Savannah Sounds On The Reef: Local heroes celebrated during Great Barrier Reef’s first-ever live gig

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Savannah Sounds On The Reef: Local heroes celebrated during Great Barrier Reef’s first-ever live gig

Words by Bryget Chrisfield

Savannah Sounds On The Reef, which was jointly funded by the Australian and Queensland governments under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements, could not be more fittingly titled since it's staged atop a floating pontoon on Moore Reef.

Tickets weren’t made available to the general public for Savannah Sounds On The Reef. Instead, a nationwide competition earned 100 community-nominated local heroes a ticket to this once-in-a-lifetime floating music experience – the first live gig ever to be hosted on the Outer Barrier Reef.

Many on board demonstrated bravery during the devastating storms and floods connected to far north Queensland’s back-to-back tropical cyclones, Kirrily and Jasper, this past summer.

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

Brett “Magoo” Little piloted a rescue helicopter during the floods, saving 16 people from the roof of the Lion’s Den Hotel.

At just 12 years old, Charlie Erlewein lobbied to local councils and businesses about the harmful effects of single use plastics on turtles and marine life. She has also raised thousands of dollars for wildlife rehabilitation centres by applying for community grants, and saving bottles and cans. Be more like Charlie, kids!

For those concerned about the effects of bass vibrations on the reef ecosystems, Savannah Sounds festival organiser James Dein has assured, “Everything was measured and planned with exacting detail.”

After a surprisingly turbulent trip on the Reef Magic vessel – yep, spew bags were distributed – we arrived at the pontoon. Once we board, it’s time for some in-water activities with snorkelling, glass bottom boat and semi-submersible cruises plus an underwater observatory available for all. While looking down to thread one raised leg through a wetsuit, we notice a plethora of fish swimming by underneath and note that the spacing between the slats is easily wide enough to swallow mobile phones. Note to self: take extra special care while taking snapshots.

We learn about the importance of reef-safe sunscreen. Branded reusable water bottles, which double as cool souvenirs, are distributed. Apparently local Cairns musician Drew Brauer, who co-founded and runs the Kick On mental health charity (also a MAFS Season 7 contestant) is on board lapping up the good vibes.

Before taking the plunge, we’re informed that Wally – an affectionate, vibrant aquamarine-and-yellow Maori Wrasse known for planting fishy kisses on unsuspecting cheeks – has been spotted in the area. But, sadly, none of today’s snorkelers that we chat with reported Wally sightings/smooches.

Savannah Sounds headliners Sheppard arrive via helicopter, landing on the nearby helipad, and wave to revellers while being transferred to the pontoon via boat.

Having crossed paths with the legendary Auslan interpreter Mikey Webb on the galley stairs, we already know today’s entertainment will be further elevated by his spirited signing and fully-committed dancing. A hero in his own right, Webb and his trademark manbun were regulars on TV screens in Australian households during the pando as he fronted countless press conferences with Queensland authorities.

Needless to say, many smartphones pointed Webb’s way to capture the magic throughout the course of the day. Sweating bullets while bopping away in full sunlight, Webb’s joyous presence is infectious as he not only translates lyrics but also captures each song’s essence through movement.

Kairos Kin’s “futuristic” Acknowledgement of Country draws punters away from their buffet lunches and upstairs to the performance area for the first-ever live music experience to happen on the Great Barrier Reef, kicking things off with some beats-enhanced didge – maximum bass vibration occurs early on.

One half of this electronic duo, Terry Cassels (aka Kazm), tells us Kairos King believes in “Manifestation of the good”. The pair also share some important lyrical messages throughout their set (eg. “Bring in the love, put down the guns”). Then Kazm observes, “Men should be looking out for their sisters,” which is timely given that Violence Against Women protest rallies are scheduled to take place all around the country this weekend.

We certainly appreciate Kairos Kin’s unison chorey, during which the unique styles of Kazm and Blue MC (aka singer/rapper Marisa Lock, who you might recognise from her stint with The Potbelleez) are celebrated, their individuality shining through. When The Robot is incorporated, some punters in the crowd even follow suit. Kairos Kin sprinkle contemporary flavour atop ancient culture and instrumentation. We also fully endorse their song about dancing away your demons as well. Be sure to check ‘em out when they tour your way.

“The shearing sheds and bending backs/ Australian dreams under battered hats…” – Lee Kernaghan’s music is in our blood. And his songs are the perfect soundtrack for this celebration of some of our nation’s unsung heroes.

After reminding us we’re currently partying on one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, Kernaghan enthuses, “It’s a privilege to be here on the Great Barrier Reef and an even bigger privilege to play for you.”

While singing, “We get high when the sun goes down…” Kernaghan mimes toking on a spliff – what a cheeky chappy! Also during Boys From The Bush, we clap eyes on one-to-watch country star Max Jackson – who’s up next, but also excels in her role as this event’s MC – singing along with gusto, a giant smile on her dial. Hat Town embodies the community spirit and generosity of country folk: “Have the locals pass the hat around and pull each other through…” – Kernaghan yodels during this one, then faces Webb, asking him to demonstrate the Auslan interpretation of yodelling. Webb completely nails it – somehow transporting us to the Swiss alps amongst the herders – and Kernaghan beams approvingly while patting him on the back.

Kernaghan’s wife Robby excels on BVs and their duet cover of Fire by The Pointer Sisters goes down an absolute treat. The ocker delights continue with Damn Good Mates (Kernaghan’s collab with The Wolfe Brothers), Let There Be Cowgirls – before which he initiates a toast for the ladies (“especially those from the country”) – and The Outback Club, where we’re all inducted as life members (“We don’t back down and we don’t give up”).

So that Jackson doesn’t have to introduce herself to the stage, twin sisters Stack and Mel Wilburn (from the TV show Travel Guides) do the honours. Wearing denim on denim, Jackson is accompanied by her husband Jeremy Minett (The Viper Creek Band’s guitarist) and has the It factor in abundance.

Her Little More Country covers series – which comprised countrified versions of Jimmy Barnes (Working Class Man), Queen (Another One Bites The Dust), Lady Gaga (Poker Face) and ABBA (Dancing Queen), to name but a few – blew up on TikTok and this arvo’s medley transforms Reef Magic’s state-of-the-art reef pontoon into mass karaoke.

“This is a song about country people and why I bloody love ‘em,” is how Jackson intros Someone In A Small Town: “Out here you’ll never be a no one in a crowd/ ‘Cause everyone is someone in a small town.”

Having charmed our socks off all day – we can immediately see why she’s been Tamworth Country Music Festival’s ambassador for multiple years – Jackson closes with Chasing Down The Dream, which is surely super-close to being realised. As 2024’s CMAA Golden Guitar Winner for New Talent of the Year, it’s fair to say Jackson’s future is blindingly bright.

Needing to find out more about Jackson, we tracked down an event publicist. She kindly agreed to a last-minute interview in the Green Room.

“I just can’t believe that we’re here playing on the Great Barrier Reef,” Jackson marvels while we find somewhere suitable to sit. When told we clocked her enthusiastic Kernaghan singalong earlier, Jackson gushes, “It was definitely people like Lee who inspired me to be doing what I’m doing today. I grew up in a little country town called Coonamble [NSW] and we were pretty much starved for anything – being a long way from everything. So people like Lee Kernaghan, Gina Jeffreys and Troy Cassar-Daley would tour to Coonamble [and perform at] our little RSL Club.”

During her own set, Jackson spoke about the heroes within her own family.

“I wrote this song called Someone In A Small Town about the fact that I think the thing that makes growing up in the country so different to anywhere else is that everybody plays such an important role in the community – everyone’s bringing something to it – and that’s pretty much how small towns survive, because of people like that.

“My pop was actually the fire captain, so if there were any bushfires he was out fighting them. And my grandma was a teacher and changed so many kids’ lives, was always just encouraging people. And my mum’s a hairdresser, so she would’ve known everything about everyone,” she acknowledges, laughing. “And she is just an absolute legend and the most trustworthy – she’d just lock it up and throw away the key.

“I always say in places like that you’re famous for something and my nan was famous for her Ginger Fluff Sponge Cake, the greatest cake you’ve ever tasted; honestly, I can taste it now thinking about it. But I just grew up around people who really cared for others – and really focussed on that community spirit – and I’m so grateful for my upbringing, ‘cause I wouldn’t be the person I am today without that.”

Post-interview, we join the dunny queue line behind aforementioned young hero Charlie. She expresses her concern that Sheppard are about to hit the stage, but thankfully no one’s spending a second longer than absolutely necessary in those cramped facilities. Charlie is later spotted front and centre, against the barrier, living it up during the Brisbane indie-pop trio’s headline set.

Absolutely everything about this sibling band comprising Amy, Emma and George Sheppard is extra and fancy: outfits (that snazzy sequined gold two-piece, though!), guitars (Emma’s a glittery silver and George’s all hand painted in swirly multi-colours) and hair colour (currently the trio’s chosen hues are musk pink, platinum blonde and a vivid aqua that almost matches the reef water).

From opener Coming Home, the band’s setlist rolls out bop after bop: (“Keep runnin’ with the…”) Animals, Kiss My Fat Ass and Edge Of The Earth, which pretty much describes our current locale. The latter, Sheppard’s brand new single, features anthemic choruses that make us feel like we’re flying rather than floating. Their cover of blink-182’s All The Small Things, with its pogo-friendly “Na-na-na-na” refrain, absolutely goes off, winning audience reaction of the day.

Whether or not you know anything about Geronimo, Sheppard’s closing smash hit hits the sweet spot – good luck extracting that chorus melody from your internal jukebox for the next week or so!

It just has to be said that the more tipsy heroes among us do enjoy blaming their staggers on the motion of the ocean.

Once safely back on board the Reef Magic vessel, seasickness-prone punters head straight to the outside lower deck for some fresh air and horizon gazing. An

Indigenous crew member points into the distance before (correctly) forecasting heavy rainfall. We brace ourselves.

There’s nothing quite like a dopamine-boosting live music experience in nature, with a little bit of adventure thrown in, to remind us of the importance of community connection.

During this event, it was also announced that all four Savannah Sounds On The Reef acts will join the lineup for Savannah In The Round, an annual three-day festival staged in Mareeba, Cairns, which runs from 11 – 13 October. Previously announced artists for Savannah In The Round 2024 include Kip Moore, The Living End, Hoodoo Gurus and Vika & Linda.

Savannah In The Round tickets can be purchased here.