With longtime director Jamie McKew bowing out after forty extraordinary years steering the annual Port Fairy Folk Festival to greatness, we knew this year’s bash was going to be an extra special one. Fan favourites were back, amongst new artists and regulars, and the line-up was eclectic in the least.
The chair carrying, backpack sporting festival faithful descended on the arena on Friday night, swiftly after unloading and refuelling at their adopted long weekend hotels and homes. Canada’s The East Pointers opened at Stage Two with a banjo, a violin and a guitar – staples among many folkie acts. The crowd basked in their a cappella harmonies of missing seafarers and quirky covers, including Gotye’s ‘Heart’s A Mess’. Pop-rock thumped through the main Stage Three as The Go-Between’s frontman Robert Forster played a full band set, whilst singer-songwriter Suzannah Espie told tales of mangled romance and coastal views next door with ‘Black Lighthouse’ and ‘Sea of Lights’. Australian folk four-piece The Tolka Big Band hammered home the Irish influence with tunes that went from full on jig-worthy to an instrumental ballad fit for Mr Tumnus’ flute.
Saturday may have arrived quickly and on the back of very little sleep, but there was no better way to wake up than in the presence of American troubadour Steve Poltz. Telling mostly true stories worthy of a stand-up set, the honorary Aussie (this is his 16th stint Down Under) had everyone laughing until they cried. He moved from fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek love letter to touring ‘Folksinger’, to entertaining autobiographical ditty ‘A Brief History of My Life’, which as you can guess with Poltz, was anything but brief. Fan anthem ‘I Want All My Friends To Be Happy’ was extra poignant when singer-songwriter, radio host and recent cancer survivor Catherine Britt joined the sing-a-long with tears in her eyes. You laughed too hard one minute, and cried too much the next, and at the end of it all, made a mental note to see Poltz again at least once more before the festival finished.
A colourful Katie Noonan kicked off the stellar female performances for the day, joined by her band The Vanguard. Despite putting on a solid and soaring set, she was upstaged almost immediately when the heavily pregnant Kate Miller-Heidke toddled on after her. She cast an intoxicating spell over the crowd from the first note, blowing everyone away with her breathtakingly unique and powerful vocal performance. Describing her own quirky dress sense as making her look like a “cross between Cyndi Lauper and a shuttlecock”, the pocket rocket artist (joined by her happy hubby Keir Nuttall on the guitar) powered through her eccentric set. She seemingly cruised through ballads such as ‘Caught in The Crowd’ and ‘Lose My Shit’ and went full vocal gymnastics on ‘O Vertigo!’, vaudeville-esque hit ‘Words’ and the playful pop-dance number ‘Can’t Shake It’ (which has the killer line “I execute the moonwalk like I stepped in shit”). Perhaps surprisingly for the mostly middle-aged crowd at her first show, her presence and pipes went down an absolute treat.
Irish icon Mary Black – on her farewell world tour – was welcomed back to the folkie with open arms, literally too by musical mate Shane Howard (Goanna) who was chuffed to join her for a beautiful and uplifting duet of his song ‘Mountains to the Sea’. “Eagle in the mountains, floating on a breeze” they sung, Howard spreading his arms wide like a bird, “shark out in the ocean, he’s happy in the deep.” She mused on her hometown’s weather mid-set, commenting “I love Ireland, don’t get me wrong, but I just think it needs a roof!” Flanked by her three-piece backing band, the 60 year-old legend littered her performance with classics, dropping ‘Carolina Rua’, ‘No Frontiers’, ‘Columbus’ and the spine-tinglingly beautiful ‘Song for Ireland’. Fellow Irish native Luka Bloom was on after Black, spinning a similar yarn about the old country with gentle humour and wit. Melbourne pop-folk group The Paper Kites played out Saturday night on the big stage, and it seemed that every teenager in the vicinity of the town was there to whoop and cheer.
There’s no such thing as a ‘lazy Sunday’ at the Port Fairy Folk Festival, so I was up early again and in town in time for kick off. Kid-friendly sister duo The Little Stevies were a light way to start the day, and their stories of love and potty training had everyone from grandparents to grandchildren entertained. The kid’s song mantra “I only go to the toilet on the toilet” may have been an odd and embarrassing lyric to take away from the show, but it wasn’t long before the slick slide guitar notes and bellowing vocals of some of the world’s best guitarists blew them right out of your mind. Nick Charles assembled an Avengers-like line-up for the popular annual guitar concert, welcoming Ash Grunwald, Tony McManus, Beppe Gambetta, the Grigoryan Brothers, Lloyd Spiegel, and Kristina Olsen on stage for a round-robin. Grunwald was the only one with the full vocal chops, absolutely smashing a slow and groovy ‘Crossroads’ cover, but the rest impressed with their prospective axe abilities. Each player had plenty of chances to shine solo, running through numbers that influenced them growing up and inspired them to pick and pursue the guitar as their musical mode of expression.
I tried to get a look into Mia Dyson’s tent after the guitar show, but had very little luck. Hundreds deep, the Shebeen’s boozy and blaring reputation preceded itself. Amongst the claustrophobic crowd, Dyson’s gravelly hit ‘When the Moment Comes’ was barely audible above the hubbub, and after countless accidental elbows in the ribs I was out of there. I caught the end of the FourPlay String Quartet’s mostly instrumental set, and was lucky enough to hear their epic and angry violin cover of Rage Against The Machine’s 90s rap-metal classic ‘Killing In The Name’.
After lunch, the highly anticipated Steve Earle & The Dukes were to take to the main stage for their one and only Port Fairy show. Joined on stage by husband and wife duo The Mastersons, the backstage area was at capacity by the time Earle wandered out. It was a blistering blues gig, with songs such as ‘Hey Joe’, ‘My Old Friend the Blues’ and the famous ‘Copperhead Road’ getting everyone well and truly revved up.
The highlight of the day came very late in the night, when Colin Hay unleashed his fabulous Cuban crew on the crowd. The Men at Work frontman was joined as per usual by his hilariously energetic and funky wife Cecilia Noel and her three-piece band, and together, it was a spritely set of mostly classics. ‘Who Can It Be Now?’, ‘Waiting for My Real Life to Begin’, ‘Are You Lookin’ At Me?’ and ‘It’s a Mistake’ went down well. ‘Overkill’ came with a hilarious anecdote. Hay told of when a fan had mistaken the lyrics “ghosts appear and fade away” for “goats appear and fade away”, which led to a story about how a 20-something Hay and friends actually had a goat in Sandringham. The song was another crowd favourite, but it got nothing quite like the reception and love ‘Down Under’ received. Running at over ten minutes live, it was an indulgent rendition full of fun and every musician in the band got a moment to show off their skills. As Australians, we swelled with pride in the chorus, craved vegemite sandwiches in the verses, and laughed out loud when Hay tried out some fancy footwork in the instrumental solo.
Monday morning is a bitter-sweet morning, as we come to the realisation that the festival is coming to a close. The local Festival Choir opened our eyes and hearts in the big tent, with a rousing rendition of Paul Kelly and Archie Roach’s ‘We Won’t Cry’, before Northern British lads The Young’uns made everyone pay attention with their blokey and booming harmonies. The three brothers ran through sea shanty’s and Rule Britannia-like medleys, but none quite as poignant and funny as ‘A Lovely Cup of Tea’. It told the true story of right-wing members of the English Defence League visiting polite Muslims at a mosque in York in the hope of a confrontation, but instead making up over tea, biscuits and a game of football. “The thing that killed the fascist in me,” they boomed, “was Hassan’s home made biscuits and a lovely cup of tea.” American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist John McCutcheon was another popular performer on the last day, weaving funny stories about his transatlantic family in and out of his eclectic and history-inspired folk set. During one song he stopped suddenly and teased the crowd, commenting “after this show there’ll be a table outside, and on that table with be a CD with the last verse to this song.”
I made the decision early in the festival to finish the weekend on Steve Poltz’s show, and it soon became obvious that I was not the only one who felt that way. The normally comfortable Stage Four tent was overwhelmed with people craning their necks to get their last glimpses at the funny-man performer. He didn’t disappoint, and fits of laughter ensued when a fan called Annie threw her prosthetic breast on stage and got Poltz to write an impromptu song about it – which he did, with aplomb. “Annie!”, he cooed cheekily through distorted loop pedals, “take out your tit, let me hold it in my hand, so I can write on it!”
The 40th Port Fairy Folk Festival was without a doubt another roaring success. We laughed, we cried, we sang and we repeated, all weekend long. Bring on the 41st! In the words of the irrepressible Poltz, “I’m in it for the long haul.”
Check out Powerhouse’s wrap-up video below: