By Miriam Baker
Article from On The Road Magazine
There’s blues in the air and a whole lot of soul. It’s the last weekend of July and the twin towns of Echuca and Moama are alive with rhythm, music and festivity. The weather is chilly and coats and scarves are the order of the day but, though the sky is grey, everywhere I look there’s colour.
We’re in town for the annual Winter BluesFest, one of Australia’s best blues and roots festivals. This picturesque and historic setting on the Murray is under three hours from Melbourne which makes it an easy weekend trip. As much as we love camping on the Murray the focus this time is on the music.
The Winter BluesFest began back in 1999 when six street performers got together to play some street music on a Sunday afternoon. Festival Chairman Peter Williams tells me that over the years this grew as more performers became involved. On its tenth anniversary the Winter Blues Program was born and over 22 artists played across 18 venues. Now in its 20th year, there are over 60 artists from across Australia performing at over 31 venues. He tells me the four-day festival attracts in excess of 20,000 people, more than the combined population of Echuca and Moama.
With such a large array of musical acts on offer you could be forgiven for not knowing where to start, however, once we pick up the brochure (and download the App) it’s easy to find where our favourite artists are playing. Admittedly half the fun is strolling along the streets, venturing in and out of venues and soaking up the lively atmosphere.
When we arrive on the Friday, we can already feel the festive vibe with people, young and old, milling about. We wander into the Mt Camel Collective Wine bar, set up by a group of local winemakers promoting the wineries and the region. Inside there’s an opportunity to taste wines from cellar doors such as Domaine Asmara, Farmer & the Scientist, Heathcote 11, Humis, Peregrine Ridge, Shiraz Republic and many more. It’s a bit too early in the day but we enjoy chatting to the winemakers before continuing through the port precinct.
Our next stop is another cellar and I try the St Anne’s Muscat. Well, maybe it’s not too early after all. We decide to book a blues cruise for Sunday afternoon on board the Pride of the Murray as we start to plan our itinerary. There are many options available for lunch and dinner cruises and, at any time of the year, a paddle steamer cruise on the Murray is a must do. For those on a budget, the MV Mary Ann, a cruising café and restaurant, offers complimentary cruises at non-peak times and is a great way to soak up some Murray magic.
Along the main street the music starts with Bill Barber duo playing on the High Street Stage outside the Gypsy Bar. We sit down to enjoy a drink and his cruisy music before light drizzle forces us inside. Under cover and near the warming fire pit, there’s plenty of space to mingle and enjoy the entertainment. That’s the beauty of this festival where the music continues, both inside and out.
Across the course of the weekend we hear some brilliant performers. Some seasoned and some young new talent, but they’re all making their mark in the music industry. The acts are not world-renowned artists but they’re damn good.
There’s Nathan Cavaleri and his sidekick Kenny delivering toe tapping rhythm and blues at the Shamrock Hotel. We catch a bit of Cass Eager and her band at the American Hotel and the unique sounds of Copenhagen Slim inside the Star Hotel. We waltz in and out of places high on the sounds of artists we’ve never heard before.
Outside the Beechworth Bakery we enjoy the virtuoso piano wizard Andrew Farrell, who looks more like Gandalph playing his brand of blues, jazz and boogie woogie to an appreciative crowd. Later that day we return for a coffee and the sounds of Charlie Bedford. Charlie represents the next generation of musicians, he’s only 20 years of age but plays and sings like a pro. Little wonder he was selected to perform at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis at only 18. Many a career has been launched here, like the highly successful Teskey Brothers who played their first gig at the Winter Bluesfest and have since gone on to international acclaim.
It’s rare to find a music festival like this that’s completely free. It feels inclusive, relaxing and totally genuine. The best part is being able to leisurely walk in and out of venues with no pressure. Of course, along the way, there’s a chance for a meal, a drink, a coffee, which puts money back into the community.
It’s a huge boost for the local economy. Every part of the surrounding port precinct seems involved in the winter blues theme. Families with kids are catered for during the day with a space dedicated to children’s activities at Hopwood Gardens. There’s face painting, a jumping castle, fairy floss and the craft activity zone as well as horse and cart rides through the historic area where even the Clydesdales are decked out in blue.
One of the highlights of the weekend was having front row dinner seats at Radcliffe’s on Saturday night to see Nardia perform. This powerhouse blues artist has backed the likes of Adele, Pink and Beyonce and had the crowd enthralled. Inside Radcliffe’s, originally a car shop and garage, there’s modern seasonal food, a spacious classy interior and a fully enclosed conservatory garden.
Over the weekend music ebbs into every nook and cranny of the town’s finest pubs and establishments, as well as on the outdoor stages and we brush shoulders with locals and visitors alike. In the cafes, hotels and restaurants there’s a chance to savour winter warming meals, local produce, wines and craft beers or just kick back with a coffee. Woodfire burners, barbeques and rotisseries with delicious tantalising aromas dot the main streets.
Most of the artists play in and around the historic Port Precinct of Echuca which is the historic showpiece of the twin towns. Here you can stroll through the Penny Arcade, take a horse and cart ride, see the restored sawmill and lap up the charm of this bygone era. Down by the newly developed Riverboat dock, which is home to many historical paddle steamers, you can view the PS Adelaide, the oldest paddle steamer in the world and board one of the many cruises up the river.
If you’re feeling active you can grab a free bike from the Port of Echuca, outside the Discovery Centre, and soak up the sights on a vintage style cruiser bike. It’s a fun way to visit historic landmarks, collect gourmet delicacies from local shops and make a picnic of it down by the river. You can even ride over the bridge to Moama. You can say you’ve cycled interstate and back in a day!
By Sunday the clouds had disappeared into brilliant blue skies, fitting for the last day of the festival. Our day starts with a trip to the Moama market, just under the bridge across from the Bowling Club and held every second Sunday of the month. It’s a huge market with camel rides for the kids and plenty of colourful stalls to keep everyone happy.
That afternoon we board the Pride of the Murray for an hour out on the water with some lunch and fabulous music by the talented Cass Eager and guitar sensation Nathan Beretta. It feels like past and present converging as we cruise along the river, passing other paddle steamers like the Emmy Lou whilst being thoroughly entertained.
Later that day we come across Melbourne blues super group, Three Kings, playing on the Wharf stage. As my other half contents himself with photographing the reflections on the river, I hit the dance floor with my new “just met” dancing partner. Festivals bring strangers together in the best ways.
From a dance floor on the wharf to a cruise on the river, there’s always something happening in Echuca and Moama. Events like the Southern 80, the Riverboats Festival and the Echuca Rotary Steam and Horse and Vintage Rally cater for all tastes. Visit the Holden Museum, the Great Aussie Beer Shed, check out a winery, indulge yourself at the Echuca Chocolate Company or cross the border and explore the boardwalks across the picturesque Horseshoe Lagoon.
Echuca Moama has well and truly established itself as the place to be for heart-starting blues and roots music. Next year promises to be just as big so if you love good music and haven’t been before, mark it on your calendar. It’s guaranteed to blow away any winter blues.
Echuca/Moama is located 234kms From Melbourne, an easy 2.5-hour drive via the Calder Highway or the Northern Highway. It sits right on the border with NSW on the mighty Murray.
- Drop in at the Moama Visitor Information Centre at 2 Heygarth Street, Echuca
Freecall 1800 804 446
Ph: (03) 5480 7555
- Winter Blues fest
Held on the last weekend in July each year.
Getting around is easy in Echuca Moama. Depending on where you’re staying, courtesy buses run from many of the venues and taverns. During the Winterfest a shuttle bus, costing $5pp ran from many of the caravan parks right into the heart of the event.
A huge selection of caravan parks is available. We stayed at Moama Waters Holiday Park.
96 Old Barmah Road, Moama
Tel: 03 5480 7717