Music good times roll on at the Caravan

THIS is what an oasis in a cultural desert looks like: a cavernous canteen littered with mismatched chairs and tables under checkered cloths, a stage in front of a graveyard backdrop at one end and a tea station at the other.

There's a disco ball suspended next to an old metallic ceiling fan and hidden behind heavy blinds are old war posters and flags bearing the legend, Lest We Forget.

But that is the view during the day. At night the place is transformed into an intimate space, moodily lit by tabletop candles and light spilling from the bar.

For the past seven years, the Caravan Music Club in Oakleigh has been a beacon to lovers of roots music in Melbourne's own Deep South.

Founder Peter Foley, who was sick of the perception that there was nothing culturally respectable south of the Yarra, started staging gigs in the loungeroom of his Oakleigh home. 

Although it was seven years ago, the intimate gig remains clear in the mind of that first performer, now an assistant promoter, Tracey Miller.

"It was beautiful," she says wistfully. " It was so great to actually have people wanting to listen to my songs."

Word soon spread about Foley's loungeroom antics and his small group of friends grew into a bustling crowd. With the need for a bigger venue, he packed up his portable music scene and shifted to the Oakleigh Bowling Club. In 2009, the Caravan moved again to the Oakleigh-Carnegie RSL, giving credence to its name.

"We kind of parked it here and it never got moved off the blocks," he says.

In effect, the club is now located in a bigger loungeroom, where punters are treated like family and bands are welcomed like out-of-town friends.

"There's not rock bitches on the door; there's open and friendly faces," Foley says.

Every soul that ambles into the club pays a door charge. The cost is to ensure that the crowd is only made up of the people who really want to be there. "It's not an incidental crowd. It's a very deliberate, committed crowd," Foley says. "It's a listening crowd. That's why performers like it too."

The Caravan's reputation is now so big that the tour circuit once exclusive to inner city venues has grown to include it. While Foley once had to seek out artists, agents representing acts like The Sonics now come to him.

Miller says: "The word has got out that this is a venue worth playing. Cold Chisel's Don Walker is now a regular and Paul Kelly has rocked up to a gig before.

The Caravan has developed a reputation for the respect that the acts are given. Musicians are given food and wine and a place to get ready.

When Louisiana's Lil' Band o' Gold performed recently, they took over the kitchen and cooked everyone Southern-style gumbo.

"They feel at home and we always look after the musicians that come here," says Miller.

But that reputation has spread to the crowds as well. "People from the northern side are coming here too because they've heard about this club. They know that they're going to get a very special show when they come here and it's worth the journey."

On the night, early in November when the Whitetop Mountaineers on tour from Virginia play, the atmosphere is buzzing as punters trickle through the door, and take a handful of mixed lollies as they find their seats. The crowd is mixed: there are hipsters just out of their teens drinking Coopers and Bohemian baby boomers sipping on rum.

For a moment, it's as though Greenwich Village has taken over Oakleigh. Foley wanders about finding extra chairs and stools for guests as Eilen Jewell's Southern drawl warbles out of the speakers. 

At the beer garden out the back, Robyn Steele, who has travelled from Seymour, is having fish and chips with friends and family in the twilight. She caught the Mountaineers at the Apollo Bay Music Festival and made the 100-kilometre drive to the Caravan to see them again.

"I love the atmosphere," Steele says. "I've had people say to me, 'Oakleigh? You're going to Oakleigh?' "For me, it's quite a long way to come. If I lived close, I would come here every few weeks. I love coming here."

Yarraville's Jackie Lazzaro brought her family to the gig and said it was the family atmosphere she enjoyed the most. "It's nice to know we can enjoy this music together," she says.

About 10pm, the band everyone has come to see wanders on stage. Martha Spencer and Jackson Cunningham open their set with an "old time" tune from the mountaintops of Virginia. Spencer's hand blurs across the banjo while Cunningham accompanies her on the guitar. 

The couple change instruments with regularity and Spencer looks as comfortable with a fiddle or a guitar as she does with the banjo. The songs they sing are passed down by their families through the generations and deal with cheating and drinking and dying — the usual country themes. 

The appreciation from the crowd is palpable. Every eye is drawn to the stage and there's thunderous applause after every song. When the band finishes at 11pm, they get a standing ovation.

"Another thing which people really like, which seems uncool, is the fact that we run earlier and finish earlier so people can get home on the train," Foley says.

"This whole thing about bands going on at 10.45pm is a crock because no one can get home. People in their 20s, it allows them to go out and if they've got young kids, they can get a babysitter. If they come home at 2am or 3am, they can't get a babysitter."

One thing now seems certain: the Caravan Club's nomadic days are over and the oasis in this cultural desert has set down roots. Foley recently committed to another three years at the venue on Drummond Street. "It's certainly very valuable in this community, much loved in this community. That's beyond doubt.

"Every week I get people saying how much it seems like it's changed their lives."

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