IN the candle-lit darkness of the Meeniyan hall, the wine is flowing along with the conversation. As the first chord sounds, silence falls and 300 pairs of eyes turn to the stage. Let the magic begin once more.
For the past 14 years, South Gippslanders and Bass Coasters have enjoyed an extraordinary series of concerts by top Australian and international acts: Paul Kelly, Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, Martha Wainwright, Steve Earle, Tony Joe White, Eilen Jewell, Martha Wainwright, Michelle Shocked, Justin Towns Earle, to name just a few.
They are artists who fill much bigger stadiums and venues in the city at much higher ticket prices. So what brings them to play in an unassuming little hall in a little country town two hours from the city?
The short answer is Meeniyan’s reputation as the setting for many memorable concerts.
The long answer starts in the late 1990s with a couple of Gippslanders with a crazy dream. Finding Melbourne just too far away to fulfil their passion for live music, Ian and Suzanne Henderson went searching for an alternative.
Suzanne has always loved music – it is part of her life – but she says that for Ian it is much more, it is the air he breathes. Finally he declared he had a solution to their problem: instead of travelling to the music they would bring the music to them.
“Yeah, sure. Ha ha!" Suzanne said.
Ian's first approach was to convince a local publican to present live music. He brokered a deal with some bands but hardly anyone turned up. The publican lost money and politely told them to go away.
About this time they found out about Regional Arts Victoria, which helped arts councils to negotiate their way through the logistics of insurance and incorporation. Maybe they didn't need to rely on a hotel; maybe they could do it themselves.
Ian and Suzanne discussed what they wanted in a venue: a place where the music was the focus, with good sound; a place where people could sit if they wanted to and really listen to the music; a place where you didn’t have to pay ridiculous amounts of money if you wanted something to eat or drink. They wanted the music to be accessible to all, especially those on a restricted income like themselves.
So the process began. Suzanne has a background in administration so she tackled the paperwork. They encouraged a few music-loving friends to become part of an arts council. And on a memorable night in October 1999 the Lyrebird Arts Council held its first concert: Texicali Rose at the Nerrena Hall.
“We held our breath to see if anyone else would like to experience music in the format we wanted to present it in,” Suzanne recalls. “People did and they in turn brought their friends.”
Since then they have presented more than 400 bands, principally in the Meeniyan Hall but also in the Leongatha Hall and at Mossvale Park. These days, instead of Gippsland music fans travelling to Melbourne, it’s more likely to be Melbourne music fans travelling to Meeniyan.
I was introduced to the joys of these Meeniyan nights a few years ago by my good friend and music buff Vilya. She was there at the beginning as an enthusiastic fan. When I ask her what has been the highlight for her she unhesitatingly replies “Gillian Welch”. Then she goes on to praise the evenings of Steve Earle, Martha Wainwright, Justin Townes Earle, Old Crow Medicine Show, Harry Manx, Liz Stringer and Eilen Jewell.
I cannot recall a night when I have been part of the audience that the musicians have not said how special the venue is to them and commented on the hospitality provided by the Lyrebird people.
Lyrebird membership secretary Elsie Wills says the audience is also a big part of the attraction for performers. “In a lot of places the people just talk and drink and yahoo, so the performers really appreciate coming to Meeniyan. They often mention how much they appreciate being heard. On stage sometimes they say it too: ‘Thank you for listening to us.’”
The next big night for Lyrebird is a sold-out concert by Paul Kelly at Leongatha Hall on August 28. The next big night for me comes in September when Calexico step onto the stage. The supporting acts, Brighter Later and Tiny Ruins, are alone worthy of a night out. I am not sure why I am telling you all this since the night is already booked out but there will be many more.
Calexico are new to me and I will leave it that way until the curtain goes up. Surprise me. Let the night begin.
Information: Lyrebird Arts Council; Membership inquiries, email email@example.com.