Aussie pub rockers excited for great leap at China folk fest

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 3:22pm

FlyByWire, a little known Australian rock band, are preparing for the biggest gig of their lives. At the opening ceremony of the China International Folk Art Festival they will play in front of 50,000 music lovers as an estimated 500 million people across the mainland watch at home.

It's a world away from the group's usual performances as a bar band in Sydney, where a big night is a sold-out show of 600 people.

They're planning on treating Chinese audiences to rock classics by AC/DC and Jet

For the band - comprising Tim McDonnell (bass player), Simon Abbott (drummer), Ben Shallis (vocalist) and Paul Davies (guitarist) - it is an unimaginable opportunity, a dream come true. (Singer Sheree Sheperdson is performing with the band for the event, which continues until Wednesday.)

For McDonnell, the festival is exceptionally portentous.

McDonnell thought he had left his life in rock'n'roll behind, taking a job in the aviation industry in Hong Kong. But fate had other plans, with a once-in-a-lifetime chance at rock stardom just over the border.

In fact, it is a miracle McDonnell was asked to perform at all. He wasn't even playing in the band the fateful evening the Chinese cultural attaché to Sydney happened to catch a FlyByWire show.

The official encouraged the band to apply for a spot in the festival and when they were chosen, McDonnell - who was a founding member of the group and, of course, already living in China - was a natural choice for the performances.

The China International Folk Art Festival has been taking place every three years since its inception in 1986. This year's theme of "developing folk arts, promoting friendship and peace" is expected to draw more than 300 artists from 13 countries.

After a raucous opening ceremony in Yichang on September 16 the festival has travelled across the mainland with performances in six cities before the closing ceremony tomorrow in Beijing.

Whether rock'n'roll counts as an Australian folk art is up for debate, but McDonnell sees the group as representative of the proud tradition of Australian rock. "We've been influenced by lots of Australian bands I'm sure you've never heard of," he says.

But the group are also practising hits from some bands you no doubt have heard of: they're planning on treating Chinese audiences to rock anthems from Aussie mega-groups, such as AC/DC and Jet.

FlyByWire are taking the idea of promoting friendship seriously. McDonnell has spent the past year studying Chinese and though he says it's still "hard to put a sentence together", the band have started rehearsing a Chinese song The Coolest Ethnic Trend by Phoenix Legend.

McDonnell has been watching YouTube videos of past festivals and his excitement is palpable. He can't help but be taken aback at their size.

"It's the sheer scale of the crowd," he says, laughing. "We may have to put on some nappies before we go on stage."