After a twisted year for live music, Small Town Big Sound (STBS) was the touring festival set to make things right.
Over six weeks, the initiative sought to bring beloved Australian artists to low-key locals across six regions, from Barwon South West to Hume – reinvigorating regional Victoria’s live music scene and offering communities the opportunity to come together over incredible homegrown talent.
I went along to the fourth leg of the STBS tour on a beaming autumnal day, jazzed to see Elizabeth, Birdz and Camp Cope perform live in the inimitable setting of the Grampians.
Held at Pomonal Hall on gorgeous Djab Wurrung country, Saturday’s event was, like the rest of the tour, fully sold out. Standing in the small, primary school dance-style community hall, it was a stretch to envision 170 ticket holders squeezing inside – things were likely to get sweaty.
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Before the show kicked off, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Georgia McDonald, Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich and Sarah Thompson of Camp Cope, to hear about their STBS experience.
As each act was billed to play four shows, it was sadly the trio’s final night on the tour, having played to a rambunctious crowd in Ballarat the previous evening.
“Ballarat was really cool, it’s so interesting to play to rooms of people after 16 months of not playing because of COVID, and it was such a party, everyone was partying hard and we were in this big sweaty room full of people and it was really nice.
“Everyone in Ballarat was really into it, screaming along to the songs,” Hellmrich told me.
“There were a couple of kids who told me it was their first show back, which was nice,” chimed in Thompson.
“And a couple of kids who had turned eighteen during COVID so it was their first ever show,” Hellmrich said.
STBS was heavily inspired by the travelling rock’n’roll tours of the ’70s, meaning all the artists were piled into a van, road-tripping from region to region, an element Thompson said has been really nice.
“We’ve never done a tour in a van here really, we’ve toured but that’s always flying, it’s a different vibe to sitting in a bus with the same people every day. It’s been so nice, just everyone on a bus, cruising around, going to the pub, doing shows, sleeping in the same hotels.”
“It’s like school camp,” Hellmrich said, “I was brushing my teeth in the shower today and Micah, the drummer from Birdz was also brushing their teeth and Nathan, Birdz, was having a shower. I was like, ‘It feels like we’re on school camp’, it’s so cute.”
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STBS has been the band’s first tour since COVID, and on top of that it’s been five years since their last Australian tour, “let alone in the regions.”
“It’s an honour,” said McDonald. “It feels really special for these to be our first shows back after months, and it feels so nice to be bringing music back to places that were maybe hit the hardest by COVID – that feels special.”
“Everyone has such positive energy too, I think when you start travelling and playing shows a lot you get kind of complacent and jaded, and then we’ve had such a nice break that the things we took for granted before, we’re kind of seeing again. It’s very joyful,” Hellmrich said.
And their favourite part about touring in the regions?
“The country is so beautiful,” Hellmrich said. “You know, we’re at the campground and there’s kangaroos everywhere, it’s just these places we don’t really get to visit and experience often. It’s the natural beauty, it’s just gorgeous.”
As for the differences between playing in the cities to the regions, Hellmrich said “it feels smaller, and more intimate”.
“We get to be out with the audience and hanging out, the city shows are always much bigger. People just walk into the green room and chat here, in the cities you can’t really do that because there’s so many points of security, but in the country it’s just curtains and people just walk through!” she laughed.
With community front of mind, the tour’s organisers had ensured STBS was as accessible as possible, with tickets priced at $20. While thoughtful, this translated on Saturday to a more relaxed vibe, punter-wise.
The show was an early one, set to kick off at 5pm, but the organisers delayed it for 40 minutes or so because no one had arrived.
Openers Travalley eventually jumped on, and while the crowd watching them was sparse, their performance was immensely enjoyable.
By the time Elizabeth took to the stage, the hall had begun filling up. Put simply, Elizabeth was ethereal – an absolute pleasure to witness performing live.
“I really love being in this hall, it reminds me of battle of the bands… those feelings of anxiety and joy,” she confessed in between songs.
Doused in ultraviolet light, her stage presence was reminiscent of a Lynchian film – entrancing, emotive and wholly moving.
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Birdz’ arrival to the stage was met with raucous energy. He succeeded in rousing the entire audience, getting everyone to take two steps forward, filling the space of the hall. He also got the entire – noticeably older – crowd on their feet and actually dancing.
“It’s a beautiful thing, to come together and connect over live music again,” he said, thanking STBS’ organisers.
During the changeover, I enjoyed the freshly wood-fired pizza on offer and chatted with a few punters and the STBS crew. Members of the Transport Accident Commissioner’s youth-engagement program, Vanessa, were there, spreading the good word about safe travel, promoting their message, “pre-think before you drink”.
I spun their trivia wheel and despite winning my P-plates not a month ago, I got no less than four car safety questions wrong in a row. Embarrassing, but the Vanessa angels still let me have a consolation prize.
Finally, Camp Cope took to the stage. Everyone had arrived by this point, pumped and ready to sing along. As anticipated, the trio killed it and had the entire crowd cheering and dancing along with them.
“It’s funny, I don’t think we’re really a ‘dance group’, we’re more of a sit-down, take valium and cry group,” McDonald laughed.
Never settling for silence, Camp Cope’s stage presence and audience communication was inspiring and powerful.
“I’ll bet even in lockdown so many of you still got harassed on the street, yeah?” McDonald called, prompting a loud, ‘Yeah’ from the enraptured crowd.
“Men need to do better. Women don’t, we’re doing fine. This isn’t an attack. We all need to do better as people!”
Camp Cope’s ultimate closing track ‘The Opener’ concluded their terrific show, leaving the room reverberating with excitement.
The good vibes lingered on long after the show had ended. It could have been the country air, or the distinct sense of community, but that night in Pomonal left me with palpable joy and hope for the vibrant and diverse music scene that initiatives like Small Town Big Sound signal for the future.
Highlight: Elizabeth’s performance took me to another world! Unforgettable!
Lowlight: Community events such as these offer people who might not catch up too often an opportunity to come together. This unfortunately resulted in some loud chatter while the artists were performing and speaking to the crowd. Upsetting, but what can you do? I’m no shoosher.
Crowd favourite: Camp Cope’s ‘The Opener’ always gets me right in the feels – an emotion mirrored by the crowd, who were screaming along throughout their entire set.