We Review Port Fairy 2023
Port Fairy Folk Festival
10 – 13 March
A gathering of diverse experiences, music and community
Images by Jim Jacob
Words by Rob Dickens
A lean, imposing figure, somewhat menacing, pacing the stage. Intensely addressing the audience with a fierce gaze, not accepting anything but total attention in the often loose and noisy Shebeen stage. A solo start before being joined by his band which featured the guitar maestro Jeff Lang.
William Crighton is not here to muck around, folks. His towering vocals and strong messages are on point and it’s no wonder he fitted in as support for Midnight Oil recently. His battered resonator guitar with half of its teal paintwork holding on for dear life, a guitar strap saved from oblivion with an unsubtle but effective piece of rope bridging what would otherwise be a chasm.
I saw Crighton on Sunday and was taken by the maturity of his performance compared with his set at the 2020 event here. This year he was just one of the terrific centrepieces of this, the forty-sixth edition of the Port Fairy Folk Festival, Australia’s second-oldest music festival.
The Waifs – the River Tent was packed on Friday night. Josh Cunningham and sisters Vicki Thorn and Donna Simpson were in wonderful touch and were joined throughout by a tight three-piece accompaniment and, for a couple of songs, guest violinist Jen Anderson. The band’s country folk ballad repertoire is extremely impressive, as are their three-pronged vocal chops. From my vantage point, the interplay between the key members was lively and the smiles may have belied a little tension. It all added to a triumphant set from one of Australia’s iconic folk outfits.
I have seen Eilen Jewell perform before on three occasions, from 2010 to 2016. In the intervening time, I’ve been mostly across her pretty prolific recording archive, thoroughly enjoying her smooth, ‘queen of the minor key’ vocals and swing sensibility. I wondered why she was performing on the Shebeen stage (it’s the only tent fully licensed) and thought she might be drowned out during her Friday night set. How wrong was I! Jerry Miller’s guitar work was, again extraordinary, while Jason Beek (drums) and the infectiously smiling bass player Matt Murphy completed the picture. The acoustics were perfect (as they were throughout the entire event) and I was reminded of the punch that the band can come up with when circumstances demand it.
The Guitarists was a perfect starter, a 10.30am easing-in for the day over a coffee. Well hosted by one of Australia’s finest players Nick Charles, the panel included Eilen Jewell’s Jerry Miller, England’s Jon Boden (former lead singer of progressive folk outfit Bellowhead), the aforementioned Jeff Lang, our own Liz Stringer (the festival’s Artist Of The Year) and Nashville troubadour Tim Easton. We were treated to ensemble instrumentals and classic covers such as Doc Watson’s “Deep River Blues”, Stringer’s mindful “The Things That I Now Know”, Miller’s Hank Williams/Chet Baker crossover, Boden’s crowd engagement, Charles’ intricate “Las Cruces” and Easton’s perfectly relevant and entertaining “Festival Song”.
Red-haired Alabaman Early James is touring with Arlo Mckinley and his opening was supremely sprightly, exhibiting frenetic energy, bellowing voice, furious fingering, and eyes tightly shut as if to not break the spell that he was casting. His straw boater had little chance of staying put as he wriggled around, swaying with the allegro rhythm, nor could its hat band stay secure as if to say ‘enough with the motion!’ “Straightjacket For Two” (his love song!), “Racing To A Red Light” and “High Horse” were memorable.
There’s something special about Georgia Delves and her band Georgia State Line. Her vocals are perfect for the alt. country genre, with a range that’s more nuanced the more times you see her perform, reflecting accumulated experience over the years she spent singing in churches and pubs and her fascination with American classic country music. The band she has assembled (Patrick Wilson -drums, Laura Baxter -guitar and Jess Zubkevych -bass) is first-rate and the joy Delves exhibits on stage is contagious. She was equally as impressive at Out On The Weekend last October. A star on the rise. You can read our review of her latest album In Colour HERE.
When accomplished English folk artist John Smith made his Port Fairy debut in 2020, Jim and I caught him on a large stage where he was required to ‘play big’. This time around, he played in the St John’s Anglican Church where the acoustics were superb. The pews were overrun and Smith was helpful in directing traffic to seats, particularly to the obscured side nave. Such a consummate artist whose recorded output has been a treat and, as his star has risen, so have his admirers and collaborators, such as Sarah Jarosz and Joe Henry. The finest folk artist in the tradition of John Martyn and Martin Simpson.
I have recently reviewed (gleamingly) the marvellous debut Outsider by Bud Rokesky. I was therefore thrilled to be able to see him perform those songs live AND with a band. His set began in front of a small Sunday crowd (the long-running and successful Women Out Loud session was around the same time). He stood lean, immaculately groomed and dressed in the black that matched his swept-back hair, with a voice deep and sincere. From Brisbane and having spent hours driving a truck, he has been able to craft some beautiful lyrics, from the tenderly defiant “Freewheeler” to the achingly touching “Louie”. By set’s end, the tent was just about full, as punters were drawn like moths to the intense Rokesky flame.
The same Island tent, next act. Canadian Scott Cook is touring with Woodfordia’s Festival of Small Halls and, despite this being his ninth visit in fifteen years to our shores, our paths had never crossed. To my detriment, I now see oh-so-clearly. Just he and a guitar, a joyful stage presence, a man whose care for the planet and fellow humans would put many to shame. All the songs presented were highly accessible and deeply meaningful which had the crowd hushed until a rousing standing ovation at the end.
Other Good Stuff
Port Fairy Folk Festival continues to be one of the best festival experiences that I have had and I look forward to it each year with much relish. The organisation, the enormous contribution of volunteers, the overt pride of locals in their community, the ease and accessibility to performance venues, and the mix of large and small stages add to the enjoyment.
This year I used the festival app more and had preferred sets mirrored in my phone calendar which worked a treat. The weather was a little cooler but, again, hardly any rain which adds to the comfort level. Food and alcohol choices were expanded. The gates opened at 4pm Friday to add an extra hour.
Family-wise, there were many enhancements, with activities from Krazy Koala Puppet Show, Josh Pyke, Emma Donovan, Musical Sprouts, Tim Credible the Magician, Woody’s World, Happy Hoop Workshop, Bush Wahzee, Connected Circus and more, plus a brand-new kids’ area featuring mini golf and children under twelve 12 receiving free entry with a parent or guardian.
Special thanks to Ali at House of Webb Publicity for looking after Jim and me again.
See you next year! – 8 to 11 March.
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More Music Adventures Await!
We Review Port Fairy 2023