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Waiting for Mr Earle
Port Fairy Folk Festival 2016 report by Rob Walker

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Arriving at Port Fairy just on dusk is a great feeling after looking into the sun driving to the west for a few hours; on ‘Folkies Friday’ evening it’s particularly special, the movement, the anticipation, the reunions, the pouring over the program with your mates circling the must-sees in 3 days. Juggling the times and wondering how early I’m going to have to arrive at the venue to see headliner, Steve Earle on Sunday evening.

For me Friday evening is Steve Poltz … how does his mind work? Luckily it works in wonderfully positive ways, a great start to my festival. A Guinness and The Bushwackers in the Shebeen. They play a great set and that rounds out my night. The Bushwackers are celebrating their 45th Anniversary and played the very first Port Fairy Folk Festival 40 years ago.

Saturday is early with the Guests Concert which featured Eric Bogle, Robert Forster (of Go Betweens), Roisin O (daughter of Mary Black), Canada’s The East Pointers and the charming Shelley Morris. Good humour, great music. Next, The Grigoryan Brothers as masterful as ever, followed by Little Rabbit, featuring Pete Fidler on Dobro for something of a bluegrass contrast. And it’s still only 1.30pm!

portfshannonColin Hay is joined by his wife Cecilia Noel along with a Cuban ensemble. Apart from all the good stuff that delivered, his voice is as commanding as ever, and his turns of phrase as entertaining. Next, I race to catch The Pierce Brothers climbing the stage truss along with the ladder that is their career. Our mate, Shannon Bourne is playing lead guitar for another great Aussie songwriter, Marcia Howard, notably, Port Fairy Artist of the Year in 2016. A great set, plenty of emotion and local connection. The songs and the band are together for the first time but are first class. Suzannah Espie and her very cool band are a great way to finish my Saturday. It was her CD launch and another CD from her is always a thing to look forward to … Still waiting for Mr Earle.

Sunday begins early too, with an emotional and captivating women in song concert. The air was thick with an atmosphere of power and grace. The voices, the inspiration, the emotion, rich and imbuing in a house of thousands. Emma Donovan, Sara Storer and Suzanna Espie, Mary Black and Marcia Howard, Shellie Morris and Katie Noonan all with a different style of being honest about life in their songs – can I single out Kate Miller-Heidke, stunning! With great respect to the other ladies.

portF2lloydI came at 10am to be early for Steve Earle. And I’m not leaving this tent all day except for life’s necessities. After the wonderful morning session and the anticipation, Steve Earle had better be good.  Then our friends at Maton present The Guitarists Concert. Feeling proud to be writing this missive for our online magazine, Australian Musician – we have great Australian musicians! Simple. Ash Grunwald, the mighty Lloyd Spiegel, The Grigoryan Brothers, and Nick Charles. Scottish wizard, Tony McManus, and  Italian flat picker, Beppe Gambetta completed a lineup of greats. The group version of Waltzing Matilda illustrated how utterly interpretive the guitar is depending on whose hands it’s in. A tribute to the great Ross Hannaford confirmed this with Knocking on Heavens door. And a great tribute to Ross.

My parochial day is punctuated by an almost-Australian, Mary Black,  who delivers a thoroughly superb set with a great band featuring inspirational rhythms and a voice that lifts you from your seat at times. The band was excellent, the relentless right hand of Bill Shanley on acoustic guitar was metronomic! While awaiting Mr Earle, I am briefly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of talent over the weekend. We’re in good company indeed. He’d better be good. And he was. Steve Earle arrived at his rootsy best, and suggested that his new blues album, had better be good, “as they set the bar pretty fuckin’ high in Texas when it came to blues”. Well he worth the wait; he got Copperhead Road out of the way mid set and ended it with a surprising version of Hey Joe. The rootsy feels that inhabited the rest of the set, set the bar high for everyone else in terms of songwriting and stories as he always has done. And The Dukes were good too. Featuring Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore and the bassist that played the Copperhead Road sessions in 1988, Kelly Looney, of whom SE has said the band wouldn’t play without – high praise.

portf3archieThe thing about waiting for Mr Earle was the amount of great music you see in the meantime. My only regret is not being able to see all that was on offer. There is so much to see and such high standards in artists and production values. Port Fairy’s Festival Director, talent herder and pioneer, Jamie Mckew, is after 40 years leaving behind an absolute institution which is a credit to the town. This last line up is a legacy in itself, much less what he has created along with a committed community over 40 years. Congratulations.

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