PORT FAIRY FOLK FESTIVAL 2004
Daniel Lewis

“OUR STORY”


Friday, 5th March, 2004.

The office bell rang and we were free. The long weekend was here, and myself, my girlfriend Carmel, and two friends, Joel and Craig, were spending it in the seafront town of Port Fairy at it’s annual folk festival. It would two years in a row for Carmel and I; the boys were making their debut.

It was all ahead of us as the first stubbies were clinked while Craig manoeuvred his station wagon over the lofty Westgate Bridge and on to the Princes Freeway. Craig was the designated driver, and, as such, remained the sole sober occupant for the duration of the journey. Craig didn’t mind, however, figuring he would be doing more than enough drinking over the next few days. He would be right.

We cruised through ‘Cat Territory’ with Joel the Cats Supporter treating us to a vintage rendition of the club’s theme song. This also signalled the start of the frequent toilet stops that proved Craig to be a more than patient gentleman. We flew through the towns, however, and before long we had left Colac behind and the bright lights of Warrnambool were almost on us. The Melbourne stubbies continued to glide down the dry throats of myself and Joel, while Irish Carmel’s UDL mixers were starting to have impact. It was good to be back in the country. Although we all hailed from different spots geographically we were all from the country, and appreciated its fresh, clean, air and laidback lifestyle. It’s times like these we wondered how we stayed sane for so long in the concrete jungle of the city.

I’d forgotten how close Port Fairy was to Warrnambool, and, as a result we arrived at our destination 15 minutes earlier than planned. We piled out of the car and dropped our luggage into our rooms of the rented house in Griffith Street, a gentle 15-minute walk from the town centre, and so close to the beach you could hear the waves crash. The weatherboard beach home was being rented out by Terry Wells, a friend of ours from Cobram and a veteran of the folk festival who has rented the place for the past 10 years. A new record of 11 people was occupying it this year. We said a brisk hello to everyone before making a mad dash for the pub, or more precisely, The Stump, or Caledonian Hotel, on the east side of the town. The Stump is an innocuous-enough looking white pub with a large stump out the front and Guinness signs near the sign the only indication of how the pub got it’s name and the Irish flavour inside.

Unfortunately my suspicions of a midnight close rang true as we reached the front of the pub only to have a burly but friendly security guard turn us away. It didn’t worry us particularly, we’d had our fair share for the night, and, if it was anything like last year, we had two monstrous days ahead of us. We stumbled back to the house via the bakery on the main street, which must rank as one of Victoria’s best, drunk or sober. The house was quiet when we got back, and, contrary to the rest of the weekend, we kept quiet and found sleep to be the best option.

Saturday 6th March, 2004.

We awoke with the sound of gentle rain pattering against the windows and my initial dislocation was replaced by a realisation that this part of the state cops the brunt of the state‘s weather. With the beach cricket game abandoned and the grandfather clock chiming 12 times we decided to venture to “The Star of The West” hotel for lunch before catching the afternoon and evening sessions at The Stump. Same as last year, there was an eerie sense of déjà vu. After mixing with the locals in the front bar and losing money on a trotter that a friend had given us a tip for, we ventured out the back into the bistro area where a mixed clientele were eating and drinking to the sounds of gentle folk music. I’d remembered the pepper steak being good last year and went with it again. It again proved to be a good choice. Carmel and the boys were happy with their choices as well, and with full stomachs, heavy wallets and joyous hearts we strolled down the road to The Stump. It was 2pm. Little did we know the rest of the day would be spent in there. Being a survivor from last year I just hoped we would last the distance.

We walked into a half-full pub from the side entrance. To our left appeared to be locals and, at a guess, a selection of others who didn’t like good pub music. To our right was the session room with tables lined up across the right side and back of the room that
were mostly filled by the fifteen or so musicians and a small group of ‘hangers on’ - all of them sipping away at VB cans and playing experimental chords on their guitars, fiddles and vocals. To the front of us, very conveniently, was the bar, and before long
the first round had been gotten in and four plastic schooners of Guinness were set in front of us. At $5.50 a shot we felt they were certainly making their money off us, but the weekend is a money earner for the town, and a good town needs a helping hand from time to time, the least we could do was contribute. The other occupants of the house were all there, as were many other familiar faces from last years festival. This was a place that you could confidently coin the phrase “There are no strangers here - only friends we have yet to meet”. Happy people from all works of life, from all over the country. There were no pretensions about the people in here. The folk at Port Fairy, locals and visitors alike, are as laidback as they come.

A few gentle numbers were eased out to start proceedings. There was lots of chatter about the place. Terry, his mate Barry, and the boys sipped their Guinness’ slowly, waiting for the inevitable song that would break the ice. And so it proved, with the band belting out a fiercely energetic version of “You Couldn’t Have Come At A Better Time”. The crowd went wild, the place started buzzing. Terry smiled wryly; he knew the score - there would be no turning back from here.

The afternoon session swept along with well-known songs of folk, pop and rock heritage belting out in a seemingly never-ending frenzy of high-quality pub music. There was an addictive mixture of Irish and Australian songs, which greatly appealed to the swelling crowd. As Joel pointed out mid-way through the afternoon “I reckon they’ve played 11 of my 12 favourite ever songs”.

The mad Scotsmen who we befriended last year were along for the ride again, and again they unashamedly drifted around the place showing off their kilts and strong Scottish brogues to anyone in their path. Their appearance added extra colour to an already colourful day, and there was plenty more to come!

The afternoon session finished at 6pm, with another one due to start at nine. Much of the crowd was sensible enough to go out for something to eat, but not us. We mixed with the remainder of the crowd as the band did. The local policemen came in to check us all out and ended up getting caught up in the atmosphere and chatting away endlessly with the rest of us. The Guinness was flowing and I had to declare Port Fairy the owners of the best pint of Guinness in Australia. After almost 3 years of trying to experience a Guinness that was even close in taste to it’s Irish cousins, I had finally found one. The very efficient bar women were getting a severe workout, one that would get the better of most. But the two ladies who served us for most of the day were generally polite and efficient to the point where 4 schooners of Guinness would be ready in less than a minute. “We half-fill them at the bar”, the younger one explained. Just like Ireland, then.

The Celtic influences of this town shouldn’t be underestimated. With it’s history of Irish settlement and unflailing tradition one gets the feeling that it will stay this way forever. In the future, the 100th generation Irish born in Port Fairy will still have a fond Irish affiliation. Indeed, many ex-pats travel from as far as Sydney to be here. For those Aussies lucky enough to have been to the Emerald Isle, you can’t help but feel it all coming back to you the longer you spend here.

And so it proved, as the Guinness tallies surely reached double-figures and large groups of us were singing our hearts out to “Life in a Northern Town”, a number that this band specialise in, led enthusiastically and brilliantly by Irishman Martin. The song doesn’t finish until an acceptable amount of audience participation is reached and the chorus is repeated at least twenty times. Much of the latter part of the evening was swept away in an excitable, drunken stupor. Crowds twisted feverishly in the small pub but amazingly the spillage of alcohol was minimal. This was a happy crowd, one that appreciated the simple things in life, one that thrived on good music and hearty banter. New friends connected like spot fires all over the place, with the sounds of Irish and Aussie accents bouncing around the place and reminding me how alike the two countries are, even though geographically and historically they couldn’t be further apart.

The band kept playing and playing and playing until the midnight closing time came around. It would be a welcome relief to the pub staff but a disappointment to the maddening crowd, who, despite the majority of being there for the best part of 10 hours, couldn’t get enough, they wanted more, more, more! The encore bounced everyone back to life, and luckily I was in the vicinity of a microphone when the last tune for the night “Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again”, was played. They allowed me to do backing vocals and, with enough Guinness to fill a 26-year old in me, I threw my vocal chords into the mike with gusto. My last duty was to orchestrate the “three cheers” for the band. For my troubles I was offered a can of VB which I had to decline, enough was enough.

As I walked Carmel home I was overwhelmed by the warmth and love of the place, it was a great time to be alive. As we approached the idyllic Moyne River, which glistened under a half-moon, I looked at Carmel with my heart again melting and decided to do something I should have done a long time ago. On bended knee, under pressure from the hoards of crowds that were behind and in front of us, I asked Carmel to marry me. To my delight she accepted, and a great day was capped off. The ‘Dutch courage’ had helped me to get the nerve up to ask the question, but the sincerity was there in all its glory, even with the drunken slur in my voice. As we continued to walk arm-in-arm across the bridge that would forever be etched in our memories, we could feel immeasurable love all around us, with the sounds and lights of the town behind us, slowly ebbing away into the night, and the smell of the nearby sea whispering sweet nothings into our ears, and the still and peaceful waters of the Moyne seemingly blessing us for the rest of our journey home, and for the future that lay ahead.

The night doesn’t end there, however, as much as it should have. Welcoming us on the front porch were Brenton and Alison, another couple who were staying at the house. They were holding each other tightly in the cool of the early morning. “Sit down, guys, we have some news for you”. And then, Alison came out with it: “You wouldn’t believe it guys, Brenton got down on his knee on the way home and proposed. I said yes”. We all rejoiced, and Carmel & I shared our genuine delight with them for a while until we couldn’t hold it in any more. “Guess what guys”, Carmel piped up. “Lewy did the same thing. He proposed on the bridge… and I said yes!”. They stood there for a few long moments, their jaws dropping. And then, it was time to rejoice again. “There must be something in the Port Fairy air”, Brenton exclaimed, “Two Cobram blokes getting engaged on the same weekend!” Sleep suddenly wasn’t an option for a while and beers were cracked open again, the girls running around the house madly, while Brenton and I stood out front on the porch and toasted each other, well chuffed with ourselves. After a while Joel and Craig came back, with a Dictaphone full of quotes from the good people of Port Fairy town. And so the party continued on for a few more hours once the news was broken to them. Phone calls were made, back-slapping became a common theme, and the house, which had been silent apart from the snores of those in the house who had staggered home at a reasonable hour, was a wave of excitement again.


Sunday, 7th March, 2004.

The next morning, hard of head, I woke up next to my new fiancé, had a quick panic attack, and then smiled: I’d done it! She jokingly said she’d forgotten about the previous night’s events, but then assured me that she remembered all right, and she was happy. The rest of the house was informed of the news (if they didn’t know already) and then everyone got themselves together for the day. Brenton and Alison had to leave, but assured us the double wedding was still on the cards! Most of us went down to the beach to brave the waves and play beach cricket. We all lingered around the picturesque beach for a while, taking in the fresh sea air before the smokiness of the pub would engulf us for the afternoon.

We decided not to go straight to The Stump today, reasoning that there was more to the town on this infamous festival weekend that just the inside of this one pub. We were right. The main street was inundated with street stalls, musicians and buskers, magicians and street entertainers. We wandered down to the bottom of the street to the front gate of the festival proper. Large marquees were dotted all over the place and it looked as if there would be a lot of fun in there. But after getting delightfully trapped in The Stump for the whole weekend last year we were drawn to doing the same again. We would contribute to Port Fairy’s economy in our own way with over-zealous pub patronage. The same crew spends the whole weekend at The Stump each year, and we are now part of that group. When you’re on a good thing stick to it I guess. The way we see Port Fairy is The Stump being a little community inside the town for the festival weekend. We may not realise the good times there is to be had in the festival itself, but The Stump and it’s surrounds are part of the magic of the weekend, and it’s each to their own in this Labour Day long weekend celebration of all that is good in life.

We were too hungover to think of an alternative venue for lunch, so “The Star of The West” gained our patronage again. The same gentle music was playing and with it came an overwhelming sense of the calm before the storm. It was close to 3pm when we ambled back into The Stump, which was already busy. The bar staff looked us up and down for a few moments as if to say “back for more?”. It was a look they must have given many times that day as the same tired heads reared themselves again for a second day bout with their livers.

As was the case yesterday, the band, which I was now aware was made up members of a much-vaunted Sydney based pub-band called Green Jam and a few of their talented mates, strummed their acoustics lightly. There was almost a hush around the place as to which song would set the place alight. Today it was the ever-reliable Martin and his now famous version of “Life in a Northern Town” which got everyone moving. Sore throats were pushed to the limit again, and the bar staff became progressively busier. Just when we thought we were in for the same old routine as yesterday in walked a long-bearded hippie. I remembered him from last year but didn’t remember why. He stood there quietly waiting for the song to finish, sipping his can of Melbourne and smoking his thin rollie. Then the band introduced him to the crowd and put down their instruments. His deep, trombone-like voice filled the smoky room instantly. Everyone stopped talking and listened to this guy who looked like a poet who drifted
from town to town and festival to festival, but sounded like something from a 50’s
musical. He played two tunes and departed as quickly as he came. The band grabbed the crowd’s attention back with a rousing rendition of “Throw Your Arms Around Me”, and then an amusing version of “Old Mother Tongue”, with it’s references to many of life’s taboos bringing a knowledgeable smile to the diversely-aged crowd.

We again went without our dinner, choosing the Guinness option instead, and sat there for a few peaceful hours between sets, chatting amicably with the band. They were delighted to hear of last night’s engagement, especially when Terry threw a new light on the subject as he declared that I panicked last night after their constant references to her ‘sparkling blue eyes’. Brendan, another ex-pat with a slick ponytail and a friendly gleam in his eye, was particularly impressed with my decision, promising an announcement later on and a song of our choice. The band’s friendliness and ironic banter when playing their music was the thread that binded everything together for the two long days. They played happy, and thus the crowd was happy.

The band had a more professional look for the Sunday night session, standing up behind microphones and all the tables were removed from the back and sides of the room. The old guard, Terry and Barry, stumbled home well before stumps tonight, citing the long drive home and an ‘unshakeable tiredness’. They didn’t mention that maybe they were past their prime and couldn’t keep up any more!. But we young creatures more than made up for it, and continued to make the most of a rare Sunday night of partying without a care in the world. The band was brilliant for the rest of the night, and the bar staff kept on keeping on. There was a long queue outside, giving rise to excitement of what was happening inside.

Inevitably, the night drew to a close, again with people wanting more. There were more encores, more fun with friendly policemen, and more strangers befriending each other. The band told us all to come back tomorrow for their 2-hour early afternoon session before everyone headed off home. Unfortunately we couldn’t make it, but we all promised to be back again next year. To us city office workers it was the injection of life we needed, and we could venture back into the ‘big smoke’ with a more lively and positive spin on things. All the people who spent the weekend at the festival, whether or not they spent it in the small, but comfortably cramped insides of The Stump, or in the festival itself, or just wandering around the town, will leave with a big grins on their faces, even through the haze of terrible hangovers, and will look back on their time here with unabated joy. There is a certain aura about the place that is hard to pinpoint, but maybe that’s a good thing. As for the locals, it is a weekend that they thrive on. But they can put on a show, these people, and their profits are just rewards for their efforts.

Monday, 8th March, 2004.

As we drove past the Stump on Monday morning I smiled wistfully and said to myself, “see you next year”. I looked at the other three in the car. I think they were all thinking the same thing.

THE END


Daniel Lewis, March 2004.



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