Mick Thomas

The Road to Port Fairy

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The Road to Port Fairy


By the time we got to Little River and the people who had spent the weekend at the Golden Plains Festival joined in with the mob returning from Port Fairy the traffic was ridiculous – just awful. The roadhouse was overflowing with people staring vacantly, contemplating the weekend just finished. The music performed, the nights spent sitting up imbibing. There were queues at the pumps and the cash registers, queues at the toilets and the food counters. I bought a Chiko roll for some strange reason. I wish I hadn’t but I guess I was feeling rather buoyant after a weekend of shows at the Port Fairy Folk Festival.  Sort of invincible. It had been a good weekend. It tasted fantastic.


We got off the highway and tried to detour along the Old Melbourne Road but ultimately we still had to join the constipated crawl and pay the price for our good times like every other person. Labour Day Monday on the Geelong Road will be forever like this I think.


Driving down the Western, or the Princes Highway (or back for that matter) is something I have been doing since I started playing music in Geelong in the late 70’s.  All the Geelong bands seemed to want to head up to Melbourne to make a name for themselves but the way it panned out we always seemed to be heading the other way – west to Colac, Warnambool, Port Fairy or the Otways.


In 1982 I went to the festival at Port Fairy for the first time just to see what it was about. I had no show and no ticket for the festival. There were a bunch of us in my girlfriend’s old Falcon and we camped somewhere and spent all our money in the pubs trying to track  down some new found folk friends. It was a lot of fun and as these things often do it spiraled out of control in one way or another.


On that particular return journey as I sat in the passenger seat and listened to the wind in the roof racks I somehow began to imagine it was a tin whistle tune as a peculiar Celtic music psychosis had set in. Too much music and too much drinking is pretty much the diagnosis in hindsight. I had stupidly arranged a rehearsal of the fledgling Weddings, Parties, Anything that evening and cursed as we pushed the old car to get home in time as the feeling of vague and ill-defined apprehension set in. (Best described in the film Withnail and I as ‘the fear’).


So thirty years later and as I sat contemplating the way I am holding up it actually didn’t feel a whole lot different. Ben Salter was driving – a small red hire car this time – and as he and his partner Jac sat in the front good naturedly bickering over the choice of music on the stereo I started to feel the tunes from Gold FM morph into whatever I had been listening to at the festival the few days just past. Lisa O’Neil or Archie Roach, The Band Who Knew Too Much or Oh Pep. It all became one as I realized I had lost my phone, my guitar rack, and who knows what else as we had loaded out in a haze of good will and Guinness.


We had played at ten o’clock that morning and I was pretty sure it had been a good show but that is early in any performer’s book and so it had made for a rough day afterwards. And here I was crammed in amongst the camping gear and the instruments feeling pretty crook and eating the worst thing I could possibly find so as to feel just that little bit worse. And it’s in this situation you start to question the worth of the whole thing. Surely it doesn’t matter how good the gigs were or how much we laughed, drank and danced into the night, the friends we met and the friends we made. Surely it meant nothing? There would always be other acts you didn’t think much of who did better than you and so surely this nullified the whole exercise.


But then I wake the next day and see a great write up in The Age (Best on ground – no less). And I suppose having your ego stroked helps you to think back to what is really valuable about these things – which of course is the music you make and the people you meet. I consider that we had three out of three great  shows, that Bedge on fiddle, Nick O’Mara on lap steel and Squeezebox on Wally just seemed to lock in with each other so effortlessly. I remember Gus Agars jumping the kit mid song to come to the front of the stage to get to the Guinness so kindly donated by some punters that Monday morning in question. And that the crowd all stood to attention in Australian Flag Bikini, and that a girl up the front had her mobile ring at an awkward moment in Short Time the night before and the horrors of the highway fade into nothing and all I can think of is the next time we might find ourselves lucky enough to be on the road to Port Fairy.