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Play on Victoria: A Beleaguered City’s Welcome Return to Live Music

As lockdowns end, and Melbourne opens up, this weekend saw Sidney Myer Music Bowl play host to ‘Play On Victoria’, a large-scale return to gigs.

Image of Play On Victoria


This time last year, the local musical landscape looked very different. While Victoria was celebrating its exit from lockdown, with live shows returning shortly after, very few thought this would be a temporary return to normalcy. However, after only a handful of months of exposure to a vibrant music scene (albeit, slightly smaller and more local-focused than it had been at the start of 2020), this was yet again tipped away from us thanks to the advent of lockdowns in mid-2021.

However, with Victoria finally announcing its exit from the world’s longest lockdowns this month, the state government announced a run of concerts to bring its music-loving public back to what they once knew. The crown in this jewel of gigs was undoubted the Play On Victoria concert at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl.

Part of a larger experiment to ensure that large-scale concerts and events can once again take place safely, October 30th saw a sold-out crowd of 4,000 descend upon the metropolitan outdoor venue for one of the biggest concerts that the state had seen in months, and a welcome return to the normalcy of live entertainment the state is renowned for.

Opening the evening was acclaimed singer/songwriter/actress Grace Cummings, who took to the stage with a four-piece band (later to expand to six) for a stellar showcase of her enveloping tracks. Kicking off with recent single “Heaven”, both Cummings and her intoxicating voice instantly commanded the attention of all in attendance, with crashing instrumentation and powerful songwriting making it feel like we’d never missed a single second of gigs.

Offering up an array of new songs and older favourites, Cummings’ slow-burning rock and roll eased the evening off with force and majesty, with each and every song feeling like it was designed to speak directly to the soul. Closing things out with “Storm Queen”, the title track from her forthcoming album, Cummings made it clear that – for both her and the evening – plenty of good things were in the pipeline.

Some of those good things came very quickly, with Chris Gill – the evening’s MC – welcoming Australian music royalty to the stage by way of the great Vika and Linda Bull. Just weeks removed from the release of their first album of new material on almost two decades, the pair – and their accomplishes five-piece band – had plenty of material to choose from.

Beginning proceedings with the recent “Since You’re Gone” and the classic “When Will You Fall for Me”, the pair’s presence was nothing short of jubilant, with their unifying numbers giving way to much-missed singalongs and deeply emotional performances, allowing all and sundry to remember why the sisters are one of the greatest familial duos in Australian music history.

Though light showers may have dampened the mood somewhat, it was impossible for them to be fully extinguished, with ‘the Fresh Prince of Arnhem Land” – Baker Boy – soon taking to the stage to showcase his inimitable talent, charisma, and good vibes. Releasing his debut album, Gela, earlier this month, Danzal Baker came armed with a deadly array of tunes, kicking things off with “Meditjin” as he and his team – including two dancers and a guest vocalist – turned the vibe into one of an all-out party.

Picking up the yidaki to rapturous applause, Baker had the entire crowd eating out of his hand as he switched between blistering rhymes and exceptional dance moves, undeniably earning some of the biggest applause up to that point. Supplementing his set with the likes of “Mr La Di Da Di”, “Cool as Hell”, and “Butterflies”, it was final song “Marryuna” that served as the most unifying moment of Baker’s performance. 

As the crowd rose to their feet to take part in the unifying dance party, the classic of homegrown hip-hop was almost enough to bring a tear to the eye of the seasoned gig-goer, proving that all we needed to be reminded of how lucky we are to see live music is to witness the exceptional power of Baker Boy.

As the sold-out crowd continued to flood in from all angles, it was clear that Amyl and The Sniffers were one of the night’s biggest draws, with their raw pub-punk energy serving as one of the most adrenaline raising sets we’ve seen all year. Kicking off with “Guided by Angels” from new album Comfort to Me, the distortion-laced four piece were one of the gutsiest entries to the lineup, with vocalist Amy Taylor’s iconic stage presence proving exactly how to front a band and engage the crowd.

Peppering the set with new and old cuts (including one of the greatest Aussie rock songs of the last decade, “Some Mutts Can’t Be Muzzled”), the four piece group almost felt too small for the massive stage, though their gigantic sound undoubtedly made up for any empty space, as their raucous sound tagged every inch of free real estate with their name.

Peppering their set with the likes of “I Got You”, “Hertz”, “Don’t Need a Cunt (Like You to Love Me)”, “Laughing” (complete with a stage invader, just like days of old), and a cover of Patrick Hernandez’s classic “Born to Be Alive”, it didn’t take long for Amyl and The Sniffers to live up to their reputation as one of the most energetic, dangerous, and vital bands on the Australian scene.

Of course, no matter how blisteringly energetic Amyl and The Sniffers were, one could not hold a candle to the sort of fanaticism that King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard commanded, with almost every second person in attendance decked out in one of the group’s innumerable t-shirts. With 18 albums to their name across the last 11 years, the group are arguably one of the most prolific outfits in the game, and a hometown crowd welcomed back the hard-working exports to local stages, it was clear there was more than just a little bit of pride at play.

Though multi-instrumentalist Ambrose Kenny-Smith joked to his bandmates, “how do we do this again?” prior to kicking things off, there were no worries about forgetting the classic King Gizz routine, with the band instantly jumping into some “old shit” by way of the opening tracks to 2014’s I’m in Your Mind Fuzz (including “I’m in Your Mind”, “Cellophane”, “I’m Not in Your Mind”, and the title track).

Immediately, it was clear that the band were having just as much fun as the eclectic collective were, with mind-melding visuals pairing with their intricate compositions, turning the night into a psychedelic celebration of their work.

Adding in classics such as “Gamma Knife”, “People-Vultures”, and “Self-Immolate”, fans were also given a few surprises by way of the live debuts of “Shanghai” from 2021’s Butterfly 3000 and new song “Gaia”. If anything, it proved that King Gizzard have been at the top of their game since they kicked off over a decade ago, with new material sitting effortlessly alongside older gear, and showing that they’re arguably one of the greatest live acts in Australia, if not the world.

To be perfectly honest, Victorians have been so starved for music in this city that tickets could have been sold to witness a jukebox, and folks would gladly have paid the premium for the privilege. However, after so long away, it’s beyond validating to know that live music still has the power to lift the spirits of a city who have been through the wringer and then some. 

On paper, Play On Victoria was an experiment to see how live music could once again be held on a grand scale, a test to see how the logistics of allowing double-vaccinated patrons to once again rub shoulders with each other as music plays, providing an experience we’ve longed for. Needless to say, it feels like we passed with flying colours, and we can only look ahead with optimism at what the future holds in hopes of doing this all again.