Celtic crew flock to Folk Fest

Mast Gully Fellers are renowned for their unique, but familiar 'Australiana Bar-Room Folk' and played at the festival for the second time. Picture: SUPPLIED

By Tanya Steele

Musicians, dancers and Celtic enthusiasts headed for the frosty shores of Portarlington over the recent long weekend to play for the annual National Celtic Folk Festival

Despite a decidedly damp few days, the 20th National Celtic Festival saw hordes of people venturing from the hills of the Dandenongs to witness, perform and play on the lands of the Wadawurrung peoples.

The festival line up included the likes of the Mast Gully Fellers, The Simpson Three and the dancers of the Victorian Irish Dance Academy (VIDA) who performed to people from all over Victoria and beyond over a three day Celtic soiree.

Upwey Mast Gully Fellers Band member Freo said the festival was great this year and crowds were some of the biggest the band has played to.

“Sunday afternoon in the Village Tavern tent – it went off,” he said.

Playing the festival is a relatively new experience for the band, and Freo said it’s the second time the group has attended and they enjoy the chance to play to big crowds.

“It’s pretty cool – means that we are getting through to people that enjoy the music that might not have been exposed in any other way,” he said.

Seasoned festival performers from the band ‘The Simpson Three’ also attended and the trio of siblings who also stem from Upwey said they had a great weekend.

Known for their more traditional style Irish music band member Bec Simpson said they have played at Portarlington quite a few times over the years.

“This time we played three gigs over the weekend, and I ran a drum workshop,” she said.

Joining a huge lineup including Claymore, Tim Scanlan and Mana Okubu, Austral and Rich Davies, the Mast Gully Fellers played several live gigs throughout the weekend. Freo said they bring some diversity to the mix.

Freo said that the Mast Gully Fellers are not particularly Celtic, but have a few tracks which are right at home in the festival line up.

“We do have some influences there, but we’re probably more leaning to folk style music,” he said.

Celtic and colonial history and storytelling are woven through many of the performances that the bands and dancers present at the national festival, which resonated with the audience – both old and young.

Modern pop music also crept into the performances with four-piece Brisbane band Amaidi performing in animal onesies and doing a cover from One Direction (much to the delight of the younger crowds).

Festival goers could pick and choose between live music being played across a number of venues, sit inside a warm tent and enjoy a huge variety of Celtic performers, who often collaborate with other bands while at the events.

“I like performing because I love bringing joy to people,” said Bec.

“I had fun adding some bodhrán (a traditional Irish framed drum) to the Tim Scanlan and Mana Okubo set on Saturday night,” she said.

The Mast Gully Fellers played a set which included a few of their “The Great Divide” album releases and a couple of fan favourites, including some tracks covering Australian colonial history.

“There is one song that is about a bloke that gets kicked out of a pub and another pretty Celtic song that’s called the dog line,” said Freo

“It’s about an escapee from the Port Arthur prison back in the colonial era,” he said.

“We performed another one that is written in a very colonial Celtic style called ‘Dig boys, dig’ which is about the miners in Bendigo.”

“They dug a hole between two pubs so that they can drink after hours and not get busted.”

Freo said that, besides the opportunity to perform, attending the festival is amazing.

“We get to watch a whole bunch of other bands, take our families and we make a massive weekend out of it,” he said.

Bec said ‘The Simpson Three’ have a lot of appreciation for the other artists performing at the festival.

“We watched plenty of gigs as well – too many to start listing off, but I’ll just say that some of Australia’s best were at Portarlington on the weekend, it’s really something special,” she said.

The festival is also a chance for Ms Simpson and her siblings to support and enjoy other artists.

“The pandemic really took a lot of that away, and we have so much appreciation for what something like the National Celtic Folk Festival can bring. It’s wholesome,” she said.

Hills resident and VIDA Irish dancer Mary has been attending the festival for a whopping 30 years since it’s inception and said the festival showcases the best.

“We love meeting old friends at the festival and seeing the new performers coming along. It just keeps getting better,” she said.

Mary, along with at least 60 other VIDA dancers performed to crowds along with other Scottish and Irish dance schools from Victoria and beyond.

“In spite of the slightly wet weather, all participants from VIDA had a wonderful time performing to an enthusiastic and appreciative audience,” she said.

The Tecoma and Mt Evelyn VIDA dancers performed a number of new dances this year and were spotted all over the festival as well as teaching dance workshops for kids.

Mary said that she loves seeing a new generation of festival goers enjoying themselves.

“They get to experience a wide range of musical events,” she said.

Local fiddle player Pria from Boronia played with this year with the Melbourne Scottish Fiddle Club said the festival goes from strength to strength each year.

“I love seeing all the old familiar favourites and a few new ones,” she said.

“I love seeing the young people come up, there’s been a really big increase in Celtic musicians in Australia.”

Pria said she thinks that the festival itself has been largely responsible for the rise of the younger generation in Celtic music in Victoria and Australia.

“Younger bands like Ceoltóirí Éireann – they do a lot of teaching and performing as well,” she said.

The festival offers a unique opportunity for musicians to meet and play with each other in larger groups dubbed ‘sessions’.

“There’s only a few times a year that you can get together and have big sessions like that,” said Pria.

Bec said that ‘The Simpson Three’ love heading to the session bar after the concerts.

“A session is where musicians will casually sit around playing and sharing traditional tunes,” she said.

“We play music and catch up with old friends from around Australia but we also do it to hone our skills… it’s sort of integral to the culture.”

Along with a huge array of live music, the festival features traditional Celtic practices, pipes, hurling, drums, heavy games, the tall ship “The Enterprise” sailing around the bay and a mega dance ceili in the main hall.

“You gotta love those noisy pipes and drums, the stouts on a cold night, dancing till you’re out of breath in the Ceili. It’s a great weekend all around,” Bec said.