As I walked out of Hobart airport into the biting air of Friday morning, I heard the excited affirmations of arriving Mofos immediately. “It’s not even that cold!” one said. That’s the kind of PMA I was looking for this weekend. If they hadn’t smelled like champagne burps and societal disappointment I would’ve offered them a lift into town.
Hobart is a funny place. Built on the estuary of the River Derwent it sits on primarily Jurassic dolerite; a rock often used for the headstones of people’s dead hopes and ambitions. The city itself is grey and dark and still has shops that you thought would’ve fossilised around the same time as the bedrock. So I walked down to the harbourfront and I saw the city’s charm. Real fishermen, the hipster’s poster boy, wearing tiny beanies and flannel, smelling of fish guts and ocean spray. I sidled up next to the wharf like I knew what I was talking about and yelled “How is it out there?”. The crusty old captain looked at me without contempt but with the curiosity of someone who thought they were about to be sold old bibles and said “Fine”. A wonderful start.
The night came fast as the sun called it quits early. There was no time to finish my Guinness or the long-winded tale I was regaling four Alpaca farmers with. My first gig was at 6 pm and I had to get across town. As I approached The Odeon Theatre, three ladies came bursting out of the doors and turned to me and said “Don’t bother, unless you’re looking to have a nap”. As a relatively new father that actually sounded way more appealing than normal so I continued into the pitch-black room. Hiro Kone was on stage, standing almost statue still, subtle electronic pulses filling the space. The performance slowly told an electronic coming-of-age story. There was a quiet in the opening embrace that heavied the eyelids and softened your palette, right before the confrontation of act two began to arise and things ramped up. It felt like the artist evolved throughout the piece and as they grew strength the music grew power. Heavy beats came in waves and then disappeared; the piece was breathing but with an excited stutter. A manic heartbeat dropped into silence and the story ended. A subtle nod from the artist to their audience. Pure class.
Tujiko Noriko – the second performer on stage – brought an ethereal calm with her sound. Her voice guided the tour through an elastic landscape. The mesmerised masses resembled what I imagine election night living rooms in the U.S. look like. There was purpose and beauty in every note. It didn’t take the audiences on a journey but instead suspended them in thin air. It had been finished for a good minute before everyone floated out of the space, having been captured entirely and then released.
The gigs had taken me by surprise and subsequently left me thirsty. The next performance was 2km away. Too far to walk without refreshments, so I stopped at Tom McHugo’s on the way. Tom isn’t the affluent yacht-racing philanthropist you might expect. In fact, I don’t even know Tom. But his pub seems to be the meeting place of wine connoisseurs, beer guzzlers and iPhone foodies alike, and it would become my North Star for the remainder of the weekend. The food kept changing and with each new item I tried, the more excited I got.
When I got to the Molchat Doma gig the crowd stood politely and eerily quiet, waiting for the band to emerge. The Belarusian post-punk outfit brought an energy that resembled what you’d imagine an Eastern European Ian Curtis might deliver. The typical jangly guitar created continuity and flowed through each song as the lead singer’s jerky dance style fought against the current. I didn’t see one expression change in the audience, they just awkwardly swayed and bopped like circus elephants trapped in a time trance; except unlike the elephants, they seemed to be really enjoying it. They clearly hadn’t spent the same time on Genius researching the translations of the deeply depressing lyrics to Судно (Sudno), or maybe they had, and that dark poetry had been what had spoken to them. By the end I started to forget when a song was ending and when the other began; the elephant trance.
The gig ended and I needed to speak to some human beings for fear of going to sleep and waking at 4 am to be haunted by eastern block paralysis demons. Luckily the wine crowd was in town for some kind of outlandish, piss-up wine mixer so I headed to the Winter Feast and found a few familiar faces.
Saturday began with regret and longing. The wine crowd had done me dirty, in the best possible way. They just appeared. Where did they all come from? They all had crazy nicknames and the one who looked like Chilean Dave Grohl had tried to feed me mushrooms. I needed to get off this island and onto another so I headed to the MONA ferry station.
MONA really is an art sanctuary; disconnected from the real world, playing by its own rules and just allowing pure, unadulterated expression. Although I’d been before, I always make the effort to see what new exhibits and additions they’d grown, like tree limbs out of the rock.
I was told that they were holding gigs downstairs, buried deep in the cliff so that was my first stop. When I learned that Georgia Mooney was on I knew they’d curated this for my particular hangover. I entered the Dark Day Club via a doorman who asked me if I planned to streak through the venue in my long coat. When I said “Maybe” he looked over his glasses at me with hope and a subtle nod. Georgia Mooney was sitting on a stool at the end of a concrete corridor, a Dulcimer in her lap, surrounded by instruments. When she started playing I could immediately understand why the room was packed. She played with a tongue-in-cheek elegance that disarmed everyone instantly. Her lyrics told stories but not without humour, from hinting to an attraction to Benedict Cumberbatch to dropping her pick halfway through a song, the show continued on with a refreshing irreverence and charm. I think everyone fell in love at that show, even the people at the back who would not shut the fuck up with their incessant chat while she was playing.
Upon reaching the surface for air and sunlight I was invited to check out the new recording studio MONA had built in the facility. Chris Townend the Engineer and Designer welcomed me at the door and I instantly felt at ease. Dubbed the Frying Pan, the studio is what you would build if you compiled your favourite recording equipment from every era into a single space. The REDD .17 desk from Abbey Road that recorded the Beatles and Pink Floyd is the centerpiece with a variety of vintage consoles, tape machines, a 900-point patch bay, and even the module from the Motown consoles that recorded Sinatra, Beach Boys and Bowie. If there was a spare spot on the couch I could’ve just sat there and watched all afternoon but Chris was recording a South African act called Desire Marea who was playing that night at Night Mass so I let him go and headed back to the not-so-mainland.
Saturday night was upon us and the northern winds cut through any punter silly enough to choose a ‘synthetic sin’ getup over layers of thick wool and cotton. On my way to my first gig, I wanted to see the Curtis Taylor exhibition. He’s a Martu artist from an area between the Kimberley and East Pilbara regions. His art was something that people were really talking about on the street. Its multimedia presentation didn’t allow you to escape its intense messaging and artful delivery. Ngarnda was a video installation that referenced blood rituals and cultural rites while Boong was both physically and sonically intense in its use of art to tell a racial story and paint a picture for the viewer.
The walk afterward was slow and reflective. That exhibition had rattled my core and that was ok but it took some time to process. I don’t think it will ever truly find a happy place in my mind but sit as a reminder that not everyone is doing this for fun.
I arrived at Laterne as the first act was beginning. Rainy Miller stood at the tip of the stage, spot-lit, hoodie pulled over his eyes as he looked down into the black sea crowd. He had a deep, dark focus that was unsettling as if haunted by some kind of trauma. The music played and we witnessed that powerful emotion mixed with a reverberating auto-tune and an array of patched-in musical undercurrents. It was more of a larger, thought-out performance than just back-to-back tracks, and we watched on till the end.
Amnesia Scanner & Freeka Tet put the pin back in the grenade and allowed me to rest my mind on their hypnotic repetition for a short while, before nudging me back out onto the cliff’s edge. The thing they don’t tell you about this festival is how emotionally consuming it can be watching a continuous flow of music and art that doesn’t just fly past you, but goes through your chest and out the other side.
I headed back to Winter Feast to recharge my lifeless carcass. I ate from 3 different stalls just to ensure I wasn’t missing out and then sat with my beer in front of a small stage being set up. A Scottish man named Gordon sat next to me and said “How bout we make a bet on what genre the next act is going to be, and the person with the worst guess buys the next beers?” What an intro line Gordon. For a second I thought I was being hustled. Was he one of their dads? Fuck it, who doesn’t like a gamble when you’re almost certain to lose. Sure thing. He said I should go first. The band was young, the guys looked a little dorky who were setting up, and I didn’t notice the three girls in tracksuits off to the side, so I went with post-punk. Gordon looked at me with a giant grin and said “Mood Groove”. I almost internally combusted thinking that I might have actually been living under a cultural rock and never heard of this genre. So with my tail between my legs, I asked “What’s that?” Finishing his beer he nonchalantly turned to me and said, “I don’t know, but I reckon they’ll be it”.
Empress came on moments later as the drummer launched into this funky offbeat rhythm. The keys and bass joined and people began to move. Once they had the crowd’s attention the three singers walked on and instantly lit the place up. If you cloned Jorja Smith’s voice 3 times and then added almost perfect harmony you’d be hitting close to where they were. It was soulful but poppy, loose in a jazz sense but tight in every note, accent and pause. You could tell they loved what they were doing and they fed off the crowd’s energy. “You know what Gordon, I think you’re right. What are you drinking?”
My energy had been restored so I headed to Night Mass and proceeded to indulge in the atmosphere of a precinct dedicated to the weird and the fun. Desire Marea came on in The Cathedral, my favourite venue at the festival. He arrived with a full band and brought the energy that the afternoon wind had taken away as if reinstating it in the audience, the musical healer. I’d seen acts mesmerise and hypnotise this weekend but what I hadn’t seen is the kind of spiritual frenzy that ensued when songs like ‘Be Free’ were played; and from the looks of things no one saw it coming. I stuck around after the promise of something special for the Big Wett show, but what I got was bad karaoke and a worse performance. Maybe I’m just a cranky old bastard at 1am.
Sunday morning was sunny and I didn’t have a gig till 4 pm so I got in the car and drove two and a half hours to Bicheno for a lobster roll and then turned around and drove back again. It was worth it. The east coast of Tasmania is fantastic.
At 4 pm I stood In The Hanging Garden to watch RVG, the Sunday gloom had kicked in and people stood, eyes falling out of their sockets to see one of Melbourne’s most hyped underground acts. Yes, that’s paradoxical. The band played and delivered the pain that I needed to pull me out of my daytime bliss.
My final gig was a showcase starting with Kid Pharoah. Off the bat, this was awesome. The lyricism and production were one of the most polished rap shows I’ve seen in recent years. Themes of stolen Egyptian art and cultural atrocities reverberated through the songs and as much as you wanted to dance, they also made you uncomfortable. Aggressive, hard-hitting and smart, this show got people’s blood pumping. The following DJ sets from Nooriyah and Moktar continued the Arabic theme of the showcase with some incredible mixes of middle eastern percussion and tracks that really tore the roof of the place. My shazam was working hard that night trying to figure out who all these artists were.
Three days and I was done. It was clear that Dark Mofo continues to evolve and deliver the unique lens on art, music and culture that it has been famous for over the last 10 years. The balancing act between enjoyment and the uncomfortable reality of what you’re watching remains a rare draw card, and it is flanked by the community’s passion for what they’re creating. Something truly spectacular.