Is this the world's best music festival?

Photo of Nick Sas

Each year, fans come from all around Australia and even across the globe to a small Victorian town for a music festival with a difference.

“Ow,” comedian Judith Lucy roars from the stage. “That’s got to hurt the little boys.” The naked bloke gets up wincing in pain, as thousands watch on, half-laughing, half-wincing with him. 

The irreverent comedian is right but it doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out. Running at full speed downhill and falling while naked is gonna hurt, well, everything.

This is the “Meredith Gift” — a nudie run named in homage to the (not-naked) serious run the Stawell Gift. And this annual celebration of the human form hurtling around an amphitheatre in rural Victoria is just one of the many reasons that many people consider the annual Meredith Music Festival the best in Australia, if not the world. 

They come in their thousands, from all over the country. Some even travel across the world. Like disciples on a religious journey, every year at the start of December, the Supernatural Amphitheatre — or “the Sup” as it’s known — calls their name. And though this isn’t a religious festival, it has a certain indefinable spirituality.

Meredith, which this year turns 27, is like no other. Set in the small country town of Meredith, about 90km west of Melbourne, the festival hosts about 12,500 people every year. And it is always sold out.

There are many reasons for this. One is its unique “no dickhead” policy: a strategy which keeps, well, dickheads out and encourages patrons to call people out for undesirable behaviour. 

Another major element is its eclectic musical line-up, which attracts artists from Triple J bands to world musicians, experimental dance troops, local up-and-coming artists and back again. 

Then there are the gorgeous grounds, the BYO policy, the lack of corporate sponsorship, the Saturday dress-up day and the eclectic food and bars. 

There’s even a democratically elected clean-up song — each year a song is picked by the audience that, when played, triggers everyone to pick up rubbish; cleaning up has never been so much fun.

Or maybe it’s “the boot” — a tradition whereby a festival-goer pulls one shoe off and holds it in the air for their favourite performance of the weekend. 

This unique atmosphere in many ways stems from the festival’s history.

The festival site was found by Jack Nolan on his expansive family farm, which has been in the family since 1855. His son Chris, a music fanatic, asked his mum and dad to host an ad hoc music festival for friends and family in 1991. About 260 people came.

It grew bigger every year, with bigger and better artists — and more people — coming.

It then took on a different meaning when, in 1996, Chris was struck down with an illness that left him in a coma. He then fell ill a brain injury that required constant high-level care. Meredith helps spread awareness of his injury and, in many ways, makes people thankful for what they have. 

Most years Chris opens Meredith and its sister event Golden Plains, which is very similar to Meredith and took place in March with headliners Neil Finn and English ska band the Specials rocking the crowd.

Chris’ parents, who donate a lot of the money made from the festival to the local community facilities, stand beside him, giving the festival a family vibe — like you’re in someone’s backyard with close friends rather than 12,500 people.

Jack died earlier this year, and the festival’s disciples paid tribute at Golden Plains. But this family vibe is just one of the many reasons Meredith — and Golden Plains — has such a strong pull for serious music lovers.

And last year’s event was no exception.

Our journey started at 5am. Waking up excited by the thought of three days of music, fun and excess, my group of 10 bundled into a van on the Friday morning and made the journey south-west.

If you arrive early, you get the good camping spots. And arriving is like returning to your family home.

We set up the site — complete with pergola, fairy lights and a homage to Bill Clinton (for some reason) — and went for a walk. The farm was green and gorgeous, and though Victoria’s “summer” produced a high of 16C, walking around is half the fun.

Festival-goers were already getting in the spirit around the Sup. There was only one stage and punters set up couches and temporary bars serving questionable cocktails. 

Diverse acts from all over the world were set to grace the stage over the three-day event, from Prince’s protege Sheila E (one of the better performers of the weekend) to Canadian rockers Japandroids (the performance that got my “boot”), WA’s the Triffids, Ross Wilson of Daddy Cool and Mondo Rock fame, and Canadian artist Peaches. In previous years, international acts such as Big Daddy Kane, Primal Scream and Jarvis Cocker have graced the stage, with local acts such as You Am I, Jebediah and Paul Kelly. 

But it is the people and atmosphere that make this place. People are friendly in the Sup, and the age range is what makes it unique — there are teenagers (though not many) to festival-goers reaching retirement age.

I met Craig, with a mullet, who told me a story about how he was mistaken for Mel Gibson in Norway. On the Saturday, I met two women, Courtney and Emily, who become my guides, leading me through the crowd with their dance moves. We are now good friends.

Back at the camp site we had a party on the Saturday afternoon — an open invitation with random festival-goers encouraged to attend. In the evening, meticulously placed lights transformed the grounds into a fantasy-like petri dish of the majestic. And on the Saturday night, the dancing continued into the early hours of Sunday morning.

Relationships were made and broken but everyone had a smile on their face.

On Sunday, low-key local bands played and much-anticipated Meredith Gift was run. What better way to finish the weekend than watch people run naked around an amphitheatre?

We packed up, begrudgingly, and my friend Rod and I left a rock behind to mark our spot. We’ll find it again this year because we know we’ll be back.

(At top: Meredith Music Festival 2016. Picture: Steve Benn.)

Fact File


Nick Sas was a guest of the Meredith Music Festival.


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