If someone offered you the opportunity to stand around in 45-degree heat for 12 hours, chances are you’d think they were describing hell, not entertainment. Yet, on Friday some 45,000+ people braved these conditions at Sydney’s Big Day Out (BDO). Despite the minor challenges posed by the hottest day on record, the festival was actually one of the most enjoyable ones I’ve ever attended.
The festival is a well-run operation and this year saw the debut of a delicious new food menu in Chow Town. I never thought I’d see Brazilian BBQ, Yum Cha and hazelnut gelato alongside hot chips and Dagwood dogs, but there you go. There were also plenty of shopping stalls selling typical festival fare and even pamper packages like facials and massages. Bliss!
But what about the actual music? Well, the day kicked off with local lads Fishing (who are also two-thirds of We Say Bamboulee). The pair looks like they’ve spent their fair share of time in front of a computer. They mixed and mashed electronic bleeps and blops while mist was pumped in from the side of the stage and threatened to electrocute them. The beats were as elaborate and appeared as difficult to produce as a chef wanting a soufflé to rise under extreme conditions. The younger crowd enjoyed songs like ‘Cliffs’, ‘OOOO’ and ‘Girlish Meadow’ while ‘White Sheet Beach’ had the same skittish nature as music by Django Django.
The Medics had their own secluded and cool oasis at Van’s Essential stage, complete with a concrete floor and large marquee. They played the rocky ‘Slow Burn’ that was as energetic as their album version. Kahl Wallace’s androgynous vocals ruled, as the group made a crisp sound that soared like Coldplay during ‘Beggars’. The guys were enjoying their moment at their very first BDO. It was like a dream come true for those mates and family members who had just been mucking about in Cairns when they’d first started.
Sydneysiders, Deep Sea Arcade are our own local answer to OASIS as their psychedelic pop references both the sixties and the present day. They were even dressed in quite authentic clothing with guitarists Simon Relf and James Manson and frontman, Nic McKenzie looking like they could’ve stepped off the stage at Woodstock (think paisley shirts, American flag jeans and rose-tinted, Lennon spectacles).
They played tracks mostly from their debut LP, Outlands including ‘Girls’, ‘Keep On Walking’, ‘Granite City’ and ‘If The Devil Won’t Take You’. The warm, neo psychedelia won the crowd over and not that the punters needed extra cajoling, but McKenzie also lobbed us full bottles of water. The sweetheart posed like Michael Hutchence and along with his ‘Mad Dog’ mates they played like hell in the midday sun. The fans clapped along to the fabulous, ‘Lonely In Your Arms’ and slinked along to the sexy new song, ‘Black Cat’ in what proved to be some early highlights.
A friend had watched The Griswolds performing ‘Mississippi’ and ‘Heart Of A Lion’ and we reconvened for Hunting Grounds. The Triple J Unearthed High Winners formerly known as Howl played a strong set that showed off the best elements of both incarnations of the band. Hunting Grounds ‘Anyone But Us’ was some ferocious punk that featured the guttural war-cry of “Kill, kill, kill!” while newer songs like ‘Flaws’ and ‘Star Shards’ had a more expansive feel thanks to layered guitar riffs and some emotive subject matter. They dropped a trashy, snot-filled version of ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’ and a circle pit formed during ‘Kill My Friends’. Punters paraded and jostled around as the energy peaked while ‘In Colour’ and that amazing guitar riff was – like much of their set – just ace!
On the Blue stage a 6-foot-2 rock chick as screaming. The band was Against Me! and Laura Jane Grace was making her debut. Many people would still remember her as frontman, Thomas Gabel. In songs like ‘I Was A Teenage Anarchist’, Grace proved she can still rock with the boys and she seemed more comfortable in her own skin and new black stilettos than ever. She is one defiant and gutsy lady!
It started raining during Grinspoon so I started to think of the BDO as a spa of sorts. As much as I’d love to give the guys credit for bringing the rains and pulling a large and enthusiastic crowd, I couldn’t help but feel like I’ve outgrown their music. They started strong with ‘Hard Act To Follow’ but newer songs like ‘Passerby’ and ‘Run’ fizzled. At least ‘Ready 1’ picked things up as the guys threw all their energy into ‘No Reason’, ‘Bleed You Dry’ and ‘1000 Miles’, but it was nothing I haven’t already seen before.
Their song choice had been difficult to fault but at this point I would’ve traded it all for a cold shower and a bucket of ice-cream. That same feeling could also be applied to my reaction to the melodic, retro-styled Americana of Band Of Horses. While ‘Is There A Ghost’ and ‘No One’s Gonna Love You’ seemed pleasant enough, I felt like I’d happily leave it and stick with my seventies vinyl.
A good festival act is Vampire Weekend, who entertained us with their bouncy, indie rock. ‘Cousins’ was a joy while ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’ was like ‘Kumbaya’ notched up to 11. Ezra Koenig may have broken a string in ‘M-79’ but he steered the good ship home during set highlights ‘A-Punk’ and ‘Holiday’. ‘Giving Up The Gun’ got the punters doing some spontaneous, syncopated dance moves and new song ‘Unbelievers’ fit in well with the older material from ‘Contra’ and their eponymous debut. ‘Oxford Comma’ was a love song that was all fifties sweethearts, milkshakes and rocking around the clock.
Many acts had put on a good show but some punters had decided to take the entertainment into their own hands. Some skated on tiles they’d pulled off the ground. Other shirtless wags were doing some WWE wrestling (or at least body slamming) while further back in the stadium another group had decided to build a huge tower out of tiles. As you do.
If there’s one thing about festival madness it’s that even with entertainment like live music, rides and this year’s extra-special, masked Mexican wrestling it’s that your fellow punters can also be a source of enjoyment and spectator sport. Some publications have devoted space to the “S**t people wear at festivals” and in the interests of good and bad fashion my own highlights included: seeing a guy swelter in a fleece giraffe costume; a couple in leopard print that looked like a caveman and woman; and one man who was wearing nothing but striped black-and-white underpants and a yellow cap. One guy forgot his hat and improvised with a large cardboard box and I lost count of the number of handmade Chilli Peppers shirts, Aussie flags, sombreros, foam hands, feather headdresses and sunburn.
One group had also brought a large prop i.e. a fake knob and unleashed it into the crowd. It was almost the size of an actual person and brought immense joy to the people who posed and played with it. But it did give rise to an interesting packing scenario beforehand. One would imagine the conversation being: “Sunscreen?” “Check” “Money?” “Check” “Phone?” “Check” “Massive cock?” “Oh yeah, check!”
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs certainly didn’t need the fashion or fun police. Karen O looked like a gold canary in her yellow outfit and bleached blonde hair as she led us through old favourites, ‘Phenomena’, ‘Pin’ and ‘Gold Lion’. The disco pop of ‘Heads Will Roll’ got people dancing while the grungier ‘Soft Shock’ was a necessary bridge between albums and styles. ‘Skeleton’ was the gorgeous, softer tune that ‘Maps’ should’ve been but wasn’t and the set came to a rousing end with the fuzzy ‘Zero’, complete with O following her own instructions by getting some leather on.
As Crystal Castles whipped the Boiler Room into a frenzy with ‘Baptism’ and ‘Alice Practice’, The Killers were on the main stage achieving the same thing with special animations and classics like ‘Mr. Brightside’ and ‘Spaceman’. The visuals captivated and boosted the synth-pop to the next level as we all soldiered on through the rain. ‘Somebody Told Me’ had the punters air-drumming before they were confused by Brandon Flowers and Co. launching into an impromptu sing-along with the start of CROWDED HOUSE’S ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. Some fireworks during ‘When You Were Young’ also brought things home with a bang, quite literally.
Animal Collective would officially close the night on the green stage with a set that included large, inflatable teeth. It meant that the day finished off in much the same way as it had started. I was once again watching a group of guys crafting beats like wizards- ones that whirred and hurled like comets through space with numbers like ‘Rosie Oh’, ‘Today’s Supernatural’ and ‘Wide Eyed’.
But the night – and day – really only belonged to one group and that was the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. This stadium arcadium was bursting as videos from the Sea Shepherd conservation group played and the anticipation mounted. Anthony Kiedis strutted on stage wearing a long, black jacket and OFF! cap while Flea held a pose with purple hair and bass slung low like he was off doing yoga before the games began. He eventually came to life at the start of the new song, ‘Monarchy Of Roses’.
Kiedis and Flea plus drummer Chad Smith may have reached 50 and beyond but they have enough energy to mop up the floor with youngsters half their age. At times it felt like they hadn’t changed one bit from those skate punks that used to jump off buildings in California when they were growing up. The biggest difference is that the group are experienced and tight. The rhythm section slots together like two Lego pieces and while guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer is not John Frusciante, the kid proved that he really can play. He wielded his axe with just the right amount of spirit and respect to his predecessors who had crafted those amazing riffs.
The video screens reproduced the band’s performance but these had artistic filters put over them. Sometimes there were all blue and purple hues while at other times they looked like they could’ve been designed by The White Stripes for all the red, white and black and at other moments they were like x-rayed rainbows. It made it difficult to know where to watch. The screens were cool but the energy on stage was so high and then there was that crazy bass solo in ‘Around the World’ where Flea’s playing was almost demonic.
Flea was absolutely hilarious, by the way. He paid tribute to everyone from security guards to people collecting rubbish and delivered a soliloquy as banter and that’s when he wasn’t pulling out all the stops like walking on his hands, prancing around and pulling out every rubber man-move from the book. ‘Scar Tissue’ was an early favourite that had us all cruising together like we were in that beat-up car from the video clip and ‘Snow (Hey Oh)’ was easy for the less devoted fans to sing along to. The clapping and crowd surfers also came thick and fast for ‘Factory of Faith’.
They played hits like ‘Can’t Stop’ and ‘Californication’ (a lot of this captured by a small army of camera phones) plus covers of David Bowie’s ‘What in The World’ and a jam of Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Ocean’. ‘By The Way’ was an absolute freak-out where Kiedis’ vocals were distorted like robotic, white noise and the angry guitar riffs sang before we all partied in ‘Higher Ground’.
Their set came to a rousing climax in the encore with ‘Give It Away’. Some black and white photos of punters were splashed alongside video of the band pulling faces. It was an awesome ending but my highlight of the day and overarching memory of their performance was ‘Under the Bridge’. With a crescent moon and a few stars in the sky a stadium full of people all sang along to this powerful number. And in that moment we all learnt what music was about and why you’d go to hell and back just for a piece of higher ground.
Overheard at Big Day Out –
•Punter 1: “Man, my drink smells like B.O.!”
•Punter 2: “Have Vampire Weekend played that song that goes (hums tune to “A-Punk”) yet?” (The band had started playing the song mid-sentence)
•Michael Belsar, Hunting Grounds: “I’ve been trying to get our drummer to get into his underwear. He’s in his short-shorts (as drummer flashes his Bonds). Who wants to see some f**king balls?
•Nic McKenzie, Deep Sea Arcade: “I’m starting to kill everybody with water bottles!”
•And last but not least – Flea, Red Hot Chilli Peppers: “Sunshine makes me hot. I’m like a f**king lizard!”
Originally published on 20 January 2012 at the following websites: http://www.sludgefactory.com.au/big-day-out-sydney-festival-review
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