Report: Splendour 2011 Day 1
Woodfordia is a really good venue, Gotye will top the Hottest 100, showers are best taken in the day and Kanye West apparently likes fish sticks – things learned on day one of Splendour In The Grass 2011 by ANDREW MCMILLEN. Photos by JUSTIN EDWARDS.
In the lead-up to Splendour In The Grass 2011, it felt like the first year where the honeymoon could be over for Australia's largest music festival. Most notably, this is the first Splendour in recent memory that failed to sell out. Days away from gates opening, promoters even decided to offer tickets to each of the three days at a heavily discounted price. Compare this to last year's event - the first time the festival had been staged at Woodford in Queensland, and also the first time it stretched across three days - which sold out in around five hours. Evidently, an $80 price hike while offering what's arguably an inferior line-up appeared like a mistake, but once on site, all the bad press in the lead-up to the festival all but slips away.
Organisers even seem to have sorted out a better entrance process this year. Rather than hours spent sitting in slow-moving traffic kilometres away from the gates, those who arrive after midday on Thursday are impressed by how smoothly it all runs. Perhaps the speedy entrance can be attributed to the lax security when it comes to searching vehicles for alcohol. The tray of the M+N ute could've been filled with bottles of spirits – and we'd have gotten away with it. Maybe they were relying on last year's scare tactics to discourage BYO booze? It didn’t seem to work. On a cold Thursday night, a man next to me at the urinal exclaims, "There's fucking steam coming off my fucking piss!"
Day One: July 29
We learned last year that Woodfordia is a very good venue for accommodating 30,000 music fans for a weekend. This rings true today. Very little has been changed as far as the layout is concerned. The majority of the musical action occurs at three stages. Mix Up and the G.W. McLennan are housed under tents in the centre of the festival grounds, while the Amphitheatre - the main stage - is located at the far end. It's a huge bowl that’s entered by taking either the high road - which is quite a steep climb - or the lower path, which funnels into the “D” section in front of stage. The first Amphitheatre performance of the festival is scheduled to start at 11am, yet the gates remain closed until 11.10am for no apparent reason.
Once inside, Brisbane act Millions are playing to a crowd that seems to consist largely of triple j staff, including music director Richard Kingsmill. The quartet won an Unearthed competition to play today. They play catchy indie pop built around confident songwriting and a laidback delivery. This slot may well give their profile a nice boost. The band who played at this time last year, Jinja Safari, take the same stage at 1pm today to what I assume is a far bigger crowd than their first time around.
The Splendour Forum is running again this year, though with the conspicuous absence of a friendly Q&A with festival co-founders Paul Piticco and Jessica Ducrou. I would've liked to ask them what they'd learned from the poor ticket sales of 2011. Instead, among other attractions, we're offered the chance to witness the first ever music festival address from Wikileaks founder and international man of mystery Julian Assange. Fair trade, I suppose. The discussion is based around the topic of internet privacy and surveillance.
Julian Morrow from The Chaser hosts, with a couple of Hungry Beasts (Nick Hayden and Marc Fennell), a tech journalist (Patrick Gray), Assange's laywer (Grace Morgan), Assange's one-time co-author (Dr Suelette Dreyfus) and Assange's mother Christine filling out the panel. Throughout the 90-minute chat, a press photo of Assange's steely gaze looks over Morrow's shoulder and down into our souls. His mum tells us that she couldn't use the internet 12 months ago. Nowadays, she doesn't have a computer, only a smart phone. The conversation runs into several dead-ends when the Hungry Beasts and the tech journalist repeatedly make light of what's meant to be a serious topic. A girl in the crowd calls them out on their bullshit and is essentially howled down. Nick Hayden says the Wikileaks cables were "fucking boring" and that it doesn't feel like anything has changed as a result of their publication; a guy yells back angrily, "It's affected you! You're talking about it!" Earlier, they aired Assange's prerecorded message. It's a short, lyrical address broadcast at high volume; Our Julian, deep voice booming louder than God. In the 90-second video, he refers to growing up in Byron Bay. Maybe he forgot to Wiki the festival to discover that it currently takes place in Woodford. Whatever. Strange Friday afternoon.
The same crowd that last year fell for Megan Washington in a similar time slot this year falls for Melbourne-via-Hamilton singer Kimbra, who enthralls a huge crowd at the McLennan tent at 1.30pm. Like Megan, she hits the sweet spot between showing off sassy pop and precocious talent. With a gun band and a stack of songs suited to radio, it's impossible for her to fail. For many, it seems, she's the big discovery of Splendour 2011. At the Amphitheatre, Jebediah sweat it out in full sunlight. Kevin Mitchell's vocals sound about as good as they can be. Their version of recent hit 'She's Like A Comet' is particularly strong, in stark contrast to the utterly appalling attempt they played before one of the State Of Origin rugby league games a few months back (audio from which seems to have disappeared from the internet). They blend newer tracks with 'Harpoon', 'Animal', and 'Fall Down'; they're light, mild, and hit the spot nicely, as far as mid-afternoon festival slots go. A notable absence from the Amphitheatre is the “Gold Bar”, which offered a prime view to VIPs in 2010. In its place now is a lighting tent, featuring a huge pair of cardboard “shutter shades”, as made famous by tonight's headliner, Kanye West.
British/American duo The Kills are up next on the same stage. Their guitar, vocal and backing track shtick works way better Sleigh Bells, who were the last band I saw attempt this set-up and fail miserably. Alison Mosshart is a striking singer: she wields the mic and creeps around like a zombie, while hiding behind her black hair until the sun retreats behind the bowl. Jamie Hince peels off riff after muscular riff and provides an early festival highlight in their take on 'Future Starts Slow'.
Under the McLennan tent, Los Angeles quartet Warpaint are the closest thing to perfect we've heard so far today. They write intelligent dream pop and deliver it in an effortlessly smooth style. In Sydney-born Stella Mozgawa, they've got one of the best rock drummers alive. It's clear that Warpaint live, breathe and love their music. They toured with the Laneway Festival only a few months ago, but they'll always be welcome on these shores.
Pro tip: late afternoon is the best time to shower at Splendour. No queues, no fuss. In, out, and back into the fray to see Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears. Without any hype or pretence, they simply kill it. A blues band from Austin, Texas, their sound is timeless and impossible to resist. Lewis does the whole play-guitar-with-teeth thing a couple of times and it's awesome. The three-piece brass section shows off their choreographed dance moves. It's a music-affirming performance and I wish I could stay and watch the whole thing, but Modest Mouse loyalty has me skipping to the Amphitheatre. Tonight, the Washington six-piece are solid, and little more than that. They haven't released an album since 2007, and here they favour older material, which includes a bunch of slower songs that aren't at all suited to a festival crowd. It's a little self-indulgent, yet this band exist as evidence that indie-rock longevity can be achieved as long as the quality of songwriting stays consistent. In their case, they could well be getting better. 'Dashboard' falters a little, but 2004 hit 'Float On' is a monster that gets the hillside crowd on their feet.
Walking back into the main festival grounds, the crowd is halted by security to allow a golf buggy to pass. Behind the driver sits Darren Middleton - Powderfinger guitarist - and a woman who I assume to be his partner. It's a funny moment. We're all made to wait while Queensland rock royalty is ferried by. Middleton looks vaguely embarrassed.
Somewhere in the distance, under the McLennan tent, Gotye is underway before a big crowd. Accompanied by a three-piece band, 'The Only Way' sounds a bit flat until he sits down to play a drum kit that’s mic'd incredibly loud. He previews a handful of material from his forthcoming album, including early single 'Eyes Wide Open', which the crowd lap up. But the best is saved for toward the end. He introduces "a friend" to the stage, and the crowd lose their fucking minds. It's Kimbra, of course, and they intend to duet 'Somebody That I Used To Know' - if only the crowd would STFU for a moment. He literally has to ask the crowd to be quiet for the first few verses. When Kimbra's verse comes around, she can barely be heard over the screams of joy. It's a hair-raising moment. There's an incredible amount of love for this song, and it's well-deserved. I'm calling it now: Gotye to top the Hottest 100. He follows that track up with 'Hearts A Mess', which he messes around with a little before satiating the crowd's aching desire to sing along to its chorus. He should play the main stage next year.
In the ensuing break, there's little choice but to take in bluejuice, who play to a full Mix Up tent. They're clad in glow-in-the-dark costumes. They have back-up dancers. They play videos on the huge screens next to the stage. All of which seems like a huge distraction to cover up a lack of something. They end on 'Vitriol' and 'Broken Leg', two songs which make a lot of people happy. By this time Mogwai are starting at the McLennan tent. There's always time for Scottish post-rock, though tonight they don't sound particularly potent despite the array of Marshalls stacked on stage. They're only just getting warmed up. One of the band members is quite talkative, which differs from when I saw them in early 2009. "Did you know Kanye West likes fish sticks?" he asks, as we head toward the Amphitheatre to catch tonight’s headliner.
The lower path is closed, so we take the high road and find an enormous crowd playing sardines. We inch along the rim to a central position just as the lights go down, female dancers filter onto stage, and dramatic music blasts from the sound system. Pillars of smoke erupt from a spot in the middle of the crowd inside the D-barrier. As 'Dark Fantasy' begins, fireworks shoot overhead, the smoke dissipates and it's motherfucking Yeezy, high on a tower in a white suit. Best. Entrance. Ever. The crowd goes batshit; the entire hill is moving. It stays this way for a good half-hour.
At one point, Kanye pauses for a long while then says, "I'm at a loss for words right now." This, from the man who headlined the Coachella festival in April (with a set that, as it turns out, is very similar to tonight's). He refers to the crowd as "Brisbane" a few times. There's an incredibly boring section consisting entirely of his auto-tune material from 808s & Heartbreak, which goes down like a lead zeppelin. But the majority of his set is excellent; loads from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, The College Dropout and everything in between, though many tracks are shortened to a verse or two and one chorus. A full Amphitheatre hollering "we want pre-nup, yeah!" is really funny.
Rumours of a Jay-Z guest appearance prove unfounded. Ninety minutes of Kanye is sheer ego-stroking, and he clearly loves every second, but I question whether any hip-hop artist could come close to what he achieves here? It's a big stage and most of the time - besides a couple of guys on keys/decks on either side - he's the only one on it, yet there’s rarely a dull moment (auto-tune aside; seriously, give that shit a rest). Like always, he ends with 'Hey Mama', which he dedicates to his dead mum, and it's a touching moment - if a bit of a downer amid a set filled with highs.
FULL GALLERY: Day one.
DAY TWO, TOMORROW: Ghoul, Muscles, The Grates, Cut Off Your Hands and Jane’s Addiction.