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Easterfest – AGMF comes of age

JC Epidemic biker was one of the BMX stunters performing at Easterfest.  Photo Adam Weathered
It’s the largest celebration of Easter in the country; it heralds a kaleidoscope of music, debate, art and extreme games in one destination, boasts it’s very own ‘canvas’ city, and has people from across this nation and around the globe flocking to southeast Queensland by the tens of thousands. In 2008, this event turned ten, embraced a new name and evolved… no longer just a festival at Easter; it’s a festival about Easter.

For some, it was difficult to let go of ‘AGMF’ – the acronym affectionately pulled from the ‘Australian Gospel Music Festival’, as it was known until this year.

“We thought it was great how people were so passionately supportive of the old ‘AGMF’ name – some even turning up this year in special t-shirts and with signs! It shows that people really have a commitment to this festival,” says Isaac Moody, CEO of the newly named Easterfest.

Each year, Queen’s Park in Toowoomba is kitted out as a multi-stage compound across the Easter weekend, and over the past ten years has grown to become one of the biggest regional festivals in Australia. But this year, organisers saw an opportunity just too good to pass up… the ability for this festival to house a celebration of the Easter message en masse.

“When the festival started ten years ago, I don’t think anyone thought it’d be as big as it is today,” Mr Moody muses. “We’re on a journey, a realisation that the festival is about Easter itself, and that’s really exciting because it’s worth celebrating and doing it with tens of thousands of people is a lot of fun!”

Another reason for the name change was to identify that the festival was no longer just about music, nor was it only for the youth (a common misconception). Easterfest is, and has always been – even as AGMF – about diversity, and it certainly had plenty of this going on in ’08.

The festival’s headline artists pumped out energy-driven shows across the three nights – Friday saw the funky soul beats of newworldson, a relatively unknown group from Canada who had their work cut out for them before their feet even hit Aussie soil.

“We had people asking why we’d given them headline status, because nobody knew who they were,” says Mr Moody. “But they left as one of the heroes of this festival!”

It was no surprise that thousands turned out to hear 2007 Australian Idol runner-up, Matt Corby, do his thing. As the Easterfest ‘Mystery Artist’, Corby’s appearance was announced just weeks leading up to the event and was undoubtedly a big hit with his young female fan-base!

Newsboys were a crowd-puller and definitely a crowd-pleaser on the Saturday night, proving themselves as one of the great entertainers for all ages – a ‘drum-off’ between lead singer Peter Furler and drummer Duncan Philips had audiences mesmerised; a show highlight! And Gold Coast band Alabaster Box returned from the States (where they now call home) for a much-anticipated set and the official launch of their new album, ‘We Will Not Be Silent’, while US band Jars of Clay closed the festival on Sunday night with their first Australian gig in four years.

But the broadening of the festival meant music wasn’t all there was to see and do. A number of guest speakers were incorporated into the line-up, with a veritable melting pot of issues being stirred around the festival. One of the most talked-about was the XXXChurch’s Pastor Craig Gross, fresh from the ABC America’s national televised debate on the impact of pornography – their mission takes them inside the walls of pornography exhibitions and the like, as they reach out to the industry with their ‘Jesus loves Porn Stars’ message.

Also chewing big issues was Australian Christian Lobby’s Brigadier Jim Wallace, former Commander SAS, and Women’s Forum Australia’s Melinda Tankard Reist who challenged audiences on the over-sexualisation of culture – using their newly released ‘Faking It’ book as a platform to encourage young women to navigate their way through the expectations of a ‘photo-shopped’ world.

The range of discussion was endless, really. The Chai tent looked like a throwback to the Jesus Freak Seventies, while in the Scripture Union coffee shop, politicians discussed Jesus and agenda, God and gender issues, salvation and sexuality.

“And just for fun, we also had BMX stunt bikes and skateboarders, Kidz Island and free show rides,” Mr Moody smiles. “And then there were things like the Iona Passion Play and Stations of the Cr0ss, which have a very real and obvious link to Easter itself.”

But of those very real Easter experiences, Mr Moody says none were as poignant as Sunday night’s Combined Church Service. Traditionally a big crowd, this year the service drew more than 15,000 people – the majority of these spilling into the Heritage Mainstage, while others watched on screens in venues around the park.

“Easterfest is located right in the middle of a city that has just about every church denomination that you could think of and every different age group, so we really just wanted the strong message of the Gospel to come through.

“It’s the real start of us being proud of the fact that Easter’s an incredible time to celebrate and to reflect upon, and it’s important for us to uphold this in the foremost part of our mind as we move into the future.”

And this is something they’ve already begun. “We’ve been working on Easterfest ’09 for a few months now, and of course we were really stoked to be able to announce the world-exclusive reunion of Audio Adrenaline,” says Mr Moody. “But they’re not the only act we’ve been working on. We think the festival has come of age, there are many things we will leave the same; but we don’t want to just rest on our laurels, we feel young and energetic about the future, and more and more focussed on this celebration/reflection of Easter.

“It’ll be a great artist line-up too, of course! I think the festival’s getting a reputation around the world as one of the best festival’s to house Christian music so we’re finding a lot more artists really want to come out and perform. And we can’t wait to dig up more exciting, fresh artists like newworldson!”

For the outside world, it’s easy to see Easterfest only as it appears on the surface, many unaware of the commitment from the army of volunteers who work across the weekend.

“We’re still counting the final numbers this year, but I think there were about 1,500 crew at least on site,” Mr Moody exclaims. “It’s amazing because we sometimes wonder how on earth we’re going to get a team of 80 people just to pick up rubbish all weekend! But we were really blessed this year – the number of people who wanted to help actually exceeded the number of positions we had available. Over the years we’ve struggled to meet the numbers, so this was a real coming-of-age for the festival and I think people are getting a sense that something great is happening and want to be involved.”

Also experiencing rapid growth is the festival’s very own tent city. A culture in it’s own right now, campers flood the site at Queen’s Park year after year, taking up their own piece of Easterfest real estate just to be close to the action. This year, records broke as just under 4,000 campers filled the grounds. But not to worry, Mr Moody says there’s still plenty of grass untouched, enough to see the number of campers double in the future. Ultimately though, he believes most of these possibilities are thanks to some extra-careful site planning.

“In 2004, we had the first public performance by Guy Sebastian in Australia, and we had to put a ‘Sold Out’ sign up out the front. The crowd was more than double that size this year!” Mr Moody laughs. “We’ve got a lot smarter with how we use Queen’s Park, and we’ve also managed to make our camping ground larger and more efficient.”

When it’s all done and dusted for another year though, the only word to encapsulate an event of this magnitude and diversity, is ‘Easter’.

“This is the word that ties together the music, the attractions, the speakers – everything – and most importantly the incredible sacrifice made 2,000 years ago by Jesus Christ,” Mr Moody emphasises. “And I hope that, as we’ve grown to learn this in a very key way this year, in the future we’ll realise all that Easter means even more.”

Photo : JC Epidemic biker was one of the BMX stunters performing at Easterfest. Photo Adam Weathered