Mr Bucket and I went down to Port Fairy on the Shipwreck Coast to sell T shirts at the folk festival. Usually when I head down that way I get rained on and chilled to the bone by the South-westerlies. This time we mostly got classic Victorian autumn: golden sunshine and little wind. Except for one drizzly bit it was a perfect long weekend.
Not having been to the Port Fairy Festival before, I was expecting old guys with fisherman sweaters and mandolins. Not that there’s anything wrong with old guys or mandolins. There were plenty of oldies but they were as likely to be playing blues and roots music or zydeco. It’s really a blues and roots and folk and world and indie festival.
Pug (Joe Pugliese) did both gigs completely solo, just steel string guitar and harmonica. The smaller tent suited his style better (I was able to wriggle up to the front for that, as well.) The first thing about this man is that he’s exceedingly engaging and friendly, without carefully-cultivated angst. So relaxed on stage, he could be in his kitchen. There was a veritable plague of crickets in Port Fairy that weekend, and he was heard to say “Hey, that was cool. I had to get really quiet in that mid-section there and I could actually hear crickets chirping.”
When it comes to the songs themselves, comparisons with the young Bob Dylan are inevitable. The influence is clear, along with Leonard Cohen and Woody and Arlo Guthrie. “Nation of Heat”, his indie hit from his first EP, reads like a homage to The Times They are a Changin’, echoed in the rhythm. And the similarity doesn’t end there. Some of Joe Pug’s younger fans, like Dylan’s, have been… Shocked! Horrified!!! because -gasp – he uses electric guitars and pedal steel and drums on his latest album, Messenger! It’s 1965 all over again, bless their conservative little hearts.
His songs are studded with wry one-liners – I grew up in a circus, I ran away to a home / If I didn’t own boots I wouldn’t need feet / I call today a disaster, she calls it December the 3rd. He asked the audience to ask him questions and someone asked “do you play any happy songs?” He replied (from memory) that inevitably, loss and sadness happens to all of us, but when he puts it in a song he’s holding it in the hollow of his hand rather than it holding him. I normally find the one-man-with-guitar format hard going, partly because the damn audience is usually talking over the performer, but he held me in the hollow of his hand with beautifully crafted songs and a melodic intelligence to die for. And the audience shut up and let him be heard.
We bought a signed copy of Messenger after the show and Mr Bucket offered him a free shirt. He dropped in the next day for it, but sadly I was away doing something else. Missed by that much.
If Joe Pug was an exemplar of pared-back balladeering, Shakura S’aida and her band were a mighty soul-cleansing blast of sound and movement, bringing the funk, soul, blues and a bit of gospel. Shakura S’aida was born in the US, lived in Switzerland and now in Canada. Her guitarist, Donna Grantis, is a virtuoso who can knock off blistering solos of the kind that get you interviewed in Guitar Player Magazine. I’m not a particular fan of extended guitar solos, but she is certainly made of awesomeness and with so many kids of all ages at the festival, an important sight to see for young gels and boys alike.
S’aida showed her more intimate side in a Blues and Gospel session where she performed solo. Hairs stood up on the backs of our necks. She told a story about her childhood, auditioning for a church choir and being knocked back by the choir leader, who said “I don’t think you’re ever going to be able to sing.” I imagine that woman feels a bit silly these days. You can hear her (S’aida) in intimate mode on this podcast, in another theme concert, A Woman’s Voice.
Representing Australia in my selection of favourites is Fiona Boyes, a Blues shouter and guitarist/songwriter who has bazillions of awards but doesn’t seem to be appreciated enough here.
If there was one thing that these performers had in common it was a sense of complete enjoyment of their time on stage and a disposition to chat with the audience. I’m over angsty performers who see the audience as a bunch of philistines who have to be endured. All of them looked as though they were having a blast at Port Fairy and their enjoyment was contagious.
Honourable mention – Justin Townes Earle. The bad-boy schtick was pretty unrelenting, and some of the remarks he tossed off about his family were kind of snarky and TMI, but dedicating a song to Christchurch (and changing the lyrics accordingly), that was sweet, and he’s a good listen. Just don’t take him home to meet your Mum.
Things I liked about the Port Fairy festival: The weather – mostly warm and gently sunny in the way of Victorian autumn. The tent city at the Showgrounds, which was flat and not in the least muddy (see Weather). The people of the Showgrounds Committee who ran a breakfast mess hall – $5 bacon and eggs brought to you by adorable children, supervised by slightly older adorable children. Buying a cut-down beach chair on impulse in Colac, and finding when I got there that this item is absolutely necessary. Win! Spending time with the old friends who came to help out with the Bucket stall. Having a wrist band with ADULT printed on it. At last!! The diversity of the audience, including all ages from babies to seniors in their eighties…The members of the Folk club, aged 60s and 70s, playing their songs in the main street – I was sad they weren’t in the main enclosure, because after all it’s still called a Folk festival, and they’re locals, and oldies playing the songs they know is what folk is supposed to be all about, but sadly I myself would rather listen to Pug et all, so whaddyagonnado. The children who busked outside the enclosure. The twelve or thirteen year old boy who casually blew Take 5 on his tenor sax. The VCE-age kids who played in the village square.
Things I didn’t like so much: The division between the inner sanctum where you had to have a wrist band to get in, and the rest of the town. The townies didn’t seem perturbed, but it made me a little uneasy… People who have turned the Festival experience into a military operation, to the point where it takes higher priority than the music itself. People behind me, do not conduct a loud discussion of where X is going to sit and where Y is going to go afterwards WHILE JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE IS IN THE MIDDLE OF HIS SET OR I MAY CONSIDER YANKING YOUR LIVER OUT. Ahem. And I know the Shebeen is the only venue in the enclosure where you can get a beer, but that does not mean you should be TALKING AWAY AT THE TOP OF YOUR VOICE THE WHOLE TIME while Shakura S’aida or Lisa Miller are playing. Yes, you could even hear the deafening inane chatter over S’aida and Grantis. Respect!… Sound: Having 5 circus-size tents in a small space, each with its own massive sound system, meant that solo acoustic artists like Justin Townes Earle and Joe Pug suffered sound leak from the other tents, which seemed disrespectful to them. But again, I suppose, whaddyagunnado. They’re tents, not brick buildings.
There were a few people I missed who I would have liked to see, but maybe I’ll catch them next year. I’ll definitely be packing my tent. Even if I have to buy my own ticket.