The highlights, lowlights and other assorted observations from this year’s Splendour in the Grass festival.
Friday, July 22
We’re on a plane packed with hipper-than-average air travellers in their finest obscure band t-shirts, with one particularly vocal punter seated directly behind us loudly declaring he has a “hangover management plan” involving coke (whether it’s the liquid or powdered variety isn’t specified). It can only mean one thing: we’re all Byron Bay-bound for the annual Splendour in the Grass music festival, and if ready-to-party vibes could power a plane, we’d currently be in orbit.
Being on-site several hours later is a stark reminder of how much Splendour has changed since its inception in 2001 as a humble one-day festival. The North Byron Parklands have basically been turned into a rambunctious small town rammed with tens of thousands of festival goers, most of whom have absolutely no problem barreling straight through you to get where they’re going. Forget the mosh pit: if you want to play human pinball at Splendour in 2016, all you need to do is try and get somewhere.
Basic good manners mightn’t have been the hot ticket, but on Friday night headliners that were huge when Splendour began back in 2001 were. First up were long-lost Melbourne sample wizards the Avalanches, playing their first full-band Australian show in over a decade (and first since the recent release of their years in the making second album Wildflower). They drew a massive crowd to the main Amphitheatre stage, the crew filing out to the peculiar strains of the slowed-down vocals from Australian Crawl song “Reckless” laid over a somber piano line. Then the familiar ocean-liner horn heard on debut album Since I Left You blared out, and the 2016 version of the Avalanches took their positions: Robbie Chater on bass, Tony di Blasi on the decks, Paris Jeffree on drums and ring-in vocalists in the form of rapper Spank Rock and singer Eliza Wolfgramm. Once the quintet launched into a bunch of Since I Left You tracks, it was clear the Avalanches are yet to find their sea legs as a live unit: the set felt a little awkward, and the inclusion of Spank Rock and Wolfgramm rapping/singing the hooks was too much like karaoke, Avalanches-style. While it all felt a bit flat, it wasn’t enough to sink the whole enterprise – it was perhaps just a lesson that maybe working your shit out on stage in front of a huge festival audience isn’t really the place to do it.
Although they pissed the crowd off by being 20 minutes late and turning the stage fog machine up to breaking point, the Strokes upped the energy considerably once they turned up and tore through a killer version of “The Modern Age”. Fans of the band’s flawless 2001 debut Is This It were treated to nearly every song from it, Julian Casablancas – happily intoxicated from whatever was on his pre-show rider – clearly having a blast. For a band that’s been plagued by internal tensions for years, the New Yorkers looked like they were all actually enjoying themselves immensely, the set tighter than Casablancas’ black jeans.
The high energy turned sour around midnight once several thousand people left the festival grounds at once, only to discover the event organisers hadn’t got their shit together in terms of sorting buses out: some punters waited up to three hours for a bus home; others walked for hours to get back to their accommodation. Rolling Stone thankfully made the choice to drive in, escaping the shitshow and giving a Connor and Liam, a couple of polite young punters from Cronulla in Sydney, a lift home in the process (their highlight of the day was Violent Soho; their hot tip for Saturday being DJ Dom Dolla, who they assured us would be “fuckin’ sick”.)
Saturday, July 23
Hoping to skip a possible bus-related fiasco getting out to Splendour, we hit up our accommodation neighbour, who turns out to be comedian Wil Anderson, for a lift: we cop a shaky excuse that his transport is “just for artists” (hey, writing’s an artform too, bro!) But where there’s not a Wil, there’s a way, and we manage to skip a sizeable bus queue with some sweet talk.
Cut forward an hour and we’re interviewing polite, friendly Ball Park Music frontman Sam Cromack in the VIP artist’s area, learning one of our biggest lessons for the day: backstage is not where the action is. Where the Average Joe probably envisions a sea of cocaine and groupies and rock ‘n’ roll good times, the reality is far less eventful. Trust us: out among your fellow punters is where the real party is, and we scoped more questionable substance consumption walking about for five minutes than we did in the entire time spent VIP-ing it up. (Speaking of Ball Park Music: their set later in the evening at a packed GW McLennan tent slayed, the Brisbane quintet inspiring massive sing-a-longs from the ecstatic crowd).
An aimless vodka-fuelled wander around the festival yielded several other notable lessons and observations:
— The insane number of girls rocking hair braids, round sunglasses and dark lipstick reveals that FKA twigs is clearly the biggest fashion influence on today’s young women
— If you were a guy in a red flannelette shirt – like Rolling Stone was – you felt like you were wearing some kind of unofficial uniform for dudes
— Wearing anything you want – gimp masks, underwear, a purple lizard costume – is perfectly acceptable
— You’ll likely do more walking and queuing than actually seeing bands play
— The weather was A-grade, and we totally didn’t need to pack a massive pair of gumboots in our luggage
— We copped at least four separate but equally unsettling instances of punters starting up crowd sing-a-longs of DJ Otzi‘s horrific one-hit-wonder “Hey Baby (Uuh, Aaah)”
— From the sound of what we heard coming from the Amphitheatre, Sticky Fingers enjoyed one of the loudest crowd sing-a-longs all weekend
— Snakehips pulled in a dedicated crowd of party-hard punters for a fun set
— An aimless vodka-fuelled wander around the festival was the most fun we had all weekend: there was an excursion into the dance music munt-fest that is the Tipi Forest, plus stumbles into banging party beats sets from Opiuo and Dom Dolla (who was, as Connor and Liam had promised, fuckin’ sick.)
Then Saturday night’s big headliners: UK misrerabilist mainstays the Cure. Robert Smith took to the stage looking like he’d rather be anywhere else – basically his Goth version of a “Blue Steel” – and kicked off the band’s three-hour set with the dreamy double of “Plainsong” and “Pictures of You”, setting the tone for a set that mixed the slow and morose with occasional hits like “Friday I’m in Love” and “Just Like Heaven”. We tapped out after an hour and a half, prompting a spirited (read: drunken) debate on the bus ride home about how festival sets are where you should play the hits in order to please both the casual and hardcore fans, rather than airing deep cuts which considerably lower the energy of the crowd. Regardless, the Cure were at their downcast best (although probably not as downcast as those bussing it home on the Friday night).
Sunday July 24
Day three and Rolling Stone is tired, emotional and possibly more vodka-ed up than the previous two days combined, but soldier on we must. Today’s bus ride out yields a fun conversation with Casey, Imogen, Bronte and Brhiannon – all 18, all from Sydney’s Northern beaches – who rave about the Strokes set on the Friday night (big fans who were all three years old when Is This It came out in 2001) and urge us to go and see Golden Features later that evening (“They are the next ‘the shit'”, Bronte gleefully tells us). To wit: we take the tip and witness one of the most rammed sets of the weekend: the Mix-Up tent is heaving, and there’s a spill of punters about 20-metres deep around the entire tent enjoying the high energy dance tunes.
Then more wandering, more bands, more randomness:
— We watch REMI pull a big crowd for a high energy hands-in-the-air set
— Jagwar Ma not quite generating the required energy thanks to not sounding loud enough (at least to our damaged ears)
— The team at Mary’s Burgers telling us they got an on-stage shout-out from At The Drive In after they closed-up early on Saturday night to catch their set
— Meeting Jeff, the photographer a belligerent Richard Aschroft tried to engage in a fist-fight after his disastrous Splendour set in 2010
— Hearing City Calm Down bust out an ace cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”
— Boy & Bear bringing the feel goods to a huge, appreciative crowd on the Amphitheatre stage
Later in the night comes the big decision: to Flume, or not to Flume? Figuring we couldn’t be arsed enduring both his sure-to-be-gargantuan audience and then said gargantuan audience trying to escape the festival grounds, we decide to hit up the trippy Tipi Forest one more time. After hearing a dance track sampling film dialogue from Back to the Future, we indeed feel like all space and time might possibly be collapsing in on itself. After some questionable dancing, complete rubbish talked and phone lost, it’s time to call stumps on Splendour 2016: we ticked the “go hard” box; now it was clearly time to go home. Cheers for the good times, the bad times, and everything in-between, Splendour. And sort your bus situation out for next year, please.
All photos by Philippa Kearney.