Review by Ben Connolly
There was already a significant amount of water flowing under the bridge by the time Flemington’s famous iron gates were flung open for this year’s Melbourne chapter of the Big Day Out. With ownership wrangling continuing into a second year, a buy-out by one of Australian music’s most polarising characters, a line-up to end all line-ups only to be tarnished late in the day by the pull out of Blur, and now speculation that the national festival will once again be curtailed by Perth’s inability to get its shit together as a cultural collective. In some ways, 11am on the Friday before the long weekend was a welcomed event, if only to end the continual news feed of the daily life of Australia’s biggest orgy of rock.
All of that dissolves away in the morning rain and all that’s left for the next 10 or so hours is a steadfast smorgasbord of some of the best mainstream local and international acts around at the moment. And what better way to kick off the southern chapter than a Brisbane triumvirate of rock and pop, bookended by the sweaty northern rawk of DZ Deathrays and Violent Soho and somewhat awkwardly sandwiching the impossibly chipper pop of The Jungle Giants. Deathrays are tight duo of thrash-tinged hair-rock and speak volumes of sitting cross-legged with your Dad’s mysterious early-80s vinyls and rapidly losing your mind. Soho, on the other hand, throw all caution to the wind and incite a chaotic swirl of early day humanity at the back end of the complex. With a seemingly ‘cool’ security, a circle mosh is formed mid-set and from that point it’s nothing more than hedonistic joy, including a tent-wide scream of the “hell, fuck yeah!” refrain in set-closing single Covered in Chrome. The Jungle Giants do wonderful things with an earnest melody and a riff-tastic guitar player which does their home city’s aural history proud.
The Red Stage provides the anchor point for the next couple of hours, with South Carolina’s Toro Y Moi providing a brief foray away from guitars and chest-beating. Live, the collective seems more than the sum of its recorded parts – which comes across at times as light, electro-fused navel gazing with a fair smattering of summer nostalgia. For the previously ignorant, the stage set up is either an impressive over-reach, with multiple keys, drums and guitars, or the signs of a band hell-bent on authentically recreating its sound live. Either way, it comes off wonderfully and it provides a floating soundtrack to the sunlight tinged ebb and flow of 40,000 people milling around. Set clincher Still Sound is perfect slice of sexed up version of mono 80s AM radio heaven.
Baby kicked off a back-catalogue heavy set by The Drones thanks to a last-minute stripping back to a four-piece due to an emergency with keyboardist Stephen Hesketh. The Drones are a difficult beast for a festival: they are almost given a straight run thanks to their critical acclaim, but the short afternoon sets are rarely enough to set you on your arse quite as much as the music suggests. That is seemingly not lost on the band, which plays up to the small but intense crowd with light-hearted, almost mirthful between-song banter. An array of broken guitar strings frays the patience of frontman Gareth Liddiard throughout the set, but he repays it in-kind by punishing axes to within an inch of their lives through extended outros on Shark Fin Blues and I Don’t Ever Want To Change. And in spite of the surroundings, for the small group of the converted under the white canvas there were few who could hold a torch to this simmering powerhouse.
Primus settled into a mid-afternoon groove of funkadelic psych-pop on the main stage, accompanied by its trademarked larger-than-life astronaut blow-up dolls and a fair amount of jollity. Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver kicked off the surprisingly hit-ladden set, which rollicked along with tall tales and covers of the Oompah Loompah song made only cooler by Les Claypool’s imitable slap-bass. Jilly’s on Smack and Too Many Puppies are highlights of a set bound to set heads askance for those not initiate to the skewed reality of Claypool’s world. It’s gloriously irreverent and not one to be taken too seriously.
A coin-toss moment has Mudhoney winning favours for the early dinner accompaniment before the elongated main-stage assault for the evening. Suck You Dry starts the set and the regret, as it devolves into a fairly irrelevant mess of muddy noise spat out by a band seemingly only still in existence for its heritage status. I ruminate a little on the fascination with large mainstream festivals such as this paying so much attention to ‘legacy’ headliners. That perhaps we’re getting a bit too caught up in heritage-for-heritage’s sake concept, and perhaps propping up acts such as these which, for all intents and purposes, were so much of their time that they hold little relevance with what’s going on around them today. Certainly a well-attended later afternoon slot at a medium sized festival tent half-way across the world speaks of something, but what that is I’m unsure. For the audience there’s certain currency in the “I saw Mudhoney” circle-jerk, but what kind of currency is that when that happened to be a couple of decades after the use-by date?
With that, dinner and rumination cease and with nothing else enticing enough to hang around for, a bee-line is made for the grazing expanse of the mainstage fields and the dying embers of The Hives and its always enigmatic take on rock. With a now-customary finale of singer Pelle Almqvist turning into a carny-cum-spruiker and convincing the audience with elaborately crafted and interwoven anecdotes that they have just witnessed the greatest band on the face of the planet. The wry to-and-fro certainly gave some of this claim at least a little credence and I’m left cursing the fall of coin.
The cursing continues as Liam Gallagher’s ego is accompanied by a paint-by-numbers assortment of Brit-rock throwbacks for Beady Eye’s ignominious and completely inexplicable stint on the mainstage. The previous rant re: heritage acts goes just as much for this post-Oasis, Oasis-lite, Oasis-cover band as it did for Seattle’s forefathers. The only real saving grace here was the aggravated prowl of Manchester’s loutiest export and his commitment to portraying as the world’s most punchable man in music.
Canada’s art-rock aficionados Arcade Fire suffered initially by a case of headliner preparation, with a river of bodies briskly squeezing in from around the grounds to get a good spot for the night’s pinnacle. It’s not to distract from the eclectic collective’s output, but it does provide an interesting juxtaposition for both band and crowd as they both reach a little out of their respective comfort zones. I think back to Bjork’s unfortunate position before Rage Against The Machine’s barnstorming Big Day Out 2008 performance – on its own, the Icelandic beauty’s set was a visual and aural triump, but add to the mix a few thousand voices baying for RATM and it kind of ruins it. There were brief moments like that in AF’s early set, deeply ensconced in the Pearl Jam side of the crush and fearing that the effects were largely falling on deaf ears.
The Reflektor-heavy set draws itself into more expansive territory than ever before, taking the vignettes of beautiful suburban mundane-ness and drawing them on a large canvas. This life-writ-large fascination takes a literal bent, with the band entering wearing massive papier-mache masks of themselves, before the pantomime was forgone for the real deal. The ‘real deal’ in this case still captured the element of melodrama in everyday life, a motif given literal meaning through heavy use of mirrors as stage furniture. High-definition big screens beamed somewhat unflattering portraits of co-singers Wil Butler and Regine Chassange to the wider audience. By mid-set, these portraits clearly showed the strain of the art on show, with Wil visibly wilting during Afterlife and Regine oscillating between near-orgasmic delight in Ready To Start and completely dropping her bundle in anthemic Roccoco. A set closer of the rockier Wake Up all but forced the entire field’s hands to the sky in sing-a-long glory; a move which was not to end now for the next 2 plus hours.
Pearl Jam’s inclusion was rightly heralded as a masterstroke of programming and one of the three “white whale’s” co-owner Ken West promised in the lead up to the announcement. In many ways, with Big Day Out and PJ roughly the same age as entities, it’s a match made in rock heaven as both career trajectories dovetail somewhat as they both entire legitimate retirement age. There’s little talk of that now, though, as a freight-train of a set gears up with ball-busters Why Go, Do The Evolution and Save You all set about to prove a fairly substantial point. With an unheralded 2-plus hour set up its sleeve, it’s a point driven home time and again – from anthemic heart-string moments such as Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town and Betterman to searing renditions of Even Flow and Given To Fly, this goes about setting a new bar for Big Day Out headlining slots.
Even new numbers Mind Your Manners and Sirens are given right back to the band in energetic waves from converted and interested bystanders in the foaming throng, while die-hards are treated to tidbits such as Dissident and Setting Forth (from singer Eddie Vedder’s solo soundtrack to 2007 film Into The Wild). A second encore brings Mudhoney’s Mark Arm out for a drunkenly sloppy rendition of MC5’s Kick Out The Jams before set closer Alive draws a fairly definitive line under not only this ground-breaking set, but also the history of this festival as we know it. The rules have now been broken by this powerhouse of band and it’s going to be interesting as to where the festival can go from here.
Review by Ben Connolly
Photo Credit: Kane Hibberd
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