Harvest @ The Riverstage, 19.11.2011 – Part 1

If there’s always a major downside to any festival, it’s the clashes between bands playing different stages at the same time. The bill gets announced, looks amazing, is full of acts you want to see, so you rush out and buy a ticket. Then a week or two before the festival, the timetable gets released and you realise that all the bands you want to see are playing at the same time, on different stages all over the festival site. It instantly at least halves the things you want to see and the bigger the festival the worse it gets; Glastonbury, with 150,000 people and stages that can be 45 minutes apart, is the ultimate festival of clashing acts.

Being a photographer is probably even worse as you’re tied to the first three songs rule. If you want to see an act, you’ll more than likely want to photograph them too and to do that you need to be there at the very start. If there’s another band on a different stage that you want to see and photograph, playing 10 or 15 minutes after the first act, you either don’t see/photograph them or you only see the first band for the first three songs (and usually get to hear some of the fourth as you walk away). The time lost walking between stages also means that generally there’s not enough time to come back to the see the end of the first act.  Getting so see a substantial portion of anyone’s set is very difficult and there’s very little over the day where you get to see the whole of an act’s set, unless you make a decision to miss out on other things you wanted to photograph. Being tied to those three songs means you get to see a lot of the start of everyone’s set but little in the way of the end of anyone’s set. There is an old adage in that you see everything you need to know about a live band in the first ten minutes of their set. There might be some truth to this but you also are more likely to get the sound and equipment issues and miss out on any big finale, whether it be the run of hit singles to end the show or surprise guests. The best way to spend a day at a music festival is to go and see five or six bands for the full duration of their sets and then have a walk around and check out a few other acts in passing. Photographing a music festival can often mean photographing 20+ bands in a day, although in the case of Harvest it ends up being just the 17 acts over the day. On paper Harvest is a dream festival line-up with so many quality bands that I want to see and want to photograph; in practice the quality of the line-up is also the most frustrating and disappointing thing about the day.

Breaking the habit of a lifetime and getting to the Riverstage early to pick up my photo pass and have a walk around the site, I find that it’s too early for them and I have to come back in half an hour. With the problems that Harvest experienced in Melbourne, it’s an omnious sign, although from a logistic point of view, other than running out of cider before 5pm, at the point in the day where I decide to have a sit down and a well deserved cold drink, the day runs really smoothly. Almost straight after AJ takes to twitter so say that the Council have already decided that it’s the first and last time Harvest will be at The Riverstage (although the tweet is quickly deleted). Maybe Council had a look around the site at the end. It may have been advertised as being a more civilised music festival, but the amount of rubbish spread all over the site is eye opening. Either there was a lack of rubbish bins or the clientele just couldn’t be bothered to take their rubbish to anywhere remotely near a rubbish bin.

It’s a fairly leisurely start to day, watching and photographing a few of the bands playing the two smaller stages (The Windmill Stage and The Big Red Tractor Stage) at the top end of the festival site. The festival hadn’t been advertised as selling out and early on in the day the numbers in attendance are low. It is a hot and sunny day even by mid-morning, possibly making people want to avoid the mid-day heat and come in later in the day. After photographing and then watching Kevin Devine from the shade of one of the few trees near the stage, it’s a short walk to the unglamourosuly named Big Red Tractor Stage for the festival’s obligatory triple j unearthed competition winner and the only Brisbane band on the bill, Gung Ho. Although I’ve seen their name being included on more and more bills over recent months, this is the first time seeing them. Watching them play I just can’t help that I’ve heard all this before and not even that long ago. The day after the festival I check out their triple j unearthed page and notice that Kingsmill and Alessio, while both giving the band glowing reviews and 4/5 star rating ratings, have also entered into a mini-sidebar argument as to how much the band sounds like Gang Of Four, despite the fact that the band list Talking Heads, The Clash and Gang of Four as bands they sound like on their Unearthed profile page . They’re opinions that only firm up my initial view of the band in that if I was looking for a band that sounded like Gang Of Four or Talking Heads then I would just go and listen to Gang Of Four or Talking Heads. Given that the whole post-punk revival was big thing when I first moved to Australia in 2004, have we already gone around another cycle of musical movements to be back at 1979? Any new band is going to rely heavily on the music they like and listen to but hopefully Gung Ho will find their own voice sooner rather than later.

Back at The Windmill Stage I enjoy the technical skill of This Town Needs Guns’ drummer but other than that they’re not very interesting, the same which could be said for The Holidays and The Walkmen. The first visit of the day down to The Riverstage  is for The Family Stone, of Sly and The Family Stone fame. Obviously there’s no Sly Stone and from the band’s introduction it transpires that there’s only actually three members of the original band on stage today (the horn section of  saxophonist Jerry Martini and trumpeter Cynthia Robinson plus drummer  Greg Errico), meaning that in reality it’s little more than a tribute band trading on former glories that the majority of the band had no involvement with. Even though they’re playing what’s essentially a crowd-pleasing covers set for most of the musicians on stage,with the songs they have at their disposal it would be nearly impossible for them to put on a bad show and it sounds good for the few songs that I see.

Trying to escape the afternoon sun for a sit down takes me back up the hill and into The Boudoir Tent for The League of Sideshow Superstars, Harvests’s very own freakshow/caberet show, something that’s always entertaining to watch and to photograph. The shows are as much about the build up than they are about the actual act. The set starts with introductions and some standards acts as part of introducing the players, before the main acts. First up is a sword swallower, The Great Gordo Gamsby, for whom the build up by the compere is what you’d expect. Gamsby has one go but it’s not going well for him so he starts again but again he’s not looking happy and you can visibly see him gagging as he tries to get the quite considerable sword length into his mouth and down his oesophagus. After one more go he decides that’s enough. I’ve never seen anyone fail to do their act before so it’s a bit of a shock, although not much of a surprise given his obvious onstage uncomfortablness and unease. It does remind me of the Hullapolloza episode of The Simpsons though… After a repeat of Lilikoi Kaos’s impressive hulla-hoop show that I saw at BluesFest last year, there’s a joint act involving putting various body parts into a series of increasing-in-size animal traps; mouse trap on the tongue, rat trap on the tongue and elbow in a full animal trap for the finale. Watching these shows you also wonder how on earth people found they had these skills and what they did to train up into doing them. Obviously there must be a precise technique for sword swallowing, but is there any natural ability involved as well and as for putting your elbow in a scary-looking animal trap?  How do you learn to do that?  The build up for the finale involves showing the power of the trap’s jaws by dropping a can of beer into it and showering the front row with beer as the can is severed in two. How do you end up putting your elbow in it safely? Or is it all just smokes and mirrors? I would have loved to have stayed and seen more but have to head off outside to go to see a few more bands.

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