Report: Splendour 2011 Day 2
Perfect 10 performances from Gareth Liddiard and The Grates, strange timetabling decisions and disappointing sets from Mona and The Mars Volta – ANDREW MCMILLEN reports on a musically inconsistent day two of Splendour In The Grass in Woodfordia, Queensland. But, hey, at least the weather was good. Photos by JUSTIN EDWARDS.
All weekend, the weather is a dream. It couldn't be better. It's so good that you tend not to notice the clear skies, and instead take it for granted. There isn't a moment of rain, which makes for happy camping.
First on the Mix Up stage are Ghoul, who admit to not having played a show in six months but prove to be captivating. Evidently I'm not the only one who's fond of Ivan Vizintin's distinctive voice. By the end of their 45 minutes there's a few hundred heads facing the stage. At the Amphitheatre, it's a tough day to be a Cut Off Your Hands fan. Their set is bland and uninspiring, but this could well be the Kiwi quartet playing at their best. It's indie pop that you can dance to, but the absence of hooks leaves the crowd cold. They lean heavily on material from new release Hollow. Fifty minutes of Nick Johnston's voice becomes grating. They save their best for last, when Johnston ditches his guitar and wails along to early singles 'Still Fond' and 'Expectations'.
"If I was booking a festival, the first thing I'd do is not book me," says a typically self-deprecating Gareth Liddiard. He attracts a few hundred punters to the McLennan tent at 1.30pm just to hear his voice, acoustic guitar and between-song gags. He tells us about the inspiration for writing 'Highplains Mailman' and 'Strange Tourist'. He refuses 'Khe Sahn' requests as he says he's got his own; in 'Shark Fin Blues', presumably, which he plays without fuss. He mocks the techno bumping from Mix Up, and reflects on how people tend to romanticise the decade in which they were raised. He bemoans the current fascination with the ’80s. "Joy Division and The Birthday Party aside - what the fuck?" A stagehand gestures at him. He replies, “Is that 10 minutes left? Or 10 out of 10, Gareth?", before finishing with 'Jezebel'. The latter, Gareth.
Looking down on the Amphitheatre at 2.20pm from the top of the hill is hilarious. "We're Mona from Nashville, Tennessee," one of the tiny figures on stage says into a microphone. "Let's bump up the party!" There are perhaps three dozen people in the D-section at this point. The entire crowd here wouldn't fill The Tote. It's mind-boggling to look down at the mostly empty hill and recall that last night, every square inch was packed during Kanye West. "Never trust anything that blows up," the figure says after a few songs. "All great things start small." Right. Their music is embarrassing. It sounds like a cross between Jet and modern Kings Of Leon.
But more to the point: why aren't The Jezabels on the main stage? The crowd trying to see them at the McLennan is beyond ridiculous. The entire hill is filled, and most of them won't be able to hear anything, let alone see the band perform. 'Mace Spray' came in at #16 in last year's Hottest 100, so it's obvious that a lot of people like their music. Yet here they are, out of sight and earshot for many of their fans. Not doubt we'll see them here again next year - as long as they're not playing Fuji Rock, or something.
By now, to walk down the main strip between stages is to breathe in a fine atmosphere of dust. Under the Mix Up tent at 3.45pm, Foster The People prove to be massive crowd pleasers. Strange for a band most hadn't heard of 12 months ago, but they've got the chops and songwriting skills to back it up. I like that their biggest hit, 'Pumped Up Kicks', is a sweet pop jam based around the murderous intentions of a bullied teenager (which, as I understand it, is what Foster experienced himself during high school). The notion of writing happy melodies around sad themes is as old as pop itself, but it's nice to see it updated for a modern audience. And what a melody.
Another late afternoon shower break, then back in time to catch the final song of Kele's set, which is 'Flux' by Bloc Party. I watched the entirety of his set at Parklife 2010 and couldn't believe how terrible his solo material was, so I was looking forward to having another laugh. But for 'Flux', the entire D-section is dancing their butts off at the behest of the bald, wifebeater-clad singer, so … good for them.
A big traffic jam at the lower amphitheatre exit immediately afterwards causes security to block off the entrance and let the thousands of Kele fans stream back into the festival grounds. Muscles - “live”, as the timetable points out in brackets - is working the Mix Up tent by himself, and coping pretty well. His name is spelled out in massive plastic letters strewn across the stage. He admits that he doesn't know how he'll fit them into his house afterwards. I arrive during 'Koala', which blows my mind a little, as the chorus consists entirely of "In the gum trees/Eucalyptus leaves.” A handful of people in koala suits fawn around the singer in slow motion. It's a totally bizarre sight. He does 'Ice Cream' on piano without a backing beat – “acoustically,” I guess - and it works really well. I guess that's the mark of a great pop song. The rest of the set seems to consist of him pressing “play” on his laptop and jumping around singing, as in 'Sweaty'. During new single 'I'll Follow You' he picks up an Australian flag-themed electric guitar but doesn't play a note.
"Don't be licking my leg!" yelps Patience Hodgson at a punter while standing against the barrier in the Amphitheatre. She has the entire hill wrapped around her little finger as The Grates tear through an hour-long mix of old and new from 6.15pm. Disappointingly, John Patterson's guitar isn't near loud enough for the first bracket of songs, including 'Like You Could Have It All', the best track from recently-released third album Secret Rituals. The old hits - '19-20-20', 'Trampoline', etc. - go down a treat. Hodsgon totally nails the high notes in 'Sweet Dreams' and 'Young Pricks'. Patience projects complete self-confidence. She’s hard to dislike. The Grates feel at home on the main stage.
At the McLennan, the first half of Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan's set is a rich - if dull - musical experience, as they work through a selection of slow, menacing tunes. I'm told their set got better toward the end, but I had to flee to the main stage.
Like last night, the path to the lower Amphitheatre is closed again. It's the high road or bust. A lot of people decide to cut down the hill onto the lower path anyway, putting themselves at risk of injury. Upon arrival, we discover the arena isn't even half full. What the fuck? That's a question I ask myself a few more times in the next hour, as The Mars Volta’s singer Cedric Bixla-Zavala announces to the hill: “We're treating this as a rehearsal. We're playing all brand new stuff.” In typical Mars Volta fashion, the next 45 minutes are a mish-mash of aggressive percussion, wailed nonsense and precise musical incongruity. It's all very funny if you're not taking them seriously. Cedric does lots of talking between songs, which is rare. Maybe he's riding a creative high. Or some other kind. "I've been working in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog" is an actual example of the kind of shit he writes in his notebooks and sings on stage. They close with 'Inertiatic ESP' - a familiar song! - and a slowed-down version of 'Goliath' which culminates in Cedric wearing a horse mask and screaming through the muzzle while the video director repeatedly cuts back and forth between several camera angles.
The last half-hour of Gomez’s McLennan tent set is thoroughly satisfying – even for a pedestrian fan like myself. Afterwards, I hear second-hand reports that Regina Spektor's performance is impossible to hear unless you're under the tent, which is a feat that many fans were unable to achieve. Instead, they heard PNAU's Mix Up set from a distance. This problem reared its head last year - putting dance and electronic acts in such close proximity to quieter, folky acts - so it's a shame nothing has been done to fix the sound bleed.
No such problem for the Jane's Addiction headline set in the Amphitheatre, which sounds big and awesome from the outset. A black curtain drops to reveal two women hanging from the rafters by what looks like their necks (upon closer inspection, they’re hanging by a harness around the shoulders). They're up there for the entire first song. The quartet retain a distinctive sound which hasn’t dated. Singer Perry Farrell bounces around stage like a puppy searching for a playmate. He's ditched the cheesy song segues that we heard at Soundwave 2010, and I'm thankful for it.
What a difference an engaged bassist makes, too: Eric Avery was harshing my buzz last time with his passive aggressiveness, and no one was surprised when he quit the band after Soundwave. The crowd here tonight isn't huge, and is a little dwarfed by the size of the bowl. But it's a great headline set - my highlight is 'Mountain Song' - and we all leave happy, covered in confetti, and a little doubtful as to where the band can go from here. How long can Jane's get by on nostalgia value alone?
FULL GALLERY: Day two.