The punters were promised the biggest and best Jazz in the Vines yet, a fitting party to farewell the Hunter Valley’s beloved festival. However, some major organizational flaws put a dampener on the festivities and left many of us with a sour taste in our mouth.

Long queues snaking in to the land beside Tyrrell’s Vineyard were our first clue that this year might be a little different from the very relaxed festival I’ve loved for so many years. Ordinarily the lines move quickly, yet I missed most of Anna Weatherup’s set because I was queuing to enter the venue. She sounded amazing, with laidback covers of songs from Dido and Eva Cassidy, and I really wish the lines had moved faster so I could watch her play.

Sadly that was a recurrent theme for this year’s event which has been dubbed “Jazz in the Lines” by some of those disappointed. After entering the venue and setting up our chairs, Dad and I made a beeline for the bar. I’m glad that we did, because even though people were still streaming through the gates, it took us an hour to get to the front. As it turned out, those two bottles of wine we purchased for our group of four would be the only ones we’d buy all day. While in the queue we heard tickets were still being sold at the gate, further compounding the problem. At one point we saw the queue stretch out to four times the size it was when we lined up.

The event’s organiser’s commented on Facebook that “many of our patrons were let down by the one aspect out of our control,” before passing the buck to Tyrrell’s. The winemaker apologised for the queues, noting they were “understaffed” and the demand for wines “was far greater than anticipated.” However, when an event has been promoted as extensively as this one and tickets are sold in what must be record numbers, I fail to understand how the demand could be “greater than anticipated.” Staff should have been found, whether they were from the winery or contracted for the day. It all made me long for the years before Tyrrell’s had the monopoly, when it would share the spotlight with the likes of Tamburlaine and Peterson’s Champagne House, and queues were negligible.

While the situation was unfortunate, it wasn’t the only problem on the day as the organisers suggested. The queues in to the venue were too long, and this was repeated as we waited for the car park to clear at the end. At one point a frustrated volunteer threw down his sign, leaving confused cars to try to work things out until a police officer ran in to address the mess. The bins were overflowing by mid-afternoon, forcing many attendees to leave glass bottles strewn around the grass and creating an unsafe environment. With so many people at the event, this should have never been left unchecked.

A representative from Jazz in the Vines contacted me on Monday when I shared my frustrations on Facebook along with others. Remembering my name and blog, he urged me to call him so he could give his side of the story before I wrote this review. With a busy week of vet appointments, Melbourne Cup luncheons, and entertaining my visiting parents, I knew I’d barely have a moment to myself. I urged him to write an email if he had anything further to add to the comments regarding Tyrrell’s on Facebook. I didn’t receive one. I questioned him about the bins over Facebook Messenger, but I didn’t get an answer on that either.

I’m not suggesting one needs to drink to have a good time, but I do think when you pay money for an event like Jazz in the Vines, you’re paying for an experience. You should be able to enjoy all that’s on offer, rather than being forced to decide whether to queue to get alcohol and miss hours of entertainment or go without.
For our party the decision was a no brainer. We drank the little bit of wine we could procure slowly, and purchased some softies from the guys from the Men’s Shed before they sold out. It was much more important for us to watch the music, which as always impressed. The first act I got to see was Monica Trapaga, performing with John Morrison’s Swing City. I’ve always loved Monica since growing up with her on Playschool and I’m not sure she’s aged a day. What a vivacious entertainer, a proper old-school jazz artist with a clear, pure tone and a little va-va-voom in her delivery. She was over far too soon.

The next act Ondawon was so intriguing. Lead singer Neilsen Gough has one of the best soul voices I’ve ever heard. His classic sound reminded me a little of Luther Vandross mixed with Bill Withers. He could easily have stuck to soul standards, but instead the set featured covers of songs like Elvis Costello’s “Alison” and Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” performed in really unique ways. I enjoyed it, although it was probably a shade too long at an hour.

I could feel the crowds getting restless until John Morrison’s Swing City returned, this time with John’s Brother James, Dale Barlow, and Emma Pask in tow. James Morrison really is Mr Jazz in the Vines. He has such charisma and is always a blast to see. I’d watched him play the festival with Emma years ago, long before The Voice, and I was thrilled for her return. Her voice truly is something else. The playful chemistry between them, showcased perfectly in songs like “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” made this set an absolute joy.

Lisa Hunt was up next, another Jazz favourite who always gets the crowd up and dancing with her Motown covers. Up near the stage really was the best place to experience her set, not just because you could feel the electricity from her, but also because the sound suffered back near our seats. I’m not really sure what happened – this was the only act where sound quality suffered – but judging by a couple of Facebook comments I wasn’t the only one who noticed.

Thankfully there were no such issues for Leo Sayer, my favourite act of the day. I’m not sure I realised just how many Leo Sayer songs I knew or what a dynamic performer he is. I was held transfixed and loved every single second of his set which delivered hit after hit including excellent renditions of “When I Need You,” “One Man Band,” and “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.” What a treasure he is. I really must see him playing his own show, because he is exceptional.

After being in raptures over Leo’s set, I felt a little let down over the closing act, Mental as Anything. It seems I wasn’t alone, as I saw many people exiting the venue when they took the stage. Playing some relatively obscure songs up front probably didn’t help matters. Musically the band is still strong, but the vocals from Greedy Smith and Martin Plaza aren’t quite what they used to be. I had a little boogie to “Live It Up” and “Nips Are Getting Bigger,” but I felt a little underwhelmed.

On the whole though, Jazz in the Vines delivered many of the outstanding musical performances I’ve come to expect. It’s just a shame that the well-publicised problems took the gloss off what should have been a very special curtain call for one of the Hunter’s most loved festivals.

Image source: own photos