Balmy nights, spiegeltents and sumptuous celebrations of food and wine marks the start of Perth's summer season of events.
Perth is a city transformed, first by the mining boom but now by an ongoing food, drink and festival boom. The city’s festival scene has swung into a higher gear and consistently brought out locals and visitors alike. With endless good weather Perth’s festival season stretches from spring into autumn with outdoor gigs, wine events and seaside sculpture before pausing for a winter festival.
It’s nine pm on one of Perth’s balmy late summer nights and as I make my way with a bottle of Margaret River’s Xanadu white back to a garden table of legendary art student (and former art student) bar PICA, narrowly missing snagging my handbag on someone’s fairy wings, I wonder what to go for.
“What are we in the mood for?” A perusal of the lengthy menu follows and we reach a compromise.
But we’re not plumping for Thai over Indian, or dumplings over the city’s latest Korean Fried Chicken. We’re choosing comedy over variety or some more esoteric late night fare from a festival directory heavier than the city’s phonebook.
It’s the height of the Perth Fringe World, third biggest on the planet, and with over 700 events across a month, even those in the mood for a last minute lucky dip usually err on the side of luck. It can be just as exciting as the anticipation a sold out show and the spontaneity adds to the atmosphere, already alive across Perth’s arts precinct. Fringe also has the option of picking up last minute RushTix online, which offers more information than asking the hard working box office staff to just give you tickets to whatever’s best.
For our first shot we get tickets to a stand up lineup at the busy Noodle Palace, an enormous hawkers’ market with live music and a dance floor. The seven stage venue is actually in the North Metropolitan TAFE campus and the performance spaces have one crucial difference: they’re lecture theatres. For those who always longed for a drink during a lagging class, prayers have been answered.
Our comedy lineup runs from the seasoned to the slightly ridiculous, but even the amateur comedians are good fun. Not quite knowing what we’re getting means no performances are weighted down with built up expectation.
When the show’s over we file out and debate grabbing an Uber from the stand just outside or making our way a few blocks west to the Pleasure Gardens on James Street, a city park converted to outdoor amusement hall with one of the famous spiegeltents and another large lineup of pop up eats. After saying our goodbyes we make firmer plans for the Saturday: Women of Soul in the spiegeltent and drinks in the Outdoor Orchard, if only to see mermaids swim in a water tank and one of the world’s largest disco balls glitter over the crowd (seriously).
Randa Khamis is a stalwart of the city’s music scene. Her band Randa and the Soul Kingdom performed at the Women of Soul events, the Funk Club revival in Fremantle and she also found time to host a sold out bus tour dedicated to the city’s unknown musical past, stretching all the way back to colonial days.
“Every town and every city has its own vibe. We are very good at responding to and supporting the artist. If they (the punters) like it they’ve got no problem dancing and really shouting and getting excited. It’s very communal,” she told me.
As the city has grown, so has its arts scene and it now rivals the east coast offerings with one crucial difference: weather. “They’re very easy outdoor gigs… And now our Fringe is the third-biggest in the world, that’s incredible! It’s a very exciting time for the arts.” she told me.
The festival season runs as long an Indian summer, late into what is Autumn in name only. Before the excitement and quirkiness of Fringe World ends the more mainstream Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF) begins, creating a Venn diagram of crossover culture. And even PIAF has its own impromptu nature, as evidenced when a fan popped the question at acclaimed Aboriginal singer-songwriter Archie Roach’s gig beside Elizabeth Quay (it was on Valentine’s Day and she said yes!).
It isn’t just Perth city that comes alive, the suburbs surrounding all host their own festivals from the child-friendly Mount Hawthorn street festival to October’s Beauvine, one of the great boutique pop-up options.
Held in a park on Beaufort Street, basically Perth’s equivalent of Melbourne’s Brunswick street, it’s a one day event dedicated to the state’s food, wine and liquor. For $35 all entrants get endless tastings from every wine makers’ tent or can purchase glasses at a stunningly low cost ($5).
Co-founder Aaron Rutter told me, “We used to be directors of the Beaufort Street festival and that got bigger than Ben-Hur… off the back of that came a public want for a food and wine celebration.”
The WA-dedicated festival is a boon for out-of-towners too. You can essentially sample a good portion of the city’s dining in one day, and plenty of the state’s wine and smaller wineries, too. “You can arm yourself with a week’s worth of dining options,” said Rutter.
At the same time you can learn, as I did being a recent transplant to the West, that wine doesn’t begin and end with the world-famous ‘Margs’. “Margaret River is one of the greatest places in the world to produce wine, with incredible Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. (But) the Great Southern region to its west has some incredible wines coming out of it too,” he said.
The best part of so much activity is still how local it all feels. Fringe World might be huge and PIAF officially ‘international’, but as Randa says, “you can go to a gig on you own and bump into all your friends there.” Or simply make new ones waiting in line for the lecture theatre.