Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Grahamstown Martell Blues Rock Festivals - Part 1 - The People

The Grahamstown Martell Blues Rock Festivals - Part 1 - The People
29 May 2013

My incredible folks were music promoters extraordinaire.  They could throw a rock festival at the drop of a hat.  Well, perhaps not quite, but close.

They knew exactly what it all entailed.  From securing awesome artists, just the right venue, logistics like parking, stage, sound crew, lighting, security, accommodation, liquor licenses if needed, vendors, meal vouchers for artists, admin, admission, posters, branded clothing, radio promotions, MC’s, marketing, contracts with artists, contracts with sound engineers, contracts with lighting crew, contracts with etc., etc., etc.

In fact, a music festival is such a mammoth task, incorporating so many different aspects, it's actually quite mind boggling and hurts my head just thinking about it.

Yet, my folks were brave enough.  They embraced it all.  Few could equal them with regards to their ability to throw a festival.  In fact, they built up quite a reputation for doing just that.

It would all start, simply months in advance, with just a mere thought.  I'd imagine they would ponder their idea and discuss it lots.  Perhaps they had artists in mind.  Maybe even a venue.

But a music festival simply cannot happen without a sponsor.  At the time, SFW, was throwing huge amounts of money at live music promoting.  The Martell brand in particular.  And that's when an amazing guy, stepped to the fore - Edgar Bullen - Brand Manager for Martell.  Luckily for my folks, Edgar was also a man of vision.  A man who understood, that investing in the local music industry was the way to people's hearts, and eventually their pockets.  That it showed good faith and support.  And provided one hell of a good jol in the process too.

And I think that throughout their music-festival-organising careers, nothing quite equalled the magnificence and brilliance of the Grahamstown Martell Blues Rock Festivals.  They even became a bit of an institution.  A highlight on the festival circuit.  A Festival known for its awesome artists and good line-up, fair conditions for those artists (ensuring that they wanted to be a part of the festival), great sound, awesome vibe and all round amazing experience.  The complete package.

Personally, I managed to attend two.  My first Blues Rock Festival was in 1996, the year Grant and I got married.  On my parents insistence and encouragement, we drove up to Grahamstown to take it all in.  To finally experience this Grahamstown Festival we had heard so much about.  And what an experience it was.  In ’96, my folks rented a massive big house, somewhere in town and there were literally people jam packed in every single room and bed.  There was almost a Kibbutz and communal feel to it all.  One kitchen for all to use and everyone queuing for the same bathroom.  People I didn’t even know.  As for us, we had a communal bed in the sitting room, and slept on mattresses on the floor.  And when I say us, I mean the Family Frost.  Rather appropriate, because Grahamstown during festival time, is absolutely bloody freezing!  Cuddling at night was really key to staying warm.

The whole vibe and festival experience was indescribable.  It is as if the entire town of Grahamstown goes loopy for a period of ten days.  There is an absolute influx of artistic, musical, creative, dramatic, hippie-ish type people.  I have never seen so many assembled fruitcakes in one place all together.  And I was just so happy to be one of them.  There was sort of a carnival feel to it all.  Vendors and stallers.  People dressed funny.  Music all over.  Artworks displayed.  One part was called the PX village, which was sort of a whole bunch of metal containers, all placed together to form a little market.  Then there was the village square with markets there too.  In fact, there were markets simply everywhere.  You could buy anything and everything.  People were just so happy and jolly.  Everyone in holiday mode.  Even those supposedly working.  We loved every single minute.  You could spend absolutely hours just milling about, indulging in a spot of people watching.  There were so many of them to watch and they were so highly entertaining.

But perhaps, one of the very greatest things of Grahamstown, was the people.  And the people of the Grahamstown Martell Blues Rock Festival in particular.  And no, I’m not talking about the bands as such.  Nor am I talking about just my folks either.  I’m talking about simply everyone associated with it.  It is so difficult to encapsulate the essence of Grahamstown in one single blog, that I thought it truly deserved two.  Firstly, there’s Grahamstown – The People.  And secondly, there’s Grahamstown – The Music.

At the very topmost of “The People” totem pole, were my folks.  The visionaries.  The ones that took a lot of risk.  Because when they first started, they had no idea of knowing if it would be a success or not.  Nor did their sponsors (brave Edgar).  And at that stage, they didn’t have a lot of experience in arranging music festivals either.  In fact they had none.  But, they had always been involved in the music industry.  And had intimate knowledge of how it all worked.  They had thrown many music parties over the years, and performed at numerous festivals too.  And perhaps, that is what gave them the inside edge.  Firstly, the inimitable Frank Frost, had an uncanny knack, for spotting talent.  Usually little known talent, still on the cusp of fame.  And giving them their first big break.  Secondly, having been a performer at many festivals, they knew exactly how the artists wanted to be treated.  Because I don’t think artists were treated all that great before then.  And their mission, was to give the muso’s the respect that they so richly deserved.  Because without the muso’s there quite simply wouldn’t be a festival.

They arranged proper accommodation.  They ensured that the muso’s were fed and that liquid refreshments, in the form of SFW endorsed brands were always on hand.  And no, it wasn’t just liquor.  One of the brands of SFW at the time, was Superjuice.  An awesome fruity non-alcoholic cocktail type beverage.  Heavenly stuff.  And though the liquor flowed backstage, artists were forbidden to indulge before their performances.  No drunken musicians on stage at all.  In fact, it was a clause in the performance contract, and one of the conditions of them performing.  And throughout it all, I only ever saw one muso, indulge in a spot of alcohol before going on stage.  Darling Russel, from one of my favourite bands, Squeal.  He had special permission, before each and every performance.  A shot of Martell cognac, to loosen his vocal chords he claimed.  Not sure how tight they were before the liquor, but they were syrupy loose after his tot.  Artists fees, included transportation costs to and from Grahamstown too.  And no, they didn’t have the use of accommodation for the duration of the Festival.  They were catered for, exactly according to when they were performing.  Accommodation during Grahamstown festival is particularly scarce.  The terms “hen’s teeth” comes to mind.  Beds were literally being rotated daily, with a relatively fast turn-over between occupants.

Maggie’s magic, was her incredible organisational skills.  Because let me tell you, A LOT of organisation was involved.  She sat glued to her desk in the backstage/admin office.  Phone usually clasped in her hand, scribbling some notes.  Negotiating with someone or other, about something or other.  She was everyone’s mom.  And helped everyone out. 

Now Edgar, worked like a Trojan.  He really, really did.  He would drive up to the Festival in a huge big SFW truck, filled to the brim with sound equipment (as he was a part time sound engineer too) and litres and litres of alcohol.  Actually the alcohol made up the bulk of the truck.  All of the SFW brands of course.  Now that is a whole lot of booze, let me tell you.  It was a humongous big truck.  And chances were, that about half way during the festival, a team would be sent to take the about nine hour drive back to Stellenbosch, to load the truck full with booze once more. 

One guy in particular, always stands out for me, when I think of the Blues Rock Festival.  A dearly departed friend and character – the one and only Chris Parkin.  He was an incredible and amazing sound engineer.  Absolutely dedicated to the music industry and the music life.  It was his all.  He was quirky and funny and really, really cool.  He had the kindest heart and I swear he was as mad as a hatter.  He always wore odd clothes, and that is saying quite a lot, given the weird outfits on display at Grahamstown.  During the ’99 Festival, rather than stay in the big farm house that my Mom had rented, he stayed in a tree house, that the farmer must have built for his kids.  A very basic, rudimentary tree house.  No creature comforts in sight.  You have but NOOO idea how cold it was.  I’m assuming the brandy and the whisky kept him warm.  Still, he descended from his tree house every morning, chirpy and chipper.  Full of the joys of life.  I never quite figured out how he did it.

Working at the festival, fun though it was, was still quite draining.  In ’99, I had little Luke.  A busy little 16 month old toddler.  A toddler who woke up early, every single day.  And so, I would get up with him in the mornings, go down to the festival office (a.k.a. Ground Zero) and start putting the daily administrative wheels in motion.  And slowly, during the course of the morning, the rest of Team-Frost would join me.  I had slightly earlier evenings than them, due to Luke.  Even though I was at the venue every night and we had a baby sitter, I was still always aware that I had a little baby with me, (albeit it that he was back at the farm with the babysitter – sound engineer Lyndon’s wife, Lisa).  A baby who could need me at any time of the day or night.  In drips and drabs the rest of the crew would eventually assemble and start the whole show all over again for that night’s performance.  Getting ducks in a row.

My Grantie was at the very forefront of it all.  No, I mean quite literally.  He formed part of the security crew, and would be at the very front of the stage, attempting to hold the crowd back.  Not an easy task at all.  And on a night when a band like the Springbok Nude Girls played, the crowd went bonkers.  Completely and utterly crazy.  They were literally able to bounce the entire stage back, with their joined energy.  Holding them back, was physically taxing work.

But somehow or other, despite all of the hard work, and it really was hard, we had the most amazing times.  The atmosphere was jolly.  Everyone was exuberant and energised, like there was a bit of a buzz in the air.  By ’99 my dear beloved Dad, had passed away.  Only five short months before the festival.  Still the planning for the festival had been on the go for a whole year already and the show had to go on.  My mom managed to put her personal little stamp on a very impersonal space – the backstage/admin area.  We put up posters and pics, and gave the whole area a healthy dollop of Frost-Fever.  The family was amazing.  And Team Frost comprised of my Mom and all three her kids, my Grantie, little Lukie, my aunt, an uncle, as well as an old family friend.  What a wonderful, magical combo.  It worked like a dream!

And then, I’m not quite sure why it came about, we had a wacky idea.  On the second last night and the last night of the festival, we decided to go big.  On the one night we had a team come in, to do colour spray painting of the entire crew’s hair.  And on the other night, we had a few people come and do elaborate face painting.  What fun!  And for some or other crazy idea, it managed to lift our spirits even higher.  To push the fun button and envelope even further.

I don’t quite think Grahamstown ever completely recovered after ’99.  It was incredible.  Indescribable.  Truly magical.  Marvellously memorable.

I can never quite think back on those days without a smile coming to my face.  And forever more, when any of us see each other, we inevitably reminisce and marvel about those golden days.  About the awesome times.  The good music.  The litres and litres of coffee we drank.  The laughs.  The jokes.  The alcohol induced stories.  The crowds.

And Chris Parkin’s rose patterned pants and that tree house he slept in. 
Part 2 - The Muso's to follow shortly.  Watch this space...

Chris (donning a feather boa - why not?) and Maggie

Part of the crew - Face Painting night

Door crew and soundies - all dollied up

This was absolutely brilliant! A face painted on the back of a bald head. Caused lots of laughs and numerous photos to be taken.

Ground Zero - posters, pictures and photo's everywhere. Albert, Chris Parkin and Maggie. This is Grahamstown 1999 - five months after my dad died. And most poignant of all, is the drum skin hanging up in the back ground. And written on it, in my dad's hand are the words "Drummers don't die - they just shed their skins".

Maggie and I with Phil Wright. Our MC from 5FM. Sadly Phil died a few short weeks ago. What a guy!

Katrine and I became part of a little "duo", which we dubbed the "Pentel Poppies" - and our job was to get all of the various artists to sign posters for one and sundry. In fact we had a system whereby we bombarded them Pentel Khoki's in hand - demanding signatures. We were rather relentless. And if they didn't immediately sign for us, we resorted to song. It seemed to do the trick.

Door girl fun - such happy chicks

Team-Frost: Back left to right - Albert (looking a bit like a girl with his long hair and wineglass elegantly grasped), Maggie, Linky, Bettie (my aunt), Grantie. Front left to right - Katrine, Jac (my uncle) and me.

Stage and sound crew - Lyndon Dunbar, Paul Lawson, Dirk Ace (Uys), Chris Parkin, Edgar Bullen, Maggie

Hair spray night - sound and stage crew 

Katrine and I

Chilling back stage - Michelle, Albert and Linky

Bettie - running the bar back stage for the muso's and crew.  There was a big fat back stage after party every single night.

My little Lukie - complete with back stage pass. Too cute!
Chris' digs - the tree house on the farm

Entertaining Luke back stage - taking him for a spin on a beer trolley
Our "bedroom" in 1996

The Frost chicks

Village mayhem - walkway down to the market

Katrine "hard at work" playing solitaire, and Edgar's Lisa advising from the side lines. Black Queen of Spades on to...

Bettie - hard at work

Katrine and I - supposedly on a flyer run, but we're enjoying the market instead

Entertainers with their dragon

Eyeing the crowd approaching - about to hand out flyers

Sister fun

A quiet moment back stage

The upstairs bar

The Bouncers - Albert doubled as an artist and a bouncer

The one and only Cheslyn - a guy affiliated to the Rhodes Club. He just adored us and so badly wanted to be a part of our family.

More sound and stage crew - Maggie at the helm

Dirk and Phil - taking a load off

Mama Frost and her Frostlings

Grantie and I

Face paint - such fun!

Grant, Maggie and I

Al dressed in "corporate" gear - ready for work at "Ground Zero"

My most magnificently beautiful sister

Grant and Linky - taking a moment to chill

The three Frost gals

Hair sprayed crew

The Pentel Poppies in action - khoki's clasped in our hands - we even had matching outfits

The Pentel Poppies had great visions of fame and fortune - sadly still waiting.....

Phil Wright - our MC - I still have those bunny ears he gave me after the festival

Back stage relaxing - Dirk, Michelle and Albert

Crazy faces

Maggie's TV interview

It was all fun and games with the hair spray, until some of us got carried away and started drawing moustaches and beards.  Can't imagine who started it all.....



1 comment:

  1. Oh WOW!! Thanks Helene for this blast from the past! Grahamstown '99 was the most amazing experience EVER!! I remember Maggie being Mom backstage, from having cutters to cut open locks for lost padlock keys to dishing out plasters and head ache pills! Muso's!!And all this in early days without every one having cell phones?!! Can't be!! Miracle workers, the Frost Family and Supporters! X