In the 12 years I’ve been going to the Big Day Out I’ve been awed by many things: seeing the Ramones, the Breeders, Teenage Fanclub, and the Smashing Pumpkins all in a row was one. Being booed and pelted with beer cans for leaving Primus early was another (how was I supposed to know all the latecomers had been locked out?).
Big Day Out has come a long way since the dark, grungy days of 1992. In that lost age, the festival was held in the dust and horseshit of the old showgrounds, close to Sydney’s heart. Now the festival takes place in the relative comfort of the new showgrounds, built for the 2000 Olympic games. Wide avenues and larger venues should translate to an end for over-crowding. Should.
The thing that awed me this year was the queue. I have never before encountered a line like this. This was the kind of line that makes you question your faith, the kind of line that makes you shit your pants at the thought of how many bands you were going to miss because of it. The effect was comical: every corner I rounded revealed exactly how much further the queue extended. This was the Everest of festival lines.
In order to stay Australia’s number one touring freak-show, the Big Day Out has had to grow bigger and louder each year. While it used to be a Sydney-only affair, the event now travels to most Aussie states, and even spreads its rockin’ wings across the waters to New Zealand. But does this necessarily make it any better? Many have bemoaned the lack of cutting-edge acts on this year’s bill, the kind of act that the Big Day Out was previously known for.
We got inside just in time to catch Gerling warming up the crowd. Every time I see the band, I’m stunned by how criminally underrated it is. The band’s set moves from dark electro to grinding guitar noise, then back to disco-boogie without anyone gaining a sweat. It also includes a guy in a shark suit performing mock-cunnilingus on another guy in a nude-suit. Some things will always be classic.
Magic Dirt has probably played more of these BDO gigs than any other band, so by now the band has it down to a fine art. The band has graduated to the main stage, which results in a constant stream of more chart-oriented numbers. Some might think this a shame since the band started out in the noisy art-drone-rock camp, but the crowd is not too concerned.
Next we saunter over to the smaller stages to catch the end of Sleater-Kinney’s set (I know they’re so hot right now, but I was left distinctly unimpressed), followed by the Magic Numbers. While some find their shtick a little twee, I thoroughly enjoyed the band’s harmonic soul-inspired ditties. And they’re just so damn cute.
Much as I am loath to admit it, I wander over to the main stage to catch some of Wolfmother’s set. I can’t help but think of these guys as a band that have been welded together from equal parts Led Zep and the Mars Volta by a particularly clumsy guy with a big-ass blowtorch. Having said that, “Mind’s Eye” lends itself to this kind of rock festival grandstanding, and the crowd loved it. The group also rock out on a cover of “My Sharona”, which kind of sums up where these guys are coming from.
On our way to the Go! Team, we catch a glimpse of the guys from Hilltop Hoods, who have become massive on the Australian festival circuit. You can’t step outside in Oz without hearing something about these guys. The Go! Team provides the highlight of my day, and I’m compelled to stay till the last note rings, despite being burnt to a crisp by the unforgiving Australian sun. The show is so high energy that you can’t help but smile and bounce along as the band’s members do little jumps on stage.
As the afterglow from the Go! Team faded, Henry Rollins took the stage for a spoken-word show. It was “Didn’t vote for Bush” this, “old rich guys with bellies” that. The only thing I took away from this is exactly how old Hank looks these days. I was surprised that he did a whole hour without the help of a Zimmer frame.
My crew make their way over to see Soulwax in the Boiler Room, which caters to the dance crowd. I can’t resist splintering off, though, to see the Kings of Leon. Some might consider the Kings’ take on Southern rock to be a little tired, but I find some of their tunes irresistible. Tunes like “California Waiting” have a ‘70s-ish allure that I find tasty, if in an extremely cheesy way.
Next up on the main stage are the Living End, a band I don’t generally have much time for. However, as with their set at Splendour in the Grass, they play such a tight and dynamic oi-punk set that I get into it despite myself. They are obviously a huge crowd favourite, with animated people pogoing and yelling the lyrics at each other.
It’s about this time that the guys from politically conscious hip-hop outfit Herd focused attention on an issue that had troubled me throughout the day. A considerable portion of the attendees had worn the Australian flag draped on them like a cape. Since the event is traditionally held in Sydney on Australia Day, this might not have been such an issue, but in the wake of the xenophobic Cronulla riots, where many participants were similarly attired, the gesture raises some questions. Ever politically aware, Herd weren’t afraid to risk unpopularity with this segment of the audience.
Franz Ferdinand beckons, and so it is back to the main stage… for another band that doesn’t usually do much for me. Still, they put on a great show. By the time they launch into “Take Me Out” the crowd is foaming at the mouth, so much so that no one minds their noodling 15-minute outro as they prepare to hand over to Iggy…
...who is like a revelation. How old is this guy again? If I wasn’t close enough to see that his face looks like it’s carved from stone, I’d think he was still one of rock’s hell-raising juvenile delinquents. The man has more energy than any of the other acts on the bill, and he’s done more hard drugs than the lot of them. Alongside his trusty Stooges he plays all the classic numbers and wreaks havoc on security by dragging people from the crowd onto the stage to dance like freaks.
After backtracking quickly to the smaller stage we find it overflowing with tired souls eager for some Mars Volta punkadelia. Imagine our collective horror when they finally take the stage and barely a squeak can be heard. How can the sound be so utterly fucked for one of the supposed headliners of the show? This leads to a massive push towards the front—we find ourselves recoiling as the sound kicks in properly just in time for “The Widow”. Cue audience sing-along. Despite the cool lantern show happening above the drummer’s head, I get bored soon after and head back to the main stage to catch some of the White Stripes.
Who turn out to be not such a great stadium act. Some songs (like “Seven Nation Army”) make it through OK. Others (“Fell In Love With A Girl”) really didn’t. Perhaps it had something to do with Jack’s sore throat.
The day is rapidly drawing to a close, but 2manydjs were more than willing to keep the party thumping till midnight. Playing an unholy conglomerate of all things tech-through-rock, they finally blow the roof off the joint when they pull “You Shook Me All Night Long” out of their collection. Perhaps appealing to the Australian sense of patriotism on what is supposed to be our national day isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Just don’t tell that to the guys wearing the flags.