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visitors since May 12, 2002
March 28, 2003
Elvenhaven: hospital for the comfortably earnest

I had a vague idea that the Port Fairy Folk Festival attracts something like 40,000 people. What I didn't know is that 39,000 of them would be staying in the same campground as Razza, Mayhem and myself. We arrived on Friday evening in the gathering darkness, pushed the Phafflebus into a suitable spot, and started to wonder why we'd come.

The first warning sign was the festival's audience, which was overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly heterosexual. Everyone seemed to be either twenty or thirty years older than me, or twenty or thirty years younger. The first group could be found in the tents, listening to the music, and the second group ignored the music completely and spent the weekend aimlessly walking around the town.

There was also a third group, much smaller in number, who stationed themselves at various points on the main street. These were young children who spent the weekend busking, and who appeared to be either violin playing girls or guitar playing boys. The key difference was that the girls were constantly playing music, and the boys were constantly arguing with each other. One anarchist collective of 9 year old boys arrived around 10am, equipped with guitars and attitude, and argued until about 6pm. In eight hours they didn't get it together to play even one song. The girls, meanwhile, played constantly until mid-afternoon, counted up the money they'd made, and went home happy.

The second warning sign was the wristband situation. The festival is so well established that everything that can be streamlined has been streamlined. You never have to deal with the people who run the campground, for instance. When you buy your tickets you also buy an optional camping pass, which is a blue wristband. When you exchange your ticket to the festival you're given a red wristband. Both snap into place with a dreadful finality, and both make you feel like you're in a hospital for the comfortably earnest.

What really brings that feeling home is the music itself. In the main festival area I randomly picked one of five tents and walked in. The person on stage was tuning up, so I waited for a bit while he got ready to start. Eventually he started playing a song, but, to my dismay, it turned out to be some kind of folk music.

"Never mind," I thought, and walked over to another tent. Luckily, I got there just in time to see someone else tune up. Not so luckily, they also played folk music. Within a few minutes I established a routine that would last for the next few days, of walking, tuning up, and despair. I got plenty of exercise.

In the course of the weekend I witnessed exactly one person who was obviously very excited. And folk music played no part. She was in the campground, carrying a towel, and running happily towards the showers. "What's up?" I asked, and got the answer of "there's no queue!"

Pleasant enjoyment is certainly possible at Port Fairy; rampant excitement is much rarer. So many of the musicians were shockingly complacent. They were arrogant and patronising and unwilling or unable to entertain an audience. For so many of them, Bob Dylan never happened.

I was particularly horrified by a band called The Pompous Traditionalists. When I walked in all seven of them were onstage, and they were making a cacophonous brew of audible evil. They were tuning up. All seven seemed to do this independently, with no regard for each other, and after several minutes of pain they suddenly launched into a dreadful piece of whiny folk music. This was my cue to leave, but just as I was doing so they stopped playing. The lead singer announced that all the noise they'd produced so far was just their sound check, and they'd be back in a few minutes to start the show. All of them then left the stage.

This all added up to an attitude of "we're here to waste your time." More to the point, they were also guilty of an even more serious crime: one of their members was a bearded violinist wearing a cowboy hat.

A word of advice to any bearded, cowboy-hatted violinists who might be reading: please give up your musical ambitions right now. You would serve society better by using your instrument as firewood and your hat as an oven mitt.

In 1965 Bob Dylan was booed at the Newport Folk Festival for playing an electric guitar in front of a rock band. Thirty eight years later, I booed The Pompous Traditionalists for not having an electric guitar, for not bothering to entertain, for assuming that what they were doing was important and relevant and interesting. Of course, in the interests of maintaining the festival's peaceful, relaxed vibe, I booed very, very quietly.

The all important issue of chair height

In the program were letters the Festival had received over the last year. One of them said something like "chair height continues to be an issue." This seemed to be some new meaning of "issue" I'd never come across before. When Port Fairy first got going, no one brought much in the way of equipment, so the mainly bearded crowd of jubilant hippies spent the weekend sitting on the grass.

Over time, the hippies got older, and lost interest in a close physical relationship with Mother Earth. One of them brought a specially designed chair which raised the posterior off the grass by three or four inches. The idea was successful, and a year or two later, everyone had a Very Low Chair, which meant that no one had their view of the stage impeded and everyone was happy.

Then a note of dissent entered the magic kingdom. Several people, perhaps of dubious right wing political tendencies, arrived with Chairs Of Medium Height. These chairs were still below the level of normal chairs, but were high enough to block the view of the patrons sitting on Very Low Chairs behind them. People were shocked. It was a devastating development. After two decades of dewy-eyed fantasy land, the real world had arrived in Elvenhaven.

The end result was a series of exceptionally stern looks. These were perpetrated by the Very Low Chair people, who occupied the high moral ground from a very modest height above it.

Personally, I couldn't understand what the fuss was about. It was, after all, only folk music. In many ways it's better not to be able to see the stage, especially if it's being occupied by a bearded violinist in a cowboy hat.

So I spent the weekend wandering from tent to tent, watching musicians tuning up and elderly people stare sternly at other elderly people who were sitting in slightly higher chairs. It was an interesting experience, but then I wanted to go home.

Razza and Mayhem were feeling the same way, so we pushed the Phafflebus out of the campground, sliced off our wristbands, and started the long journey back to Melbourne. It was late in the afternoon, and we passed a few buskers on the way. All of them were boys, and they were still deeply locked in an argument that didn't matter. Perhaps in another ten or twenty years they'll be running the festival.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 02:51 AM in the Musical category | Comments (3)
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