I’m standing by a stage, watching one of my teenage idols, Carlos Santana, tear up a guitar barely 10 feet away from me. Nothing unusual in that – the Mexican-American rock legend still tours frequently – what’s unusual is the setting, a dusty field in a small country town on the edge of the Australian Outback. .
The town is Deniliquin, 160 miles north of Melbourne, which – like many rural communities – is struggling to survive because of depopulation and a declining agricultural industry. But “Deni”, as locals call it, is determined to reinvent itself.
In 1999, during a record drought, it came up with the idea of hosting an annual “Ute Muster”. (Utes are pick-up trucks). And, as of a few weekends ago, it is the site of a major roots and blues festival.
Santana were just one of a clutch of international acts which descended for the inaugural festival; others included the Steve Miller Band, Status Quo, Chris Isaak and the veteran reggae star Jimmy Cliff.
Status Quo frontman Francis Rossi made a quip about performing in a field, adding that it was “bloody freezing” – not what he expected in the Australian Outback.
Festival organisers used infrastructure already in place for the Ute Muster, which tries every year to break its own record for the number of utes assembled in one place. (The 2010 figure, still unsurpassed, was 10,152.)
John Harvie, general manager of the Deni Blues and Roots Festival, says: “It’s about keeping our town going.”