It’s summertime in the small halls

Travelling regional tour Festival of Small Halls (FoSH) is the brainchild of Woodfordia Inc, the outfit behind the beloved annual Woodford Folk Festival. Folk lovers through and through, the Woodfordia crew scour Australia and the world for high quality contemporary folk and acoustic musicians, then tour them through small towns across the country, for a night of music and companionship in community halls. Event producer Eleanor Rigden has been running FoSH since 2017. And just to clear up the important stuff first, yes her parents were fans of The Beatles, and no she’s not named for the song.

“I have been strictly instructed to let people know that I wasn’t named for Eleanor Rigby if they ask,” she laughs when we catch up.

Laughter seems to come easily to Eleanor, whose cheerful nature and positive outlook are undoubtedly some of the things that made her a perfect choice to join the close-knit Woodfordia family, especially since, as a qualified lawyer, she had no prior events experience.

“They’re (owners Bill and Amanda) so happy to invest in people,” says Eleanor. “The way we engage with each other at Woodfordia is really important, you don’t need to be a professional event producer. We put on the people who have the right spirit themselves and who value the spirit in which we relate and work.”

That same spirit carries across to FoSH, which although a night of wonderful music, is almost more about the human connection factor.

“I think that people need to come together, people need to be social,” muses Eleanor. “Life can be hard sometimes and you need people around you to support you through that. These little buildings are the places that people come together and that’s why the shows are special.

“We use international and Australian musicians to reignite the idea of community gathering. You get that organic, uncurated community experience, but then you get this high quality, festival-partnered arts experience. It’s a beautiful merging of two things that people enjoy. And need, I would argue.”

Certainly, in the case of a small fire-stricken town in rural Tasmania a few years ago, that turned out to be the case. Organisers had cancelled the event as everyone in the town was exhausted, then changed their minds and agreed to host it. After the event, they sent Eleanor a beautiful letter.

“They said basically, ‘We admit we didn’t want this show, and then when we did it we felt ourselves swell up with pride and all that pressure lifted from our shoulders, and we were reminded that we’re all doing this together, and we’re part of a community’.”

Eleanor sounds a little choked up at the recollection. “It’s my favourite piece of feedback,” she says. “I have it on my wall!”

It’s not just the communities that benefit from the FoSH experience, with the artists themselves almost universally surprised at the strength of the connections they are able to form on the tours.

“Normally they see the backside of a stage and the inside of the car,” Eleanor explains. “But with FoSH they get a chance to really bond with people who enjoy their music, which is very special for the musician.”

The current summer tour of FoSH features award-winning headline act Blair Dunlop (pictured), one of the most talked-about emerging artists on the English folk scene. Eleanor can’t rave enough about him.

“There’s something to his live shows, you could never grasp looking at his videos or social media. He’s so engaging and so interactive and so talented. When he picks up his guitar, you get a moment when you know you’re listening to someone who’s a cut above, who is in a class of their own. He’s insanely talented.”

Catch the insanely talented Blair Dunlop + local legends Hat Fitz & Cara + emerging Springbrook artists Sani Bolton + Lashae when they hit the Springbrook Community Hall on 14 December. Tickets available at festivalofsmallhalls.com.

IMAGE: Blair Dunlop by Elly Lucas

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