Port Fairy Folk Festival 2024 – Tony Hillier’s Review

Judy C Hollins. Photo by Jason Dargan.


Having performed in Cairns-based bands at Port Fairy Folk Festival on four occasions (once with Snake Gully and thrice with Kamerunga), senior Rhythms scribe TONY HILLIER returned to Victoria’s premier roots music event this year in his primary role as a music reviewer. (*Photos: Julie McEnerny, except where noted )

Only a couple years shy of its 50th anniversary, the festival staged in the salubrious seaside town on Victoria’s rugged Southwest coast continues to cast a spell over newcomers and old hands alike, bringing interstate and international visitors and the local community together like no other comparable event in Australia.

Port Fairy Folk Festival unites generations with its long established and commendable policy of showcasing musicians of all age groups. Having said that, the emphasis this year was squarely on seniors, with 82-year-old Graham Nash, 86-year-old Judy Collins and Ralph McTell, who’s closing in on 80, the stars of the show. All of these veteran baby boomers, like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and other notables, are blazing a fresh trail for octogenarians.

Photo by Jason Dargan

As Graham Nash pointed out to editor/owner Brian Wise in an excellent interview in the November/December edition of Rhythms, he sings the old songs with the same passion as when he wrote them back in the 1960s and 1970s. Even so, Nash’s gig on Sunday night at the River stage was a revelation … at least to this pundit and a good few punters. Indeed, many PFFF regulars rated his sign-off show at the #1 marquee the equal of anything they’d witnessed at past festivals — a sentiment with which this reviewer heartily concurs.

While he may not be able to quite hit the higher notes of his heyday with the Hollies in the UK and Crosby, Stills & Nash in the USA — both bands he co-formed — Nash has retained much of his former ability. His long-time commitment to geopolitical concerns continues, especially when it comes to Donald Trump, as songs such as ‘Stars & Stripes’ and ‘Golden Idols’ attest. As he commented on stage: “The rise of the right-wing around the world is very disturbing”.  In a number Nash wrote about his father going off to war in WW2, he inserted a reference to Putin.

At Port Fairy, Graham Nash had fantastic support from two young master multi-instrumentalists in Zak Djanikian (on guitar, sax, mandolin, bouzouki and drums) and Adam Minkoff  (on bass and guitar and, occasionally, drums) and from his long-time associate Todd Caldwell on keyboards. All three back-up musicians assisted in recreating the compelling vocal harmony Nash, whose tenor voice is still in surprisingly good nick, enjoyed in his days with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. The frontman alternated between guitar and keyboards as he took punters back to the ‘60s & ‘70s with some of his finest compositions.

Threading a link between a well-chosen set-list from his back catalogue, Nash offered pithy insights into his past and shared some short absorbing anecdotes.

Songs plucked from the double Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s six-decade career included timeless classics such as ‘Marrakesh Express’ (a song inexplicably rejected by his former bandmates in the Hollies), ‘Teach Your Children’ and ‘Our House’, the last-named written for the love of his life, Joni Mitchell, when they were happily ensconced in Laurel Canyon back when. Alluding to her serious health issues of recent years, he commented: “I’m so glad Joni’s still alive”. Nash also confided that another of his songs, ‘Better Days’, was written when he was in love with Rita Coolidge.

In a still strong Lancashire accent, despite decades of living in the States, Nash also paid tribute to David Crosby, who passed away in January. “David had expected to go a lot earlier,” he commented prior to launching into the hard rocking ‘Immigration Man’ from their 1972 duo album, a song about an unfortunate border experience in Vancouver. ‘Wind on the Water’, a tribute to his late great mate included eerily effective imitation whale sounds from one of the guitarists.

During a 75-minute set that included several encores he also resurrected Stephen Stills’ classic ‘Love The One You’re With’, which a packed house sang along with lustily, and Neil Young’s hard hitting ‘Ohio’.  He referenced his time with the Hollies via one of that band’s many UK hits, ‘Bus Stop’, and told a fascinating yarn about the group’s liaison with the prodigious teenaged songwriter, Graham Gouldman, who went on to fame with 10cc and three UK No.1 singles and five Top 10 albums.

At the conclusion of a mighty show, the audience rose as one to give him (and the band) a standing ovation. Humble to the end, Graham Nash thanked his band for their expertise and the audience for being so attentive and appreciative.

A couple of hours before the festival’s standout Sunday concert, Judy Collins — the subject of one of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s classic numbers, ‘Suite Judy Blues Eyes’ — had graced the same stage with only a piano accompanist. Hers was a much more intimate gig, more angled on reminiscing than singing, although she did give her audience renditions of classics such as Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Send In The Clowns’ and that well-thumbed spiritual ‘Amazing Grace’, on which the audience joined her with gusto.

In between the diva’s singing, remarkably translucent for one of her advanced age, Collins talked about her upbringing as a highly promising classical pianist and vocalist, and told several raunchy Mae West jokes. Turned on to folk music after hearing Woody Guthrie, she became a Greenwich Village contemporary of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. After confessing that she disliked Dylan’s early songs and singing, she told of how she changed her mind after literally witnessing the creation of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.

On the adjacent Island stage an hour after Judy Collins’ concert, the veteran English troubadour Ralph McTell ended his well received show with a song from his extensive back catalogue that was based on Bob Dylan’s landmark debut songwriter album, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, specifically the striking cover image of a baby-faced His Bobness and his girlfriend of the time, Suze Rotolo.

Naturally, McTell’s breakthrough hit song, 1969’s classic ‘Streets Of London’, proved a huge crowd favourite, with the composer encouraging the audience to sing the chorus with him. After the gig, I managed to have a brief reminisce backstage with Ralph — a fellow habitué of Southwest London’s popular music pub the Half Moon back in the late-1970s. He certainly seemed more comfortable with Sunday’s more temperate temperature than the previous day’s scorcher, when the mercury reached 40 degrees and the sweat was pouring from his face.

Port Fairy Folk Festival’s close alliance with Ireland, reflected in the names of several local townships and a festival held in nearby Koroit in late April, was impressively maintained by veterans Luka Bloom and Sharon Shannon and, most notably, by the brilliant young singer and bouzouki player Daoirí “Derry” Farrell. Each offered different perspectives on the folk music of their native land.

Farrell had just come off performing 14 shows with the band Lunasa in 11 days on an American tour, but appeared as fresh as a proverbial daisy, despite another heavy workload, which saw him perform at five different Port Fairy concerts in four days. “Derry” was particularly impressive on the Island stage on Saturday and as a key component of Sunday’s Troubadours Of The World ‘round robin’ session on the River Stage, where the former All-Ireland Singing champion rendered a truly spectacular rendition of an ages-old traditional a cappella ballad.

Daori Farrell & Tony Hiller

Currently celebrating his 50th anniversary as a professional musician, Luka Bloom struggled with annoying sound bleed from a noisy band in the adjacent Shebeen venue at his first show, on the PyipGil stage — something that also adversely affected Ralph McTell’s and Judy Collins’s ‘On The Couch’ sessions with Brian Nankervis at the same venue. Nevertheless, Bloom managed to show his prowess as a guitar instrumentalist and composer, cultivated during Covid, and to pay moving tributes to the late Sinead O’Connor and his legendary big brother, Christy Moore.

Veteran festival performer and accordion ace Sharon Shannon held court at the River Stage on Saturday, surrounded by a gun quintet of male instrumentalists who helped rock up her pumping jig and reels. She finished her set with a customary flourish via a galloping version of Steve Earle’s anthemic ‘Galway Girl’ appended by an equally thrilling reading of the Penguin Café Orchestra’s ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’.

Of the home grown acts at PFFF 2024 none impressed more than Nigel Wearne — back home in his native South West Victoria after wowing punters at major festivals in the UK and USA last year. Backed by a young 3-piece horn section and driven by a superb rhythm duo, he nailed his self-tagged Americana Noir songs on the Island and Shebeen stages, saluting a recently passed friend with the lovely ‘Sing On Songbird’ mid-set at the former location.

A big discovery at Port Fairy 2024, for this punter at any rate, was an enigmatic singer-songwriter from northern Iceland called Svavar Knutur, whose left-0f-centre songs (delivered in perfect English) and droll humour won over a packed Island marquee on Sunday. Knutur repeated the dose a little more than an hour later as part of PFFF’s founding father Jamie McKew’s ‘Troubadours Of The World’ presentation at the next-door River stage.

Young English rose singer-songwriter Katherine Priddy struggled somewhat with Saturday’s horrendous heat, but seemed much more at home as part of the rivetting  ‘Women Out Loud’ show at the River stage on Sunday, hosted by the loquacious Sarah Carroll.