Paul Kelly, climate change epics and ‘Bananaland’: Inside Brisbane Festival 2023

A trio of events in Brisbane this September have made the city a must for music-lovers, led by an ambitious, exciting iteration of Brisbane Festival

Brisbane has long been among Australia’s top cities for music, but this September, a set of new and reinvigorated annual events – all part of the QLD Music Trail, a year-round line-up of gigs and events across the Sunshine State – made it an essential spring destination.

This year’s BIGSOUND – the annual four-day music showcase and conference, where industry figures find our next big acts – was back-to-business post-COVID, with a renewed sense of excitement for the future of Australian music. Inaugural music festival Sweet Relief! kicked off with a bumper line-up, including an Australian-exclusive DJ set from Groove Armada, plus performances from Cut Copy, Ladyhawke and more.

Sweet Relief
Sweet Relief 2023. Credit: James Adams


And Brisbane Festival, which concludes this weekend, set the city alight with more than 1,000 performances with an eclectic program of 80 events spanning music, theatre, comedy, art and light installations, cabaret, 10,000-person kazoo orchestras and more. It’s all part of Louise Bezzina’s grand scheme – one she is only just able to put into motion, after assuming the position of artistic director in 2020.

“My job is to push the boundaries of what a festival should be every year,” says Bezzina. “And that doesn’t mean it needs to be all experimental or a particular kind of genre. It’s about the city, the time, the people, the place.”

Brisbane Festival artistic director Louise Bezzina
Brisbane Festival artistic director Louise Bezzina. Credit: Nigel Hallett

“Brisbane is optimistic, playful, it has this irreverence that I love. It’s got this amazing weather, a great outdoors lifestyle, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously.” Bezzina hopes the festival program reflects that playfulness – but also the city’s ambition, as it gears up to host the Summer Olympics in 2032. “Taking risks is part of our character.”

Those risks include original works and events, among the best-reviewed and most-anticipated of the festival. These include: the world premiere of Salamander, a large-scale dance production that imagines life and hope after a complete climate catastrophe; one-off themed gigs by Paul Kelly and Gretta Ray; and Bananaland, a new musical written by Kate Miller-Heidke and partner Keir Nuttall. If anything embodies Bezzina’s vision of Brisbane, it’s Bananaland – a cheeky musical inspired in part by the duo’s son’s love of The Wiggles.

Salamander at Brisbane Festival
Salamander at Brisbane Festival. Credit: Atmosphere Photography


“After you become comatose from watching ‘Big Red Car’ a hundred times, you start to try to subject The Wiggles to psychological scrutiny,” Miller-Heidke tells NME. “We wondered what’s going on behind their eyes. How did they get to that point? Did they always want this career or were they aiming to go somewhere else?”

Bananaland shares its name with its lead character Ruby’s accidental hit song – an anti-mining magnate anthem that somehow becomes beloved by little kids who adore its silly lyrics. After years of financial struggle and zero following, overnight Ruby and her band Kitty Litter face fame and fortune. But will they sell out or stay true to their artistic voice?

‘Bananaland’. Credit: Darren Thomas

Delightfully Australian and written for a local audience, the musical is the follow-up to the duo’s multi-award-winning Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical. It also reunites the creative duo with several of the key talent behind Muriel’s, including lead actor Max McKenna and director Simon Phillips. For Miller-Heidke, a premiere at Brisbane Festival just made sense.

“There aren’t many new Australian musicals,” she says. They’re painfully rare because they’re massive undertakings. They’re expensive and hugely risky. But it’s not some commercial import from the US, it’s ours. It belongs to this country.”

Bananaland creators Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall
‘Bananaland’ creators Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. Credit: Jo Duck

Miller-Heidke gives props to Louise and John Kotzas of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, who “have been amazing champions of this show from the beginning”. She explains, “When we presented Lou with a very rough script nearly three years ago, she basically gave it the green light straight away. And I’m born and bred in Queensland, and Keir and I have lived most of our lives in Brisbane. It’s beautiful to be back where it all started.”

Between Brisbane Festival’s innovative, culture-pushing programming, BIGSOUND’s position as an industry essential, and then all-star music line-ups like Sweet Relief!, September belonged to Brisbane. And with QLD Music Trails eager to expand in future years, keep your eyes locked on 2024.

Brisbane Festival runs till September 23 – find more info here. NME travelled to Brisbane Festival with support from Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ)

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