Some serious disco worship, the world premiere of Paul Kelly’s new album at a free concert and an after-dark Johnny Cash tribute show in the spooky old Parramatta Gaol – the Parramatta section of the Sydney Festival program has some serious street cred this year.

“I think it’s very worthwhile for people to be envious, because we think people should be there!” says festival director Lieven Bertels.

Opening a day after the Sydney Festival itself, the Parramatta line-up kicks off with POP 2015, the Parramatta Opening Party, a twilight street party headlined by beloved Australian balladeer Paul Kelly performing his new collaborative project The Merri Soul Sessions, featuring Dan Sultan, Clairy Browne and Vika and Linda Bull, among others.

The free show is being held at the newly refurbished and recently opened Centenary Square featuring The Stiff Gins, Spirit of Things Collective and plenty more.

This year’s Parramatta program is the biggest yet and takes into account lessons learned in the past, says Bertels.

“We’ve looked at projects we thought would do well at the box office to allow for shows that are more fragile. What we’ve learned is that sometimes size does matter. Sometimes it’s about scale and if you do things that are too small you will still serve a local audience, but won’t get traction to bring in people from the rest of Sydney. Whereas our family shows do bring in people from [everywhere].”

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One of the big-ticket items (selling fast) is dynamic family show Timber! It is three generations of one Canadian circus performance family who combine circus with physical comedy, live music and theatre to celebrate Canada’s native lumberjack trade.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Disco Dome, an after-dark interactive experience that brings together cocktails and supper with a walking tour of Parramatta’s former famous disco sites, of which there are many.

“I always thought Australia was about AC/DC, but there seems to have been quite a few discotheques and that’s what this quirky site exploration will show,” says Bertels. “It builds on Dawn Calling, the 2014 dawn tour of places of worship, followed by breakfast. This is a more hedonistic form of worship – intercultural dancing in the 1980s!”

In addition to site-specific work and a big international show, Bertels is once again bringing to Parramatta a new Australian work. This year it is Puncture, an up-close-and-personal exploration of our love of dance.

Held at Riverside Theatre, celebrated physical theatre company Legs On the Wall has joined forces with Form Dance Projects and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs which will sing live the music of Madonna to Monteverdi. Acclaimed dance artists Kristina Chan and Joshua Thomson join 12 young dancers to explore evolving dance forms, from the discipline of classical ballet to sensuous tango.

Another festival highlight is Far From Fulsome, a Johnny Cash tribute show performed live by Tex Perkins inside the sandstone walls of Parramatta Gaol. The first two shows are sold out and a third show is selling fast.

“We commission new work from Australian artists, bring the best of international work and we’ve chosen to always bring a special show for Parramatta, showcasing the unique sites in the city you wouldn’t normally get access to,” says Bertels.

Sydney Festival runs January 8–26. POP will be held on January 9.