Beneath a scorching sun and steady breeze, happy campers set up, hydrate, dehydrate and lounge in their campsites, as the amphitheatre begins to fill, and grass is turned to dust by thousands of tramping, dancing feet...
Money For Rope is an excellent choice for opening band. Sometimes reminiscent of the Stones, the Doors, the Clash and a dozen other not quite plagiarised sounds, it’s the occasional, faster songs like Ten Times that stand out and the band sound like the good time you want to have. The band’s harmonies really set them apart from other local rock combos, and they prove to be the first of many excellent programming choices Aunty Meredith offers.
Boasting a strangely smooth psych-soul sound, New Zealand’s Opossum follow and lure some of the curious forward, though most seem content admiring from afar, which is a shame, as the it seems the sun saps much of the energy not spent on opening the drinks account. Songs like Why Why and Girl are blazing blasts of Kiwi jangle with colon troubling bass, distant reverb-drenched drums, and floating vocals, an easy mix to love.
Not a skin disease but actually one of the world’s finest lyra players Adonis Xylouris (aka Psarandonis) is a fantastic left-turn from guitar-dominated bands Australian festivals do so well. Featuring the ever-watchable Jim White on drums, the trio’s set is striking for the musicians’ interplay, Xylouris beating the strings as often as bowing them, wielding the traditional Greek instrument like a Les Paul and looking like a cross between Gandalf and Gandhi, it’s a fantastic set.
One of the most anticipated acts and one of 2011’s buzz bands, Wild Nothing, blend indie pop and shoegaze and are a winner with those here who also went to Laneway. It’s perfect music for tired people, perhaps because the band themselves seem to be lackadaisical in their delivery and performance. Songs like Nocturne and the rousing, closing Summer Holiday gel beautifully, but overall their set is a disappointment from the quality of their recordings and the audience response is similarly muted.
Between sets last year’s Sunday speaker Barry Dickens reads his poignant, funny and pertinent poetry to a largely attendant crowd. His pithy treatises on our current personal, communal, political and generational states are an excellent substitute for mid-afternoon DJ sets and only serve to accentuate the bands either side of his appearances.
‘What the fuck are we doing here?’ asks No Zu’s Nicolaas Oogjes, and it’s a fair question for anyone who hasn’t seen the band before. Rhetorically, they dive into their set and pull out a series of percussion-lead post-punk jams that energise the amphitheatre like nothing else yet. The band’s rock solid rhythm section allow the copious echo effect and rich vocalisations from singer Daphne Shum to float effortlessly as the brash inflections wake the crowd up, move feet and win new fans.
With the ground full of the younger end of the demographic Golden Plains attracts, the sun less cruel and shadows stretching, the stage empties to just a chair, a guitar and a couple of small amps set side-stage. Moments later Kristian Matsson aka The Tallest Man on Earth leaps out, jumps enthusiastically and stares down the audience. This sort of wired performance is not let go of for his whole spellbinding set, and it divides much of the crowd. Songs like King of Spain, 1904, Criminals, Love is All and The Gardener get huge singalongs and the ensuing Wind and Walls the biggest showing of shoes for the festival, though these shoes are of a younger and far more stylish variety than tomorrow’s contenders earn. Mistaking the shoes for weapons, Matsson seems briefly confused before finishing his set with a cover of Graceland, accompanied by his wife fellow singer-songwriter Amanda Bergman. Regardless of your opinion, his guitar fingering skills and ability to pointlessly hurl a plectrum across a stage are intimidating.
Typically divisive and owner of the coveted sunset slot, Cat Power follows and spends several songs (Cherokee, You May Know Him) leading her band through snails-pace churning riffs, utilizing about 0.5% of their abilities and losing many of the curious. Her dour charisma and wounded voice is talismanic to much of the crowd but only grips attention when J Mascis joins for Metal Heart and closes her set with a disarming and brave stab at combining Boys Next Door’s Shivers with INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart; a strange and not entirely successful venture.
The morning sun rises on a dusty encampment, soon populated by thousands of weary soldiers, sporting the festival armour of sweat, sunscreen, dust, hand sanitizer and sunnies, dragged out of messy tents by the promise of Bushwalking. An oddly awesome supergroup, the band open proceedings with calm assertion and killer riffs. Karl Scullin’s excoriating guitar sound, Nina Venerosa and Ela Stiles’ stellar harmonies and the dubwise gambits of their mixer make 10AM in Meredith feel like 4AM in Birmingham, though the patience of many a punter is tested by their My Disco-esque favour for simplicity and repetition.
Breaking for a brief chat with festival landowner and originator Jack Nolan, we learn of his son (and annual festival launcher) Chris’s love of farm-based parties and the organic growth the festival took. Like Dickens’ poetry the previous day, provides another chance to ponder what this festival is besides a series of usually excellent bands and offer an ear-resting pause while savouring breakfast.
A clear festival highlight for many is the ensuing set from Dick Diver, offering a sense of humour interlaced with their humbly-intended and unadorned paeans to Melbourne life. On the verge of dropping their second album Calendar Days (most of which we hear today), the audience don’t take long to get alongside, and songs like Water Damage, the brilliant Head Back and a rousing cover of Dragon’s Are You Old Enough earn more than a few boots aloft.
Coinciding with a merciful cloud cover and a cool change come Mulatu Astatke and the Black Jesus Experience. Billed as a 1960s Ethiopian pop pioneer backed by a local Afrobeat combo, what we get seems to be some incredibly proficient mellow jazz-fusion, which is nice but utterly forgettable. The crowd seem content to chill and observe as the smoothness oozes, until Astatke switches from vibraphone to congas and suddenly everything springs to life. Sounding joyously alive and boasting some vibrant rhythms and stellar vocals from the BJE, an expropriation of As We Enter from Damian Marley and Nas (who sampled Astatke) closes what turns out to be a riotous and fun set.
The highlight of the Sunday for many comes in the form of a local duo bent on recreating the most hellish end of 50s juke joints. Chris Russell’s Chicken Walk are essentially a community radio DJs dream; lovingly recreating the sound of a massive 50s and 60s record collection and doing it in a way that screams ‘I may not be from the Deep South, but I am as real as it gets’. If you can hear a white guy singing about picking cotton in the fields and NOT think of Ghost World’s Blueshammer you’re doing better than me, but whatever you think, they’re very good at what they do. Russell’s guitar heaves and crunches, Dean Muller’s drums crash and drive, and their song Bad Motherfucker cracks smiles across every face in the place earning a lot of boot salutes and new fans.
Unlike Redd Kross, who bring showmanship by the boatload, power pop crunch and big riffs but no memorable songs. Their harmonies are tight, riffs big and the guitar wails authentically, and despite several hyperactive fans, and a hundred odd nodding straw hats, the audience thins as their set progresses. Songs like It’s a Crazy Crazy World seem ill suited to the venue, and that their newest song was from 1992, speaks volumes.
The crowd size triples and the average age plummets as Toro y Moi assemble and unleash a brace of dense electro funk. Seemingly doing everything possible to fight against the term ‘chillwave’ Chazwick Bundick (aka both Toro and Moi) brings a forceful approach to playing that refuses to let the listener rest. Still as much about atmosphere as narrative, their mood pivots as the well rehearsed four-piece render the crowd a writhing mass of sweat-soaked jelly limbs.
Swapping the crowd yet again comes another shift in tone as riff behemoths The Mark of Cain ensure that anyone who was even a passing fan remains glued to the spot, head nodding or arms aloft. Separatist bludgeons us into submission or arrests us to attention; the trio barely moving a muscle (besides drummer John Stainier’s stand-in Eli Green) while issuing round after round of assaults. Milosevic, The Contender and Tell Me all rouse the faithful and repel the twee.
Maintaining the low-slung guitar and blinding riff aesthetic Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are as hot tipped as a band can be. A spluttered introduction of ‘we’ve come all the way from New York City to be with you people!’ before countless cries of ‘blues explosion!’ let you know no one else could be here. Eschewing a series of songs for an amalgam of riffs and hints of tracks both old and new, Spencer toys with expectations, and shoves his mic between his teeth as the band huddle to the front of the stage, plying riff after nonstop riff. Comparatively subdued compared to last year’s tour, new album Black Mold is heavier and most of its hooks make an appearance, sandwiched against Bellbottoms, Sweat and a dynamite Bag of Bones.
After ten years in the game and on the eve of the release of their first album the seventeen-strong Melbourne Ska Orchestra are a seasoned unit that goes down well with the crowd. Not attempting to blaze a trail, the good times they profess are easy to jig to, and just as easy to flee from, and a good many goers use their opportune timing to grab a meal from one of the many excellent providores the festival boasts. In addition to these, special mention must be made of the fluro-vested volunteers who do an excellent job of tidying, minding, assisting and manning and ensuring the festival is another raging success.