Splendour In The Grass 2011 @ Woodfordia, 29.07.2011 – 31.07.2011 – Part 1

First published on Collapse Board

Some thoughts and photos from last year’s Splendour In The Grass.  My greatest weakness/photographer crime is showing too many photos, so it’s funny that I only selected 18 from three days for this post originally, when I’ll usually show more than that from a single show and 4 – 5 times that amount in a typical post about a day festival.  I’m sure if I showed a lot less photos, people would think that I’m a much better photographer than they do/I am.  But photos are like children to a photographer and it’s hard to choose favourites from a larger group and leave others on the side.  I know a lot of music photographers hate my stuff (they’ve told me), but I love them and I’m really proud to put my name to them and put them up for public consumption and comment.  I was looking through the full set of photos from last year’s Splendour earlier and will probably put up a “Best of The Rest’ gallery, otherwise they’ll be a load of nice photos sitting on a hard drive that will never get to see the light of day.


Although I missed Pulp’s seminal 1995 Glastonbury performance (I was over at the Acoustic Tent watching Evan Dando get booed off and Portishead’s headline set) I saw the band a couple of times down the years and was never disappointed. If, as Jarvis Cocker tells the Splendour crowd, it is to be their last time in Australia, they do it with style and end as the main highlight from the three days. Anything Britpop is always going to have the extra advantage of nostalgia for a certain proportion of the audience and it was impossible to hear ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’, ‘Babies’, ‘Sorted For Es And Whizz’, ‘Disco 2000’ and ‘Common People’ and not reminisce back to the heady days of 1996. Plus they also played ‘This Is Hardcore’, a song I always loved and thought was much under appreciated, much like the album. The only downside is that the band look old now and if they look so much older 15 years on, so must the rest of us. Given that they’ve headlined much bigger music festivals, it’s a bit of a mystery why they aren’t headlining the Saturday night at Splendour, especially as, unlike Coldplay and Kanye West, who were only playing the one show, they have been in the country and playing sideshows in Sydney and Melbourne. Even as a huge fan of Jane’s Addiction for more than 20 years, they were the wrong choice for a headline set. It should have been Pulp.

Kanye West
How many Kanye West songs do I know? A bit more than none but I’d still have plenty of space if I were to count them on the fingers on one hand. I’m not much of a fan unlike the crowd who have come to watch him tonight. It’s breathtaking to look up the hill from the side of the photo pit and see just how many people have crammed into the amphitheatre to see him (it looks even more than were here last year for Florence And The Machine) and not only that everyone is going nuts; it’s not just the people squashed against the barrier and as close to stage as they can get who are punching the air, jumping up and down, dancing like mad and singing all the words, it’s happening all the way to the back. It’s clear that everyone has come to Splendour this year for Kanye West and this is his crowd. It’s all a bit different from the reaction that Jay Z got when he was booked to headline Glastonbury.

As for Kanye, it’s an amazing spectacle. There’s a sudden burst of dry ice and suddenly there he is being raised way above the crowd on a hydraulic lift. It makes a change from running onto the stage from the wings and shouting “How you doing Splendour? Are you ready to rock/party/have a good time” that all the faceless landfill indie bands do. He makes his way back to the stage towards the end of the first song to join a troupe of dancers. The dancers come and go throughout the set and other than a few keyboard players at the very back of the stage, it’s just him on the massive stage but he commands it effortlessly.

Having said all that, after 45 minutes I’ve a bit bored by it and don’t stick around for ‘Act 3’ (missing out on the Chariots Of Fire hilarity moment I was told about the next day) and go and catch the end of DJ Shadow’s set (having never seen him play live before). But for those 45 minutes you couldn’t fail to be seriously impressed. As I’ve said previously when I’ve photographed the likes of Beyonce and Kylie, it’s always a refreshing change to go and see something very different every now and then from my more typical nights out seeing your usual indie bands at small venues and Kanye West definitely is a refreshing change, even more so from a festival set when you never get anything more than four or five guys playing guitars, maybe going to the full expense of hanging a backdrop behind the drum riser if they’re really pushing the boat out. In more than 20 years of going to festivals, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like Kanye West’s Splendour show.

I know it’s distinctly uncool to say anything remotely nice and/or positive about Coldplay but I’ve never really minded them. I should also add that I’ve got their first three albums. I’ve also seen them three times down the years, each time at one of their Glastonbury shows; the first time they played, a Friday early afternoon set just as ‘Yellow’ was breaking, and the first two headline sets. As much as you might despise them, the thing about Coldplay is that they’re one of the very few bands that can really play to a massive crowd and do it so well they make it look effortless. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but Chris Martin has the knack to talk to an audience in such a way that he makes you part of it; there’s a down-to-earthness about him, a common touch that Bono could only dream about. It also helps that they sound really good tonight; with a fifth album due soon, they’ve got enough songs to play an easy, crowd-pleasing greatest hits set and also be able to chuck in a few new songs.

It’s a quick return to Australia for Warpaint, with the band having been out for the travelling Laneway festival in February. As I’m walking up the slope towards the GW McLennan tent I overhear someone say “Let’s go and see some hot chicks play some music then”. While it might be a true statement of fact, it’s something of a disservice to the band who play beautifully and sound fantastic. I’m later amazed by some of the reviews and commentary bemoaning the band playing extended jams in some of the songs, obviously written by people who would have much rather stayed at home and listened to the album, with each song not being a second longer than appeared on the CD. I’m regretting not picking up a copy of their album from Fopp for a fiver when I was back in the UK last year (mainly because I was feeling guilty about the amount of CDs I bought when I was over there) and really need to do something to rectify it soon, even though it’s going to cost me a lot more than five quid in Australia. (I checked; $24 in JB Hi-Fi.)

Campervans FTW
With the exception of ATP, where you get put up in nice little chalets, every time I’ve been to a multi-day music festival that’s involved staying on site, I’ve camped. That’s more than 20 years of festival camping. Since last year’s trip down to Byron for BluesFest, I haven’t had a car, so, as last year, I was always having to hire a car to get to Splendour. My camping experience at last year’s Splendour was a fairly miserable time, coming back to the tent on both nights to find that a tent pole had snapped and it had collapsed onto the ground. While I carried out some running repairs on the Friday night, I ended up spending Saturday night crammed into the back seat of a tiny hire car. So this year I was also going to need a tent.

I decided to solve both the car and tent problems by hiring a campervan for the weekend. The decision was also driven by the lack of media room last year and wanting somewhere I could more comfortably download photos from memory cards on to my laptop at the end of each day, although we were told close to the festival that this year we were being given access to somewhere where we could work and also recharge camera batteries and laptops. Hiring a campervan was a fantastic decision and I don’t think I could ever go back to camping; a decent night’s sleep each night on a comfortable mattress, curtains that meant you didn’t wake up at the crack of dawn, not having to set up or take down and pack up a tent, and somewhere far better than a tent to do some work. I’ve always said that music festivals, camping and photography don’t mix but I now know the way forward.


Coldplay bringing their shitty photo release with them
I’ve made my feeling about photo contracts where the act wants you to sign away the copyright to your photos before. Being the main headline act of the weekend, I was looking forward to photographing Coldplay but in the 30 minute gap between the end of Pulp’s set and the start of Coldplay’s, their well-known and onerous photo release form, in which you sign over copyright of the photos you take to the management company, was suddenly being given out by the festival’s PR staff. I didn’t sign and fired off a few shots from way out in the crowd just in case I needed to provide a photo of the band. Although it looked like it would have been good to have photographed from the pit, ultimately my life won’t have been made better by doing it and I’m not signing away copyright of my photos to anyone. That is non-negotiable. It was depressing to see the number of photographers who were either happy to sign away, who were ignorant of the contract or who felt they they forced into signing because the publications they were photographing for would be after photos of Coldplay to publish. There were only a few of us that didn’t sign and so copyright-grabbing contracts inch further towards being industry standard in the coming years.

Australian Acts
From the first announcement for Splendour, the Australian contingent of acts was less than thrilling; a mix of the same Dew Process bands (just the 11 acts from the label’s roster this year … ), the typical triple j fodder that have been playing every festival in the last year or two and the bands on the two year cycle of playing every Australian festival. I avoid Eskimo Joe and The Vines like the plague but as I’m photographing for Mess+Noise and need to photograph Australian acts I end up feeling obliged to go and see The Living End to make up my quota. For a truly terrible band I can’t stand I’m losing count of the amount of times I’ve had to suffer seeing them in some shape or form. I’m just bored of seeing the same Australian bands over and over and over. There’s no Washington this year (which makes her a definite for 2012) but Cloud Control are here, adding to the (at least) 10 festivals they played at during last year’s festival season. As I’ve written before, people are not paying $520 (in the case of this year’s Splendour) to see the likes of Cloud Control so promoters could take much bigger ‘risks’ when booking Australian acts, book some far more interesting bands and move away from high rotation on triple j being the only criteria used to book Australian bands. (Incidentally, my sister went to a festival in Cornwall last weekend and Cloud Control were on the bill. There is no escape from them wherever you are in the world.)

The Middle East splitting up
The one exception to all the shitty Australian bands on the bill are The Middle East, a band who I think have always risen above the celebrated mediocrity of triple j, and who promptly announce that this is their last ever show and they’re splitting up. Although it’s a sprawling mess and the pacing is terrible, I really like their album I Want That You Are Always Happy; the flaws in the album remind me of something like The Triffids’ Black Swan, another album I really like despite its obvious weaknesses. They are albums that have ambition, even if they don’t succeed as a perfect collection of songs. That’s just something I really like and something that makes for a much more interesting listen than a load of songs that stick to a strict template in terms of song structure and sound.

We’ll always have ‘Blood’.

And we’ll always have that night at the Old Museum in 2009.

Tiny crowds for acts not on high rotation on triple j (i.e. the good stuff)
Regular gig-goers in Australia know how it works. Triple j flog your song on high rotation and it makes a huge difference to the numbers that come to see you play. It’s for that reason that Mogwai, Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan and even Jane’s Addiction play to tiny audiences given the size of their respective stages. (Funnily, I remember seeing Jane’s play at Leeds Festival in 2002 – I think – on the main stage at the same time as current buzz band The Vines played in one of the tent stages. There were so few people there for Jane’s Addiction that you could walk up to the barrier without any problems. Ah, The Vines. Whatever happened to them…) Obviously no one plays to as small an audience as Mona do on the Sunday when they’re scheduled against The Jezabels but that’s another story.

NME-hyped bands
The Vaccines play in front of a backdrop that reads “What Did You Expect?” in reference to their debut album. What did I expect? Something better than some unremarkable, unmemorable throwaway songs that sound like the singer from Interpol singing some modern-day Buzzcocks cast-offs. The less said about Glasvegas the better, it was embarrassing. Maybe smaller stages would have suited them better rather than the Amphitheatre Stage but maybe they were both just awful bands.

The photo pit on day one not being there for days 2 and 3
The photo pit on the Friday is great, the way it extends out into the crowd allowed for different angles that aren’t all looking up everyone’s noses and mean there is plenty of room for everyone, instead of all the photographers being squeezed into a narrow corridor along with security. Come Saturday and it suddenly dawns on everyone that the extension of the pit into the crowd wasn’t for the photographers’ benefits, it was just there so Kanye West could be elevated on his hydraulic lift way above the crowd. A shame, as it made photographing on Friday a lot more enjoyable.

Post-Splendour World Of Pain
Festivals hurt. Multi-day festivals where you’re carrying around a load of camera gear and walking miles really hurt. If Splendour is back at Woodford next year (and even if it isn’t really), I want to take a pedometer with me and see just how far I walk each day. After I get back to civilisation I use Google Maps to estimate how far I walked each day based on the distances between the camp site and the festival and the distances between each of the stages. Only including those walks and not including anything like walking to and from the media tent, toilets, water, food or extended walks around site for a look and to take photos I estimate 11km on Friday, 15km on Saturday and 12km on Sunday. Allowing for those excursions would easily add another 2km to each day meaning that I walked about 45km over the weekend with all my camera gear. For over a week after Splendour my knees and back constantly ache. On top of all the walking, and as last year, Splendour is dusty. Even after a few hours on site I’m coughing my lungs up and my eyes  hurt. In the end, the pain makes you think that you’re just getting far too old to do music festivals.

Nothing to do with the festival itself, just an observation and a lowlight by association. The reporting of festivals has changed down the years but ‘firsties’ continue to disappoint and depress. Just far too may media outlets saying as little as possible as often as possible in order to maximise page hits rather than taking the time to do it justice. The current fad for ‘highlights’ of each day is sad to see; a quickly fired-off, unbalanced list from people who should be working in PR. (I know that this might not be much better but I did work like a dog, walk a million miles and photograph 45 bands over the weekend. I’m the hardest working man in music photography … ) One of the main drivers behind Collapse Board was remembering how the UK weeklies reported the likes of Glastonbury and Reading and did it over a dozen pages and more, and thinking that there were all these amazing events happening in Brisbane that just weren’t being reviewed with much effort and all in a page or two for the most part. I still think one of the best things Collapse Board has done so far was the coverage of last year’s Frankly Festival at the Powerhouse. More of that on its way, I expect, in the coming months on Collapse Board.


On The Radio
When I pick up the campervan on Friday morning I turn on the radio as I’m heading out of the hire company’s car park to find that the radio is tuned into some classic rock station and that a Meatloaf song is already in full swing. I manage to drive about half the way to Woodford (all the way to about the North Lakes exit on the freeway) on that single Meatloaf song. Incredible really. Meatloaf is followed-up by Aerosmith’s ‘Rag Doll’, a song I hadn’t heard in about 20 years but still know all the words to. As I drive along I can’t help but think that Splendour 2011 could have been greatly improved by having some Meatloaf and Aerosmith on the bill.  The radio station then spoil the moment by playing some Grinspoon.

The Blame Game
When I pick up my fluoro vest that I need to get into the photo pit from PR I’m greeted with, “Oh, YOU’RE Justin Edwards. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. You’ve caused us some fun and games this year”. Obviously I’m the ‘dysfunctional-nerd-who-did-quite-well-at-English-at-school’-In-Chief and Splendour not selling out this year, despite all those expensive tv adverts, was my fault.

Us and Them
All the photographers are waiting at the side of the photo pit either just before or just after photographing a band playing on the main stage on Friday evening when a security guard comes out and starts yelling at a group for having glass bottles, grabbing as many of the bottles as he can as he expressed his rage. A very sheepish-looking Jamie Hince and his mates take that moment to decide to head backstage. Pretty amusing to watch.

Kate Moss photo fail
Early evening on Friday and as I’m walking down The Small Mall near the media room on the way to get some food, I notice a group of people stood outside the Tree Of Life tee-pee and on second look see Jamie Hince chatting to people, shaking hands, and posing for photos with punters. Given the way everyone was stood around it’s clear that Kate Moss is inside having a look. I position myself on the other side of the mall ready to get a snap when she comes out of the tent but manage to completely miss the moment. Clearly she knows what to expect and is well practiced, as in the blink of an eye she and her entourage are suddenly 20 metres down the path and walking at a fair pace towards the safety of the backstage gate. I guess I could could have run after her but it’s not really my style. I’d never make it a Paparazzo. (Of course Getty get their girl. The printed photos I saw are less than flattering but I guess that’s not the point.)

Despite what I might have written before the event, I enjoyed this year’s Splendour, as I always do. Although it’s been largely, if not entirely missed, I have crunched the numbers each year to compare each year with the previous years (2010, 2009, 2008), and I guess no one’s paid attention before as Splendour has effortlessly sold out and so no one had any interest, although I don’t think I said anything that I hadn’t already said before. But having a few days off from the day job, seeing a few good bands that I want to see (nowhere near $520 worth obviously) that I wouldn’t have had the chance to see in Brisbane anyway thanks to Splendour’s policy of no sideshows in the city, taking some nice photos and getting to hang out with some of the other Brisbane music photographers (something we don’t really do enough off when we’re in Brisbane) is fun.

It will be interesting to see what happens next year. Will it be back at Woodford for a third year or will they finally get their Byron site sorted? Will it still be three days? Has this year shown there isn’t enough quality on offer in the middle of the northern hemisphere summer festival season to make it a three day festival? Will The Vines, Bluejuice and The Living End be on the bill again (my money is that at least one of them will be and my money is on Bluejuice). Will it be as much as $520 for the weekend? Will it be even more? If they have me again, I’ll be back.

More Friday photos
More Saturday photos
More Sunday photos

You can also read Andrew McMillen’s Mess+Noise Splendour reviews of Friday, Saturday and Sunday

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