Port Fairy Folk Festival is a juggernaut in size and music diversity and 2019 was no different

It was a huge instalment from the beloved extravaganza.

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David Harris

I’ve been attending the Port Fairy Folk Festival – bar the odd year or two – since 1985. Admittedly some of that was in utero, but I’m still claiming credit. This year marks the 43rd festival since my mother paid $4 to attend the inaugural three-day event in 1977, held on Gunditjmara land on the south-west coast of Victoria. It’s also the 50th anniversary of that most famous of festivals and the spiritual ancestor of Port Fairy Folk Festival, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

Over the last 43 years, the festival has grown from my mum and a group of other young hippies hanging out in a field listening to other hippies strumming guitars. It now serves a diverse audience hanging out in a range of cavernous tents listening to an even more diverse range of artists. Full of reflections and celebrations of history, this year’s Port Fairy Folk Festival was as enjoyable as ever.

The small town of Port Fairy, on the banks of the Moyne River, is the perfect setting for the sprawling, community-driven festival. In 2012, the town was voted the world’s most liveable small community in the UN-recognised LivCom Awards. The festival transforms Port Fairy, with more than one million ticket-holding festivalgoers visiting the town of 3,440 residents over the years. Despite the huge annual influx, Port Fairy maintains its charm and these days the amenities hold up well. Even if you don’t have a ticket, it’s worth heading down for the weekend, pitching a tent, and exploring what’s on offer outside the festival arena. 

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The Folkie sees four days of music, art and performance set across eight stages inside the grounds (paying customers only), six community-based stages (free), and a range of other official and unofficial performance spaces. Wandering down the town’s main street you’ll be swallowed up by a sea of buskers, markets, food carts, and street performers and festival-goers tend to fall into the ‘I must set a schedule’ or the ‘I’ll see how I feel’ camp. Either way, with so much going on, there's no way of traversing all the festivities the festival has on offer. 

Melanie, one of this year’s headliners, first captured public attention when she appeared at Woodstock in 1969. Her legendary performance prompted the crowd to wave candles in the air calling for an encore, often cited as the start of the common phenomenon seen over the years with lighters and now mobile phones. Younger punters may recognise Melanie’s song 'Look What They Done To My Song, Ma' from Miley Cyrus’ 2012 cover, or their 2015 duet 'Peace Will Come (All According To Plan)'Melanie loosely fitted into the ‘traditional folk’ coterie of performers at this year’s festival, alongside regulars such as Margaret RoadKnight, Renee Geyer and Ireland’s Luka Bloom.

At the other end of the spectrum, one of the most refreshing and engaging acts of the weekend was the young all-in-the-family outfit Little Quirks. Jaymi, Abbey and Mia put on an excellent show every time they took the stage, consistently proving they deserved to top the triple j Unearthed charts for their song 'Crumbled'Their harmonies were consistently on point, complementing their youthful energy and excellent songwriting to draw in a large cross-generational audience and generate a real festival buzz. A real highlight.

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One of the year’s theme concerts was Vandemonian Lags, which debuted at the inaugural Dark Mofo festival in Hobart. Written by Mick Thomas, and narrated by Brian Nankervis of RocKwiz fame and the ineffable Tim Rogers, the show aimed to reimagine stereotypes of colonial Tasmania and help connect contemporary audiences with Australia’s convict past. An excellent group of performers including Van Walker, Liz Stringer, and most of Weddings Parties Anything breathed life into the real-life stories of convicts sentenced to deportation to Tasmania. A brilliantly conceived and executed performance.   

Fans of the Doug Anthony All Stars and Good News Week will remember Paul Livingston, better known by the name of his comedic creation Flacco. His show Never Mind the Sex Pistols, Here’s the Bollocks aimed to show audiences just how easy it is to fool people into thinking you are more talented than you really are. A talented musician, Livingston demonstrated a range of tips and tricks to wannabes. This was just one of many offerings available to musicians and artists wanting to work on their craft, with instrument-making workshops and masterclasses available throughout the weekend.

One slightly disappointing aspect of this year’s festival was the apparent lack of progress on environmental sustainability. Why so much plastic Port Fairy? You’re a seaside town. While clearly some efforts have been made, I truly hope that things will continue to improve in 2020 and beyond so as to better reflect the folk spirit of the festival – social justice, care for the environment, peace and non-violence. Nonetheless, the Folkie is a uniquely excellent event on the calendar. I thoroughly recommend giving it a try.