As you hit the top of a steep rise on a Lower Belford road in in the NSW Hunter Valley, you’re suddenly greeted by large letters spelling out ‘Dashville’, the home of Gum Ball, Thrashville and for the next three days, Dashville Skyline. After the last two years of festival cancellations and postponements, the stars finally aligned and allowed the Johnston family to once again welcome fans of cosmic country and Americana music back to their property for the first time since October 2019.
Hitting the gravel driveway and winding through the towering gum trees and dotted landscape of tents and caravans there was an instant feeling of a weight being lifted and the sweet anticipation of a long weekend of music ahead. With the news dominated by the horrors of war, flood and the pandemic, Dashville lived up to, if only for a few days, its tagline… ‘Escape To The Country’.
The main arena of the festival is a self-contained village in the sense that you can relax, eat, drink, shop and unwind for the entire day. Newcastle’s Rudderless Records was selling vinyl, there was plenty of artist merchandise to peruse, market stalls and activities for kids – from art workshops to the llama kissing booth, plus artist and media interviews with the brilliant festival MC Ben Quinn. Though numbers were a tad down on previous festivals, no doubt due to Covid, the lack of the usual long weekend, and weather concerns, the audience and artists overwhelmingly made up for that with a festival atmosphere that was a mix of reunion, musical collaboration and celebration.
Day One kicked off with a traditional dive into straight country, honky tonk and alt-country with Andy Abra & Big River Band and local heroes Lyle Dennis Band before the baton was well and truly passed to the younger generation via 17 year old local Piper Butcher. Possessing a voice beyond her years and equally impressive songwriting, her blend of country, blues, and rock marks her as a real rising star. Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes are Dashville mainstays, their sound perfectly suited to the laidback vibe of the festival. Like Dylan in New Orleans, Bryan’s languid delivery and masterful way with melody and melancholy on songs like ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Middle Aged Man’ proved as compelling as ever.
As darkness fell and the prospect of rain felt unlikely, we were treated to a three hour run of some of the best live acts in the country. Tracy McNeil & The GoodLife, Ben Leece & Left of the Dial and the iconic sound(s) of The Black Sorrows. McNeil echoed many artist’s sentiments that would be expressed over the weekend – that of the joy and relief to be back on stages with dancing, singing audiences cheering them on. Finally getting a chance to stretch out with her 2020 album You Be the Lightning, McNeil beamed as the band delivered a faultless set of smooth, pop-imbued roots rock – soulful with a backbeat groove. Leece surprised many with a set opener that was dark and dissonant rock, like Jason Isbell channelling Husker Du. He’s clearly taking the sound of his first album and exploring and expanding his songwriting. A mid set tribute to Mark Lanegan with a rendition of Screaming Trees’ ‘Dollar Bill’ was the first goosebumps moment of the festival. The Black Sorrows, led by the septuagenarian Joe Camilleri showed why they’re so widely respected. There were the hits such as ‘Harley and Rose’ and an insanely lively and extended ‘Shape I’m In’ but what impressed most was the energy of Camilleri and the incredible playing of the band. From sax-led R&B to funk, soul, reggae and rock, they were the perfect band to round out the first evening of the festival.
Day Two began with Sydney’s Michael Carpenter & The Banks Brothers and their slick take on honky tonk, complete with a showcase of the playing of the brothers Banks, before The Tall Stories impressed with their ragged alt-country. Melody Moko brought a splash of colour and highly personal songs to the stage and Melbourne’s Katie Bates and band added sweet country soul and swaying rock and twang. Bates and musicians such as Mitch Power, Dan Brodie, Jeff Lang and CJ Stranger would regularly reappear through the weekend as players in other bands – adding to the communal feel of the event.
Fenn Wilson, son of Chris Wilson and Sarah Carroll delivered a set that marked him as a real talent, with a deep resonant voice that was equal parts raw and resonant sensitivity and graceful power. That combined with his dark Americana songwriting made for a real festival highlight. The flip side of Wilson’s bruised songs was Family Jordan’s languid, laidback Northern Rivers sound, complete with a cover of JJ Cale’s ‘Crying Eyes’. Jordie Lane, back from Nashville was in fine form, regaling the audience with tales about Robert Plant and showing what a commanding solo performer he is. Amends shifted gears with their punk-laced and anthemic alt-country that lifted the energy of the late afternoon. Those contrasts are a signature of the Skyline programming, ensuring some fascinating musical twists and turns and emphasising that it isn’t purely a country music festival.
As the sun set, Jeb Cardwell delivered a barnstorming and stellar heart-on-sleeve set that swung from blues grooves to Tom Petty country rock, atmospheric psychedelic excursions and unabashed rock soloing. Eagle & The Wolf brought the Skyline audience into their living room with an intimate and consummate performance courtesy of their heartfelt harmonies and their angel/ruffian musical aesthetic. Providing a link from the past to the present (and future) Slim Dusty’s Travelling Country Band were as entertaining as they were toe-tapping with their iconic Australian songs. Rounding out the night, Melbourne power-pop favourites Icecream Hands kept the party going until close with an endless collection of ringing guitar chords and melodic hooks courtesy of Charles Jenkins.
Day Three of Skyline had a noticeably mellower vibe with a lighter crowd due to pending school and work commitments but musically it was as compelling and brilliant as the other days. Kid Hank & His Orkestra authentically recreated the sound of a Sunday stroll down Bourbon St in New Orleans, T. Wilds enchanted with atmospheric Blue Mountains folk and CJ Stranger hypnotised with his lightly psychedelic and melodic guitar-led songs, closer ‘Strange Ones’ being a real highlight. Katie Brianna continues to impress with the evolution of her songwriting, placing a full band exclamation mark on her fine album of 2021 before the resident band of sorts, Magpie Diaries, filled the muddy, bark-laden dance-floor with an uplifting set of smooth-sailing 70s country rock. It was the perfect entree to the Sunset Super Round, where artists jumped up to play solo or full band covers of favourite songs. From Neil Young to Bob Dylan, Bottle Rockets to Bonnie Raitt songs, it was a left-field choice that stole the show – Jeff Lang performing an incredible note and guitar perfect version of Prince’s ‘Kiss’.
Lang’s full set that followed was yet another festival highlight as he explored American Primitive folk, heavy blues and a heartbreaking version of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s ‘I See a Darkness’. From there it was widescreen country, indie rock, and dark, brooding rock until close. The gold-suited Ben Mastwyk and band took energy and enthusiasm to its highest point before Liz Stringer held the audience in the palm of her hand with one of the best received sets of the festival, her recent album clearly connecting deeply with the audience. Dan Brodie showcased his ability to seamlessly work in straight country, punk and brooding drama before local hero William Crighton, fresh from supporting Midnight Oil, capped off the festival with a dramatic, nuanced and compelling collection of passionate, intelligent and poetic rock songs from his new album Water and Dust.
Given the events of the last two years it must take a bottomless well of determination and energy to plan and execute a festival, but one gets the sense that Skyline is driven by cultural and musical community imperatives as much (if not more) than commercial concerns. It strikes a perfect balance between all its different elements. Inherently soulful and humanistic it was yet another resounding success and word is that this October the gum trees of Dashville will again sway to sound of cosmic country music.