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A Night Of Hidden Treasures

Inside Fremantle’s winter music festival.

It may only be 10.30 on a crisp Thursday morning in July, but in the Fremantle Buffalo Club it’s as good a time as any to crack your first beer of the day. At least that’s the logic employed by the two elderly gentlemen sitting at one end of the long, wooden bar, flipping through the day’s paper on stools that, you suspect, may well bear a permanent imprint of their respective arse cheeks.

To walk through the doors of the Buffalo Club is to be transported back to the Seventies — its off-yellow-colour scheme is complemented by grey carpet, off-white padded chairs and reams of gold tinsel, while a bunting consisting of small Australian flags lines the roof above the bar. Up the back is a pool room complete with a tribute wall to the Fremantle Dockers consisting of posters and newspaper clippings; another area boasts the myriad darts trophies collected by the Club’s team and, because you’ve got to soak the booze up with something, a freezer chest containing a few packs of frozen mini quiches. It is, frankly, awesome, and feels about as Australian as Bob Hawke. It’s also one of four venues to host Fremantle’s Hidden Treasures festival, which encourages punters to spend each Thursday evening in July walking in and out of venues such as this while soaking up some of the city’s musical talent.

Situated in the West End of the city — a gorgeous, if quiet, part of Fremantle characterised by late Georgian and Victorian-style architecture, where one of Western Australia’s oldest landmarks, former jail the Round House, nestles alongside Bathers Beach and the city’s port — the hidden treasures aren’t only onstage, they’re also the rooms themselves.

“It’s like stepping back in time, these places, they’re old workers’ clubs and they look forward to this every year,” explains Bruna Chiovitti, who, until going on maternity leave recently, was the Festivals Officer at the City of Fremantle, and has curated Hidden Treasures for the past four of its five years.

Case in point is the Navy Club, two doors along High Street from the Buffalo Club. Last night on its third floor, as a precursor to the start of the festival, former Weddings Parties Anything frontman Mick Thomas and local singer-songwriter Steve Parkin held a songwriting workshop for half a dozen local aspiring artists in a little enclave called Pappy’s Bridge. As with the Buffalo Club it has the air of a room that’s not seen an interior designer since 1984, and you can be sure Thomas has never discussed the art of songwriting while surrounded by models of naval ships in glass cases. And yet these are rooms that so badly crave life and, once they receive it, return the love by exhibiting a character that’s becoming increasingly rare.

Mick Thomas (far right) and Steve Parkin (third from left) hosting a songwriting workshop at the Navy Club

That much is clear when Hidden Treasures kicks off the following night, Thursday July 2nd, and Thomas and former Weddings bandmate Squeezebox Wally take the stage on the second floor of the Navy Club (imagine a large function room in an RSL). Armed only with their instruments and a series of WPA hits such as “Father’s Day”, “Away, Away” and “Monday’s Experts”, the duo fill the dance floor despite the absence of a drummer or a beat. At one point Thomas pauses the set and recounts how a few hours earlier a punter asked him what his connection to Fremantle was. “I’m a St Kilda supporter,” he replied, “and you took our fucking coach!”

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Mick Thomas (right) performing at the Navy Club (left)

The question was born out of the fact that Hidden Treasures seeks to shine a light on the city’s music talent, and with the exception of Thomas — who was drafted in from Melbourne partially to run the songwriting workshop — features acts either from Fremantle, or that have a strong connection to the city. Given that its population is around 30,000, it may seem like a limited pool from which to draw, but then it’s worth considering that this is a place that’s produced the likes of Tame Impala, Pond, John Butler, Eskimo Joe, the Waifs, Koi Child, Methyl Ethyl (who are performing at Hidden Treasures on July 9th), San Cisco and more.

“There’s lots of band-swapping that happens,” explains Custom Royal vocalist Mitchell MacKintosh, as he and his bandmates stand in the wings at the Buffalo Club, preparing for their 9.30pm headlining spot. “A lot of people start their own little band and their mates form other bands and another band will pop out of that.”

Indeed, guitarist Dion Mariani was once a member of the Flairz alongside San Cisco drummer Scarlett Stevens, and at the ripe old age of 12 travelled to the U.S. to play South By Southwest where they created enough buzz to find themselves in the New York Times.

“Fremantle has this great heritage of wonderful bands, music, artists, and [the festival] wants to showcase that,” explained Chiovitti earlier in the day.

That much is clear at 8.30pm when Freo six-piece Dream Rimmy take the stage at the Buffalo Club — which is now heaving with punters, most of whom, I’m told, are unlikely to have ever set foot in the room due to the fact this is the only time it opens its doors to gigs such as this — and unleash a crunchy brand of Nineties indie shoegaze and grunge.

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Dream Rimmy (left) and the audience (right) at the Buffalo Club

One pint later and it’s time to hit the streets which, though far from packed, have a discernible buzz as punters dart between venues. On the way to the National Hotel I take a left down Pakenham Street to pop my head into the PS Art Space, a large, high-ceilinged warehouse with exposed banisters and stark white light that reflects off its walls to illuminate the darkened space. The second floor houses artists’ studios, and though the ground floor normally holds exhibitions, tonight it’s home to a hip-hop party curated by local MC Bretskii. It’s yet to pick up pace, though, so I carry on up High Street to the National Hotel, a more traditional pub that lacks the charm of the other workers’ clubs but, on its second floor, boasts handsome high ceilings and glass doors that open out onto a large balcony.

Earlier in the night it hosted an Irish music jam session, but at 9pm, in front of an older, more sedate crowd, Helen Townsend’s soothing, harmony-laden acoustic folk is a nice counterpoint to the more raucous noise in the Buffalo Club. Another pint and it’s over to the Navy Club for a set by R&B vocalist Shameem Taheri-Lee, before jetting back to the Buffalo Club to watch Custom Royal. An energetic, wiry four-piece that sound like the lovechild of latter-day Arctic Monkeys and the Who, their riffs are dirty and big, but there’s a tunefulness on display that suggests something very special is bubbling away.

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Helen Townsend at the National Hotel (left) and Custom Royal at the Buffalo Club (right)

As the clock strikes 11pm, and Thomas draws his set to a close at the Navy Club, all the focus has shifted to the two venues still in operation. At the National, Ewan Buckley runs his seven-piece through a set of laid-back alt-folk, country and pop, including one song about a place “that no-one owns, there’s no fees, you can’t get to, and fish jump onto the boat”. It’s as idyllic a song as it sounds.

It’s a long way thematically from the hip-hop party in the PS Art Space which, unfortunately, still feels a little empty due to the size of the room, though that can’t stifle the energy coming off the dance floor.

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Ewan Buckley at the National Hotel (left) and DJ Carlsani at the PS Art Space (right)

On the streets outside, punters are starting to gather before bidding goodnight. One local resident, Georgia Scotch, has attended every Hidden Treasures evening of the past three years, and intends to do the same this year. “This part of town is pretty dead most of the time, because most of it is owned by [Notre Dame] university,” she explains. “So it’s really nice to have life here. And these workers’ clubs are really cool, but they’re dying because their members are literally dying. So it’s like an injection of life into the West End and those clubs, and it’s fun to run between the gigs.”

“It warms up winter,” adds friend Sam Wells.

The next morning, as a bleary-eyed Mick Thomas sips a coffee in the lobby of the nearby Esplanade Hotel, he reflects on the night.

“It was really good, and felt kind of special. I don’t think a lot of people there could put their finger on what it was, but it was just this funny thing happening at that end of town. I spoke to a few people about it, and they’d come down to see us but were so rapt they could go and check out these other things. As an idea it’s quite special and interesting and a bit odd, in the best way.”

All photos by Rachael Barrett.

Rod Yates was a guest of the City of Fremantle. The Hidden Treasures festival is taking place every Thursday this month.