I knew I’d found the spot when I saw a white and pink truck in between the trees. It was Saturday afternoon in West End park – smack in the middle of Brisbane suburbia – and I’d spent the last 10 minutes walking past picnicking families searching for Jaguar Jonze’s Brisbane festival concert.
The concert’s time and location was never publicly announced, but there were several groups – some wearing the Taiwanese-Australian singer’s merch – already camped out on the grass. Staff in Brisbane festival uniforms burst from the van, encircling us with pink bunting. The side of the vehicle (dubbed the Bandwagon) lifted to reveal a bright pink stage, kitted out with mics, amps, and streamers raining from the roof. Jonze and her band climbed aboard and started their 30-minute set.
Organising a concert and not telling anyone about it sounds like a fireable marketing error. But the people behind this year’s Brisbane festival promise it was completely intentional.
Covid-19 forced the annual festival to rethink its largely indoor program. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented practices. With the self-proclaimed goal of “bringing people together to celebrate without encouraging crowd gathering”, the team scrapped its plans and devised a new schedule of socially distanced shows.
The result? A total of 490 performances across 91 events – 73 of which are free – that kicked off on Friday, 4 September and will run for three weeks.
Much of the festival is outside: artist Hiromi Tango’s Rainbow Circles (Healing Circles) – brightly coloured luminescent rainbow arches – dance across West Village garden every night; one of the festival’s few paid events is a live-action B-grade thriller that audiences can watch from the safety of their cars. Events are made to feel spontaneous, discoverable. Puppeteers, flash mobs and acrobats are expected to appear along Brisbane’s cycle and walk tracks over the weeks. Six giant finches, created by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, are perched across city landmarks. Walking home on Friday, I came across a socially distanced dance party and joined the 30 or so other people solo-dancing to Silento’s Watch Me in taped-off 4m by 4m squares.
Perhaps the most innovative and ambitious offering is Street Serenades: a series of neighbourhood concerts taking place in each of the city’s 190 suburbs throughout the three week festival, from the back of a decked-out van.
The event series was clearly designed with Covid in mind: all performers are locals (the Queensland border is still firmly closed), and while the list of artists is public, showtimes and locations are only advertised hours ahead of select gigs via the festival’s Facebook event page (a way of keeping crowd numbers low).
Though considerate (and necessary), these precautions also mean that the pop-up concerts feel nothing like concerts.
On Friday night, I watched Troy Cassar-Daley perform to two dozen people sitting on plastic chairs in a park along the Brisbane River; families and couples walking on the footpath slowed and squinted as they passed, as if they too were wondering why one of Australia’s most famous country musicians had been pasted into a scene more fitting of a local busker.
West End park on a weekend afternoon was also a far cry from the underground venues Jonze has played. There was no moshpit. A gaggle of toddlers towards the front bounced out of time. A dog ran over and licked the heat from my hand. On Sunday, I saw indie-folk duo the Dreggs perform out of the same van in Brisbane’s eastern suburbs. As they went to introduce their last song, they stopped short: “I’d love to explain what it’s about … but there are children around,” one of them laughed.
I miss venues so small and crowds so packed that you walk out wearing someone else’s sweat. But I have missed live music more. And I walked away from a weekend of pop-up shows realising two things.
One: a lot of other people feel the same.
As soon as the music started at any show, heads began to turn and foot-traffic slowed. Across the road from Jonze’s gig in West End park, residents emerged from their apartments to lean against the balconies. When the Dreggs finished their last song and moved to pack up at New Farm, the crowd screamed “encore!”.
Every performer said how hard the last few months have been. “I’ll never take music for granted again in my life, let me tell you that,” Cassar-Daley sighed in between songs on Friday. Jonze, who herself tested positive for Covid-19 earlier in the year, looked around in actual wide-eyed disbelief and told the crowd, over and over, how “insane” it felt to play a gig for the first time in five months.
Two: I realised that we are all willing to suspend disbelief to experience this again.
In theatre, we collectively promise to ignore that what we’re about to see is merely fictional or fantastical. At a live gig, we promise to let go of the outside world and get lost in the noise.
The Street Serenades required us all to suspend a different kind of disbelief: the feeling that this sort of experience jars impossibly with our reality.
We cannot play away the fact that we are living in a global pandemic. Every performers’ set-list small-talk included some mention of coronavirus. Jonze took it one step further, noting that she had selected her outfit – a red jumpsuit covered in spiky yellow and blue blotches – because it looked like it had “a little virus all over”, before jumping into a grungy rendition of Britney Spears’ Toxic.
But as the grass turned blue on Sunday evening, and the boys from the Dreggs sat back down to attempt a song they had written in lockdown, and a group of children started playing some sort of advanced game of tag in front of us, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that our lives have changed forever. Something precedented had become possible, once again.