Review: A Festival Called Panama
As Tasmania’s most exciting boutique festival pitched its tents for the second year, somethingyousaid.com’s Chloe Mayne was there to do it all over again:
I can’t seem to think of Panama in anything other than nautical terms. Set in the Lone Star Valley, in the remote forests of Tasmania’s north-east, even the location’s given name begins to set the scene; it’s a burrowed clearing between the trees, a gem buried into the glorious topsoil, an island. Approaching it as a bead in a string of beat-up cars, dust rising in columns about the wheels, the curve of the gravel road feels like a bridge, a ferry ride into the oasis. I don’t believe there are many places in this world that carry such a magical aura as the one that tinges the tips of the Panama festival grounds. Huge black galahs spread wings like sails overhead as we pull through the gates as if to say, welcome back, kiddywinks.
For locals the site digs in certain roots of nostalgia, a wave of recognition; in the years before the inaugural Panama lay to roost in 2014, the Lone Star Valley was home to the Tasmanian Circus Festival, which drew fabulous oddities from far and wide to grace its stages. The remnants of these prior celebrations linger, from the candy-striped tent of the Bedouin Club to the equally colourful crowd in attendance. Indeed, it’s the crowd that really make Panama the special gathering that it is; spanning the entire age spectrum, silver-haired couples pitch tents beside hip young city folk, barefoot children and dreadlocked waifs. There’s leopard print, glitter, floaty greens and skinny jeans. The diversity is matched by the food on offer, which is cooked by hand and sprinkled with soul; from blueberry smoothies to smoked tofu tacos to wallaby gozlemes, the atmosphere is full of gentle and rich sensory pleasures. Did we mention that the festival also brews its own cider on site?
Of course, some of the most important embellishments of the weekend (if the location wasn’t enough) are the swathe of musical acts invited along for the ride. This year’s instalment included guests of all distinctions, from illustrious internationals to mainland river-crossers and the best of the island’s local offerings. Hobart group Violet Swells provided the first highlight of the festival, tearing into a sunny Saturday afternoon with their continuously-evolving brand of psychedelia. The Swells on record and the Swells on stage are two fairly different beasts, but the latter has continued to metamorphose into a strong and equal half of the relationship, guitars swooping and howling against a tapestry of organ and hushed vocal harmonies. These guys are moving in iridescent bounds.
Sunday morning, for those that snuck away from the technicolour wormhole of the Bedouin Club (and the lure of the roving tequila bar), was an early rise to quiet sunshine. Hundreds flocked to the field for a group yoga session, fingertips stretching in unison toward a cloudless canvas. By early afternoon the famous Panama clothes swap was underway, mountains of mingled fabrics being sifted and sorted through by earnest participants while The Kids Space brimmed with floppy hair and overalls, the festival’s tinier attendees having their faces painted and galloping about in glitter.
Musically, the bar was heaved high early. Melbourne’s Harmony belted out a gutteral, visceral symphony augmented by the swoons of three very talented back-up singers. The sound soared and then softened, reaching out for the stomachs of the audience and then twisting, tight. It was intense to a point that it was uplifting, but also undeniably sombre – lead singer and guitarist Tom Lyngcoln at one stage apologised for ‘bumming everybody out’. It was a soft push toward sublimity that left eyes widened, senses heightened.
If we were bummed out, it wasn’t for long, because Brisbane psych-poppers The Furrs were quick to jump in and smooth out any musically-induced worry wrinkles with their rollicking and rambling. Singer and guitarist Gabriella Cohen’s stage presence could have fired a jet plane; between flouncing back and forth across the stage, to ripping out guitar solos, she was mesmerisingly charismatic. Sitting quietly on the grass for the first few tracks, the crowd were soon coaxed like puppies to the front. Beginning with the flush-faced and ever-endearing festival children in their spectrum of oversized headphones, a wave of bodies soon joined until the set descended into a twisting romp. Blonde toddlers scrambled between legs as the Panama jazz band swelled the stage to capacity, the performance eventually winding down to a slung-back two-piece conclusion.
From there it was the ladies of the lineup that took the weekend along its incredible home stretch. Second international headliner Sharon Van Etten was completely gorgeous. Taking to the stage just after the sun’s descent, the setting couldn’t have been any more perfect for Etten’s dusky voice. With the synthpad twist of tracks from Are We There sitting alongside the gentle crescendos of Tramp, the whole thing continuously built and metamorphosed to the point of goosebumps. The musicians rotated both between instruments and on and off the stage; as a result, we were treated to a plethora of sounds which included Etten’s acoustic solo rendition of an as-yet-unfinished track. Perhaps the most stunning thing about this musician is her intuitive feel for harmony, and her fellow singer was a breathtaking match. It felt as though the surrounding trees had wrapped us all up in a nocturnal embrace, pulling us tight to its chest.
It was then over to homecoming sensation Courtney Barnett, who was nothing short of jawdropping. From playing open mic shows in the tucked-away bars of Hobart to selling out shows in major cities the globe over, her trajectory over the past two years has been the stuff of legends. After catching her in concert, it’s evident this comes down to a hell of a lot more than luck. Barnett launched straight into a killer set of driving bass and howling guitar licks, Docs stomping the stage as she hollered out infamously deadpan lyrics. For a classic three-piece setup the sound was like a robust belly, full of fuzz and static. She was thundered down by audience appreciation, including the weekend’s first crowdsurfers. One particularly excited fan breached the banks of the front row to reach the stage, dancing in circles and squeezing in a kiss before being chased back into the swarm.
After Barnett left the stage and the yellow lights crept on, signalling the bedtime of the main stage, the crowd clustered around as though vaguely bedazzled, disoriented. They gradually brushed the twigs from their bums and picnic rugs and made tracks for the Bedouin Club to see out the festival in sparkling, slightly twisted style. Tigerlil’s Touring Circus of Extraordinary Acts was an unfolding cabinet of fabulous curiousities, a cabaret extravaganza featuring everything from rhythm gymnastics to sideshow classics like straightjacket escapes, as well as a naked and very empowering rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart.
From there the night devolved into a tangled-up writhing of hedonistic pleasures, from the smooth funk of The Cactus Channel to the pop spinnings of DJ Tyrannosaurus Decks. Apparently the early hours of the morning were met with a stage takeover during which the clothes of most of those in attendance were ripped off, but who are we to tell? It must be time to get out a glass jar and start putting away your spare pennies, folk, because the boarding of the Panama ship is consistently proving to be the most magnificent and worthwhile ticket of the summer season.