By Brian Wise
Port Fairy Folk Festival – March 9 – 12, Port Fairy, Victoria
The Labour Day holiday weekend offers some serious music festival options. There is Womadelaide world music a day’s drive from Melbourne, Golden Plains’ contemporary offerings an hour and a half away between Geelong and Ballarat or the venerable Port Fairy Folk Festival, around four hours away and outdating the others by a couple of decades.
While it has faced plenty of competition, the Port Fairy festival has broadened its line-up over recent years to appeal to a younger audience without losing its core. It has also developed the main site to make it more user-friendly with more plastic seats in most tents and a layout that is easier to navigate. Nothing is going to make the seaside town closer to Melbourne – short of a fast rail service to Warrnambool – but if you are driving and manage to get out of the city before Friday afternoon’s horrendous peak you can enjoy a reasonably relaxing drive down. Many opt to arrive on Thursday to settle in or set up their tents in the large camping areas near the festival. Accommodation in Port Fairy is usually booked so we stayed as usual in Warrnambool about 25 minutes away.
Located in Southcombe Park and in multiple buildings in the town, Port Fairy is a family friendly event, although one punter said that he thought there were fewer families these days. (People grow up!) Ostensibly, a folk festival there are plenty of acts that appeal to most tastes along with a strong children’s component.
Like most festivals you need to make some serious choices about who to see but, because many acts play multiple times, it is possible to see almost everyone you want to. The hard decisions come with the one-off showcase events and you need to get to those very early. We were unable to get anywhere near the Q&A with Geoffrey Robertson QC on Stage 3 or Harry Manx with the Warrnambool Symphony Orchestra Octet on Stage 1 but luckily we saw Manx late on Sunday night as it turned out to be one of the highlights. Obviously, planning and early arrival at stages is required.
We began our festival with the colourful welcome on Stage 1 and then headed to see the Lost Ragas in the smaller Stage 5 tent. Guitarist Matt Walker said that some people had complained that they were too country but if that is because at times they sound like Lowell George and Little Feat that is fine by me. Several new songs indicated that a new album would be welcome. This was just one of several local acts that should, in my opinion, be making their way to the Americana Music Festival in Nashville.
Blair Dunlop’s first appearance at Port Fairy was four years ago and apparently he suffered from stage fright. No sign of that nervousness now as this rising star of the British folk scene, armed with his Gretsch electric guitar, impressed with songs from his newly released album Notes From An Island.
Jordie Lane & The Sleepers, featuring Jeff Lang as guest guitarist, were at Stage 4, one tent with no fixed seating. The only time I used my space age camp chair! Lane featured some songs that he had recorded with Lang years ago and never included on an album and we all wondered why they didn’t make the cut. Lane is nominated for Shane Nicholson’s Americana Music Prize for the song ‘Black Diamond’ which was a highlight of this set.
Ben Waters, whose tribute to the late Ian Stewart featured members of the Stones, closed the night with some rollicking boogie woogie in the large tent that houses Stage 3. But this was just a taste to come of what Waters would do. We ended up seeing him three more times as he circulated the festival with a gig every day.
On Saturday, the hottest day of the festival, we saw Ben Waters again but this time at the Reardon Theatre, one of the venues in town, for an On The Couch session with Brian Nankervis who warns the crowd up in his own inimitable style. He then engages the guests in conversation and gets them to play some songs. American songwriter Steve Poltz was hilarious with his fantastic stories that make me think that he really should be writing a book! Waters showed his mastery of the boogie woogie piano style with saxophonist Derek Nash helping out, while Josienne Clark and Ben Walker added some sardonic British humour and lovely songs.
While we failed to get in to see Geoffrey Robertson at Stage 3 due to the Full House signs, we made sure we were early for Exile: Songs & Tales of Irish Australia, put together by Shane Howard. Combining songs, images on the large screens and narration, the show told the tale of the Irish in Australia. This is especially relevant to Port Fairy where the evidence of Irish settlement and culture is everywhere. Featuring John Spillane and Pauline Scanlon from Ireland along with Howard, Andy Irvine, Leah Flanagan and John McSherry, it was an emotional trip for anyone with Celtic connections. Irvine’s rendition of ‘Moreton Bay’ was marvellous while Troy Cassar Daly’s revelation about the connect between the indigenous and Irish population was a real education. The show has already been performed in some capital cities and let’s hope there are more to come. For anyone interested in our heritage it is a must see.
Last year I couldn’t get near Stage 3 to see Don Walker. This year all I had to do to see Tex, Don and Charlie was wait at Stage 3 after the Exile show. Problem solved. However, after Exile finished late the intervening act Faith i Branko failed to show up and could not be located, according to the stage MC. The show was cancelled offering the chance to rush over to the Lighthouse to catch the very funny Cartridge Family – Sarah Carroll, Susannah Espie, Rusty Bertha, Greg Field and Nick Grant. There were some true moments of levity here.
Tex Perkins, Don Walker and Charlie Owen are all veterans but this is another act that I would dearly love to see at Americana in Nashville, though that is unlikely to happen because of their individual commitments. Here is an Australian outfit with brilliant songs and equally brilliant playing. Their recent album You Don’t Know Lonely was one of my Top 5 albums of last year.
How could you go wrong with Don Walker, one of the nation’s finest writers, Tex Perkins one of our greatest singers and Charlie Owen, one of the best guitarists in the country? Add to that Garrett Costigan on pedal steel and the truly great Charley Drayton on drums and this is an outfit without peer. (Drayton’s drumming is beautiful: gently sensitive to the music and perfect at all times). Perkins rendition of ‘Paychecks,’ ‘A Man In Conflict With Nature,’ was superb and Walker’s reading of the threatening and malevolent crime thriller ‘Harry Was A Bad Bugger’ was just about the highlight of the weekend. (Walker seemed very amused when he threw to Tex Perkins for a guitar solo!) When they both combined on ‘The Healing Power of Helpless Laughter’ and Owens slide guitar kicked in, it was sublime.
This is where I missed what I am told what was another festival highlight: The Pogues tribute, Fairy Tale of Port Fairy hosted by Derek Guille and featuring Rebecca Barnard, Band Who Knew Too Much Melbourne Ska Orchestra, Steve Poltz and more. It was on late, an early morning beckoned, I was exhausted after a hot day, I had to drive back to Warrnambool etc. I know, all lame excuses and I should have stayed! I won’t make that mistake again. By all accounts it was brilliant.
The Women Out Loud showcase was on at 10.00am on Sunday morning, a time that seems even earlier after a hard day and late night. Hosted by the ebullient Sarah Carroll the show featured Gina Williams, Chris While & Julie Matthews, Sophie Koh, Josienne Clark, Rebecca Barnard and Faith Ristic (who revealed that her musical partner Branko had been unable to perform the previous day because of serious illness).
I took some time out to journey to the Shebeen (the only tent where you can drink alcohol) to see The Doug Anthony Allstars in a Q&A with Derek Guille. DAAS always had the ability to put you on the edge of your seat with humour that skated close to the edge of good taste but because Tim Ferguson could not make it because of illness, co-founder Paul McDermott and recent recruit Stephen Page were the stars, which made for a less contentious session. McDermott and Page sang a batch of amusing ditties, suitable for the timeslot. The projected DAAS Adults Only show that evening was probably a little less controversial!
Steve Poltz played to an overflowing Stage 1 tent so I watched from outside. Starting his show with a poem from his father Joe, Poltz then told another batch of hilarious stories that were completely different than the day before, including a tale of appearing at Woodstock 1999 and meeting Flea here from the Red Hot Chili Peppers after ingesting hash. What a life this man has led!
I returned for a second dose of Tex, Don & Charlie before Josienne Clark & Ben Walker at Stage 3. Clark’s voice in the live setting is far stronger and more nuanced than on record and her renditions of several Sandy Denny songs were superb. Walker’s guitar, sounding not unlike Richard Thompson at times was delightful. You can understand why the duo is so popular and highly regarded by folk purists and others in their homeland. While they demurred at On The Couch to play ‘Chicago’ from the new album Seedlings All they did so this time and it was well worth it.
The Teskey Brothers have had a chance to play songs from their album Half Mile Harvest for about a year now so it was great to hear them do at least five new songs with an added horn section. On the strength of the new material another album must be on the way. Lead singer Josh Teskey pointed out that all the band members write songs, an undoubted strength. Not only that, they write them in the style of the band. ‘Baby Blue’ is a blues shuffle with a jazzy interlude. ‘Louisa’ was written by drummer Liam Gough who cleverly includes a drum solo. There was a very nice cover was of Otis Redding’s ‘Hard To Handle’ and the show closed with another impressive new song ‘Right For Me.’ The band were heading out to SXSW the following morning and let’s hope they impress there as much as they did he
All Our Exes Come From Texas have been in Nashville, which might explain the development of their harmonies over the past year or so. Their album When We Fall, which won the ARIA Award for Best Blues & Roots Album provides plenty of material for the gorgeous harmony vocals. Add to that some very amusing stage patter!
As a contrast, Ben Waters absolutely ripped up Stage 2 with a dozen or so classics that had almost the entire crowd (apart from me) up and dancing wildly. What Waters lacks as a vocalist he makes up for with fabulous playing, massive enthusiasm and a catalogue of classic songs that is massive. He was again assisted by sax player Derek Nash, augmented by a couple of locals in bassist Sweet Felicia and drummer Ashley Davies. I’m not sure how Davis managed to drive the whole thing because it careered along like a steam train.
Starting with Fat’s Domino’s ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ and ‘Blueberry Hill,’ he piled on the classics: ‘What’d I Say’ and ‘Johnny B.Goode’ before playing a wobbly version of Springsteen’s ‘Glory Days’ as a request. Then they powered into ‘Minnie The Moocher’ (always good for a sing-along and I wonder if he knew it was a hit here in the 60s), gave an epic version of Little Richard’s ‘Jenny, Jenny’ and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ and then slowed things down for ‘Stand By Me,’ inviting the audience to hold up their phones so he could get a photo of everyone.
Waters then brought the set home with ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’,’ ‘No Particular Place To Go,’ and ‘Twist & Shout’ in which he invited audience members on stage to sing. Brian Nankervis joined enthusiastically as they closed out with ‘Little Queenie.’ Waters is a veritable human Energizer bunny and just what was needed on the last night. This was as enthusiastic an audience as I have ever seen at Port Fairy.
With their delicate harmonies and traditional songs set against a harp and guitar, Icelandic/Swedish duo My Bubba could hardly have been a bigger contrast with the rollicking Ben Waters. Even more surprising was hearing them close with the country classic ‘You’re Going To Miss Me When I’m Gone.’
The evening closed with a brilliant set from Harry Manx with Clayton Doley on keyboards and Jeff Lang on slide guitar. It would be a toss-up between this and Tex, Don & Charlie as to my favourite show of the weekend. If you had to have a title for Manx’s set it could be Harry Gets His Groove Back.
It connected with My Bubba in that Manx did Hank Williams’ ‘Lonesome Whistle’ and with Ben Waters’ set when he performed a lovely version of Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire.’ Starting with ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ which appears on Manx’s latest album Faith Lift but with strings. This led into ‘Tijuana’ and then a tremendous ‘mash-up’ of Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile Slight Return’ and BB King’s ‘The Thrill Is Gone.’
All the while Manx maintained a gentle groove – swapping between guitar, banjo and Mohan Vina – and allowing his colleagues to have fun with their own extended solos. Lang was particularly impressive, at times reminiscent of Derek Trucks in the Allman Brothers Band.
Al Green’s Love & Happiness’ was followed by ‘Death Have Mercy’ (also on the new album) and then the first song that Manx ever recorded, ‘Dog My Cat’, which he explained was not recorded until he was 45. ‘Trouble In Mind’ and ‘Can’t Be Satisfied.’
Monday morning opened with a set from Jeff Lang who was accompanied by his partner Allison Ferrier. Sax player YolanDo Brown and her band played some very smooth ‘Posh Reggae’ which sounds a little bit like it could be Yacht Rock but is entertaining.
On Sunday night Joe Camilleri and his Black Sorrows played with the Davidson Brothers at Stage 1 for a very country and blues set. Clad in a distinctive frilled pink shirt, Camilleri was back with his usual band at noon as one of the closing acts of the festival. Here is a musician who has no problem with his old ‘hits,’ utilising them liberally and sprinkling in other material. So ‘Hold On To Me’ was followed by the bluesy ‘Do You Move Me?’ and ‘Daughters of Glory’ was followed by Bob Dylan’s ‘Silvio.’ Then ‘Harley & Rose’ was followed by JJ Cale’s ‘Devil In Disguise.’
A quick walk to Stage 3 allowed us to see Archie Roach finish off the event, highlighting songs from his new album Dancing With My Spirit. The songs had originally been produced by Jen Anderson and half of them went were then used for the 1994 album Looking For Butterboy which was produced by Daniel Lanois’ offsider at the time Malcolm Burn. Other songs appeared elsewhere. You have to wonder why this superb collection work was not used at the time and why Anderson has not done much more production since.
For this concert, Anderson played mandolin and violin while Craig Pilkington contributed his usual very tasteful guitar parts. It’s an impressive outfit. The show kicked into another gear when the members of TIDDAS – Amy Saunders (who had been on backing vocals), Lou Bennett and Sally Dastey – appeared together as special guests to sing on ‘My Grandmother’ and ‘A Child Was Born Here.’ It made us realise that they were about 20 years ahead of their time and a much needed reunion tour would be appropriate.
It was a great way to finish off what was another very enjoyable Port Fairy Folk Festival.