Wollongong, on the NSW south coast, is caught in a turbulent wave of change set to affect nearly every part of the region, with young people bearing the brunt of the hurt.
Bluescope Steel's facility at Port Kembla -- the largest steelworks in Australia and arguably the most important employer in the working-class Illawarra -- is under a cloud, with the company saying it needs to save millions in operating costs or it will have to lay off thousands of workers.
Coal mines, the other important local employers also suffering from a global downturn in demand, are cutting back operations or shutting up shop. The proud local newspaper The Illawarra Mercury (where this journalist formerly worked) just shed two-thirds of its editorial staff; youth unemployment is more than 18 percent and 15 percent of young people live in poverty.
But there is one area where the region is quickly picking up clout, where young people can look for some inspiration and positivity -- Wollongong fast-blossoming arts and cultural scene, with the Yours & Owls music festival as one of its shining centrepieces.
The Yours & Owls collective started life as a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop then music venue in the Wollongong CBD and has since grown to a fully-fledged promotion and management company, racking up five years of life in October. They brought Australian big guns The Rubens, The Preatures, Cloud Control, The Delta Riggs and The Smith Street Band to a beachside park to celebrate the occasion.
The festival kicked off Friday night with a serene evening of calm music and film screenings, with Saturday morning heralding the beginning of the main event. The festival, a small site plonked in the middle of Wollongong's Stuart Park, had a capacity of 5000 and quickly filled. The sun shone, the beach -- a literal stone's throw from the festival gates -- blew a cool breeze and punters wandered around various art installations as the first notes of the day's first performance rang out from the stage.
Bec Sandridge, a local favourite, opened the main day of the festival. Her older folksy tunes, calling to mind Julia Stone and Sarah Blasko, soon gave way to her recent 80s disco-pop reinvention. Current single 'In The Fog In The Flame' is getting regular Triple J radio play, its upbeat synths and Kate Bush/Divinyls vibes sparking the first dance-a-long of the day among the smattering of early punters.
Fellow Wollongong act The Pinheads sauntered up next, injecting a huge dose of energy as the sun baked overhead. The sprawling collective of musicians have been making waves across Sydney with their brand of off-kilter, high-energy 70s-influenced scuzzy punk rock; their costumes, makeup and wild stage antics don't hurt, either. Hurling themselves around stage with abandon, their breakout tune 'I Wanna Be A Girl' inspired the first mini mosh pit of the day, their set flying past at breakneck speed -- over almost as soon as it began, a whirlwind of energy and just the right amount of weird.
DJs pumped tropical beats into the air early on, providing the soundtrack from the main stage as the bands changed over, but more as filler music than any proper DJ set; few danced, or even noticed. A two-stage mini festival was what lay before them, with sideshows and markets a much larger festival would be proud of. A crowd looking like it was ripped from the pages of a General Pants catalogue -- tie-dye and lairy dad plaid shirts were de rigeur for the day -- wandered through the art installations that dotted the grounds: a hut with walls comprised entirely of old records; a giant hand that sprouted from the ground; fairy lights and paper lanterns.
Fast-rising Sydney indie rockers Gang of Youths roused the crowd with their thundering, pulsing set. Treading a fine line between all-out rock and more mellow, relaxed indie slow-burners, it was a true injection of energy into what had thus far been a largely laid back affair. As the sun began to set over the grove of trees behind the main stage, frontman David Le'aupepe commanded the stage, long hair flowing as he wailed over the band's wall of sound in booming bass and pounding drums like an early Arcade Fire. Driving guitars gave way to twinkling keys cresting over the golden glow of the bubbling crowd, with the deepening dark marking the start of the night's big names.
The day had been, and would continue to be, infinitely chilled-out. In contrast to bigger festivals where drunk blokes with their shirts off try to start fights, the drunk blokes with their shirts off here were literally just looking for a cuddle. In hours of walking around, we saw not one fight, not one argument, not one scuffle over a position in a drink line or toilet queue. It was a nice change from the norm, with punters more likely to be found lazing on the grass in the warm sun than looking for a fight to start.
Melbourne outfit The Smith Street Band suffered through a series of interruptions outside their control -- a massive sound blowout that forced them to play for several minutes without any power, a security guard badly manhandling a fan who crowd surfed over the front security barrier -- but soldiered on to notch the most vital, powerful and positive set of the entire weekend. Just one song in, frontman Wil Wagner stopped the band as he spotted security wrestling with a fan. Hurling a drink at the guards, Wagner yelled "that's NOT how you treat someone," watching to make sure the young guy made it back into the crowd before kickstarting the song once more. The early interruption didn't perturb the band though, tearing through a typically emotional and powerful set of folk tinged punk love songs -- ballads of lost love, long distance relationships and life on the road. The night rolled on and people were eager to dance, probably with Wagner's lyrics washing over them oblivious. Even a mid-set loss of sound didn't stall the powerhouse, again showing why they're undoubtedly among the most powerful, professional and special bands on the Australian circuit right now.
The Preatures, too, dealt with sound problems. A muddy sound mix early on saw bass and drums melting together in a mess as frontwoman Isabella Manfredi's vocals were reduced to a squawking squall. The band would cancel their set the following night, saying Manfredi had lost her voice.
"If you throw one thing at me, I'll walk off the stage... Except underpants. I love underpants," she joked midway through the set.
"But if you throw one drink at me, I'll walk."
The early sound quality was quickly fixed, with Manfredi the dynamo in spray-on pants strutting around the stage, soldiering through obvious vocal distress as she stood alone, yelping, at the stage's edge.
The night ended with Cloud Control and The Rubens getting an entire sea of fans singing and dancing to their mellow indie numbers, with a fireworks display lighting up the sky as the night drew to a close.
Yours & Owls managed to find the balance that every small boutique festival craves -- the intimacy of a smaller gig with the energy of a much larger festival. It seemed like everyone knew everyone, and everyone had a smile. In a town like this, people know how to party -- yet Wollongong has a long and infamous reputation for staying in, not supporting new things and poor attendance at gigs. Yours & Owls changed that, made it cool to have a beer and see a guitar band and dance yourself silly. This festival is the culmination of five year's (literal) blood sweat and tears from the Wollongong collective.
It was nice to see 5000 people turn out for the party.