22 Jul 2006: Belongil Fields Byron Bay, Australia
As I slide down the slippery side of 25, I wonder if I’ve gotten too old for the orgy of music and mud that is Splendour in the Grass. By day two I felt like the rock-festival equivalent of the Little Mermaid, gasping for air in a heaving sea of punters. But I’m getting ahead of myself… and anyway, the packed schedule was enough to wear anybody out.
To give you some idea of how big Splendour is, we drove for 18 hours to get there and back, and that was in no way the longest pilgrimage taken by the festival’s devotees. Others came from Melbourne (38 hours round trip) and Western Australia (unspeakably far away) to pay their respects to the gods of rock.
As usual, tickets for the shindig sold out in 24 hours, despite a new-fangled system that made scalping a virtual impossibility. This turned out to be a good thing, though, as it ensured that the tickets went to the 17,000 people who really wanted them.
The first act I managed to catch was Sweden’s Dungen, who came packing jarringly melodic, Swedish-speaking psychedelia. Dungen had the formidable task of getting a crowd going at two in the afternoon, and by the time they got to “Festival”—a song they dedicated to the Splendour crowd—they had more than a few heads thrashing ecstatically. The next thing we knew, frontman Gustav Ejstes had whipped out a flute and gone all Jethro Tull on our asses. Believe me, this was much, much better than it sounds. Much.
We then hunted desperately for a way to avoid seeing Youth Group and ended up waiting around on Death Cab for Cutie to do their thing. Whatever that thing was, it wasn’t as well received as it might have been. I heard more than one unhappy fan bemoaning the poor set list. I spent the entire set praying they’d break into a Postal Service number, but alas…
Falling victim to overlapping sets, as well as inevitable late start times, we had to race to catch Mos Def at the Mix Up Tent. This was a smart move, and turned out to be a major festival highlight. After getting things off to an unsettling start with a series of eerie reggae-tinged wails, Def proved himself a consummate performer. His set was at least as dramatic as it was booty-shaking, and we left satisfied that, even if all else totally sucked, we’d have at least one real memory.
After dinner (Splendour prides itself on some seriously good local fare; I scored a Yemeni falafel roll so hot it made a guy dressed as a lumberjack holler) it was time for the highly anticipated TV on the Radio. I approached with trepidation—I find some of their recordings a bit tiresome—but fuck me, I couldn’t have been more wrong. It seems that performance is where TV’s material truly shines, and they unleashed an (un)heavenly wall of dissonant melody and heavy trumpet noise. That they performed as the sun went down was a major bonus for the band’s atmospherics, and the intense blaze of their light show worked well with the giddy, whirling sounds that they created.
Being the old farts we are, we took a long break and patiently passed time until Sonic Youth showed up to teach the younguns a thing or two about rock. What they delivered was a master class in walking the line between art and pop, a lesson that covered recent texts like Rather Ripped but also left room for the classics: the set began with “100%”, and “Schizophrenia” served as the wildly appreciated encore.
Sonic Youth was so good that I couldn’t bring myself to cheat on them with DJ Shadow, so I missed at least half of his set, which may have been a good thing. We got there just in time to see him dispose with a Thom Yorke-esque wailer. Things got messy as Shadow cut loose with some fine party tracks like “Mashing on the Motorway” and then wound things down through an “Organ Donor” workout..
* * *
Many of us spent the early hours of day two mourning the absence of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who had enticed many to make the long trek to Byron. Instead, we showed up at three to see who the mystery replacement was, the act denoted on the program by four mysterious question marks. Speculation had been rife on the radio, in the forums, and around the pubs. Some claimed they knew it was going to be the Mess Hall. Others touted Silverchair. Since neither of these suggestions were particularly exciting, the sigh of disappointment that greeted The Vines to the stage was muted. Everyone sat through the obligatory “Get Free” and then sang along with their underwhelming cover of “Ms. Jackson”, but nobody really enjoyed it. At least that’s what I’d like to believe.
Snow Patrol proved to be the jolliest, most gushingly polite band to grace the stage. Each song was dedicated to another act on the bill: one went out to the Vines for their comeback, another to Brian Wilson. “Spitting Games” was going to be for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but someone in the crowd yelled out and it got dedicated to them instead. Although their music is pretty standard pop-rock fare, Snow Patrol do a great job belting it out.
Then it was onto the electro-sleaze boogie of the Presets, and as soon as we saw singer Julian Hamilton take to the stage in his genuine Les Misarables T-shirt we knew it was going to be an exercise in irony. But what a workout! These guys know that the key to reeling in a crowd is to hook up a searing melody with some mind-bending synths, then throw in some nasty beats. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a crowd go as wild as this, especially during the manic stomp of “Are You the One?”
All 17,000 attendees tried to jam themselves around the stage for Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and why wouldn’t they? It’s not every day you get to see rock royalty like Karen O strut her stuff. I regret being slightly too out of it to truly appreciate their show, but even through the haze, I was moved. There was an orgasmic sense of release that greeted the trembling guitar, followed by the death-march beat that marks the onslaught of “Maps”. Thousands had been eagerly awaiting this moment, and the band didn’t disappoint—squeezing every last drop of wrenching desperation from their most revered song.
Two numbers into the Scissor Sisters and the skies just opened up, drenching all who were unable to squeeze themselves into the Mix Up Tent. Having reached exhaustion hours before, we decided to hedge our bets and head for home. Yes, I’m ashamed to admit it: I abandoned the Scissor Sisters, as well as closing act Brian Wilson. I’ve seen the DVD where Wilson stands on stage waving his hands over the keyboard while those around him perform his songs, and I was in no mood to brave the weather to see it again live. I’ve since heard that he was surprisingly together, and that he put on a great show, but there you have it. Maybe I just don’t have that enduring reverence for the Beach Boys to which many seem to subscribe.
Or maybe I’m just too old.
// Notes from the Road
"Rhiannon Giddens, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, brought her Freedom Highway tour to New York for a powerful show. The tour resumes next week and hits Newport Folk later this summer.READ the article