Pics and picks – we review the Port Fairy Folk Festival 2019
Port Fairy Folk Festival – 8 to 11 March 2019
Words: Rob Dickens
Images: Jim Jacob
The Port Fairy Folk Festival has been going 43 years.
I’ve been going for 3.
I’m never going to bridge the gap, of course. But then again, I might not lose ground from here on in when it comes to attendance.
The Port Fairy Folk Festival was established in 1977 and has grown to become the second oldest and one of the most esteemed festivals in Australia.
The pretty, historic village of Port Fairy (overseas visitors love that name!) comes alive with wonderful music and other activities, full of light, colour, history and arts gravitas. As well as an impressive scale of musical performances from celebrated artists all around the world, the festival embraces theatre, visual arts, spoken word, children’s programs, interactive workshops, instrument stalls and street theatre. Community engagement is an overarching driver of the event as well. The Festival has won numerous awards and has been inducted into the Australian National Tourism Hall of Fame.
Over the Victorian Labour Day weekend in March, Port Fairy attracts thousands of visitors over the four days of the festival, both for the ticketed arena and free street program. Over 100 acts from across the globe performed. As well as Australian contributors, we had visitors from the USA, Ireland, Canada, Denmark, England, New Zealand, Guatemala, Wales, Italy, Greece and Scotland. Saturday and Sunday contained wall-to-wall events from 10 am to midnight. Friday started at 6 pm and Monday provided a four-hour morning session. The earliest activities were Thai Chi and Yoga which started at 8.30 and 9 am respectively – I missed them!
Before I share the story of the music, here are some other points of interest:
- organisation was perfect, no delays and very helpful volunteers wherever you went. (One minor suggestion – the two busiest coffee stands were opposite each other on the main walkway. Lines from each extended into the other to form a wall which impeded through traffic)
- the weather was relatively benign – it got cooler Saturday and Sunday with a fresh breeze making its presence felt
- there were plenty of food and drink options with reasonable pricing (the idea of having only two places to imbibe alcohol is a great feature, as it unquestionably has a positive influence on crowd behaviour
- there was sound bleed from stage to stage on occasions but this did not seem to be a significant problem
- most performance spaces are under cover which is a boon in cold, wet and hot weather
- moving around the site was incredibly easy and, if you arrived well before any event, you should have managed to get a seat (Stage 3, the largest, was at capacity for Kasey Chambers and Melanie and some were turned away).
- those that brought their own chairs had closer access to most stages – video screens in the main tents were excellent so that the last row felt engaged
- if you were above-average size, the fixed seating varied from impossible (red) to uncomfortable (blue) to cosy (white)!
- sound was generally excellent
Now to my musical highlights, in some sort of rough order:
Mary Coughlan provided some of the most emotional moments. One of Ireland’s pre-eminent singers over twenty-five years and ten albums, her deep voice amidst the accompanying piano and bass cut through like a knife. The honesty with which she spoke of her life, views and troubles was revelatory. Her song “Magdalene Laundry” and the cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” were worth the trip alone.
Vandemonian Lags is an extraordinary series of reflections in song from Mick Thomas, based around convict transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) in the mid 19th Century. Based on true stories and real lives from Australia’s notorious convict past, it was first performed as part of the inaugral Dark Mofo festival at the historic Theatre Royal in Hobart. A terrific ensemble here included Thomas, Tim Rogers, Liz Stringer, Sal Kimber, Darren Hanlon, Michael Barclay, Brian Nankervis, Jen Anderson, Van Walker, Ben Salter and Craig Pilkington. It was colourful and poignant, with Salter’s “It’s Docherty” mesmerising.
He has been playing music live for 45 years and is only touring Australia for the first time. How that happened I do know but hats off to the festival for bringing Texan Alejandro Escovedo to these shores and giving him an opportunity to shine here. I saw his final appearance (of three) on the Monday which was just about the last note to ring through the site. Joined on stage by a more subdued but highly effective Tim Rogers, Escovedo demonstrated what a fine story teller he is. Not just the songs, but their introduction provided insight and clarity. “San Antonio Rain”, “Something Blue” (from his new release The Crossing – read our review here), “Chelsea Hotel ’78”, “Five Hearts Breaking” and “Bottom Of The World” were memorable.
Born in South African and now a resident of Colorado in the USA, Gregory Alan Isakov was another canny pick for this event. I had seen him twice before in quite different circumstances and Sunday’s show on Stage 2 was another, but different, way to enjoy this gifted and unique performer. His distinctive and measured vocals were augmented by three accompanists – violin, bass and guitar/banjo. Part of the set was back of stage with amplification and the final few songs were performed around a single microphone, each member weaving in and out of range with dexterity.
Other highlights were finally seeing the gifted English folk journeyman Ralph McTell, embracing the enthusiasm of Irishman Daoiri O’Farrell, getting the unapologetic attitude and groove of Mojo JuJu, the wild enthusiasm and emotion of another Irish performer Wallis Bird, the polished country of Kasey Chambers,and her precise band, the brassiness of Tami Neilsen, hearing some new material from Liz Stringer and The Weeping Willows.
Finally a word about Women Out Loud. Sarah Carroll hosted a number of women ‘in the round’ where stories were shared with joyful collaborations and more than a few tears were shed. Mary Coughlan, Liz Stringer, Wallis Bird, Tiffany Eckhardt, Tami Neilson, Gaby Moreno and Basia Bulat shared the stage with humility and grace. The empathy between these performers and their mutual support radiated from the stage.
So…overall a wonderful, well-managed event with so much musical insight.
No, I won’t be losing longevity ground with the Port Fairy Folk Festival for a while at least. We have just booked our shared accommodation for next year’s event. I would recommend you doing the same and not miss out on this terrific gathering.
You can view our daily gallery, plus our interview with Festival Director Caroline Moore, via the following links:
Thanks to House Of Webb PR
Pics and picks – we review the Port Fairy Folk Festival 2019