Splendour in the Grass Festival
25 Jul 2009: Belongil Fields Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia
Splendour In The Grass is still number one. Its organizers have worked hard to make it the premier draw card on the Australian annual festival circuit, ensuring the show still sells out in under an hour at a time when other festivals are experiencing sluggish ticket sales. While part of the allure is undeniably the location, Byron Bay being one of the most beautiful & culturally intriguing places in Australia, Splendour also presents a thoughtful and satisfying blend of acts, from the hysterically trendy to the endearingly retro. This year’s bash was no exception.
The first day began with the devastating news that Jane’s Addiction had been forced to pull out of the line-up due to Stephen Perkins injuring an elbow. Frustration manifested itself in our skipping past any Jane’s tracks that popped up on our Splendour playlist during the drive out to the muddy fields. I was now highly dubious that the first day would be able to survive the gaping hole that this left in the line-up, and began to dread trudging around a muddy field bored out of my mind for hours on end. As it turned out, I should have had more faith.
We rolled up to the main stage, known as the Supertop, just in time to catch Tim Rogers of You Am I drunkenly slagging off MGMT for being young and good-looking (two accusations that could not be leveled at Tim). He redeemed himself shortly thereafter by delivering a blistering version of “Berlin Chair,” perhaps the band’s most well loved tune. This was accompanied by the frenzied tearing off of his shirt, in what could have been a nod to the “Time to Pretend” clip, only with far less erotic results.
The next few hours were taken up by exploring all the weird and wonderful attractions the festival had to offer, including the famously diverse range of remarkably decent food, at least for a festival. At Splendour you are far more likely to encounter hand-made falafel or sushi rolls than your festival-standard cold, greasy chips and a hotdog. We also checked out the Temple Stage, aka the Hippie Bollocks tent, where a dozen or so twits in tie-dye channeled their Gaia energy. Other curiosities included the wandering performance artist who lugged around a huge snail shell, and Santa’s Little Sweat Shop in the Tent of Miracles. We never managed to make it to see Santa, so I am still intrigued by the publicity shot of a pouting nymphette being spanked over Santa’s knee. Also of note was the Tipi Forest, where the (mostly) young ones grooved away to some of the best electronic music I’ve heard in years.
Then it was time to trudge through the mud to the Supertop in time for the Specials, who defied their collective age to deliver a brilliantly energetic set, complete with manic ska dancing. I didn’t think I knew that much about The Specials, but realized how wrong I was when I found myself nodding along to songs like “A Message to You, Rudy” and the haunting “Ghost Town”. And just to prove that they hadn’t lost their political edge over the years, the band commented on the plight of Australia’s indigenous population, with one band member going so far as to wear the Aboriginal flag as a t-shirt.
We all did our best to ignore the fact that we should have been seeing Jane’s Addiction on the same stage next, and instead wandered over to the Grant McLennan tent (named after the prematurely deceased member of the Go-Betweens) just in time to catch Augie March perform “One Crowded Hour”, immediately followed by my other favorite “This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers”, on which the group do their very best to sound as much like Nick Cave as possible without being sued. Turning up just in time to see my two favorite songs was almost enough compensation for the afore-mentioned cancellation, and even members of our party who are avowedly anti-Augie March had to agree that their performance was powerful.
Seeing Bloc Party again was a vast disappointment for me. The last time I saw them was at Splendour in 2005, when they were touring on the back of Silent Alarm, and they were something of a revelation. It may simply be because I have uniformly hated everything they’ve put out since that album, but this time around they were singularly uninspired. The set reached a distinct low point with the terrible “Mercury”, so I broke away from the group and trotted off to see Happy Mondays. Several of our party swore blind that Bloc Party improved out of sight the moment I left, but I have some fairly serious doubts.
Stepping into the Mix Up tent to see the word “Hallelujah” emblazoned on the giant screen at the back of the stage, coupled with the word ringing out in shrill tones, was like stepping into another era altogether. Mark “Bez” Berry was up on stage with his maracas dancing like a git, Shaun Ryder was lazily spitting his rhymes and all was good with the world. The Happy Mondays brought the first day of Splendour to a satisfying close, despite the odd tendency of the backup singer to constantly refer to the festival as “Splendid”. Not that it really mattered; so far it had been an accurate summation.
We made sure to roll up bright and early to catch the White Lies’ early set in the Supertop. The Lies have captured the hearts of all the ladies in our troupe, so there was much fawning and sighing to be heard. The White Lies delivered a competent set, despite clearly having not yet graduated from U-Rock. So far the report card read:
• Ian Curtis-style glowering at the audience: A+
• Shape throwing: B- Work needed on less literal gestures (IE holding hand over chest when referencing heart.)
The Friendly Fires were hampered by some awful audio glitches, but the boredom I experienced during their set went well beyond that. There was nothing for it, other than to wait until Decoder Ring took their turn in the Mix Up tent. Decoder Ring managed to do what I had previously thought impossible: make instrumental music truly engaging. Their show was huge, attracting more of a crowd than the Mondays had the previous night. The tunes are big and emotive, and the visuals projected onto the giant screens perfectly matched the mood of the music. In fact, as we discussed the set after the fact I found my friends referring to the songs by the images that were projected as they played. A sample conversation went something like, “What’s the “horses running” song called? It was awesome!”
Several of our group members were eager to check out what was left of the Screaming Trees and the Afghan Whigs, so we hit up the Grant McLennan stage to catch the Gutter Twins. It may have simply been the wrong time for an act like this, as I was almost ready to collapse from exhaustion and needed some hard rocking tunes to keep me going, but I found the set something of a bore and wound up collapsed against a fence somewhere. Don’t take my word for it though, as everyone I was with swore they thought the set was fantastic.
We had tired of trudging around like a Gypsy troupe, so decided the time had come to settle in at the main stage in anticipation for festival headliners MGMT and the Flaming Lips. This would mean straying into enemy territory and suffering through Grinspoon’s set, which was a horrifying proposition. Sure enough the Supertop was crowded with drunkenly screaming the lyrics to terrifying songs like “Chemical Heart” and “More Than You Are”. At one point a clearly delighted fan turned to me and asked, “How sick was “Champion”?” Having no idea what he was talking about I responded with, “Pretty sick.” Luckily he was far too wasted to notice my obvious sarcasm, and trotted off happily into the night.
The moment the horror was over we thought we might as well go for broke and joined the queue to get down to the front of the tent. Fifteen minutes and a terrifying cattle crush later we were the proud owners of a position way down near the stage, and were ready to face the coming onslaught. MGMT hit the stage complete with flowing robes and psychedelic light show and gave the crowd just what they wanted: all of the singles off Oracular Spectacular. The bits in between were less than inspiring, vaguely Beatles-sequel interludes, for which the band have been heavily criticized, but with tracks as bombastic and exciting as “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” leading the charge, how can you really complain?
And now the moment we’d all been waiting for. There was a long wait between MGMT and the Flaming Lips, but Wayne Coyne obliged the crowd by stepping out at random intervals and letting off confetti-filled crackers over their heads. It was clear even from the set-up that this was going to be a bizarre and exciting show, and the Lips certainly did not disappoint. While most of the band emerged from a projection of a psychedelically pulsating vagina, Coyne was pushed out into the crowd in a giant transparent blow-up ball. Things only got weirder as we witnessed Coyne riding around on the back of a man in a gorilla suit. There was also the requisite team of people in furry animal outfits (frogs and cats this time.)
The crowd was awash with balloons and confetti shooting out of giant cannons. The overall effect was magical; as anyone who’s been to a Lips gig can attest, and more than a few converts were made that night, especially when they concluded with a touching sing along of what must be one of the most life-affirming songs in the history of rock, “Do You Realize?” Surely it won’t be long before Coyne starts a Scientology-style religion. I’ll take confetti and animal costumes over Thetans and alien overlords any day.