Artistic Director Woody McDonald. “Something where you knew that if you came to Melbourne all the stuff that we do every weekend was amplified.”

“There’s sort of things like that, but I don’t know of any that really focus on the small businesses and the small venues and the record store culture as much,” says McDonald. “I also realised High Street probably has more venues than anywhere in the world now.”

Keep up with the latest music news, features, festivals, interviews and reviews here.

While this is McDonald’s first time founding a festival, he is more than qualified for the job, having been Program Director at the beloved Meredith and Golden Plains festivals for a staggering 14 years. “I had some involvement from when I was about 18 and started booking it when I was about 20 or 21,” he recalls. “I was managing bands… always hassling the organisers, emailing them saying ‘think about this, think about that,’ and just got to know them. They brought me in a smaller capacity and couldn’t get rid of me.”

McDonald relinquished the role in 2020 to allow for new voices. “I realise now more than in the moment what kind of experience that really was,” he says. “For the people that go, it’s such an important event for them, and it’s been a huge part of my life.”

McDonald’s roots trace back even further to his time at community radio. “When I started at Triple R I was probably 16 or 15, and everyone that has a show there was involved in music in some way – a venue booker, promoter, or a DJ – they’re all fanatics there, so I learnt everything there about music,” he says. “They’d just be sharing ideas constantly, and you get each other involved in things. It’s such an amazing network of people, who are all in it for pretty pure reasons.” McDonald presented his final show at the station earlier this year, which has allowed him time to focus on other projects.

“The Eighty-Six was devised when I thought about what overseas visitors talk about and what they love about Melbourne, and it’s always our small bar, cafe and late-night culture, the cool, little stuff they buzz on,” McDonald says. “I wanted to do a festival celebrating this existing culture  – it’s all here on this street, this 86 tramline.

“So I came up with this idea, and the Victorian government have been strong backers of local music and enthusiastically embraced the idea of the festival. Their support has made it possible and enabled us to deliver such a big free program.”

Super Saturday is the festival’s central event happening on October 28 across more than 40 venues, including bars, night clubs, bowls clubs and record stores, each with its own curator. While it’s a mammoth undertaking, McDonald says they’ve had a lot of help organising the event. “[We’re] facilitating all these great operators and what they already do all the time and giving them some support” he explains. “It’s going to run from early in the day through to as late as the last license [ends], so that should be pretty fun.”

Due to the varying sizes of venues, it was decided making the event free was the fairest option. “You’re not feeling ripped off if you can’t see your favourite band,” explains McDonald. “Also, if someone’s not a rusted-on gig-goer, they can come and check out all these little scenes for the day without committing too heavily to it.”

An eclectic series of paid shows will run along High Street as a part of the festival too, including enduring indie rock icons Built to Spill, who will play a four-show residency at Northcote Social Club. “We tried to think differently with as many of those headline shows, so instead of putting them in an unconventional venue, we thought let’s put them in the most conventional venue with great sound, but do it in a different format,” explains McDonald. “They’re a band with 20 years or more of catalogue… if you’re a mega fan you can come a couple of nights and probably see a completely different set.”

Legendary Detroit House DJ Theo Parrish will play by himself all day long at Northcote Theatre. “That doesn’t happen very often,” says McDonald. “So, we’ll try it… and artists get a lot out of it.”

In an Australian exclusive, Thornbury Theatre will host a live recording of the cult podcast How Long Gone. Though McDonald hadn’t heard much of it before, the excitement from his promoter was persuasive. “They were like, ‘I’ve just always wanted to do this… imagine if they came and talked about Melbourne and took the piss out of it,’” he says. “That’s very much what they’re about; cities and hospitality and music and all that sort of thing. It feels like a cool thing for all the fans, but also for Melbourne to be profiled in that way.”

McDonald is especially excited for Dennis Bovell, who will be performing in another Australian exclusive. “We’ll have him in residence so he’ll pop up a few times,” he says. “He did things like produced The Slits and Pop Group, some of the great punk albums back in the day, but then he’s such a legend of like dub and reggae so I’m really excited about [him].”

If all goes well, The Eighty-Six will return next year, but McDonald hopes people will do their own version in the meantime. “That’s another reason to do it, it’s like a festival you can go to every weekend,” he says. “That’d be really beneficial for Melbourne to have that showcased.”

Gear up for The Eighty-Six Festival from October 23 to 31. Find out more by heading here.

This article was made in partnership with The Eighty-Six.