Isol-Aid Festival (28-29/3/20)

Obviously the last three weeks have been hard for absolutely everyone, but for those working in the music and arts industries the effects were particularly immediate. With venues closed, festivals cancelled and so much creative energy suddenly without a means of expression, it hasn’t taken long for artists to utilise the Internet to connect with their audiences.

For the past two weekends Isol-aid Festival has been streaming 20 minute live performances from some of the country’s most revered artists via Instagram, a project created by Melbourne artist and events bookers Emily Ulman and Merpire alongside Shannen Egan of artist management agency Turning Heads, in the name of raising money for the music industry relief organisation Support Act.

Running from midday to midnight on Saturdays and Sundays, the first two weeks — and yes the organisers have confirmed that this project will continue throughout our period of isolation — managed to create a real sense of community at a time when none of us can physically come together.

The mood was jubilant yet endearingly awkward, with just about every act commenting on how surprisingly nervous they were, despite being in the comfort of their own homes. Instagram proved itself a perfect platform for Isol-Aid with viewers able to comment along to performances in real time, resulting in a large amount of banter, typed communal singalongs, song requests and a general level of interaction greater than a traditional gig would allow. Considering how many musicians were involved, the technical hitches were surprisingly few, although almost no one was able to cross to the following act’s video as instructed, and Marlon Williams needed a stronger Internet provider.

The word ‘CUTE’ was scribbled in capitals in my notes more than once as pets and children wandered into performances, obliviously upstaging their parents. This included an entrance from the offspring of Ball Park Music’s Sam Cromack, just in time for the very shouty section of the band’s new single ‘SPARK UP!’, Batts’ knob-tail gecko Ringo, who by the end of her set had gained a dedicated fan account, or Freya Joesphine Hollick’s daughter Opal, who took the opportunity while her mum was distracted to grab a packet of jellybeans from the kitchen before requesting “something about flowers and ghosts”.

Most of the acts were of the solo singer-songwriter persuasion, though a few bands managed to gather at a then-appropriate distance, with Karate Boogaloo winning the Best Use of Mirrors To Frame a Well Spaced Band Shot gurnsey for Saturday and WA’s Grievous Bodily Calm adding a welcome dose of energetic jazz funk to the lineup.

And despite the limitations of isolation and mostly broadcasting from a phone, several acts managed to add unique twists to their performances, such as Jen Cloher doing a tarot card reading, Georgia Maq jumping around her bedroom in her underwear while singing into a hairbrush, Melbourne’s Billy Barker playing on a tractor, or Perth’s Boat Show on an actual boat.

Cover songs were a recurrent theme, with Alexander Gow turning out a very pretty rendition of Bacharach’s ‘This Guy’s in Love with You’, complete with a backing track of string sounds and a trumpet solo; Courtney Barnett managing to breath fresh air into Gillian Welch’s much-covered ‘Everything is Free’; Sui Zhen rocking out in a very cool Sui-Zhen-style to Alanis Morrisette’s ‘All I Really Want’; and Ryan Downey breaking our collective hearts with his falsetto rendition of Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’.

Alice Ivy brought a boiler room vibe to her set and had the Best Lighting on ground, while Tim Shiel’s moodily-lit dual camera beats set was appropriate as Saturday’s closing act.

The amount of people watching, visible in the top right corner of the screen, varied depending on the time of day, but leapt up dramatically for the bigger acts, such as Cromack, Williams and Sarah Blasko each drawing a 2000 strong crowd, and hit the roof during Barnett’s set at 4090.

I watched a lot of music, more than I needed to or have space for in this review, but like everyone I had nowhere else to go and so very much appreciated the great initiative that is Isol-Aid. There were moments of genuine beauty (Downey, Sarah McLeod, Liz Stringer, Emilee South, Batts) and times when we collectively got our digital dance on (GL, Georgia Maq, Sui Zhen). Judging by the comments section, which was buzzing with the slight-crazed euphoria uniquely created by conditions of communication during isolation, a lot of music fans out there enjoyed it too.

Could this change the way that artists use social media once we get back to normal life? Until then I’m just looking forward to next weekend, see you there.

Published in Beat Magazine.

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