Wollongong Memories: Why Yours & Owls is the greatest modern success story of the steel city

By the early 2010s, Wollongong was a city that had had its dreams of live music crushed a dozen times over – sometimes quite literally, as the bulldozing of the beloved Oxford Tavern will testify to. The most recent musical success story was Infusion a decade prior, and the fact you’re probably Googling “infusion band” right now is reflective of the lack of legacy they left. Local bands were running out of options fast, with rooms like the Grand Hotel, the Harp and the Brewery all ceasing live music in their operations. Even the national tours rolling through to the ever-reliable UniBar seemed to be in decline.

It was around this time, however, that three words began slipping into the local lexicon: Yours & Owls. A cafe at the end of Crown Street, in-between Souva King and the local Woolies, the tiny room was being run by a crew once known as Night Eats Day that had previously booked gigs at the aforementioned Grand. Within three years, the venue had evolved into a beloved local commodity – not only hosting early shows for future stars like Hockey Dad, but also had-to-be-there shows from cult international bands like Basement.

Eventually, however, the owners’ vision outgrew their intimate surrounds and lead to them selling the venue – which continued as Rad Bar until 2019, where the bulldozer was once again pulled out by local council. Yours & Owls was no longer a singular place within Wollongong. Instead, it had become an imprint on Wollongong itself – and that would come to be reflected in the ever-expanding experience that is the eponymous festival.

From a patch in the middle of Stuart Park to overtaking the entire area, Yours & Owls Festival has been the greatest modern success story of the steel city. What other Australian festival can serve as the ultimate congregation between the country’s beloved main-stage staples and its burgeoning up-and-comers – with a sprinkling of boutique internationals for good measure? What other Australian festival can strike a near-perfect balance between grand spectacle and sweaty intimacy in such an idiosyncratic and effortlessly antipodean manner? What other Australian festival has been able to adapt and evolve in such a distinct fashion over its near-decade of existence without ever once losing sight of where it all started from?

For many bands, the Yours & Owls stage has been a proving ground. We may have never gotten the complete bells and whistles of Splendour’s star-making main-stage sets from Dune Rats and Gang of Youths in the late 2010s had they not first stolen the show during Yours & Owls’ humble beginnings in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Long before she was conquering the world and playing The Tonight Show, Sampa the Great (pictured above) captivated a crowd of instant converts circa 2016. If you rocked up first thing on day one circa 2017, you would have been met with a 21-year-old Cronulla kid by the name of Ruby Fields (pictured below) playing to roughly 100 people – next month, she’ll play to thousands on a national tour. She’ll be joined on that tour by Hockey Dad, who moved from an early afternoon slot in 2014 to an evening side-stage spot in 2016 all the way to the main-stage in 2018 and 2021 – an ultimate moment of hometown pride and hard work paying off. One more just for kicks: Almost exactly two years before he won every award under the sun for Smiling with No Teeth, Genesis Owusu turned heads and dropped palms during a killer Sunday arvo set at the 2019 festival.

By taking in everything Yours & Owls has to offer as a festival, we’ve been given frequent chances to see tomorrow’s stars right now. This has especially been the case since the Rad Bar stage was added – originally a reflection of the scene surrounding the beloved venue, now so named in tribute to it. 2018, for instance, saw the stage boast sets from Cry Club and The Vanns – pop bands with roots in the Illawarra that were still making a name for themselves at the time. Both returned in 2021 as marquee main-stage acts with national followings. Many festivals with returning acts can offer witness to evolution, yes, but the personal stamp that comes with it taking places at “the fezzie” gives it that homely gravitas that others simply couldn’t provide.

Thinking back to the best sets by Australian acts at the festival, many come immediately to mind. A bloodthirsty WAAX turning up the heat on an already scorching afternoon with one of the most wildly energetic sets in the festival’s history. The hat-trick of perfectly ridiculous performances from Totally Unicorn (pictured above), brandishing their sweaty brand of heaviness with a healthy dose of audience participation and partial nudity. Cub Sport creating the ultimate on-shoulders festival moment with the bright, beautiful finale of ‘Come On Mess Me Up’. Alex the Astronaut bringing a drunk and rowdy crowd to silence with her coming-out anthem ‘Not Worth Hiding’ – immediately followed by rapturous applause, of course. A quarter-drawn field full of people standing on plastic lawn chairs, all vibing as one to PNAU during the unforgettable mid-COVID weirdness of the 2021 festival. The seismic bounce of Confidence Man, the fiery bars of A.B. Original, the throat-tearing sing-alongs of Ball Park Music… and how about the time we all went to see Sneaky Sound System for a bit of light 2000s nostalgia only for them to absolutely fucking murder it up there and leave us all eating our words faster than you can say ‘U.F.O.’? We could truly be here all day naming names and remembering the time.

Expanding out to the internationals that have paid a visit to the city over the years paints an even more diverse picture – creating a stellar atmosphere and memorable surrounds for an otherwise humdrum visit through the capital cities. Canadian punk bands PUP and Fucked Up each brought their own magic, the former in the throes of a sweaty moshpit and the latter refusing to go gently into the cool Sunday night. Liars, which features Australian-born and NYC-based frontman Angus Andrew, brought the weirdest rave possible hours after Destroyer had soothed many a hungover head with lucid acoustic intimacy. Mexican art-rockers Le Butcherettes stopped more than a few punters in their tracks with a bold and wholly eccentric set, both uncompromising and wholly mesmerising. Hell, even garage-rock veterans The Sonics (pictured below) – who are older than the average festival punter’s parents – had the whole place absolutely rocking with one of the most truly swingin’ dance parties the city’s ever seen.

Perhaps the most distinct honour in this regard, however, is that Yours & Owls may have given At the Drive-In their greatest ever Australian festival slot. Consider their original run at the 2001 Big Day Out, which was marred by both their walk-off in protest of violent dancing and the subsequent death of Jessica Michalik on that same tour. Consider then their return for the 2012 edition of Splendour in the Grass, off-set by in-band tension and the recent passing of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s mother. Circa 2017, with a reinvigorated band at the ready and a festival willing to take a chance, ATDI delivered one the most energetic and frenetic sets in the festival’s history. The band themselves can obviously take a lot of the credit for this, but a lot of it also comes back to the audience – many of whom didn’t even really know the band, but were ready to mix it up with the die-hards and pick up exactly what the El Paso natives were putting down. That night, a one-armed scissor was sharp enough to cut through an entire coastal city.

Why is Yours & Owls a point of pride for Wollongong? Simple. It is Wollongong. It’s not interested in genre snobbery, politicking, close-mindedness or cliques. It’s willing to go the distance and jump through hierarchical hoops just to make this shit happen. It wants the whole nation – even the world – to know what this place is all about. It’s been knocked down multiple times, but it’s never completely crushed the collective spirit. It’s rebuilt, regenerated and reincarnated. If any of these fond memories have made you wish you were there, the 2023 festival is as good a time as ever to go and make some of your very own. The Gong will happily welcome you.

Yours & Owls Festival heads the University of Wollongong Grounds on October 14th and 15th, 2023, featuring the performances of Broods, Oliver Tree, Peach Pit, SAFIA, Descendents, Chet Faker, Masego, Golden Features, Earl Sweatshirt and many, many more. Head HERE for more details and the full first lineup announcement.

Presale On Sale: Weds, June 28, 8am
GA On Sale: Thurs, June 29, 8am
Register HERE for Early Presale Tickets & Win Big!
All photos by Chris Frape. Pictured in header: Skeggs