Amongst the big name festivals like Falls and Big Day Out, Meredith Music Festival is viewed as a world unto itself; the rock festival with a lot of heart. As it prepares to celebrate its twentieth year, Meredith is still as stubbornly anti-commercial and community-oriented as it once was.
In the stretch of endless road between Geelong and Ballarat sits a small town called Meredith. Home to just over 1000 people, it’s the kind of place you might visit on the way to somewhere else. That is, unless it’s December and you’re one of the 12,500 music-crazed individuals attending Meredith Music Festival.
Then, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“Welcome to Country Life!” Donna Burt yells, competing with her Ute’s growling engine as she drives through Meredith’s dusty roads towards the festival site. Donna has been a part of the festival since she moved to Meredith fifteen years ago, working at the festival’s community food stall affectionately known as ‘The Tucker Tent’.
After her daughter was killed in a car-accident five years ago, Donna took over her job at the Meredith ‘Roadhouse’ General Store and, when the thousands of inner-city music enthusiasts invade the town every December, she works from five in the morning at the Roadhouse and then heads down to the Tucker Tent to work until the small hours of the morning.
Hung-over festival-goers after cheap, fried food are mostly unaware that the Tucker Tent is run entirely by Meredith locals, with all proceeds going back to the town’s community organisations. But those who know the festival well, know that most things in Meredith come with a back-story.
Meredith Music Festival began in 1991, when mates Chris Nolan and Gregor Peele had an idea to host a gathering on Chris’s parents’ farm in Meredith. Their aim was to create an event where people could get away from the city and experience music in a relaxed setting surrounded by the Australian bush. The first festival saw 250 friends attend and today the festival has well and truly outgrown its Blundstones, hosting 12,500 people every year and even spawning a sister festival held in March, Golden Plains.
Grasping for a cigarette with one hand and driving her Ute with the other, Donna chats about how Meredith Music Festival has now become part of the local community’s fabric. It’s hard for locals to now imagine what things were like before the musical juggernaut began. Suddenly, an out of place hint of seriousness enters Donna’s voice. “Chris Nolan. That’s who this is all about and it’s all about making sure that he’s cared for and looked after,” she says.
In 1996, the festival was almost cancelled when organiser Chris Nolan suffered a multi-organ collapse in his sleep while working in Hanoi. The incident left him comatose for six months and caused him severe brain injuries. Despite Nolan’s tumultuous state, his mates and fellow Meredith organisers Gregor Peele, Marcus Downie and Matt High decided that the festival would still go on that year.
To this day, 1996 remains the only Meredith that Chris has missed. While he remains wheelchair-ridden and finds it difficult to speak, see and hear, he remains an integral part of the Meredith festival, opening the event each year to appreciative cheers from the crowd.
When we arrive at the 1100 acre Nolan family property, the site is disarmingly serene, lush and empty, with the only intervening noise being Donna’s throaty laugh as she jokes with Chris Nolan’s father, John, about the impending storm brewing in the distance. Soon this expanse will be filled with hoards of energetic campers and the constant drone of music. It’s certainly changed a lot since John Nolan broke rule number one in the parenting handbook by agreeing to let his son hold a party there in 1991.
Pointing to the new developments that have been built on the site over the past twenty years including compostable toilets and a huge amphitheatre, John seems incredibly proud of what he and the community of Meredith have built. And especially, what his son has created.
John recalls one year when the festival was still only 3000 people large, after a searing hot day of forty degrees, the temperature suddenly dropped in the evening. “Christopher was well at the time and he said, ‘You’ve gotta go out, get the truck, get a load of wood and build a big fire!” John says, smiling. John and his wife Mary did exactly that, creating a huge bonfire and continuing to stoke it throughout the night so the music could continue.
When I ask John what it is about Meredith Festival that makes it so special, he pauses and says, “It’s a lot freer.”
Indeed, back in the city, there are plenty of people who say they return to Meredith year after year for that very reason. Wearing a black, leather jacket decorated in rock ‘n roll badges, Triple R Radio announcer DJ Fee Bee Squared embodies Melbourne’s grungy rock spirit. Having been chosen to DJ in between bands at the festival for the past few years, Fee Bee is completely enamored by the communal ethos that thrives at Meredith Festival.
“When you get there, especially your first time at Meredith, when somebody says to you, “Happy Meredith!” it’s kind of beautiful. Straight away you feel like you’re part of something special, part of this community,” she says.
Fee Bee Squared fondly recalls DJing on the Friday night of 2008, the year when campers were treated to three days of non-stop rain and mud. “You’re looking out at all these people and the light hits a certain way and you can see the rain, just sheets and sheets of rain…Everybody’s just smiling and excited and we can’t get any wetter,” she says, gleaming.
Despite its huge popularity – the festival now sells out in a matter of hours- organisers are still trying to maintain the informal and relaxed atmosphere of the festival’s past. The event still has no advertising whatsoever and continues to affiliate itself with community organisations like Triple R Radio and independent record store Polyester Records.
Even Meredith’s ticketing system is organised with their punters in mind. When tickets go on sale, those who have been to the festival since the beginning are given preferential treatment and die-hard fans lining up for tickets as early as nine o’ clock the previous evening are greeted by Meredith employees offering hot coffee to make the queue a little more bearable.
Over the years, the unique love affair between the festival and its punters has seen Meredith develop many inimitable, almost cult-like, customs. One beloved tradition is ‘The Meredith Gift’, a tongue-in-cheek running race held at the end of the festival where all entrants compete in the nude.
Another unusual phenomenon that has developed over time is the mythical ‘Arch of Love’, a portable arch which was brought in one year by an anonymous festival-goer. Since its appearance, Meredith legend has required couples that walk under the arch to kiss. It’s now been taken a step further with some couples choosing to conduct their nuptials under the arch.
Caitlin Tanumyroshghi and her partner Flipp were the first couple to officially marry under the iconic arch in 2009. Wearing a twenty-dollar vintage white dress and a makeshift glittery halo, the free-spirited bride tied the knot in the company of friends, a celebrant dressed as Elvis and girls dancing the Can Can.
“I feel like there’s something about it that sortof channels Woodstock…I remember the year before last year, when it was freezing cold and muddy and terrible. There was a moment when we were walking back on the main hill there was this couple having sex in the mud which was absolutely disgusting obviously…but at the same time, it was sort of that strange, hippy vibe. I guess there’s this certain kind of effervescence when you get up there,” she says.
Like many other Meredith-goers, Caitlin has thanked Chris Nolan at the festival for what he has created. “It started from such a clean and true spot. Just a guy who wanted to have some of his friends over and it kept on getting bigger and bigger. And not to mention the horrible things that happened to him. I think that anyone that takes the time to find out how the festival got started, you can’t not be moved and just feel extremely lucky to be a part of it,” she says.
As Meredith approaches its twentieth year, many of its fans are waiting in anticipation to wish the festival a happy birthday. Amongst those who hold the enduring rock festival in their heart, there seems to be a shared hope that despite growing older, Meredith Music Festival will still remain stubbornly committed to never growing up.