DiS in Australia: Splendour In The Grass 2011
Festival season is generally fraught with tales of calamity or serious incidents (these usually include Field Day and on rare occasion, an actual Zoo Thousand) and sad postponements or cancellations – as in Offset, Beacons and Truck this year. Festivals are notoriously difficult to operate; one shouldn't enter into them lightly. Yet, it still surprises how easily things can go wrong. Sometimes it's the balance of inevitable problems to atmosphere and line-up ratios – not to mention that key factor, ticket price - that decides whether a festival is a success.
Splendour In The Grass represents this writer's first Australian festival. It boasts the biggest names on any bill for a festival here this year, as well as being one of the few three day music festivals in the country. In 2010, the festival moved from its traditional home in Byron Bay to Woofordia, around 50 miles north-west of Brisbane, Queensland. Also the home of the 18-year-old Woodford Folk Festival, the site is a picturesque area amongst the trees but just a fraction of the 500-acre environmental parkland. The Splendour set-up is surprisingly compact, with only three central music stages, including the Ampitheatre main stage stationed in what feels and looks like a small valley, with a convenient slope to sit and watch from. Unfortunately, it's not an easy place to get to without extraordinary organisation. So, when you are told by festival representatives that the (ticketed and independent) shuttle bus service from the nearest train station in Caboolture has been cancelled, there's clearly some issues here. See, though it's a mere 15 miles, walking would still take the average person four or five hours and, besides, the only route is along the D'Aguilar Highway where injury and death is fairly likely. A cab ride is a mere $75 though, so that's a real bonus right? Of course, akin to the community spirit recently rediscovered in the city of London, everyone pulls together in such times. A cab filled with seven people with camping gear gets me safely to the site on Friday morning, where the no-fuss, breeze of an entry makes me almost instantly forget the trauma of the morning.
I haven't seen British Sea Power since 2006's Tin Pan Alley Festival. But the turbulent noise of 'Remember Me', 'It Ended On An Oily Stage' and set closer 'Carrion' remains timeless. They sound huge even on the Ampitheatre's mammoth stage and this is just one of several re-educations this weekend. Marques Toliver, in the GW McLennan Tent is throwing out snatches of 'No Scrubs' and 'Single Ladies' while strumming an autoharp before returning to his elegant virtuosity on the fiddle. Back on the Ampitheatre we have the Animal Collective wannabes Jinja Safari prising a drawn-out crystalline sound from their foliage-adorned instruments. A sitar on a guitar strap means its time to leave, whereupon I happen across the latter end of Kimbra's vibrant soul-pop set. Rapturously received in a full tent, she's bound to do well in her homeland. Wild Beasts play to half the crowd but with as much love emanating from those who are there. A glorious set taken from Two Dancers and Smother, with the appearance of 'The Devil's Crayon' received with delight, Wild Beasts' light touch remains one worth responding in kind to. Warpaint are irritatingly welcomed with whistling and cat calls but simply respond by dragging everyone into their inexorably murky descent. Their rhythmic pulses are laced with chorus-dipped lines crafting a shimmering, warped sound that's impossible not to get lost in. Yet 'Undertow' is received like a pure festival anthem; great to hear, but unexpected.
Boy and Bear (whose debut album Moonfire reached number two in the ARIA charts this week), get the same reaction you'd expect Mumford & Sons to receive. Boy & Bear are far more fiery and driven though, with the only banjo appearing for a huge singalong of Crowded House's 'Fall At Your Feet'. This is to be applauded, of course. Perhaps the most heartening sight of the entire festival is a packed amphitheatre for Modest Mouse. This double-drummed behemoth practically holds this cosmopolitan audience in their cupped hands. Sure, most of them might be here for 'Float On', but they seem to adore 'Dancehall', 'Bukowski' and 'The Whale Song' just as much. The return of Gotye means an overspilling tent with people congoing in and out of it. Though Gotye has passed me by until now, his soul-blemished dance is incredible festival fare. With his stunning vocal range, songs like 'Eyes Wide Open' and 'Somebody I Used To Know' (with Kimbra returning to do her guest spot on this number one Australian single) have choruses that scrape the stars. Which leaves Mogwai to deal the devastating blow that seals a stunning Friday. A heavy amount of material from Hardcore Will Never Die... , though certainly not a bad thing, sees a less visceral set though 'Hunted By A Freak' is irresistible as ever while '2 Wrongs Become 1 Right' and 'Mogwai Fear Satan' ensure the eardrums are well and truly bear hugged. Stuart Braithwaite's good humoured asides about Kanye West on the main stage goes across very well, naturally.
Saturday is the weakest day, with quick blasts of Foster the People, Sparkadia and Kele's medley of Bloc Party numbers propping up a lacklustre daytime bill. A spot of Muscles keeps the legs warm as dusk creeps in while Holly Throsby, Sarah Blasko and Sally Seltman, as Seeker Lover Keeper, make us forget our dusty lungs with their soothing folk sounds. Isobell Campbell & Mark Lanegan are surprisingly half-arsed but Architecture In Helsinki, on the Mix-Up Stage, provide some much needed adrenaline injection. Their lysergic stampeding pop music, all cartoon exaggeration and gumdrop stickiness, is as perfect as skewed, beat-driven collages can get. The Mars Volta impress with three new songs, sounding far more like they're rehearsing for an At the Drive-In reunion than swimming in the swamp of sonics they've been soaking in for a few years. Cedric and Omar remain two of the most eye-catching frontpeople of the last decade. Back at the McLennan Tent, Gomez take me back 13 years with 'Whippin' Piccadilly', before Regina Spektor undertakes her only show this year. Unmissable at any time, she makes sure no one leaves disappointed for this one dalliance. With a varied set that covers her entire career, she finishes with the formidable triumvirate of 'Us', 'Fidelity' and 'Samson' – complete with what sounds like a wonderful female backing choir from the crowd for each chorus - reminding us never to forget to see her at every possible opportunity. Saturday ends with Jane's Addiction facing a less-than-satisfying turnout. Despite this, they sound huge. Perry Farrel remains the astonishingly sprightly frontman, Navarro in full force as the guitar God sideman. However, when the hoary old tradition of bringing gagged dominatrix-style dancers out for a bit of simulated oral sex on Perry occurs, it's a sad sight; a reminder of how backward these colossi can be. The music, though, can't be faulted for what it is and it must've dented egos to see huge patches of unpopulated grass in front of them.
By Sunday, the three day fatigue has set in with the relentless dust, scattering of idiots and all-too- familiar surroundings starting to grate. Hence Hungry Kids of Hungary get a short shrift with their generic indie though Leader Cheetah's Brett Anderson-inspired vocals and gentle lilt lift the mood a little. Shockingly, my good mood is restored with a few songs of The Vaccines. It seems Jay Jay Pistolet still knows how to deliver his vocals live – swimming in reverb – while the band makes a far more impressive racket on a stage than on record. Liam Finn also stuns with a thrilling leap from mid-paced guitar and vocals to smashing with all his might upon a second drum kit towards the end of his set. When he brings the theremin out into the crowd, running to and fro across the stage, I conclude I've discovered a complete mad man. It's undeniably excellent. Cloud Control aren't exciting in the same vein, but they are charming, with the spectacular climax being the way they celebrate the birth of their bassist's child. The booming strains of 'Circle of Life', and huge anti-Muse rainbow balloons being launched into the crowd drives everyone crazy. Considering their earlier pointless cover of The La's 'There She Goes', this is a scintillating display. The less said about The Vines and The Middle East's last show, the better though a spoken word monstrosity from the latter really takes the crown as worst moment of Splendour. Elbow – a band I've somehow missed for an entire decade – completely floor me. Every song is intricate, beautiful and emotionally wrought. Clearly one of the UK's finest bands ever and it took being in the middle of nowhere in a country on the other side of the world to realise it. Nothing more to say. I'm humbled in my ignorance. Meanwhile Friendly Fires, on the Mix-Up stage, completely dominate the crowd in a completely different way, finishing with quite possibly the finest dance song of the weekend in 'Kiss Of Life'; the gleaming faces streaming from the tent attest to that.
Finally, it's the turn of two 90s guitar pop monsters. Pulp's set rests heavily on Different Class – a dream for a Britpop kid of the 1995 school – along with other career highlights like 'Do You Remember The First Time?', 'Babies' and a stunning 'This Is Hardcore'. The crowd seems subdued – perhaps it's a cultural thing – but the fans amongst us are singing every word. Jarvis is on typically top form too. If there is one complaint it's that there's no 'F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.' and that the build up was unnecessarily long. But then that's me putting the dour into Splendour I suppose. It's part of my job, alright?
To close the festival, it's the band DiSers, in particular, love to hate: Coldplay. That they deliver a set of stone cold classics with the full force and stage show you'd expect from a decade old rock band is a slap in the face to those who dismiss them as bedwetters, or whatever pithy remark they're usually in the proximity of. With a smattering of Mylo Xyloto tracks standing out as electronic beasts – fully in keeping with the eye-searing laser show – 'Yellow' is dispensed with early while genuinely great songs like 'In My Place', 'The Scientist', 'Shiver', 'Politik' and 'Clocks' are given the response they deserve. They all serve as a reminder of how long we've lived with this band and how ubiquitous they've become. 'Fix You' is preceded with a quick blast of 'Rehab' in tribute to Amy, before the aforementioned rains down upon the assembled. Finishing with latest single 'Every Teardrop Is Like A Waterfall', their status as one of the biggest bands on the planet is assured.
On balance, it's easy to under-appreciate what is a pretty impressive line-up. It'll be interesting to hear if transport problems will be ironed out for next year, while still being able to pull – and pay – acts like Kanye West and Coldplay. With ticket prices upwards of $400 (or $500 with camping), there's no excuse for not being able to provide for the needs of all festival goers. The feeling is that, for sure good times were had here – with such a line-up its difficult not to - but that the grind of the usual festival hiccups was not countered by a fair asking price. At all. If Glastonbury or Reading/Leeds was £260 (WITHOUT CAMPING!) you'd expect a helicopter ride in. Here in Queensland, I was asked to pay for a taxi. If you're willing to stump up and suffer the inconvenience for a heavyweight and diverse line-up with the usual array of festival food stalls and ticketed bars, then I guarantee you'll have a great time.