our Port Fairy Fest wrap
Port Fairy Folk Festival 2020
Compelling Gathering, Magical Setting
6 to 9 March
Images: Jim Jacob
Words: Rob Dickens
It’s the second oldest festival in Australia. Forty Four years in 2020. But that doesn’t mean organisers have rested on their laurels.
This year a new venue design, renaming stages from perfunctory numbers to apt descriptors – Ocean, River, Island (the latter with a recital feel) and Pyipgil Gundidj. Extra access points, new video screens, spreading kiosks for improved people flow.
The licensed areas remain limited – the Shebeen and Speakeasy areas – and this separation works very well. Waste reduction remains a key goal and facilities are excellent – water filling stations, reusable coffee cups provide a 50 cent discount and there are crockery washing stations.
As well as four days of performer sets spread over the festival site and most nooks and crannies in the coastal village, there were many special and engaging events:
- First Nations In Songs & Stories
- Hell Ship (a forgotten early maritime tale)
- Ned Kelly (key moments in the life of Australia’s most famous bushranger)
- The Seeger Session (evoking the memory and spirit of Pete Seeger)
- A Mighty Wind (recreation of the ‘mockumentary’ film)
- Interviews, live radio broadcasts, instrument makers exhibit, shanties, CD launches, four book launches, visual arts showcases, a writer program, too many workshops to list here, a fun-filled list of kid’s activities including a new circus space
Now to our musical highlights, in no particular order.
Kieran Kane & Rayna Gellert have been collaborating for a few years now and the result has been spectacular. Old-time guitar, banjo, fiddle proficiency decorate sharp stories and their joy in bringing this music is writ large. “I Don’t Know Why” and “Wouldn’t Be The First Time” were particularly memorable. It is Gellert’s first time in Australia.
Archie Roach‘s packed Friday night show was a touching and delightful performance – his stories, honesty and, of course, the songs were captivating. “One For Each Person And One For The Pot”, “Down City Streets” and “Took The Children Away” were special, as was Archie’s band – Paul Grabowsky was a titan on the piano. Archie is a national treasure and he indicated that he will be embarking on his last national tour this year – don’t miss him.
William Crighton is a powerful, new emerging figure in the Australian music scene. His voice is deep, his gaze is strong and he sings with menace and intent. Joined by his wife on backing vocals and a drummer, he prowled around the stage and gave us great narratives of connectivity to the land and other themes. “2,000 Clicks”, “Jesus Blues” and “Fire In The Empire” were standouts.
Since 2008, I have seen Patty Griffin perform many times – on land, at sea, in Australia, in the United States. Always magical. On this tour which sees her at Port Fairy for the first time, the band is stripped back in number, but not talent. Guitarist/pianist David Pulkingham and drummer/bassist/pianist Conrad Choucroun were gawpingly great. There were plenty of lunar references in the set list which included these highlights – “Long Ride Home”, “Luminous Places”, “The Wheel”, “Boys From Tralee”, a slow groove version of “Standing In The Shadows” and the uplifting closer (her ‘only happy song’) “Heavenly Days”. Stunning.
Will Kimbrough is from lower Alabama which has had a speckled history of dark times. He now lives in Nashville and, despite the fact that I have travelled there many times, have never managed to see him live. Perhaps it is largely due to the fact that he has toured about 200 days each year for the past thirty two years (!). So thanks heaps PFFF. Great stories and imagery and a gifted guitarist, he gave us many songs off his latest, excellent release I Like It Down Here. (Read our full review here).
The Women Out Loud! session on International Women’s Day was an emotionally-charged two hours, with wonderful contributions from Yolanda Brown (host), Eleanor McEvoy, Gina Williams, Grace Petrie, Judith Owen, Sarah Carroll and Oriel Gleason.
John Smith is an accomplished English singer, songwriter and guitarist. He is tall, imposing with plenty of red colouring and a high, easy guitar action. Sometimes reminiscent of the late great John Martyn, he had a warm, engaging presence with “Hummingbird”, “Willy Moore”, Jackson Browne’s “These Days” and a song he had not played for a few years – the requested “Great Lakes” were excellent. His last album Hummingbird is recommended (Read our full review here). He has a live CD coming out this year.
Other highly recommended showcases were The Maes whose harmonies were striking and positive energy contagious, the mediterranean folk vibe of Ruth Hazleton & Daisy Wheel and the sheer mastery of Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi.
There are some undyingly beautiful traits about Port Fairy Folk Festival. Tradition is one. Empathy with the artist is paramount.
Most, most of all is the listening. Port Fairy People (capital P) hear HARD. Some artists, used to bar-encrusted gigs where control over the extraneous is essential, need some adjustment here. A few might crowds creepily quiet. Most, revel in the attention.
So, Port Fairy Folk Festival triumphs again with its heredity, its glorious Australian-ness, its wide open welcome arms stretching from hither to thither. Embracing and enriching us.
If ever I reach out too much to the muse of other shores, Port Fairy grounds me. To this land.
Special thanks to all the volunteers.
See you next year for Port Fairy Folk Festival 45.
YOU CAN SEE MORE PICTURES FROM JIM HERE:
our Port Fairy Fest wrap
our Port Fairy Fest wrap