Port Fairy Folk Festival 2012
Over the course of the last two decades the Australian calendar has become dotted with music festivals. A myriad of different genres, themes and artists are represented, including the largest national and international acts. Over twenty years more and more popped up, and in 2011 the trend finally bucked. Our largest festival, the Big Day Out, suffered numerous line-up and funding issues, eventually losing one of its two founders, and has since announced it will begin downgrading. Soundwave will no longer have its “Revolution”. Many smaller festivals too have suffered similar or worse fates. One festival which has managed to stay well clear of this “death of the festival” is the Port Fairy Folk Festival. For over thirty years this festival has grown and celebrated folk, roots, blues and world music and become one of the staples of the Australian musical year.
One of the reasons for Port Fairy’s vibrancy as a festival is that it blankets the town with free performances across two free stages and the streets, as well as the festival itself. Those lucky enough to be in town at Fiddlers Green rather than in the festival gates on Saturday would have witnessed Fraser A. Gorman perform a charming set of troubadour ballads. Looking decidedly akin to a younger Bob Dylan circa-1966, Gorman strolled through his set of well natured acoustic meditations. Songs for his mother, whom “[wasn’t there], but she’s still alright”, others for his dying grandfather; all were delivered with great poise and wit. Conversely, at the Railroad Stage they may have seen Jimi Hocking rocking the mandolin with a power-stance even Pete Townshend would envy.
Inside the actual festival however, one marvels at the great professionalism this huge festival brings with it. Nobody dreads the port-a-loos; the food stalls offer fine Spanish cuisine or gourmet pizza and wine. At stage one Port Fairy honoured its artist of the year, John Butler. Performing his set solo on acoustic guitar, Butler scattered his songs amongst stories ranging from the history his grandfather’s lap steel guitar, through to the connection he feels his song “Ocean” has to his own feelings toward himself and how he interacts with the outside world. While some might gawk at how contrived a statement like that might sound, when it’s backed up by twenty minutes of exceptional and tasteful acoustic guitar thrashing, you cut the guy some slack.
Over on stage two Tinpan Orange delivered an engrossing collection of sparse, sultry pop songs, including an amazingly sensual rendition of the ‘Round the Twist’ theme song. Taking cues (and a cover) from Tom Waits, the very tight, very capable young group, fronted by the enigmatic and engaging Emily Lubitz, were the highlight of the festival. Despite being a slow burning act, they sparked a slew of young dancers at the front of the stage, to the seated crowd and the organisers’ dismay, but not the bands’. Following TinPan Orange were The Pigs. Clad in large hats and blue wife-beaters, the group performed a set of trashy, humorous bluegrass songs, along with a cluster of famous Hip Hop covers. Both Kanye West’s ‘Goldigger’ and Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ got an overhaul from the most unsuspecting crew. As one might expect, The Pigs were a crowd pleasing act, at a festival lined with many. Folk icon Judy Collins delivered a captivating performance, which at seventy years of age adds fuel to the notion of her as “the female Leonard Cohen”. One punter put it more humorously as “she’s like Joan Baez, only good.”
One of the reasons Port Fairy has managed to grow and sustain itself as such a remarkable festival is a result of tradition. Music is a longstanding aural tradition, folk music one of its oldest purveyors. It is only natural then, that a festival celebrating it would create its own sense of tradition. No stronger could this be seen than at the great Port Fairy Singalong in the Shabeen Tent. With national folk hero Rick E. Vengeance at the helm, a tent full of three thousand Guiness swilling music lovers belted out acoustic renditions of “Country Roads”, “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Brown Eyed Girl”. There was something to be said for it being a true cultural experience, albeit a truly inebriated one. But Port Fairy doesn’t end with celebrating old musical traditions; it’s just as likely to make new ones. Over at the Folk Circus Stage, hundreds of youngsters were gearing up for Eagle and the Worm. As the band kicked off, this swelling group of teenagers went wild, crowd surfing and jumping instantly. Watching from afar it looked as if they were acting like it was their first rock and roll show, until you realise that it probably was their first rock and roll show, making the spectacle all the more entertaining.
There are many reasons Port Fairy will not suffer a sinister fate as a result of festival over-saturation. The diversity of its line-up, its social and economic ties to the town, the seaside air; all could be reason enough for its success. John Butler noted one thing about the festival which separates it from many, claiming “I’ve played a lot of rock and roll festivals, and while they’re fun, it’s always feels like a privilege to come to these festivals and play for you people. You’re such dedicated music fans.” From the teens rocking out for the first time, to lifelong fans of seventy year old folk icons, Port Fairy spans generations and genres, celebrating the oldest of musical traditions whilst always looking to create more.