It’s a big call but Blenheim Festival is unbeatable. Here’s why you should head to the Clare Valley over Easter weekend.
A lot of elements have to fall into place for a music festival to hit all the right notes. I’ve been to plenty in my time. At one point, it was my job: traipsing through forest gigs on a Norwegian island, battling through the mud at Glastonbury, frolicking with fairies at Secret Garden Party, rocking out at Download, dancing with strangers at Lovebox, sharing backstage banter with Queens Of The Stone Age at Reading Festival, floating to Isle Of Wight Fest, and bouncing to Hilltop Hoods at Brighton’s The Great Escape. They were magical times but a South Australian festival trumps the lot.
Blenheim Music and Camping Festival is beautiful in its simplicity. The two-day event is held on a working farm in the Clare Valley. Organisers (locals) have a ‘no dickhead’ policy and it seems to work. They treat the crowd like family (officially they call us the Blenheim Fest Family Members) and we respect them for it. The crowd takes care of the spectacular environment, clean up after themselves and genuinely look after each other. Campsites are happy places. People pull up in their vehicles and set up tents (some simple, some supersized). They share the space and their resources.
Last year we rolled up in a vintage caravan and set up camp on a hill (in the family area – much quieter there) overlooking the countryside. As the sun set over a cheese platter with mates (you can take your own food and booze) we toasted the volunteer-run, not-for-profit festival. Money raised goes to New Hope Cambodia and local causes like the Clare Valley High School Music Department and the CFS. So far, they’ve raised almost $76,000. It just makes you feel good.
“Blenheimfest is beautiful in its simplicity.”
It all started during winter 2009 when Alister Sandow and his wife Helen Turner built a skate ramp on their farm. Just as something to do. Nine years on, people watch skaters do their thing at Sandow’s Skate Ramp during the event. The festival itself began in 2010 as a small, private music bash for their mates. It wasn’t about making money, just good times with pals. Back then the event involved three bands, three DJs, and a small PA powered by a generator. Just 150 mates attended. Two years later, the public got an invite.
The crowd has expanded (last year clocked up 1,800 punters) but the fest’s happy, laidback vibe holds strong. Even the local food wine, beer, cider, coffee and tea (shout out to The Tea Catcher) vendors seem relaxed.
“What sets the festival apart if the passion and the community behind it all,” chairman Tim Ennis says. “It’s all for charity – everyone on the board is a volunteer. We’re not in it to make money or flog alcohol.”
Tim started out as a punter and joined the crew as a board member in 2014. He hasn’t missed a Blenheim Fest yet. My first Blenheim experience was in 2017 but from here on I don’t plan to either.
Then there’s the music. This year, the line-up includes New Zealand’s The Black Seeds, Timberwolf, Mojo Juju, Bootleg Rascals, Z-Star Delta (from the UK), Kings & Associates, The Wanderers, eMDee, Amaru Tribe, Donnarumma, Akoustic Odyssey, Gorilla Jones, Headphone Piracy, Courtney Robb & Snooks, Joe Man Murphy, and Trav Collins (on Friday) and West Thebarton, Mia Dyson, Karl S Williams, Ukulele Death Squad, Kelly Brouhaha, The Skeleton Club, and The Shambolics (Thursday). “It’s going to be unreal,” Tim says. “The Black Seeds stepped it up a notch for us. It’ll be amazing to see them on the stage we built.”
There’s no rushing between the 23 sets because no two artists play at once – artists alternate between two stages and hang out with the crowd when they’re done.
Other factors come into play. The simple stuff that makes a festival shine. The loos are decent (during Download Festival, I got knocked in the head by a plastic bottle full of urine – none of that here folks). Security is friendly. Strangers smile at each other. Plenty of locals turn up so the site has a genuine community heartbeat, people don’t seem to get blind drunk, and the space is small enough to find mates easily. I once spent two days looking for pals at Glastonbury. The blisters weren’t pretty.
“During Download Festival, I got knocked in the head by a plastic bottle full of urine – none of that here folks.”
Blenheim Fest is also kid heaven. Little tackers dance beneath the setting sun, make art with South Australian creatives, and if they’re under 12 get in for free. Art for all ages includes spoken word in The Cinema Room and live art in the Artistic Alleyway (artists start with a blank canvas – anything can and does happen). Last year we watched the likes of Kaspar Schmidt Mumm, Henry Jock Walker and Abbey Howlett worked their bizarre creative, installation magic. Trumpet Lane Marketplace is great for the thrifty. Handmade goodies galore. The music-fuelled dance-offs at the Party Paddock are really bloody good, too.
In a nutshell, it’s all a bit like being a kid again. Imagination is given the space to run wild. In a world of work, work, work it’s easy to forget that life should sometimes be light-hearted.
Capacity is capped at 2000 (including volunteers) so snooze and you may lose. See you on the farm. Just leave any glass (it’s a no-no) and dickhead tendencies at home.
Blenheim Music and Camping Festival runs from 29 to 30 March. Gates open at 3pm on Thursday (for two-day ticketholders) or at 10am on Friday for one-day passes.