October 05, 2019 07:16:48
It’s 5:30pm on a Friday night and I’ve just received a text message sharing the location of a mysterious illegal music gig in the middle of the Blue Mountains.
“It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Disclosure time,” the message reads.
The detailed directions lead me to a spartan rest stop on the Great Western Highway, the mountainous artery connecting Sydney with western New South Wales.
It’s unclear where I’m supposed to go next from the small car park and public toilets though, as a sharp decline and thick scrub line the highway’s perimeter.
Through trial and error I spot a trail of flattened grass, like breadcrumbs in the dwindling afternoon light. I come across an abandoned strip of overgrown tarmac, reclaimed by decomposing leaves and native grass.
A small arrow suspended from nylon rope is the first sign that I’m on the right track. Echoing bass reverberates louder and louder as the sun sets through swaying eucalypts.
The winding road eventually reveals tonight’s venue, an abandoned overpass tunnel sitting beneath one of the state’s major thoroughfares.
Cars and road trains whiz overhead as I enter the long concrete cylinder where a small group of musicians, sound engineers, and lighting technicians hastily unpack gear under the glow of fluorescent blue and pink light.
The humming generator powering tonight’s event sits behind a wall of dangling carpets, a makeshift windbreak suspended on either side of the tunnel by rope and rock climbing pegs.
Multiple layers of chunky graffiti cover the underpass’s walls, as organisers begin spraying behind the small demountable stage and then onto large rocks for the crowd to sit or stand on. The tunnel’s exposed canvas has a new painter for tonight.
Small green posters plastered throughout the Blue Mountains have advertised tonight’s event for weeks. Dubbed the ‘SubTerrain Generator Party’, the unauthorised gig promises punters five live performances from some of the region’s best alternative artists.
Helping set up is drummer Pat Bowden. Tonight’s gig is his second with current band A Hunger Like the Sun. He says events like this have spawned in the Blue Mountains out of sheer necessity.
“In the mountains live music venues are quite limited, especially for music that’s out of the mainstream, so a lot of things like house parties or spontaneous events like this go on a lot,” he says.
“It’s good that things like this exist so the live music scene can flourish in the mountains.
“Because the only way to get better as a band is to just keep playing and without having to go out to Bathurst or Sydney to find venues.”
Some of tonight’s performers begin a brief sound check, which thunderously bounces off the curved concrete overhead, a quick glimpse of what’s in store tonight for the approaching audience.
A distant spec of light in the far-off darkness grows closer and enters the tunnel, revealing itself as one of the event’s organisers — Oliver Morley-Sattler. Singer-songwriter with the duo Paperhill, he tells me the Berejiklian Government’s lukewarm support of live music is on everybody’s mind tonight.
“We’re flipping the bird to Gladys Berejiklian and taking it out of the venues, having a big old jam out in a tunnel,” he says.
I’m told the event’s committee comprises one person per band to share the load of organising, ensuring band members are kept accountable once gigs like this reach opening night.
“It definitely means that you, as each band, have to do a fair bit of work in terms of getting your audience here,” Oliver says.
Having played in a variety of bands around the Blue Mountains, he says events like tonight’s feel safer and more financially secure than traditional gigs.
“It is sometimes hard to play a gig where you have to deal with drunk punters a lot of the time, difficult publicans, trying to get paid,” Oliver says.
“It’s just so much easier when we have control.”
As complete darkness sets in, volunteers light hollow drums with kindling and large logs carted in by wheelbarrow. The flames fail to remedy the ferocious sub-zero wind now blowing through the tunnel at 70 kilometres per hour. But the wild weather hasn’t cautioned the crowd, as small groups begin emerging from the blackness to purchase $20 entry from a large red toolbox acting as a makeshift till.
As the crowd gathers I meet the event’s main organiser, Michael Hoffman. After stumbling upon the abandoned tunnel while walking his dog many months ago, he tells me the entire event was conceived to make use of the languishing landmark. Vocalist and guitarist for band Sounds of Agriculture, he says the challenge of organising events like this is worth the extreme effort.
“The main thing I want to get out of tonight for the bands is just have fun and do what we want to do, which is just come out here where there’s no electricity, get some generators going and have a party,” Michael says.
Anticipating a crowd of between 100 to 200 people, Michael says tonight’s event needs about 75 people through the gate to be able to pass on some money to the performers and crew.
“It’d be lovely if we could get a bit of money out of it, but that’s not what we’re here for. As long as we cover our costs and enjoy ourselves, that’s what it’s about,” he says.
The contrast of bustling traffic above the abandoned tunnel is like a literal metaphor for the underground nature of tonight’s event. Michael says fringe music gigs like this are performed in the shadow of a State Government growing increasingly hostile to live music and large festivals.
“Our current government’s pretty terrible when it comes to being really supportive of live events. We’ve got so many talented artists within our country who could play shows and it’s a great thing for young people to be able to go to those shows,” Michael says.
“The really stringent laws regarding festivals and the police presence and just the cost of insurance and all of those things is just insane — it’s killing live music.”
As new arrivals queue to exchange cash and have their wrists stamped, they’re asked to present identification to ensure the event stays 18-plus. Michael says tonight is adults-only to ensure the safety of patrons, even if that means protecting them from themselves. Being a safe space is also a priority, Michael tells me, emphasising events like this live and die on the safety and satisfaction of its supporters.
“We’re trying to be as responsible in this event as we possibly can. It’s not a flippant, rushed or hurried event.”
After technical issues delay the first act for some 45 minutes, DJ Deep Sbass gets underway with an ethereal electronic set as the rugged-up audience sways fireside. Unphased by the thousands of people passing on the road above, Michael says the strong wind is likely helping drown out the now-booming music. The prospect of police arriving to shut the event down is met with indifference from Michael, who tells me he’d happily be compliant with authorities.
“I don’t feel I’m doing anything wrong, and so I have nothing to hide. I think we’re doing a good thing for people and I’m happy to take any responsibility that I have to for this event,” he says.
With no alcohol to sell, volunteers serve steaming hot cups of chai tea and plates of nachos to peckish punters while new bands take to the stage. In the midst of the music, upright projectors are now beaming kaleidoscopic visuals up at the solid grey ceiling.
The mysterious nature of the venue and the unconventional journey to reach it unites the hundred or so people in the crowd, like a shared secret they’re all privy to. I soon meet young couple Joe and Lily, who’ve come all the way from Newcastle just for tonight’s show. They tell me how shocked they were when they first arrived at the underpass.
“It looks pretty suss, honestly,” Lily says.
“It looks like a scene from a cult movie,” Joe says.
“I sort of feel like we’re all homeless and having a rave together,” adds Lily.
The teens tell me an increasing police presence in Newcastle’s inner city suburb The Junction has been hard to miss these days, and the do-it-yourself nature of events like tonight’s are a nice change of pace.
“I think it’s great. The Junction now has cops at every event, which makes sense but it’s also kind of taken away the spirit of the thing,” Joe says.
“If you can’t find stuff, make it,” Lily says.
Blue Mountains local Jacinta didn’t have to travel far from the neighbouring suburb of Blackheath to attend tonight’s event. Amid the echoing chatter of the crowd between performances, she tells me she’s in awe of how the abandoned tunnel has been transformed into a fluorescent festival.
“It’s like an art gallery, it looks like some room you’ve walked into and there’s just this big artscape,” she says.
“It could be in the Tate Modern in London.”
A small headlamp lights my way back to the carpark where tonight’s journey began. A handful of scattered tents are new additions to the rugged bushland, as brave punters hope for a short walk to bed after a night out. The resonant bass grows fainter and fainter as the glowing tunnel slowly fades into the tree line.
The next morning, organiser Michael Hoffman unloads a few trolleys from his van and sets off down the abandoned tarmac to finish what he started. From afar, the tunnel has returned to its familiar unflattering facade. But once inside, the remnants of last night’s party remain intact. The glowing rocks, walls of carpet and still-smoking barrels conjure images of a bootleg music event held in a most unlikely venue.
Michael says about 120 people passed through the concrete archway last night, more than enough for the performers and crew to receive some compensation for their efforts.
“We’ll be getting together with the committee over the next few days and dividing up the profits. We won’t get much each, but it’ll be something,” he says.
“Everybody loved it, nobody had been to anything like it.”
With only a small cardboard box worth of rubbish collected this morning, Michael says the crowd had done well to follow the event’s no glass and no littering rules. He tells me returning to clean up the site was a top priority, and would ensure events like these maintain a healthy reputation.
“We’re going to be leaving it cleaner than we first found it, when we first found this space there was a lot of rubbish, heaps of rubbish in here, so we spent a lot of time cleaning it up and it will look a lot better when we leave,” Michael says.
“It’s our responsibility. If we make a mess, we need to clean it up.”
“If we do that, and show that we’re responsible, then people will be more likely to be accepting of what we do and be supportive of what we want to do.”
With new ideas for future events already on his mind, Michael says expanding the scope of these events to include visual artists and beyond is likely. Maintaining the mysterious nature of undisclosed locations is a trait he wants to use to define these gigs in future, and says last night was a great success for the aspiring musicians just looking for a place to perform.
“I was just blown away. I had a really good night, it went beyond my expectations. I think beyond all of our expectations,” he says.
“We’re already coming up with more events. They’ll be completely different to this one, we want to keep it fresh and do different things each time, to keep people on their toes.”
October 05, 2019 07:00:00