Splendour In The Grass @ Belongil Fields, Friday 27 July 2012

First it was on, then it was off, then it was maybe, then it was most definitely off again. For a while it looked like I might be heading down to Sydney for a one night sideshow, but with the flights getting more expensive by the day, eventually that plan priced itself out of reckoning, leaving the last minute resale as the most viable option of getting to Splendour this year. Come Friday morning at 9am, much to my surprise, the full gamut of ticket options was offer, not just weekend tickets but also tickets for each of the individual days.  So much for selling out in 43 minutes.  In a way, the publishing of the set times helped make the decision easy, with most of the small number of acts I wanted to see clashing with each other; Gossip v Smashing Pumpkins, Django Django v Father John Misty and the mother lode of them all, Afghan Whigs playing at the same time as At The Drive-In’s only Australian show. Getting a Friday ticket was the obvious option. It meant missing Mudhoney and Dirty Three on the Saturday but I’d seen both bands in the last eight months anyway, Mudhoney at The Zoo in December, Dirty Three at The Tivoli in March. Curiosity would have got me to Lana Del Ray but it would have been an expensive indulgence. So a one day trip to Byron it was.

Getting down is a surprising breeze. I thought I’d left it too late and expected to get stuck in rush hour traffic but am in New Brighton at the house I had paid to stay in, when I had been going to the festival with media accreditation, well before 9am. The short trip into Byron passes without incident and for the first time in a while I join the queue with a paid-for ticket printout in one hand, my photo ID in the other. Despite the gates being open, it’s interesting that the line for Guests and VIPs is longer than the lines for the people who had paid to go. Getting in is painless, security carefully scrutinising my ticket and ID to make sure they matched but not actually bothering to check my backpack.

Being without a photo pass limits the choice of camera gear I can bring but I’ve still packed my PEN-1 to get a few shots throughout the day. If I’d known they weren’t going to even look at my bag, I might have been tempted to bring more. With only a 17mm pancake lens (equivalent to about 28mm in normal terms) I know that there isn’t going to be much scope for band shots, so it’s just for capturing random shots throughout the day.

You know you’re getting old for Splendour when most of the things you want to see over the weekend are in the GW McLennan tent, and Splendour’s third and smallest stage is where the day starts, with Chet Faker. Sometimes, quite often actually, you notice a band being written about a lot and getting some hype but without going to check out what they sound like. Chet Faker are another one of those bands I’ve heard about but haven’t actually heard. What I find, in the reasonably full tent, a surprise for the first act of the day based on previous festival experience, is nothing like I had expected. With a name like Chet Faker I had expected some lo-fi indie guitar rock. What I get is some mid 1980s MOR, all muted arpeggios and electric piano. Music for young professionals to use as background music at dinner parties. Still, if he wasn’t playing in front of a massive crowd at Splendour, he’d be being ignored in the corner of a wine bar.

I really love the latest Pond album (and must get around to getting the others) and even though they only get to play a 40 minute set early in the day, they’re one of the bands that made only deciding to come for a single day an easier decision. Luckily, with a new album to promote and a limited time slot, the majority of their set is from Beards, Wives, Denim, so I can recognise most of what they play, despite the really awful sound in the Supertop. The sound doesn’t seem to get a lot better over the day, not even when the higher profile acts get to play longer sets. Although I’ve seen (and not really liked) Tame Impala before, this is the first time I’ve seen Pond and I regret not going to see them when they played at X&Y a couple of years ago. It was another one of those decisions largely made based on the venue’s set up for photography (e.g. awful, with little lighting and a tiny stage that’s only 20cm higher than the floor and makes sight lines and moving around really hard if there’s more than 20 people there). Their singer looks like a John Lydon Mini Me, he’s a tiny man but (even from afar) looks like a great photographic subject.

This year marks the 22nd anniversary of my first festival (Glastonbury 1990) and festivals have changed out of sight since those Glastonburys and Readings in the 1990s (not forgetting Phoenix Festival in 1996 which had just about the best line up of the lot and a bill that people would go crazy for today, 16 years on). Back then Joe’s Blanket Stall was just about the height of festival sophistication, but in 2012 festival chic is an expensive business. it costs a lot to look bohemian. But you know it’s pretty much over for festivals when there’s a Sass and Bide stall and a nail bar on site. The old time festival rite of wearing your favorite obscure Indie band t shirt has been replaced by dressing up like a twat, with all manner of fancy dress costumes on show. Once upon time, you would congratulate random people you walked past if they were wearing a cool band t shirt. People wearing band t shirts at music festival is a dying trend, you hardly see any these days. Plus bands just don’t make the effort anymore in eye catching designs. A trip to the merch stall at Splendour shows Mudhoney are still using the Superfuzz Big Muff design they’ve been using for more than 20 years and At The Drive-In are still using that Ghetto Blaster design they’ve been using for over a decade. The indie look of the past has been replaced by lots of short shorts, crop tops and wifebeaters and probably lots of hypothermia once the sun goes down.

DZ are next up and time their set to perfection to coincide with a massive storm. Despite the beautiful start to the day, the clouds have been building and starting to look ominous in the distance. The intensity of the downpour is nothing like expected though, more like a mid-summer storm in Brisbane than normal winter rain. It brings everyone running for cover and DZ benefit by playing to a packed tent. The storm shows the tent to be woefully less than watertight, with the rain pouring down onto the stage, straight onto the guitar amps. Despite stage crew rushing on and moving them, they obviously don’t do a very good job, Shane noticeably berating them and readjusting their position at the end of the song, before someone brings some plastic sheeting from backstage to put over them.

Having seen the band plenty of times over the years (they’ll always be DZ to me, I can’t get used to the Deathrays suffix), I’ve seen them play great shows and I’ve seen them play less than great shows. The difference has always been the scale of the show, the smaller gigs always being better than the larger gigs, especially the big stages of major festivals. I’ve seen them at a festival or two where they sounded sloppy and either just didn’t seem able to scale up to the bigger stage or had been able to mask their inadequacies in smaller rooms. Having said that, they were one of the highlights at Laneway, despite the atrocious sound, and today really show that they can do the big shows. The recent overseas touring has really tightened them up. I found their album a slightly disappointing as it’s nowhere near as good as seeing them play live- it just can’t capture that energy of the live performance – and today only reinforces that.

If there is a criticism of the today’s performance, it’s the obviously pre-determined and thought out crowd surfing. Rather than being a spur of the moment decision and just going for it, it’s far more considered and polite moment, with Shane making sure he’s got his microphone all sorted before gently leaning over the barrier and into the crowd. The stage dive/crowd surf should be one of live music’s most exhilarating moments but it’s made a bit of mockery of this afternoon. They probably should take some tips from The Dilenger Escape Plan.

Although the Belongil Field site was heavy underfoot before, the weather in the lead up to the festival obviously being less than ideal, the torrential rain during DZ’s set has turned the site into a mud bath. It brings back memories of the Glastonbury mud years of 1997 and 1998. I bet it didn’t rain in Woodford. Having been to Belongil Fields a number of times for Splendour, it’s a glorified swamp and (from memory) it always rains. Holding a festival in Byron in the middle of winter never seemed like that much of a good idea, maybe the new site they’re moving to will be more sheltered and better draining. The state of the site does make me feel a lot happier that I’m only down there for the one day.

Festival timetabling is always a contentious issue, usually it’s all about the clashes between stages, sometimes it’s just about inappropriate scheduling. Having Big Scary play after DZ was a mistake. I’m bored after a couple of songs.

As the winner of this year’s BBC Sound of 2012, I’m interested in checking out Michael Kiwanuka back at the GW McLennan tent. He might be making news headlines back in the UK and getting to No. 4 in the UK album charts, but has gone unnoticed in Australia. One lazy, list-form review from the weekend award him ‘Best Artist I’d Never Heard Of’. You might have expected the great Australian public to be unaware but you might have expected a music journalist to have their eye on the ball a bit more. Kiwanuka is one of those singers that makes it look easy, his voice is exquisite and reminds me a bit of Al Green. The trouble I always have with this type of music is that the instrumentation is just far too slick for me. One of the songs played over the PA while the band were setting up to play is Van Morrison (can’t remember the song, something early though) and listening to him sing, you can’t help but feel how much better it would be if his voice was married with something like the jazz/folk/blues blend of Van Morrison’s late 60s/early 70s sound rather than the slick plastic soul on display. If not that, then maybe something a whole lot more dirty, similar to the Afghan Whig’s take on soul music. He includes a cover of Hendrix’s May This Be Love (referred to as Waterfall in the review mentioned previously but it sounds like someone’s guitar lead needs replacing, with crackles and pops spoiling the song.

I see about half of Kiwanuka’s set before deciding to make the most of the opportunity to see some different acts and heading over to the Supertop to catch the end of Howler’s set. It’s a mistake I won’t be repeating anytime soon; they sound like a hipster band’s take on Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. They admit they haven’t got enough songs to fill their hour time slot and do the Shellac thing of taking questions from the audience, which proves to be a pointless time filler as they can’t work out anything being shouted from the audience at them. They drag some girl up from the crowd and from a crowd of thousands manage to chose just about the most wasted and incoherent person in the whole festival. They do get a laugh from me though, when singer Jordan Gatesmith, unable to decipher anything coming out of her mouth, asks “Are you from New Zealand?”.

If clashes between bands are one of the most annoying part of a festival, they must be rivalled by the periods when there’s nothing you want to see on any of the stages. When faced with the choice between Spiderbait and Kate Miller Heidke, what do you do? It’s an anti-clash if ever there was one, the most annoying part being that adding in the set-up times means a two hour break between anything worth seeing. As it happens, I do happen to be near the Supertop and see the first Spiderbait song before making the most of the enforced break to get some food. The size of the crowd for them is distressing. I come back almost an hour later and could swear that they are still playing the same song.

I must have missed the bit where The Shins got massive. Either that or everyone is just waiting out for At The Drive-In. I’ve got all but the latest album but have always much preferred them on record more than when I’ve seen them live. They always seem a bit flat live. It’s packed and you can’t get anywhere near getting inside the tent so it’s hard to tell if this version of the band, James Mercer plus a completely different band to the last couple of times I’ve seen them, are a better live prospect from the old band. There’s a been a noticeable lack of security during the day and the amount of smokers smoking inside the confines of the tents has been a constant source of annoyance. I’m sure in previous years they were overzealous in telling smokers they couldn’t smoke in the tents and had to move. However, outside the tent it’s just as bad and during The Shins’ set, I just seem to be completely encircled by chain smokers, waving their cigarettes in the air as they chat to their friends and then getting engulfed in a cloud of smoke every time they take a drag. I don’t make it to the end of The Shin’s set as the relentless smoke is making me feel nauseous and I need to get some fresh air.

I’ve only come to Splendour today to see one band. I got up at 6am this morning and drove the 150km down the coast for one band. The other things that happened during the day were a bonus but didn’t individually or collectively sway my decision. If The Afghan Whigs hadn’t have been playing tonight in the GW McLennan tent, then I wouldn’t have been here: I’m possibly the only person at the festival who made that decision. Then again, I’m one of the select few (with good taste obviously) who have come to see them play anyway. It’s a repeat performance of the last time Greg Dulli played Splendour (together with Mark Lanegan as The Gutter Twins) when there was next to no one in the tent ten minutes before they played and a crowd that could have fitted into The Zoo back in Brisbane. With the organisers deciding to timetable them against At The Drive-In’s only Australian show, at least there is something approaching a valid reason for the absentees. When The Gutter Twins played in 2009, it was because everyone decided to see Grinspoon play in the Super Top instead.

It is disappointing that they only get an hour in which to play but there is an obvious plan to cram as much as they can into their time and not waste valuable seconds doing much engaging wih the crowd. As soon as one song finishes, the next starts up straight away. While on the subject, another annoyance with festivals is the standard time slots and the way they get divided up between the acts when putting the bill together. Lanie Lane had played for an hour on the GW McLennan stage prior to Afghan Whigs. A singer with a single album to their name gets the same time as an act with five albums worth of materials to choose from. Similarly Lana Del Ray gets the same amount of time as Mudhoney do (and a better billing to boot) on the same stage on Saturday. I read in a review of Lana Del Ray’s Sydney show that she got a mouthful of abuse after she’s left the stage for only playing for 50 minutes. The reality is that she probably played every song she has and added in a cover or two in that time and probably played exactly the same set of songs in Melbourne as she did in Sydney and at Splendour and at every shows she has played and will play on this tour. Having seen the Afghan Whig’s setlists, they’ve got enough songs to mix up what they can play, and play longer sets with more songs at their side shows.

The setlist they play tonight is:

  • Crime Scene, Part One
  • I’m Her Slave
  • Uptown Again
  • Fountain and Fairfax
  • 66
  • Gentlemen
  • Crazy
  • My Enemy
  • See and Don’t See (Marie “Queenie” Lyons cover)
  • Lovecrimes (Frank Ocean cover)
  • Going to Town
  • Debonair
  • Miles Iz Ded
  • Into the Floor

It’s a setlist that you can’t really fault for a festival appearance, a something-for-everyone set, a few songs from across the board and a couple of covers that they’ve recently recorded thrown in to boot. If there is a criticism, it would be including the covers at the expense of their own songs. They play some of my very favourite songs of theirs, didn’t play a song I didn’t like, but I still would have loved to have seen them include Summer’s Kiss and Faded, a couple of songs they still play and have played in recent festival sets. But I can’t really complain. I came for one band, that band are fantastic, the best band of the day and well worth the $142 for the ticket and the 150km each-way drive down to Byron. Having said that, it would have been a whole lot better if the organisers had decided to include a Brisbane sideshow in their itinerary, particularly with this being the band’s first ever Australian tour.

There is some overlap with At The Drive-In’s set and once The Afghan Whigs have finished, I make another trek through the mud across the festival site to the Super Top tent. Coming around the corner into the festival’s main area, it sounds very quiet, almost as if the band have finished early and there’s some background music being played over the PA. It barely even registers and it’s not until inside the tent that it can be confirmed that the band are onstage and playing. Watching from the back of the tent is never going to be the ideal situation. I’m constantly amazed by people who presumably pay hundreds of dollars to go to a festival and then stand with their back to the stage and talk to their mates but Splendour seems to be full of people happy for their weekend to pan out in such a fashion. I see the last three songs of the set, ending with One Armed Scissor, and although it’s from a long way back, they sound awful. They also look awful, like a band going through the motions and looking forward to picking up their pay cheque at the end of the night. As someone who has their three studio albums and who saw them play at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, a probably 500 or 600 person venue in 2001(ish), they were one of the bands I was most looking forward to seeing. But based on the last three songs, they’re massively disappointing, easily one of worst acts, if not the worst act, of the day.

One act left for the day, the headlining Jack White. Once again the tent is packed, another downside of Byron when compared to the far superior Woodford amphitheatre, but even from a far way back it sounds and looks a whole lot better than At The Drive-In did. He’s chosen his all-male backing band tonight (although he brings the female band on later) and it’s great to watch the interplay between White and the band, especially his drummer. It’s one of those moments when I really wish that my photo pass hadn’t been revoked. In the end I only stay for five or six songs, needing to get out and to a rendezvous point to get a lift back to North Brighton to pick up my car and get back to Brisbane. I’m not the only one making an early breakaway though, with a massive line already in place for the shuttle buses and streams of people taking the walking option. There’s less mud outside the festival site but plenty of evidence of the day that’s been in the form of clothes and shoes abandoned at the side of the road.

By the time we get back to North Brighton, it’s 12:15am and the thought of a drive back to Brisbane is very unappealing, so I crash the night on the sofa of the house I’d co-rented for the weekend, falling asleep while watching Dirty Harry. It’s been a long day. Maybe I’ll be back next year, maybe they’ll even let me photograph it.

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