Panama Festival live review
The inaugural Panama Festival in Golconda, Tasmania was a gentle creature; a transparent, slightly iridescent forest-dweller that quietly hung streamers from branches and arranged candles for an intimate dinner party in the woods. It was an open invitation, but its otherwordly location in the heart of the Lone Star Valley and whispery word-of-mouth demeanour thinned out the guests to a beautiful palette of groovy families, young beatniks, silver-haired muses and circus runaways.
Sailing north over Launceston into uncharted territory, we slowly drove ourselves deep into the chest of the valley, dust rising up about us as though we were a ship on water, light filtering through to the prow in cloudy columns. The beauty of this forest is near impossible to describe in words – it’s ethereal, the kind of place where the leaves are crisp and you smell the permanent musk of rain when you crush them between your fingertips. With each gravelly bend we followed small, strategically placed monochrome arrows, until we pulled up beside a green field in which tents and campervan-roofs popped up like mushroom clusters. A banner heralded our arrival – it was Panama.
The first afternoon of festivities settled us into our new forest nook as we followed the smell of ginger, bagels and fermented fruit to an array of wholesome food caravans. Impromptu hula hoop jams gathered themselves in clearings, and we marvelled at the fairytale wooden cabin beyond the lake. Resident indie pioneers Tiger Choir studded the afternoon with their signature array of synth-infused harmonies, and Spender followed them down the rabbit hole with his jazz-tinged pop panorama.
As The Babe Rainbow took to the stage, a trio of beautifully blonde figures in flares and neatly-knotted neckscarves, I could hear Father Panama gently and deftly winding back clock hands. They emerged from the forest slightly dazed, as though they’d first wandered into the thicket on a whim one afternoon in 1964 and spent the consequent five decades happily and obliviously nibbling berries, marvelling at the foliage and plucking sitar strings together in an ageless soap bubble. “It’s real groovy to be here with y’all”, cooed bassist Elliot into the microphone.
The audience became a unified twirl of bare feet and bell sleeves as the sun crept in and warmed us to the bones – the hippest onlookers, however, were the elf-like festival children. Heads dwarfed by a cacophony of colourful noise-cancelling headphones, it was these miniature boppers that formed the front row and skipped between our legs in figure-eights and sixteens. One boy stood with his back pressed against the speakers, his khaki shorts quivering with bass like a pair of flags while a young girl, face glinting with various shades of glitter, shook her tiny hips against said speaker and defiantly lifted the corner of her headphones to let the river rush in. It was a magical, candy-striped wonderland of a set from the Rainbows that included a top-notch cover of “Louie Louie” and tied itself into a neat bow by finishing with kaleidoscopic debut single “Love Forever”.
Big Scary played sweetly and steadily as the dark cool of the evening ushered itself through the forest door. Saskwatch threatened to sink the stage like a ship with their gigantic, nine-piece musical crew, and the stunning captain, Nkechi Anele, blew the leaves from the treetips with her albatross voice. Then it was over to The Bedouin Club for Tigerlil’s Touring Circus of Extraordinary Acts, a cabaret extravaganza of suspenders and umbrellas that had the audience packed in with mouths vaguely and involuntarily agape.
After midnight, the crowd dispersed enough for us to secure the personal pocket of required dancing space for Geelong’s infamous garage-pop outfit The Frowning Clouds. Taking us touring through their recent release Whereabouts, we were led down a garden path of sensory delights, from the chaotic twist-inducer “All Angles”, the Brian Wilson crooning of “Mayan Calendar Girl” to the warbled, almost spaghetti-western number “Product of the Peanut Butter Company”. It was our second psychedelic adventure for the day, and we drank it up like red cordial – I stepped back out into the night sweaty and starry-eyed. DJ Black Amex took the floor and began spinning records, though after a certain Queen classic hit the airwaves I decided that it was time to cut my losses early and curl up into bed, smiling and sated, various pieces of forest shrapnel clinging to my hair and pillow like limpets.
Sunday morning took on a slower hue, with the early-risers stretching their boogied-out limbs at a group yoga session on the grass. I woke as our tent fly flung itself open to greet the morning sky, which was grey and ready to burst – the brushstrokes of tired clouds dampened my cheeks, still aflush with yesterday’s sun. Untangling myself from a slightly wet doona, we gathered our pens and paper and curled up beneath the marquee to sip at coffee cups and etch at blank pages. As we did so, Timothy and Wilderness gently beckoned us into the afternoon with his signature soft, almost mourning tones, as a misty tide of drizzle ebbed in and out around clusters of picnic blankets.
The weather held onto an endless twilight, a premature pre-dusk that tinged the tips of the pine trees with darkness – until, like a zipper from the heavens, it threw itself open and a wave of summer rushed in, flooding the rest of the day with welcome sunshine. McKisko‘s elegant crooning emanated a delicately balanced tightrope walker, making tracks across red silk ribbons as she manoeuvred about lilting piano. Beside us, a clothes swap was being set up. Unlike the usual slightly self-interested nature of these events, in which people slyly slip a dusty polar fleece into the bottom of a pile and then search frantically for the perfect vintage dress, this swap was the way it should be. Beautiful coats hung from wooden racks, and rows of anonymous pretty fabric cooed quietly from their hidey-holes.
Soon after, it was time for a special reappearance from The Frowning Clouds – both the Clouds and The Babe Rainbow played twice across the two days of the festival, and it was wonderful to watch their mutual love-in unfold. The crowd were relatively subdued for the first few songs of the set, until the aquatic-blonde bobs of the Rainbows rose to greet their street-kicking psychedelic comrades with a repertoire of jilted shoulder and neck twists, eventually even removing their turtlenecks.
After Super Wild Horses played their highly-lamented but much-loved farewell show, Twerps took gentle hold of the reins and delivered a beautifully sweet set of locker-room nostalgia-pop.
Charles Bradley emerged into the night with a sky-splitting smile, gazing at us with such tenderness that we could mistaken ourselves for his grandchildren. His face was a map, lines traced into it in the manner of log rings. He held out open arms to us, a James-Brown-prophet of sorts, voicing visions for a parallel utopia in a transparent mesh shirt and then promptly seducing us to his vision by clicking open his belt buckle to excited roars. “Why Is It So Hard?” was rendered touchingly, and “How Long” was a howling, slow-grooving slice of magic. His powerful backing band contorted our faces into emblazoned grimaces of jazz-pleasure. Looking up into the curtain of trees behind the stage, illuminated purple, blue and green and beyond them a smattering of stars, I interlocked my fingers as though to hold all of it there, in my palms.
After another round of exotic cabaret across the field at The Bedouin Club, proceedings fell to an excited hush as The Babe Rainbow skipped on and off stage, preparing to see out the festival with a second performance. We already knew what to expect from the day before, and drummer/ singer Angus barely had to touch toe to pedal before the crowd was roused to a glittering, tubthumping tangle. The intimacy suited them wonderfully, and punters and musicians alike came together to celebrate – Husky, Twerps and The Frowning Clouds all dotted the front row. Before long, the one metre gap separating our dancing bodies from those on stage became too much to bear, and in a cloud of smoke we hauled ourselves on stage, knotting ourselves in and around each other, diving and re-emerging from the white vapour in a psychedelic frenzy.
DJ Soul Train encouraged us to keep our dancing shoes tightly laced, and successfully steam-engined us through until the early hours of the morning with an array of old-school grooves (and, to my relief, no Queen). As the stragglers slowly began to peel themselves away from the fold, we traipsed through the campsites, sleepy but not ready to sleep, and collapsed onto our backs in the middle of the grass oval. The stars were covered by a film of cloud, but we watched them as they moved and revealed themselves, bass throbbing gently from down the hill, small torch trails scanning across our chests as fellow groups of like-minded wanderers realised one another’s presence with laughter and mild surprise. The grass tickled the backs of my calves and, as goosebumps began to prickle at my forearms, I forlornly put myself to bed.
I awoke early on Monday morning, the tent quickly becoming a glasshouse as the sun beat its knuckles on the sheeting. Still gin-addled, I felt like a mirage rising from hot bitumen as I folded and packed my things in a wobbly manner, plucking crinkled playing cards and lost earrings from the grass. Unlike the elephant-like stamp-trampling of plastic cups and chip wrappers that tends to scar the sites of music festivals, only one littered can and a meagre collection of minor rubbish was found among the campsites at Panama after the punters went their separate ways. Piecing myself into the back seat of the car between hula hoops and pillows, we rattled back down the gravel road, craning our necks behind us in slightly heartbroken attempts not to lose sight of our woodland daydream. Panama carefully inched clock hands back to their original positions and shook glitter from the tablecloths. It pulled down its stripes and streamers and gently packed them into wooden boxes, like Christmas decorations, quietly disappearing into the enchanted void from whence it came.