It’s just as the Princes Highway bends its back to avoid Lake Illawarra. Just as you finish riding the rollercoaster roads, past the arrester truck bays and the last of the fifteen exits to Wollongong. Through the freeway town of Albion Park with its famous McDonald’s franchise on the left and the lesser-known airstrip on the right. The speed limit slowly once more climbs up. And your own heart rate slowly creeps down. Relax mate, you’re now on the south coast.
The region, a scattering of villages that circle the twisting Shoalhaven River, runs on its own schedule. And, as glimpses of the Tasman Sea poke through the parting forest (cleared for a forthcoming bypass) quickly become a permanent fixture, it’s impossible to not ease into this same relaxed mindframe.
An outlook that serves us well a few hours later at the entrance to the Berry Showground — the venue for the inaugural Fairgrounds festival. The line barely moves for minutes yet, despite the panic station flustering of organising staff, it’s a situation that amongst the patrons — now clearly on the south coast schedule — raises little concern. Neither does, several hours later, the equally stagnant bar lines with queues that twist beyond the cattle-fence structures and well into the evening. Later still, a friend returns to our conquered patch of grass with discouraging reports that the commencement of the dinner rush has led to immediate food shortages. Some outlets are now closed for the day and event staff have been forced to redirect people into town to eat.
These are the minor teething issues expected of a festival bravely venturing into a new locale for the first time. It’s obviously a delicate balance, with a noticeable attempt to provide minimal disruption to the residents of Berry and integrate the town’s own relaxed atmosphere into the festival itself. Across the weekend — even with the serving of small batch ales and the overcrowded Sunday morning cafes — it still rarely feels like the city folk takeover it could have been.
Equally welcomed is the abundance of space. The venue is a true country showground, complete with long boundaries and enough square metres to comfortably enclose the town’s entire population if required for bushfire emergencies and/or annual fireworks displays. Today, the added-in shaded tables in front of the food outlets are the first snapped up, set to be vigorously guarded throughout the day. Families stake themselves out a grass spot for their picnic blankets on the oval’s outskirts where large trees provide shelter from the summer heat, destined to climb over 30 degrees later in the day.
We settle for seats in one of the scattered grandstands, positioned in front of the allocated ‘games area’. A tug-of-war match is set up, before long intensifying from opposing 8-year boys to a twenty-five strong contingent on either side. A loud cheer goes up as a burly seven-foot front-rower jumps the small fence and joins one side, immediately disrupting the equality of the impromptu tournament of strength. Four more men grab the rope at the opposing end to roars of delight, with the balance momentarily restored, swaying back-and-forth like this for several minutes before one team is unceremoniously dragged across the lanes of oval’s outer running track.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the ground, C.W. Stoneking stomps away on stage. Those that exited in the break that followed an impressive early set from Western Australian newcomers, Methyl Ethel — seeking a few minutes shade and a cold one — are lured back by Stoneking’s infectious festival-ready blues rock. He’s dressed in his usual garb — head-to-toe in Napisan-soaked white — with his gold-sequence-dressed gospel backing singers glistening in the midday sun as they deliver their sultry harmonies.
Less successful in retaining the revel-ready early birds is Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Their hazy psych-led soul becoming unexpectedly lost amongst the open plain, many onlookers simply marking out a small sitting area of grass and relegating the swirling sounds to background music. Others opt for a retreat altogether, back to the shaded areas amongst the market stalls or a quick dip in the public pool or the seats surrounding the first series of heats for the sack races the ringmaster host has been sprucing since our arrival. We instead head to the converted shed out the back of the pavilion where Adam Gibson (Modern Giant, Aerial Maps) is set to deliver the side stage’s opening set.
“Sorry, by now you should have realised: I don’t sing”, Gibson says with a smirk and a quick sip from his Carlton Draught. With just guitar backing — only one member of his latest ensemble, the Ark Ark Birds, was able to make the trek down the coast from Sydney — Gibson delivers extended renditions of his colloquial spoken word songs — recalled “partly true” stories of stranded sharks in suburban pools and six-packs on Lighthouse Beach — proving to be the afternoon’s clear highlights.
Just as Gibson delivers his final punchline, the distant guitars of Royal Headache can be heard faintly fuzzing to life, prompting a 14-second dash across to the main paddock. A few early technical issues result in an almost accapella rendition that leaves shirtless frontman Shogun visibly exhausted. The band recover well, with the vocalist soon back marching up and down the stage, enthusiastically kicking the air during brief vocal breaks. Despite, after a teasing introduction, the disappointment of the band discarding their brilliant cover of Womack & Womack’s “Teardrops” in favour of “more fast shit”, the band show they’re more than capable of transferring their punk energy across to the larger festival stage.
Meanwhile, Ben Abraham wraps up his set on the more intimate secondary stage. A broken string disrupting the introduction to his final song, aptly summing up the day of minor disasters the young Melbourne troubadour documents throughout the set – including cancelled transport almost causing him to miss his slot entirely. He valiantly laughs it off, with the packed crowd hardly seeming discouraged by the closing 5-string rendition.
Adam Gibson (and an Ark Ark Bird)
Father John Misty
Father John Misty. Credit: Steve Moore.
Father John Misty
Mercury Rev end up being the solitary programming misstep, their stadium-ready prog theatrics sounding at odds with the rest of the day’s relaxed atmosphere. Meg Mac‘s set initially suffers from the hangover of this, but her stunning vocals overcome, drawing positive responses from the crowd despite many now attempting a second wind revival via some required afternoon nap.
Clearly viewed as the headline act by many, there’s a notable buzz of anticipation in the air ahead of Father John Misty‘s main stage set. And he delivers. The twelve-foot tall charmer rocking us slowly into his (sometimes sleazy) dream world as the sun sets behind the venue’s equally towering trees. Joined occasionally by cicada harmonies, he’s every bit as casual as he is commanding, winning all available prizes for showmanship.
Upon this climactic set from Misty, coupled with the aforementioned food shortages, the crowd thins out slightly. An unfortunate decision on their part, as the unveiling of the event’s only nighttime performers, Ratatat, coincides with exposure of hidden illumination elements scattered throughout the venue. Those that remain seek out the disguised beats of the group’s contorted live-electronic sound, clearly seizing the last (and first) dance of the day.
But across this sea of swaying souls, those clutching on to the final festival moments and attempting to bend their bodies in time with the group’s warped guitar squeals, there’s a notable state of weariness. Plenty of exhausted expressions — families and younger revellers alike. All those heat-stroke depleted frames, frail from the length of the day or the length of the food outlet queues. Yet, amongst all that’ll soon sprawl out of the showground, chase a last-call at a local or aimlessly attempt to find their lodging or parked vehicle down the surrounding dark suburban streets, it’s hard to imagine few with unhappy memories of their all-too-brief south coast jaunt.