Ability Fest 2023, Birrarung Marr, Melbourne, March 26th 2023 – Live Review

Organised by The Dylan Alcott Foundation and Untitled Group, Ability Fest 2023 featured a stellar line up including artists like; DZ Deathrays, Sampa the Great, and The Hilltop Hoods with all the proceeds going towards the Dylan Alcott Foundation.

Ability Fest is an all-accessible festival, a concept that I didn’t fully understand at first, as it can hard be hard to recognise what features had been missing at other festivals or live music events that had been excluding others from sharing the same experience. As soon as I walked the festival grounds, it became clearer to me what it was that other festivals had been lacking and that list is shockingly long. Some of these would have been things that I, as an able-bodied person would take for granted, such as pathways for wheelchairs through the festival lawn, elevated platforms, and sensory rooms.

Spread across two sites at Birrarung Marr, access between the two stages was by the Groove Bridge where a shuttle was available for guests who were unable to get across without assistance. The DJs playing at the Mark’s Stage drew in crowds of people, some with mobility aids, and some without, all able to dance with each other in a safe space and in an environment where no one would feel excluded.

Like any music festival, Main Stage is where all the action is, and following a Welcome to Country, DZ Deathrays were the first act and one of the bands I was most looking forward to. It was clear from the band’s reaction when they stepped onto the stage that this was an event that they were genuinely stoked to be a part of, and the crowd loved them for it. The enthusiasm and energy were feeding the band, shout outs to the crowd were met with cheers of joy and with an equally joyous reply from the band.

It was this set that started out my amazement at the AUSLAN interpreter, side of stage, their ability to keep up with the lyrics was mind boggling, even signing air guitar or bass to ensure those with hearing difficulties had a fully immersive experience. A moment that really made my heart melt came from Lachlan Ewbank handing out guitar picks and drums sticks to a fan that were singing at the top of their lungs to every song and moshing like I’ve never seen people mosh before.

Between each performer on the main stage, Yo Mafia was the DJ and they KILLED IT! The crowd’s energy was kept on a high, some of my favourite moments of the day, came from watching the crowd dance in between performers. The energy during Telenova’s set was so joyous that lead singer, Angeline Armstrong was smiling ear to ear and her angelic voice was floating to the elevated platform where I was standing.

I wanted to be as close to the stage as I could to see Alex Lahey and BROODS, I was hoping they would be mind-blowing and they were. Lahey played with such enthusiasm and spirit, the gap between stage and crowd became non-existent.

The weather gods must have been smiling down on the Nott siblings, because the sun had made its appearance from behind the clouds for BROODS’ set. With the sun high in the sky, watching BROODS was as magical as I had always hoped it would be. Georgia Notts voice was as strong and silvery-toned live as on record and her stage presence held the crowd, including myself, in awe.

There were so many things that I hadn’t experienced yet, so I grabbed my drink bottle, refilled my water at one of the various free water stations. The festival even smartly had taps of different heights for added accessibility.  Finding a seat at the ANZ Chill Hill people were playing table tennis, others having lunch and taking a moment away from the high energy of the main stage.

Taking everything in, I watched Meg Mac’s set from where I was sitting, I could see her perform, the AUSLAN interpreters, and the sound was as strong as it had been on the barrier. This was when the level of care and detail for accessibility was emphasised again, those that want to see their favourite artist live, but for whatever reason aren’t able to be close to the sound and noise, this was perfect.

I don’t think anyone would be in disagreement when I say that, DJ Cooper Smith was a standout. A high schooler from Seaford, and recipient of the Dylan Alcott Foundation Grant. As an aspiring DJ, Cooper received a new setup and would make his debut at Ability Fest. Before his debut, Cooper’s story was shown and his journey for receiving the grant. His debut would also make him the opener for the Hilltop Hoods and he really kept the energy of the crowd high.

The crowd was already having a hell of a good time, so I can’t imagine how it would feel for a person with a disability to see someone with a disability on stage, opening for the Hilltop Hoods. The end of his set was met with thunderous applause, and Cooper’s smiling face waving goodbye on the monitors.

When the Hilltop Hoods stepped one foot on the stage and the crowd lost their minds, the AUSLAN interpreters were working overtime to keep up with the fast lyrics, but as before, they were knocking it out of the park. Dedicating “Chase that Feeling” to audience member, Kara, everything was kicked up another notch as a pyrotechnic wall and sparklers lit up the stage. This energy remained the same throughout, the band not stopping once.

Hearing a crowd chant back lyrics has always been a beautiful thing to me, hearing that Ability Fest audience do so was even more beautiful. Hilltop Hoods managed to perform to the crowd in an intimate way, despite having fire shooting out close to their heads. They went up to the barrier, were embracing their fans, and shouting out the AUSLAN interpreters.

As the finale, Dylan Alcott was welcomed onto the stage receiving the largest applause of anyone at the event. Hearing Dylan speak about his passion for disability awareness and education shows why he was Australian of the Year. On stage, the new recipient of the Dylan Alcott Foundation was announced and part of this was receiving a new drum kit from the Hilltop Hoods with his music name, Hound Dog Harry on the bass drum.

I walked out of the gates of Ability Fest with a huge smile on my face, and one that hasn’t dropped since. I have always taken the way that I get to experience music for granted the way I can navigate a festival with ease and things I ignorantly assumed wouldn’t be a barrier for others.

The implementation of these amenities at Ability Fest never once inhibited my experience, rather it made mine greater by seeing the joy others were getting. Hearing people with disabilities talk all day about what made this experience so great, wasn’t just because they were at a music festival, but their needs weren’t regarded as an afterthought. People talked about how they wouldn’t go to festivals because they knew the correct amenities weren’t in place for them, Ability Fest must have been a release of sorts.

Seeing how small details can open up the beauty of live music to all, this experience makes me hope that Ability Fest will set the precedent for how music festivals should and can cater to all.

Ability Fest 2023 was held on Saturday the 25th of March at Birrarung Marr.

For more information and future ticketing, visit:
https://www.abilityfest.com.au

Photography by Michael Nguyen.

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