While Meredith has many popular bars, including the storied Pink Flamingo, it also has a BYO alcohol policy (though no glass is permitted). It also has a BYO couch policy. Some people combine the two, laying a refrigerator down beneath their couch cushions, where it serves as a giant Esky.
But valued as they are, the operation of the Meredith Music Festival, no matter how welcome and idiosyncratic, is not as important as the belief that it can make a difference. Every year, Mary Nolan, 76, whose family farm is the home of the Meredith Music Festival and its permanent facilities, likes to walk around the site to take the festival’s temperature and chat with patrons.
“I’ve had amazing conversations with people,” Nolan says. “I remember once a young woman was standing beside me and she was doing medicine and I don’t know what had happened but she said she was really lost. Her friends decided she was coming to Meredith and they were coming to get her whether she wanted to go or not, and she said that being here had restored her faith in people.”
The Nolan family has farmed what was Wadawurrung land since 1865 and they have a long-standing tradition of hosting events. Mary, who grew up as part of the neighbouring farming family the Gleesons, and her late husband John ‘Jack’ Nolan, threw New Year’s Eve balls when they were younger and hosted gigs in the woolshed. It was only natural that when their son Chris, a university student who loved the land, wanted to throw an end of year party in 1991 – under the somewhat ambitious name of the Meredith Music Festival – that the Nolan farm would be the setting.
That first Meredith was organised by Chris, Marcus Downie and Gregor Peele. It happened on the weekend of December 14 and 15, tickets were $20 at the gate or $18 in advance (by mail). Bands from the alternative music scene in Melbourne, Geelong and Ballarat played (the following month Nirvana would tour Australia, bringing the underground into the mainstream) and there was a free recovery barbecue on the Sunday. In 1992, 500 people turned up. In 1993 it doubled to 1000, two of whom were brothers who hired a helicopter for their arrival.
It was in 1996 that the Meredith Music Festival was fundamentally changed. Chris Nolan, by then a lawyer, was working in Vietnam when he suffered a multi-organ failure. Airlifted back to Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital, he was in a coma for six months. After much deliberation, Meredith went ahead that year, partially as a fund-raiser. Chris Nolan came out of his coma in November, with brain injuries that mean he could hear and understand people, but can’t speak, move or see that much.
“We didn’t expect him to live that long,” Mary Nolan says of her son, but with the support of his family and friends, and with the aid of carers, his life has gone on. “Chris shows that you can have a catastrophic life change and still live life fully and enjoy it,” says his mother, who in 2011 was awarded the Order of Australia for her services to young people with acquired brain injuries. Chris joins his family at Meredith every year, where he connects with the audience, mainly communicating with them via facial expressions.
“They often say that they’ve been waiting for years to say something,” Mary Nolan says. “We’ll have a carer or myself on one side and the person on the other and we ask them to tell Chris who they are and something of their story and what they reckon about Meredith. They watch his face and it’s amazing. Chris can get overwhelmed so we can’t stay all the time, but the conversations have been extraordinary.”
Chris Nolan’s spirit remains central to the Meredith Music Festival, as do his initiatives. In the early 1990s, as services dried up in the town of Meredith, it was Chris who suggested that community groups band together to run a catering tent as a fundraiser. That hearty, cheap mass barbecue, the saviour of cash-strapped students, is now the Community Tucker Tent, and the money it has raised has helped support local sporting clubs, the volunteer fire brigade, the kindergarten and primary school, while cementing the festival’s connection to the local community.
From such roots, Meredith has grown organically. The Supernatural Amphitheatre, nestled in a grove of giant gum trees, is a natural stage that has been augmented with permanent facilities including shower blocks and waterless composting toilets. Run by the Nolan family and co-directors Peele and Matt High, Meredith gained a sister festival, March’s Golden Plains, in 2007, but commerce hasn’t driven the operation. Meredith has never tried to expand to other states, and it still doesn’t have commercial sponsors or signage.
Over the past decade, under long-time programmer Woody McDonald, the bill has become more eclectic. “Sixteen hours straight of punk rock,” as Patrick Donovan remembers it, has given way to a fluid mix that paces the day, with gospel sounds and electronic beats as required. It means Meredith doesn’t have to rely on a name headline international act to sell tickets, and the acts that are booked aren’t in a hierarchy. Former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher is playing Meredith this year, but the showcase slot of 10pm on Saturday belongs to Melbourne punk hellions and recent ARIA award winners Amyl and the Sniffers.
A ritual for regulars
The three days in December are a ritual for regulars and a lure for newcomers. Anna Horan’s first glimpse of Meredith was as a teenage alternative music fan from Geelong, when her older sister returned from Meredith in 2004 – a legendary year due to a brutal storm pummelling the site and Dirty Three later playing as lightning lit up the sky – grubby, tired, and elated. Horan was deeply impressed, and got to her first Meredith in 2010.
“From that moment I was hooked,” says the 30-year-old, who works in advertising. Every year, Horan and her partner meet friends at a McDonalds outside Geelong at 6.30am on the Friday so they can convoy to Meredith and claim a preferred camping spot. She says her current long-term relationship is tested twice a year – putting up a tent with her partner at Meredith and Golden Plains – but at one of her first Merediths, Horan actually got “married” at one of the festival ground’s many physical landmarks, the Arch of Love.
We got married and then came back to the Pink Flamingo and told our friends
“I was hanging out with this young man I met on the day and we went on the ferris wheel and I said to him, ‘We should get married’, and so we ran off to the [Arch] and asked people to be the celebrant,” says Horan. “The only person who agreed was Spanish and she wanted to do it in Spanish, so we got married and then came back to the Pink Flamingo and told our friends.”
The union lasted one date back in Melbourne, although the ‘divorce’ was civil – Horan and her mock husband have mutual friends and still run into each other, referring to each other as their “ex-husband” and “ex-wife”. This is the kind of adventure – the freedom of youth, a touch of kismet – people can have at Meredith. It also speaks to a sense of community where people feel safe. Meredith’s approach to audience behaviour is encapsulated by a long-standing two-word policy: No Dickheads.
Fiona Bamford-Bracher, better known to many Melbournians as veteran Triple R radio presenter Fee B Squared, has been attending Meredith for two decades. She’s been in the front row for bands, DJed between sets, and even MCed from the stage when the organisers felt a responsible voice was required to impart important news such as bushfire updates. When her children were younger she took them to Golden Plains, and they’ve become second-generation Meredith regulars as adults.
“The way that my girls talk to their friends about Meredith is a beautiful thing to hear. It’s not because of mum and dad – they know because they’ve been going for years,” Bamford-Bracher says. “One year these guys in the tent beside my oldest daughter were holding up cards when girls walked by to rate them, and she lost her shit. She started by the conversation with them by saying, ‘do you guys know about the no dickhead policy? Because right now you’re being dickheads and someone needs to call you out on it’.”
Meredith is not perfect, but it has a strong self-policing culture – several times a day everyone stops to put any rubbish around them in bags brought out by volunteers when the crowd-chosen “Clean Up Song” plays. Like any music festival, Meredith has attendees who bring and consume illicit drugs, and there are police on duty and policies in place to mitigate risk.
“It’s important to have a presence, but a presence that is alert to act if necessary and not aggressive,” says Mary Nolan, who is astounded that this year marks the 29th iteration of the festival. When she’s not with her son Chris, she can be found in the front row during a performance that takes her fancy, or watching people relaxing at Inspiration Point, a look-out on the site’s edge. Whatever she’s doing, Mary has the same message for the people who’ve made Meredith part of the state’s unofficial calendar.
“This is a restorative place, so when people come up to me and say thanks,” she says, “I always say to them, ‘Please keep it good, because it’s up to you’.”
The Meredith Music Festival is on Friday 13, Saturday 14, and Sunday 15 December. For further details and extensive history see mmf.com.au.