So there have been seven big names – and as of this long weekend we can make it eight. Elton John is doing a Saturday-Sunday double-header in the shadow of this extinct volcano as part of his Farewell Yellow Brick Road retirement tour. John is performing across Australia for three months – everywhere from stadiums to wineries – but based on past experience of concerts at Hanging Rock, he is unlikely to perform any shows as memorable as these.
Anyone who has attended any of the Rock concerts will testify to the incomparable experience – the setting alone, with all that the venue’s name brings to mind, is enough to warrant a special place in the memory. Leonard Cohen is said to have jumped at the chance to inaugurate concerts there, being familiar with the place from the classic 1975 Peter Weir film Picnic At Hanging Rock. Bruce Springsteen delivered the Rock’s first double-header with a legendary Easter weekend back-to-back epic that was the highlight of his 2013 national tour.
The Eagles? Fans and locals won’t forget the 2015 storm that drove the music legends from the stage and had the crowd running for cover from horizontal rain. Miraculously, given the region’s unpredictable weather, it remains the only Hanging Rock show completely ruined by a diabolical downpour – though other natural disturbances have intervened.
Local business owners will never forget the Rolling Stones, Hanging Rock’s most famous gig that never happened. In November 2014 Mick Jagger got a throat infection and the show was cancelled.
It’s a remarkable catalogue of legendary names to be associated with a place – an hour outside of Melbourne, whose nearest notable locations are the lovely towns of Woodend and Kyneton – that has no business sounding like Wembley Stadium.
And yet a rural Victorian version of Wembley it has become.
Janet Pearce, the mayor of Macedon Ranges Shire Council, cites the statistics and the memories that testify to the boost provided by Hanging Rock events.
“It’s really important,” says Pearce, who has attended all but one of the concerts over the decade, including ducking for cover as the heavens opened on The Eagles and revelling in the joy of the Cold Chisel reunion.
“It has been 10 years and we’ve … calculated that economic impact was $9.3 million for the shire,” Pearce says.
“It’s really valuable for our accommodation providers because they basically all get booked out for the concert weekends … and the local food and beverage outlets and the wineries. And because they’re international artists, Hanging Rock and the Macedon Ranges are mentioned as well.”
It all began with a dream of legendary music promoter (and local resident) Michael Gudinski, who thought the location close to Melbourne and the glorious natural setting were a no-brainer for outdoor shows, given the growing trend for lucrative shows at wineries. The council agreed to a four-concert deal.
Cohen kicked things off on November 20, 2010, with an appropriate tribute to the glorious surrounds.
“Thanks for inviting us to this sacred place,” he said. “It’s a great honour. I promise we’ll give you everything we’ve got tonight.’”
Pearce says maintaining the integrity of that sacred place remains paramount. In 2018, the council released its Hanging Rock Strategic Plan, a 50-year strategy that sets out how best to manage the iconic site. Among its key objectives is involving traditional owners in the way the rock is used as a public arena.
“We have three traditional owners,” she says.
“The East Paddock, where these concerts are held, is going to be incorporated into that but we also need to be respectful of the traditional owners, the custodians, the local community, the environmental values, the natural landscape and promoting the importance of the rock. That is an important aspect of it.”
The current contract with Gudinski’s Frontier Touring expires in October 2020 and seems sure to be renewed. Over the decade, planning for the big events has grown more sophisticated. Concertgoers can catch shuttle buses from the Melbourne CBD, for example, and traffic management has been fine-tuned to limit chaos and gridlock getting in and out.
Pearce says the council is also aware of concerns over bushfires and smoke pollution and is prepared for conditions as they unfold this weekend. The current forecast is good.
For music punters, the memories are rich.
There was Cohen’s opening gig in 2010. The Age‘s John Mangan at the time wrote: “The six-million-year-old rock formation and natural amphitheatre has been a home to Wurundjeri initiation rites, horse races and a haunting film credited with launching Australian cinema. It’s even served as a lookout for notorious bushranger Dan ‘Mad Dog’ Morgan.”
You don’t get that at Marvel Stadium.
When Springsteen brought his record-breaking Wrecking Ball tour to the Rock in 2013, no one had ever seen anything quite like it – the shows ran close to four hours, and the Boss had Jimmy Barnes as a support act. The reviews were ecstatic: “By the seventh song, ‘Hungry Heart’, he was crowd-surfing in the pit, an act that managed to touch all 17,000 fans, whether or not they were close enough to slap a hand on his sweat-soaked black shirt.”
Gudinski knew he had struck gold, declaring: “I’m still coming down from Bruce Springsteen, the euphoria … one of the greatest things I’ve ever done.”
It was an Easter weekend to remember.
As was the night two years later when The Eagles, oracles of California rock, came to Hanging Rock – and got blown away. The band fled the stage as the big screen crashed down and the wind and the rain came in.
The local paper recorded the event: “The Eagles launched into ‘Tequila Sunrise’. Halfway through the song, the stage shook violently, heavy rain left the audience running for cover and the band vacated the stage.”
One audience member, Caroline Towers, remembers the mayhem.
“The black clouds rolled in and they had not been playing long when it started bucketing rain … then rain was blowing sideways and we were cold and soaking wet.”
Pearce was also there: “We were all huddled, the five of us, under a sheet, but you all got wet, it didn’t matter. It just added to the atmosphere.”
The picturesque natural site no doubt makes up for these and other random shortfalls. Springsteen’s return performance at the Rock in February 2017 confirmed his stature as a peerless musician and entertainer, and the venue as one of the world’s great arenas. As had been the case with Cohen and Rod Stewart before him, he was clearly quite thrilled just to be playing there.
As the Elton John juggernaut descends this weekend, locals will be hoping for that trend to continue. Pearce says the council keeps close tabs on local sentiment about these events, and that the most recent survey suggests 84 per cent of shire residents support the concert deal being extended after its October expiry date.
In the end, it might all come down to the last performer appearing at the Rock under the current contract. We can assume it will be a success.
Elton John has sung everywhere and for everyone, from Wembley shows to his Las Vegas residency to the Westminster Abbey funeral of Princess Diana. And he will get in just under the wire.
You have read about the superstars who flock to the Rock, but what of the permanent residents – those owls who breed in April?
Hanging Rock is the permanent home of a nesting pair of Powerful Owls, the largest owl in the country, classified as a vulnerable species. They produce just two chicks every year.
The concerts may be famous and relatively rare, but even the “Crocodile Rock” will have a hard time competing with that.