Leather-soled boots crush Melbourne Bitter cans against cracked concrete, the flattened discs frisbeed into yellow-topped bins. Cigarettes are rolled and zippo lighters flicked – metallic chink – plumes of smoke wreathing around black-banded cowboy hats. Pearl button-snaps, sideburns half grey, nudie suits and swing skirts, red lipstick, bowlo ties, salt-n-pepper stubble and full beards that smell like thick and dark brisket smoke.
Seagulls ride the chill breeze off the bay, silhouetted against the spring sun.
Fanny Lumsden sings songs inspired by the long, straight stretches of bitumen one finds in western Queensland, the orange and brown dry found in same. And yet it's not sad, it's not melancholy and flat but it bounces and skittles along like the old caravan she and husband / bass player Dan Stanley Freeman towed behind them while on the road looking for inspiration for new record Real Class Act. Lumsden and band, fleshed out somewhat for this set, showcase new songs then, and old. They play Australiana, but it's a new kind, they make it their own.
Robby Fulks too, inhabits his own slice of an ancient musical form, his take on folk music a meandering through the Great American Songbook, frags of country and blues. Shad Cobb is on fiddle and he sizzles, frenetic playing from a maestro who's played with the Osborne Brothers, Steve Earle and Willie Nelson. The Deslondes hail from New Orleans, their 2015 eponymous debut a real country affair, but in the flesh they're rollicking rock 'n' roll and bluesy twang, country for sure, but an upbeat melding of styles from one of the world's great musical melting pots.
All Our Exes Live In Texas have perhaps evolved the furthest of all acts on the bill today, a real muscular set now replete with rhythm section backing the four main players, their music now slick and polished. For mine, this detracts from their original appeal a little; where before it was harmonies over a simple sonic bed, it's now harmonies over a thick and shmick sound that throbs a little too much. I yearn for their earlier sound, despite it being hard to deny their energy and skill.
Pigeons settle in rafters under tin eaves. People sit at wooden tables, on benches and rusty bollards. There's a Greenpeace boat moored further down the marina. What looks like a pirate ship under full sail glides slowly past in the middle distance, at odds with the city and its skyscrapers lit tall behind it.
The sad music envelops it all, one cocked knee and an elbow on the bar, half a beer wreathed in tears, the country music lament.
Josh Headley's suit shimmers under the stage lights, sky blue and sequined, slashes of colour sewn on. Big hat and beard, bigger voice. He's Hank Williams, set to a new time and place. He sings sad songs about life, love, the loss of both, just him and his acoustic guitar, he gets Robert Ellis up for a song, as he's done before. He's one of the best on the planet, his songs perfect, his music beautiful.
The sun disappears behind the hulking old sheds and the chill sets in and The Sadies start their set, a thundering cow-punk-a-billy explosion. Travis Good swaps guitar for fiddle, the same punk/rock enthusiasm displayed no matter which strings he's thrumming, and the band rumble and thrash about, their set a brutal and welcome passageway from the daytime to the night as people swap beer for margaritas and Jack Daniels, flipping up their collars to ward off the icy breeze.
Son Volt have never, in 22 years, been to Australia and they're the unofficial headliner as a result – a dark and mysterious set which kicks off immediately, no holds barred, three songs that shake walls with their rumbling riffage… this, for me, was an introduction, and so it's all new, exciting. Jay Farrar, sunglasses on, solid stance, barely utters a word to the crowd, just leads the band through an hour and a bit of up and down, hard and soft, pop and country, rock 'n' roll. Mark Spencer plays keys, swaps to pedal steel, picks up the guitar; Chris Frame excels on the slide. It's a heady set, a beast, people raise cans in salute as the band fade off the stage as it all goes dark.
In contrast to Traveller, who light it up and drag in the crowd, pulling us into the smaller outdoor space and we're serenaded and yelled at, cajoled and ribbed. Jonny Fritz (silver-suited), Cory Chisel (heavily-bearded), Robert Ellis (cosmic-jacketed) plus rhythm section, a party band with one foot in Nashville, another in Las Vegas. Pushing new record Western Movies, Fritz leads from the front spending more time jiving with the crowd than he does with a guitar in hand; by the end of the set we all know which room of which hotel they're staying in and it all seems like three buddies making music and fucking around together. Which it is, and which is why it's so good.
People have melted off into the cold dark and so there's room to move by the time Justin Townes Earle come on to close it out. He's backed by The Sadies and they add an edge to Earle's crooning country tunes. He's in fine form and his music tears at heartstrings, the addition of two more guitarists giving it all more power and depth… it seems fun for them up there and for those of us in for the long haul it's fun too. Earle, like Dylan, changes his set, his songs, the way he delivers it all, on a regular basis and so despite having seen him numerous times, this is as exciting and familiar all at once, as it's ever been.
And then it's into the cold dark for us. The gulls are roosting somewhere, the Pirates Tavern is still open and people spill out with plastic cups of frothy beer as they wait for the ferry to take them home. Out On The Weekend is a happening, and while it seemed a smaller happening this year, it's a meeting of a tribe, a musical tribe to whom country music ain't a dirty word, y'all, and to whom this happening is one of the best of the year. One will happily raise a can to that.
Top photo: Jonny Fritz, Traveller. All photos by Stephen Boxshall.