Folking it up at Port Fairy

It might be called a Folk Festival but Port Fairy encompasses much, much more than that one genre. Our posse, mostly from the suburb of Preston, makes up five families of ten adults and eleven kids. In that mob, as many as 100 concerts are attended. In some instances, during the course of a day three of us could have seen completely different acts and sworn we had seen the highlight of the festival. And that’s before we talk of the music workshops, mini theme concerts and launches.

The festival also caters to kids and teenagers without being condescending. There are street performers and craft activities. And there is a music tent set aside for concerts for the younger crew. One evening our kids (age range 6 – 14) watched the following: Sally Seltmann (Triple J audiences would know her as New Buffalo), Bob Evans (that’s right, the guy from Jebadiah), Mr Percival (a festival highlight), Christof (a Dutch Dylan in the making) and a Latin reggae band, Madre Monte. Yeah, those acts performed concerts in the kid’s tent!

I watched Frank Yamma on Friday night, a Pitjantjatjara man with a rich, gravely voice that held me in awe. One song in particular was a highlight of the weekend. The refrain goes like this: “this place was here before me, this place was here before you”. I liked it and it resonated because I attached meaning to the Folk Festival and me. With that reference I dreamily followed the songline metaphor of folk music’s history in Australia and beyond, and then music relationship to humans and place. Anyway, it’s a great song. I saw Frank perform again on Saturday afternoon. David Bridie and Helen Mountfort supported him. They played a terrific set. Bridie also performed a set and was, as usual, without giving the bugger a big head, bang on the money. Just before Bridie’s set I caught up with fellow Almanacker, and fellow Hawks die-hard, Tim Adams. We had a chat about the 2011 season and both, independently came to the same conclusion – the Hawks will romp it in!

Following their performance we caught up in the Shebeen for a beer. (Frank and David left us at the Shebeen because Frank was performing in a theme concert organised by Ted Egan, where he was going to sing the Australian national anthem in Pitjantjatjara).

Then I bought his CD and the family played it driving home from the festival. It was only on my fourth hearing of the song that I actually heard and understood the song as written by Frank Yamma. Wow! The song is called ‘Down the River’. It is a deceptively simple song that builds from a basic recognisable image into a damning indictment of racism and segregation inflicted on one people by another. The people in the street (town/city) think the blacks don’t belong with them, they belong ‘down the river’. Hearing this played on the Friday night of the festival was the first highlight. Getting the song’s meaning while driving home made the song even bigger.

The final highlight of the festival was totally unexpected. Shakura S’Aida is a Canadian jazz chanteuse. That’s enough to get my sceptic juices flowing. We caught her act on Friday night and were underwhelmed. Apart from a fantastic guitarist and a strong voice it seemed she was more cabaret than talent. However, by accident, we saw her again on Monday morning. This was her seventh concert over the weekend and it’s fair to say she had hit her straps. She blew us away. For 45 minutes we could have been in Las Vegas seeing one of the best acts in that town. She belted out R&B and smoky soul and crooned and owned the room. She got an audience used to sitting and contemplating sounds shaking their thing. And her guitarist, Donna Grantis, was sensational.

In between there was literally a plethora of top-of-their-game artists to see. Whether it was rockabilly queen, Rosie Flores or old Aussie stalwarts, The Dingoes or the artful bluegrass of Crooked Still, there was something good going on in most everything we heard.

On Sunday we basically stayed in Stage 3 tent from midday to 10pm (there are 8 stages in the festival compound and another 8 venues in the town of Port Fairy). During that day we saw the Joe Chindamo Band play instrumentals from Cohen Brothers films, which was stunning. Then father and daughter, Dick and Christa Hughes performed a set of tunes you might expect to hear in a 1930’s speakeasy. Dick’s in his late 80s tinkling the keys of a upright piano and his daughter, dressed as a dominatrix, skulled a pint of beer then gargled a song before finishing off with one impressive burp. And that wasn’t the highlight of their act. Following that, Tim O’Brien and his Two Ocean Trio (with a member of The Waterboys) showed us what the phrase virtuoso means, on mandolin, fiddle, guitar and banjo.

Then Kasey Chambers played. We had seen her the night before and returned because she’s that good. If she wasn’t a Country star she’d be a stand up comic. She’s hilarious. And we lapped it up. Then there’s her songs. Plaintive, searching lyrics entwined in a voice both fragile and strong. Her husband and father are in her band. Her brother does their sound. This is a family affair. They did a short medley of bluegrass. Kasey reckons that any song can be played bluegrass style because the sound is heavenly. To prove her point she sang short bursts of a couple of her own and then broke into ‘Staying Alive’ and ‘Beat It’. She’s as good as Australia has and her sound stood up against the best of the festival. Mary Black followed Kasey. She is an Irish star but it aint my sound.

You’d think we’d be worn out but the best was yet to come. Joe Pug is an upcoming singer/songwriter being championed by Justin Townes Earle. I saw him last year at the Northcote SC playing to about 100 or so people. His song are impressive and he has an intense style. And he’ll move you. One song is called, ‘Bury Me Far from My Uniform’ and the line continues, “so God might remember my face”. As I said, intense. Performing on Stage 3 (the biggest tent in the Festival compound, which holds maybe 2.500, and was pretty well full) he did a reasonable job but he is still better suited to smaller more intimate rooms.

Following him was Justin Townes Earle. I’m a big fan, as I am of his dad, Steve Earle but not necessarily of his namesake, Townes Van Zandt. Deep down I get the sense that JTE will probably become a better singer/songwriter than dad, if he makes it through these dark days. JTE stumbled onto the stage and mumbled into the mic. When I saw him last year at Mossvale in South Gippsland he was dressed as a southern gentleman. On Sunday night he was dishevelled. I love his latest record but on Sunday night I realised how autobiographical it is. From ‘One More Night in Brooklyn’ (about living in a hovel) to ‘Slippin and Slidin’ (about his drug habit and it’s deleterious effects) to the title song, ‘Harlem River Blues’ with the first lines of both song and record, “Lord I’m going uptown to the Harlem River to drown”. JTE has issues and he spewed them out to us. Issues to do with his father, women and his drug use. It’s not often at a folk festival you’re going to hear an artist exclaim the virtues of cocaine. He did add the caveat that Australia had overpriced, crap cocaine so for now he was keeping off the stuff. Are you sure Justin, are you sure? And his singing, particularly on slower songs kept losing time. He had a fiddle player to accompany him and that worked very well. It helped him keep time and focus. It also built an old time sound to a set of wonderful tunes. You see, however ramshackle the concert was, it was still a festival highlight. Justin has a smouldering, melodious voice, an impressive set of songs and is one of the best guitar players you will see. At times you swear he has another guitar and bass backing him. He did a version of Lightning Hopkins, ‘Bad Gasoline’ and that was worth the price of admission. He encored with Springsteen’s, ‘Racing in the Streets’ and made me happy. (We saw him again on Monday and he was in much better shape and form. For one, he had his eyes open. And again, he showed just why a fuss is made of his talent).

I don’t think the PFFF sets out to be political correct. But you would be hard pressed to find another festival where you would, for example, see so many female guitarists and the two best guitarists of the weekend were females. There is something about the air down there that has you thinking this is the way things are always; it is a peaceful, friendly, inspiring, challenging, invigorating, funny, relaxed community, listening to music as nourishment for the soul.

About Rick Kane

Up in the mornin', out on the job Work like the devil for my pay But that lucky old sun has nothin' to do But roll around Heaven all day


  1. John Butler says

    Good stuff RK

    Frank Yamma would be outstanding in a smaller, more intimate setting. Saw him at Queenscliff, where the crowd were distracted.

    A couple of interesting names to check out in all that.


  2. Great stuff Kaney. Wish I’d been there. Apart from having to listen to the two of you crapping about Hawthorn taking another flag.

  3. Rick, this post makes me wanna plan a family holiday to the east. We might be seeing youse at the PFFF next year…

  4. Ken Gilmore says

    Thanks for the enlightened review. It is such a shame that this festival clashes with Golden Plains. I would love to be able to do both. I have jotted down a few new names and will know all about them shortly. Cheers

  5. Sounds like a great festival. A big problem is that it also clashes with junior Cricket finals — so each year a good percentage of our latte-sipping families choof off to Port Fairy saying, “I hope it’s not an inconvenience that tiddles [who topped the bowling averages] has to miss this weekend’s game [ie the GF].” Lol as they say.

  6. Dave Nadel says

    It was a great festival Rick. I was also in Tent 3 on Sunday night (including an interesting performance from the Waifs to close the night) I didn’t quite warm to Joe Pug. He sounded so much like the young Bob Dylan (circa Freewheelin’, Times They are a-changing) that I couldn’t help noticing that his lyrics were nowhere near as good as Dylan’s at the same age. Justin Townes Earle, even substance affected, was brilliant. The briefly reformed Dingoes were worth seeing, Broderick Smith, even at 62, still has one of the best male voices in Australian music. Two young international bands that I really enjoyed were a Chilean outfit led by a bloke named Nanno Stern, who must have been the most energetic musician at the festival and the Cottars, a bunch of Canadians from Cape Breton whose music was Canadian Celtic. Amongst the older internationals Andy Irvine was good as he always is and an Englishman named Martin Simpson, whom I wasn’t previously familiar with impressed me so much that I bought one of his CD’s.

    I am a fan of Mary Black’s but I have seen her perform better at earlier concerts than she did last weekend. Thanks for the report Rick, it makes me wish I had tried harder to see Frank Yamma, but it is in the nature of PFF that there are always more good acts performing than you can get to.

  7. Rick Kane says

    Hey Dave (#6), The Cottars and Martin Simpson are the two acts I wished I’d seen. I saw Nano Stern two years ago (I think) and was impressed. We saw The Dingos in the Shebeen (where else?). As you say, there are more good acts than you could possibly see.

    Ian (#5), who’s playing a kids GF on a long weekend? :) And by the way, some of us aren’t latte-sippers … we’re green tea imbibers.

    JB (#1), Frank Yamma like Joe Pug would definitely be better in a more intimate room, but you take what you get.

    I heard on ‘Off The Record’ this morning that the AFL is planning to have up-coming rock bands performing before Friday night games. Good idea, I say.

  8. Andrew Fithall says

    MCG live music:

    Friday March 25, Round One, Geelong v St Kilda – Little Red
    Friday April 1, Round Two, St Kilda v Richmond – Paris Wells
    Friday April 8, Round Three, Collingwood v Carlton – A combined super-group
    Friday April 15, Round Four, Richmond v Collingwood – Airbourne

    Rick – one thing I have heard about Port Fairy is that there are lot of “older” people who set their chairs up away from the stage but then object furiously if anyone dares stand in their line of sight. I heard one person tell the story on the radio how in a previous year he was ejected from three venues simply for standing. What is your take?

    Baz (and Sue) went to Mossvale on Saturday and gave a very good report. Chris Wilson at 6.00pm was a highlight. JTE was in good form and the venue suited him well.

    My next venture is to Apollo Bay in three weeks. Megan has promised me she won’t stand me up this time!

  9. AF (#8): PF does have a broad demographic including people aged 60+. It is one of the attractions, personally. I like the idea that the likes of you and I will be enjoying music for the next thirty odd years or so. I also wonder how long many of that end of the demographic range has been attending PF and other likeminded festivals.

    Having said that, the tents seating arrangements can appear to be organised with a ‘fascist’ mentality. There are, for example, PFFF chairs. They are the short legged outdoors chair. And there are instructions in the Festival booklet and in all tents re seating arrangements. There is even a thing called the PF shuffle. That is, when a tent is becoming crowded patrons are asked to shuffle forwards to make more room for others. It takes a little getting used to the rules but we haven’t found it much of an issue and in most instances have found a common ground. For example, in tent 3 on Sunday, we lay out a picnic rug in front of our PF chairs, knowing our kids were coming in to see Kasey Chambers. As the tent became more crowded people around us expressed disapproving looks at how much territory we had secured. For a while we felt we may have been abusing the rules. However, the kids arrived and easily filled the space designated for them. And Kasey was great. Other than that, we didn’t have any issues re seating arrangements.

    I have had issues with viewing arrangements at concert venues most of my life.

    Good to hear about Mossvale, it was a perfect night for it. I heard Megan is ready to rock your world.

    And Apollo Bay looks like another good line up.

    My next show is Dylan and am also hoping to see the Blind Boys of Alabama with Aaron Neville and supported by Mavis Staple!

  10. Dave Nadel says

    #9 I have been attending Port Fairy since 1984 which means that I missed the first seven. You are right Rick that the huge size of the tents and the rules of “Festival etiquette” can create problems. On the whole, like you, I find people are pretty co-operative. In tent 3 on Sunday I found myself a place to put my short legged chair in the front block before the Dick and Christa Hughes gig, I texted a friend at the end of the gig and suggested that there might be space for her near me and she turned up after Tim O’Brien. I made apologetic noises to my neighbours as they let my friend past but they were fine. Then, to my embarrassment, my 18 year old daughter and two of her friends turned up for Kasey Chambers. However, they were prepared to sit on the ground and we all squashed up and none of my neighbours complained. There are public venues where people are not as friendly.

  11. What are these issues with viewing arrangements you speak of Rick?

    I’m 6’7″ and have never had any issues. Although there are often empty spaces behind me. The last concert we went to was Guns and Roses, (not a lot of live music hitting Abu Dhabi shores, so you take what you can get), and I was standing with a few blokes from the Falcons and some more recently met vertically unchallenged folk when the following observation was made: “Tall people congregate.”

    The Axl version of GnR were surprisingly enjoyable, although they played for three hours and there was a correlation between the amount of alcohol consumed and enjoyment. Over three hours, that might be a significant point for future experiments…

    I would also like to take this opportunity to apologise to all concert goers for the genetic predisposition to be tall.

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