Splendour In The Grass 2011, Friday July 29 – Sunday July 31 - Woodfordia
It was a strange lead-up to this year's instalment of the country's biggest music festival. The event took place once again in an ostensibly temporary location which, apart from strange liquor laws resulting in mid-strength drops being the soup du jour, was well-received last year. There was an abundance of theories as to why this was the first time in a long time that tickets failed to sell-out. Too expensive? Lack of relevance? Top-heavy bill-stacking? All this tedious discourse may have provided some consolation of sorts to those unable or unwilling to make the trek to Woodfordia, but it's the furthest thing from anybody's mind as they first set foot on festival grounds.
Underneath the hum of the air conditioner on the Brisbane Airport shuttle bus, Somebody That I Used To Know crackles through the radio. It's on a commercial station. And it's the biggest song in the country right now. Anybody who disagreed surely had their minds changed by the immense singalong held late on Friday evening during Gotye's set, in which poor Wally almost comically tried to calm a completely batshit crowd as Kimbra stood dutifully in the shadows. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.
After setting up the tent and unloading the booze from sleeping bangs, gumboots, and hidden coat pockets, the hike was made up the steep path to the festival (one everybody's calves would soon grow to hate). Making our way past the snaking trail of pop-up fashion retail outlets (seriously), we were greeted by the festival's only discernable timetable clash. The Kills, being on the furthest away stage, lost out in the end. Which leaves us at The Mix-Up tent, which was a strange environ for post-dubstep wunderkind James Blake. He was probably the least danceable act to take stage there the whole weekend, yet it's probably the only setting equipped to handle the extraordinary low-end which defines his work. With the tent relatively packed, it was difficult to grasp a sense of intimacy which imbues his self-titled LP.
Around a year ago, there were probably only a handful of Australian music fans who had even heard of Warpaint. Now with their second visit to Australia this year underway, as well as slots on every major festival the world over, they can rightly be classified as festival veterans. And that's the way they present themselves onstage, emanating an effortless cool as they jammed through the majority of The Fool, as well as a selection of new tracks.
It's been a while since Modest Mouse were last in the country for a festival appearance. In that time, they've lost a very famous guitarist in Johnny Marr and have failed to produce a full-length release. This time around, the spotlight was on tracks from their sanctified pre-major catalogue. This may be just as well - as Float On felt a little sloppy without Marr's angular guitar-work. But that sense of looseness served No One's First And You're Next cut The Whale Song a great deal of good, making it probably their greatest festival-ready track in the Modest Mouse arsenal.
The black and white stage was set for The Hives, and I honestly don't think the uninitiated folk on the crowd could ever prepare themselves for the Swedish onslaught of brash punk rock. The gadabouts burst onstage decked out in top hats and tuxedos and ripped through the PA with a new track we can safely assume is called Come On - as that is the only two words contained on the lyric sheet. The stage's menacing backdrop, consisting of Pelle Almqvist's gigantic head commandeering a set of puppet strings leading onstage, could well have had those puppet strings leading to each and every punter on the sprawling Amphitheatre hill. Who else could get twenty thousand rowdy booze-fuelled folk to obediently sit down mid-song, only to command them right back up again with Tick Tick Boom. Exhilarating stuff, that.
"Can we get much higher?" Good question, especially when asked by one of the world's biggest performers while elevated a few stories above a couple of thousand astonished folk, most of who had their attention misdirected to a cavalcade of distraught ballerinas and strobe lights at the front of house. Ladies and gentlemen, Kanye West is here. There was no Jay-Z. There was no Justin Vernon. There was no Pusha T. Did the set need any guest appearances? Hell no. Tracks like Can't Tell Me Nothing, Diamonds From Sierra Leone, Jesus Walks fare pretty well with just Yeezy on the mic. RZA's beat on All Of The Lights is incredible when blasting from your tinny headphones, but belting out of a festival PA? Holy shit. And it doesn't hurt when Kanye is absolutely crushing it onstage. That song is straight fiction, telling the story of a restraining order from a non-existent daughter. The third act of the set, however, was Kanye West in nonfiction mode - which is to say, at his most powerful. In Runaway, he raises a toast to the douchebags (himself). "I'd like to dedicate this song, this show, and every show I ever do in my life to her," he declared before closing with the touching Hey Mama - written before, but performed as set-closer ever since, his mother's passing in 2007. If you cut through all the bullshit that surrounds him, you see that he's just a boy that misses his mum. How can you hate him for that?
"The first thing I'd do if I ran a music festival is not put me on it" stated a deathly humorous Gareth Liddiard between swigs of a homemade concoction contained within a recycled water bottle. On paper, he's probably right. Any heads feeling a little heavy from the night previous probably could have done without a serving of harrowing folk tales from one of the country's leading songwriters. But tracks like Oh My and Shark Fin Blues were delivered with a tremendous amount of showmanship, proving to be an unlikely rollicking good time. "Is that ten minutes left? Or 'ten out of ten Gaz'?" he asked a helpful stagehand. It could well have been both.
It seems like Architecture In Helsinki have found themselves at home in the festival environment, commandeering The Mix-Up Tent with their impressive body of work with relative ease. Like It Or Not was performed in stripped-back acapella mod, which only contrasted with the explosion of Contact High.
I'm guessing I came in just at the right time to see The Mars Volta at their absolute peak, and my god, it was a sight to behold. The group were going fucking mental. "Woodford, I'm going to superglue your fucking butt cheeks together," Cedric declared. I wouldn't be surprised if he actually jumped off stage in his horse mask and followed through with the threat. Instead, he closed out the set like a demented ragtime performer, shimmering his newfound straw hat while warbling into the mic.
Technically, I was inside the GW McLellan tent when Regina Spektor was greeted by a rapturous audience response for her only live show of 2011. Though under the tent, I still couldn't hear shit as the crowd drowned out the quaint sounds of piano. Maybe it would have been better suited to the main amphitheatre a little earlier in the day?
Jane's Addiction 's entrance was not for the squeamish, with two performance artists hanging above stage, thrashing about wildly - attached by nothing more than hooks in the skin of their backs. Nasty. Speaking of nasty, the band's iconic riffs have lost none of their edge - you need look no further than Mountain Song for evidence of that. Frontman Perry Farrell's voice has only improved with age, as has his dress sense (which, according mid-song banter during the classic Been Caught Stealing, is built upon stolen jackets and shoes). While it was most definitely a weekend all about the frontmen and frontwomen (Pelle, Patience, Perry all well and truly commanding the amphitheatre), special mention must go to Dave Navarro's nipples. Nicely done, Dave Navarro's nipples!
Melbourne-based indie-pop act Alpine gathered a sizable crowd for the first amphitheatre set of Sunday, and managed to hold their own pretty darn well. Though their sound at times seemed like simplistic take on Dirty Projectors' poly-melodic compositions.
A fleshed out band has taken away a little bit of the danger associated with a Liam Finn show, but only slightly. It was nice to see former touring partner EJ Barnes once again take the stage alongside the hirsute Kiwi. It's tough to imagine anybody else belting out the backing vocals for Second Chance while Liam goes crazy on the drum kit.
The late-afternoon set from Oh Mercy was pretty much perfect. Breezy pop tunes showcasing one of the country's brightest songwriting talents in Alexander Gow. The frontman made repeated mention of keyboardist Luke Benge, who was flown in from New Zealand especially for the Splendour appearance. It was a pleasantly laid-back way to spend the day, marred only slightly by a roadie being forced to feverishly tinker away in the background while bassist Eliza Lam soldiered on. You couldn't ask for anything more on the third day of an exhausting festival.
It's easy to forget just how many A-grade tracks Kaiser Chiefs have stored in their back catalogue. Placing Everyday I Love You Less And Less at the top of the setlist provided an effective reminder. Frontman Ricky Wilson had the sprawling crowd in the palm of his hand while he belted out the hit-laden set, doing it in white jeans, no less. I Predict A Riot proved to be a self-fulfilling declaration.
"Is this Anglo-Saxon appreciation night?" queried the always incisive Jarvis Cocker in relation to the Briton-heavy third night. He has this funny knack for making tens of thousands of people feel like Pulp is performing for them and then alone. I think it's because of the liberal use of the finger point. It was the perfect setting for Sorted For E's And Whizz. This Is Hardcore was incredible. And the creeping waft of portaloo did nothing to take away from the Different Class-heavy set. Saying farewell and declaring that the show may well be Pulp's last ever appearance in Australia, Jarvis crooned, "She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge." Everybody sang along to every word. Everybody danced like crazy. It was amazing.
Looking back upon the hill to see more people than I've ever seen in my life, then looking at the stage to see a fuckload of fireworks, lasers, and glow in the dark shit, it all got a bit much. Coldplay kicked into Yellow second song in. Chris Martin is an incredibly likable fellow. But there isn't much could have made me stick around for more than ten minutes of such over-stimulation. I heard they covered a few bars of Rehab. Gross.
As the internet discourse once again fires up, it's important to remember just what a music festival is all about. Good times with friends old and new, overdoing it on the sauce, spending way too much on overpriced drinks, fishing your debit card out of a portaloo on the third day, calling the DJ in Gold Bar a fuckhead from playing Goo Goo Dolls' Iris, crawling through a swamp to get into the elusive and exclusive Tackle Shack, and being the smelliest person on the red-eye back to Melbourne come Monday morning. And sometimes, it's all about wanting to call your mother and say, "Mother, I can never come home again, because I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere, in a field, in Woodfordia."
LOVED: The songs, the personalities on stage, the personalities off stage (shout-out to Ol' Mate), spending way too much time at the bar, spending way too much money at the bar, those crazy bird shadow puppet things, and not having to pull out the gumboots (but doing it anyway).
HATED: Is how my insides felt on Monday morning. Sorry, insides. I owe you one.
DRANK: Approximately half of the weekend's smuggled booze allocation on the bus ride into Woodford.