Review: Splendour In The Grass 2009 – Day 1

By: Elize Strydom

The clouds have cleared and it’s a sunny 21 degree-er in Byron Bay. I’m at Splendour In The Grass but there ain’t a lot of green stuff on the ground at Belongil Feilds. No matter, no one really comes to this festival to hang out on the lawn, right?

I make my way through the gates sans sniffer dogs and my friend and I head over to the Supertop. “Let’s watch Manchester United!” I enthuse.

“Um, okay.” He says, “Not sure who they’re playing this weekend. But I know Manchester ORCHESTRA are about to play on this stage.”

Uh, yeah, that’s what I meant!

Manchester Orchestra look nothing like I expected – and no, I wasn’t expecting a real orchestra. Lead Singer Andy Hull reminds me of Joaquin Phoenix post identity crisis – a massive mop of hair, unkempt beard and wild eyes. He and his four band mates play long rock jams (with two drum kits!) with minimal lyrics and not a whole lot of interaction with the audience. I’m way up the back and people around me are into it, despite the fact that for most this is the first they’ve seen or heard from the Atlanta quintet. When they break out with triple j fave ‘I’ve Got Friends’ the crowd goes wild. It’s pretty different from the rest of their set. The song has the distinct structure of a ‘single’. When it’s over a bunch of people clear out but I stick around to the end and am not disappointed.

Next up, Brissie darlings Yves Klein Blue. Frontman Michael Tomlinson is in fine form as the band plays newies like Make Up Your Mind and Getting Wise. At times it’s like he’s desperate for a response from the audience. He gets this intensely expectant look on his face and perches himself on the edge of the stage to look out at the masses. I think the audience are more than happy to oblige – there’s lots of clapping and bouncing and girls dressed up like it’s 1992. They pull out an awesome cover of the Boss’s Born to Run as well as a John Steel Singers song which is “about great sex”. YKB round things off with Polka and current single Getting Wise. These kids give me the feeling that the future of Aussie music is in good hands.

I make the trip over to the GW McLennan tent full of anticipation. I’m a long-time fan of Sydney band Bridezilla but I’ve never seen them play live. Holiday (lead vocals/guitar/keys), Pia (guitar), Daisy (violin), Millie (saxophone) and Josh (drums) walk on stage and immediately knock me over. The goose bumps break out all over my body and stay put throughout the entire set. They create a sonic landscape like I’ve never heard before. I think it’s the way the sax and violin add unexpected and highly emotive elements to the mix. Holiday reminds me of Courtney Love but with so much more class and allure, the way Daisy attacks the violin and darts around the stage takes my breath away and Millie makes playing the saxophone sexy. The band have released an EP but before launching into ‘Speaking To Soft Toys’ Holiday informs us that it will be on the new album that was mastered just last night and could very well be in our back pockets soon. I can’t wait.

Little Red are playing Splendour for the second year in a row but they’ve definitely moved up in the world. They’re playing the main stage, Supertop. I head in thinking the choice of stage is a little ambitious but I’m pleasantly surprised – it’s packed! Stare in Love sets things off nicely and is followed up with Forget About Your Man and Coca Cola. They’re still all dueling guitars, shared mics and tambourines but the sound is much more filled out. They sing about mustangs and dancing and a little darlin’. If you close your eyes you could be down on the beach, long board on one arm and the other around the waist of a sweet young thing. But today’s set tells me their soon-to-be-released second album will have a slightly different feel.

Still in the Supertop, Birds Of Tokyo walk on stage to the theme from Monkey Magic which puts a smile on the face of every punter. Ian Kenny (looking a lot like Nick Cave these days) leads the Perth powerhouse through soaring singles like Wild Eyed Boy, Broken Bones, Head in My Hands. He has the ability to draw his audience in and keep them enthralled for song after song. Silhouettic rounds off an epic set.

Over at GW McLennan Paul Dempsey (Something for Kate frontman) is breaking hearts. Don’t believe me? The girl standing next to me is leaning over the barrier arms outstretched with tears streaming down her face. Seriously. He opens the show with current single Out of the Airlock and continues to induce shivers with his heartbreaking falsetto. Then he moves on to a rock-a-billy number called Fast Friends and then the best cover of the entire festival: sensitive, brooding, intense Paul Dempsey starts playing MJ’s Billie Jean. Seriously. He brings down the house!

I’m sorry, I tried. But I struggled to see what’s so special about the Specials. Yes they were big in the 70s and 80s, yes they played a pivotal role in Britain’s musical history and I know I should be thanking my lucky stars that I’m here tonight to see them…but I’m just not feelin’ it! Perhaps if I knew their blend of ska and reggae I’d be getting into it. Full points for performance though. The six of ‘em bop and bounce and the grins never leave their faces. They’re loving it and so is the majority of the crowd so I stop being such a hater and soak up the (smoky) vibe.

Augie March, Augie March, what to do with you? Seasoned performers, skilled songwriters and all ‘round good guys…but tonight they seem a little weary. Perhaps it’s because they’re in the middle of their big national tour? That said, the set is sailing along rather smoothly compared to their Splendour gig three years ago when technical issue led to singer Glenn Richards walking off stage. They sound tight and a horn section fills out the sound and creates more interest onstage. They proceed with songs like Pennywhistle, There’s No Such Place and crowd-pleaser One Crowded Hour. I can’t fault their sound but I just get a sense that tonight they’d be happier hanging out at home, drinking red wine in front of the fireplace.

They’re the calm before the Bloc Party storm. I leave it too late to find a spot under the Supertop and end up squished behind the barrier at the back of the sound desk. Ah well, it’s Bloc Party, nothing can bring me down. Kele Okereke (looking all summer-y in a tight, bright yellow tee) bounds on stage and just seems to get more and more energy will every passing minute. Perhaps he’s feeding off the audience who are going mental. The band rip through hit after hit mixing old with new: Banquet, Helicopter, Two More Years, Hunting for Witches, the Prayer and the current (albeit 90s-sounding!) single One More Chance. They provide one of the festivals rare encores. Kele explains, “They told us we couldn’t do another song but we said fuck that!” Like Eating Glass gets a raucous reception from the ever-enthusiastic crowd. Just when I thought the mood couldn’t get any higher David Cook’s (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life blasts through the speakers and punters are literally skipping, spinning and dancing out of the tent. The perfect way to top off day one!