The Folkie

Lady Judith and her Lair(d) harnessed up the SUV for the long weekend and the short trawl along the coast to Port Fairy, formerly known as Belfast, and home to an annual roots music festival awash with Celtic riffs and decibels.

Following the ancient folk tradition of slave branding we were all shackled with a plastic armband indicating our right to enter, and re-enter, at will, or by the front gate if you prefer. (Boom-tish). Despite having not worn a wrist watch for more than three decades, I found myself constantly checking it for the time. Early habits remain imprinted long after their usefulness has been made obsolete by Steve Jobs.

Since Lady Judith is living in the post-athroplastic world of kneelessness we require advance forays into the stage areas in order to acquire seating on our frowned-upon "high" chairs (read "normal" as opposed to "two inches above the dirt"). Non bottom feeders like us are relegated to the sides or rear of the tents so as not to obscure the view of the lower masses. The technique is to arrive at least one show before the one we wanted to see. That way, we may have the chance, during the brief intermission between acts, to improve our position. It worked well for us.

For the non-cognoscenti, a little PFFF background. The Port Fairy Folk Festival has been going 34 years. About 10,000 people attend each of the four days. There are 5 main stages in huge circus-like tents. The largest two tents (1 and 3) have huge video screens. All have superior sound systems and, usually, excellent sound engineers.

Beyond and between the main stages sprout an instrument makers tent, a couple of kids' programs, kiosks selling ice cream, coffee, plus clothes and food of varying attractiveness. Artists do workshops, sell their CDs and front up for a chat with black marker ready to autograph your CD or any other part of you they find attractive.

So whom did we see? Well, Peter and Pam Joseph to start with. Not yet famous folkie friends from days of yore, now living in Balmain village near the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Peter and Pam weren't on the program, but they had one. Although we had not seen each other since their now married children were children, the years fell away. As they do.

So whom ELSE did we see? Here's a list and short review:

George Kamikawa and Noriko Tadano: We began with something so weird it was perfectly wondrous. It may surprise you to hear that George and Noriko are Japanese. And they play country blues and a kinda bluegrass. He plays guitar and harmonica, is dressed like a Rhinestone Cowboy and drinks beer throughout. She dresses in Japanese clothes over black leggings and plays a Tsugaru-shamisen (google it. It's japanese). I know what you're thinking. So were we. But amazingly it works. Really well.

Davidson Brothers: Aussie bluegrass duo with band. Outstanding instrumentalists. Fun patter. Pity they aren't better singers.

Beoga: Irish pipes, that drum thing (bodhrán - I googled it), double bass, TWO (count 'em) button accordians, fiddle. Plus occassional bagpipes. We were in HEAVEN.

Meet the Guests: A 90 minute intro to the international acts. After an initial song by each of the seven acts on stage it ramped up into a series of ad lib jams. Great fun. Then Judy Collins popped in to sing Both Sides Now - "Bet you didn't expect to hear that one," she joked. Will the Circle Be Unbroken followed. Unrehearsed and wonderful.

Kamerunga: Home grown all the way from Cairns (Hi guys we used to live there too! Oh, before any of you were BORN!!). At every Folkie there are acts that turn out to be pleasant surprises. Surprise, not because they live up to their hype, but because they exceed it. So it was with Kamerunga. A terrific, loud, energetic eclectic mix of Celtic, blues, rock and more.

Eagle and the Worm: From Melbourne. If you loved the lead singer, Jarrad Brown, all would be well. He didn't do it for us. We like loud music, but when you can't hear the brass section there's something wrong.

Abagail Washburn with Kai Welch: This was an excuse to go somewhere to eat our lunch. Turned out to be an inspired choice. Abagail plays clawhammer banjo, sings her own folkie tunes, delivers self-deprecating and funny patter, and even did a clog dance. We bought her CD. And she signed it - wow.

Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen: OK, so these guys are as old as me and still good. That makes two of them. Chris was in the relatively world-famous Byrds and Herb was the banjo player for the Dillards (I have two vinyls). It was the Sixties, so this was memory lane stuff for the elephants in the room. Smooth without slick, easy without simple. Chris played Mandolin, Herb guitar. Good for the soul.

Jugularity: OMG. "Why is there nobody in the audience," I asked the lady sitting next to us in the back row. "Maybe they haven't heard." After one song I realised maybe they HAD heard. Lady Judith summed it up. "The Wiggles Grown Old." Embarrassing and cringeworthy. We snuck out after the 4th song.

Jeff Lang: We only went in to get a good seat for Claymore who were on next. OK, who is Jeff Lang? We hadn't heard of him, and now we are wondering how we could have remained ignorant. Outstanding guitarist. Rock emphasis. A bit self-indulgent with his improvisations, but hey, wait a while and he'll go somewhere else. And, you know, if I could play like that I would think I was a god. We really enjoyed Jeff A LOT. As he came to the end of his set he invited "a friend" to join him for a jam. John Butler appeared and the gods were fully appeased. What a blast.Click here to watch Jeff and John Jamming.

Claymore: Well, hard act to follow, but lots of loud Scottish rock. The biggest drum set in Christendom. Plus a guy on congas. Kettle drumming straight from the tattoo full of showmanship and skill. Bagpipes and bagpipes. Really nicely balanced set from full-on to solo. Great way to finish Saturday night near midnight.

Archie Roach: Hillman and Pedersen were playing Stage 3 when we arrived (after church) on Sunday. We positioned ourselves outside the quieter side of the tent with 200 other people hoping to sneak in at the change. Not so easy, but we found a place in front of other "high" chairs evoking the only edgy response from the woman now displaced to the second row. "That chair is higher than ours," she whinged. It wasn't. I offered to swap places with her. She said no more. Normally, everyone is SO friendly and cooperative. People are sardined everywhere. And, still, your neighbour will shove over a bit to allow one more in. And Archie? Well, he was tender and fragile.

John Butler: We expected a highlight. We got it. Just him on stage with his instruments. You'd swear he had an orchestra up there with him. Just a super star. We loved it.

Melbourne Mass Gospel Choir: Nothing wrong with this except for some early sound issues making the 80 voice choir barely audible behind the lead singers, and our expectations being rather too high. Their program was Dylan's Christian songs. A limited oeuvre for a one hour program. After three songs, they all sound the same. Their conductor, Phil Heuzenroeder, was having an ego-stroking ball.

The Festival Choir:  We arrived early on Monday morning to secure good positions for Stage 3 and our plan to occupy them until the wrap up at 1pm. Another pleasant surprise. The choir comprises people who volunteer. They have just two workshops. And they were OUTSTANDING!

Battlefield Band: Another fabulous Scottish group. They complained about it being too early in the day, and one of the staff had told us they were all hungover, but it didn't seem to affect their performance. Full on instrumental variety and musical colours. The mandolin player was intrigued by our Labour Day Holiday. "This is such a cool country," he said admiringly, "you have a holiday for Labour Day where everybody does absolutely nothing!"

Ahab: Oh we loved them. A new young country rock band from London. Echoes of LRB and the Byrds. Four-part harmonies and powerful playing. And the infectious enthusiasm of young guys enjoying the experience. We bought their CD, but the queue for the signing was four wide and 200 metres long! Average age 16.

Tripod: What a great way to end. These guys are so good. The humour is timed to the millisecond. The songs clever and hilarious. And Gatesy still remembers going to school with our daughter. We think he does anyway.
$390 (for 2) plus food and CDs for all this? Bargain!!


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