Savannah in The Round is a new festival on the Australian music scene has made quite an impact since its inception a few years ago and 2023 was no exception with a massive selection of bands across all genre’s slated for the stages. Located in Mareeba in Far North Queensland just an hour west of Cairns that boasts 300 days of sunshine and hosted in a rodeo ground this is one of the best and most unique festivals I have been too with a laid back country feel to it and super family friendly. It even had bull riding.
Festivities kicked off in Earnest on Friday with a decidedly Country feel to the performances. Beginning with independent country musician all the way from the USA, Alexandra Kay. Even though it was an early set Kay and her band seemed to soak up the vibe and really delivered her heartfelt songs to a receptive crowd. It was also pretty amazing to see her come off stage afterwards and chat with people and sign autographs.
Casey Barnes was up next and with his appearance and the setting of the sun the crowd swelled and it felt like the start of a big evening of country music and the crowd were ready as 2023 has been Casey Barnes year with him picking up Golden Guitar Award wins Album of the Year and Top Selling Album of the Year for his latest album, Light It Up. ‘Light It Up‘ also took out the 2022 ARIA Award for Best Country Album. Debuting #1 on the ARIA Australian Country Album chart and #3 on the All-Genre Australian Album chart…and he brought it big time to the stage.
Alt folk hippie songbird Kasey Chambers was up next and it was her performance many were looking forward too. Her band on the night included her father Bill Chambers and she did a magic duet with her son Talon Jordi Hopper of one of her biggest hits “The Captain” at the end of her set. But once again her biggest moment was her cover of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”, which starts out with just her on banjo and ends a super crashing crescendo with her whole band. This is quite simply one of the most amazing covers ever made. Maybe she will play with Eminem if he tours Australia next year as rumoured.
James Johnston was the second act of the evening and he must have been busy at the signing tent in the afternoon as almost everyone had a signed hat or a signed shirt. He hit the stage fired up literally as flames burst from the stage as he performed and Johnston was clearly the ladies favourite of the night.
Friday Night’s last performer was Brad Cox, having begun his career in 2017, this young musician really pulls a crowd the whole arena was packed and they seem to know all the words to all the songs which is probably why he won Toyota Star Maker at the Country Music Awards of Australia during the Tamworth Country Music Festival.
The big day of Savannah in the round was Day 2 which saw some of Australia’s biggest names but also some of the country’s most influential musicians grace the two stages.
The first act I caught for the day was Gang Gajang, this mid 80’s band from Sydney were deeply embedded in the surf culture of the time and are best remembered for their hit “Sounds of Then (This Is Australia)” which is still an all time classic. These guys rocked and brought a crowd who knew all the songs especially when they went into a medley of classic 1980’s Oz rock.
For a 1:00pm set was one of Australia’s most successful and insightful song writers, the man behind the songs of Cold Chisel, Don Walker. With a new album out Lightning in a Clear Blue Sky, his set was one of rock a billy infused story telling of the lives of Australian’s. His humour on full display when he says “This is an old Australian Folk song” to introduce Cold Chisel’s biggest hit “Khe Sanh”, which he played unaccompanied on the keyboard, it was truly a liminal experience seeing that played so stripped back live.
Russell Morris has had a stellar career as a blues and roots musician in Australia and hasn’t slowed down much at all given he is in his mid 1970s now, having just released a new album in 2023 Speak To Me, his set was the perfect segway between the afternoon sun setting and the evening festivities beginning.
With 50 albums in the last 46 years under his belt, Joe Camilleri is one of the most prolific musicians in Australia and is a legend in his own right. He bring a such joy to his performances and is a classic showman using all the tools available to him such as call and repeat and of course directing the crowds dance moves, but he also has the songs from the various bands throughout his career such as Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons and of course The Black Sorrows. This was actually the best performance of the weekend.
Daryl Braithwaite is best known for turning an obscure song written by Rickie Lee Jones that was originally performed by her on her 1989 album, Flying Cowboys. Braithwaite with the help of Margaret Urlich and Tommy Emmanuel turned this into a mega hit in Australia “The Horses”, which has received a resurgence in recent years along with his career appearing at a heap of youth focused festivals. Braithwaite’s band is tight and he gives it his all on stage. It was about midway through his set the rain started coming down in this small town known for its lack of rain…but this just added to the atmosphere.
Jimmy Barnes was the final act on this big night of music belting out his form of classic oz rock from all eras of his carreer the man is a national treasure and a sight to behold live,Unfortunately no pictures due to access restrictions.
Sunday was a chill and recovery day with the vibe and music laid back and mellow. Savannah in The Round is an awesome weekend away in Far North Queensland, you can camp on site for the four days so you can bring the party and not have to worry about getting home and make some great new friends. The weather at that time of year is magical warm days and cool nights and the mix of country, rock n roll and rodeo just makes this a one of a kind unique event….lock it in for 2024 tickets are already on sale.
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Nathan Kelly is an Australian Music Photographer and writer who has been working in the music industry for the past 30 years.
His photography has been published and exhibited world wide and is held in several prominent public institutions including the National Library of Australia and The National Portrait Gallery