Getting into Sydney’s inaugural V Festival felt a lot like sneaking into another country: there was a huge crush as thousands attempted to get through several tiny openings in the fence, and, once you gained entry, you had to scurry over to the shelter of the huddled masses, avoiding over-zealous police officers with confused-looking sniffer dogs. Still, the V Festival was one of the few festival-type events held in Sydney this year that didn’t sell out within 48 hours. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and have come up with three possible reasons: a) Although Sydney-siders are not so naïve as to believe that other festivals are musical utopias, perhaps the average punter thought naming the festival after a mobile phone company was a little too corporate-whorey b) Many, many people were holding their collective breath hoping and praying for a Pixies sideshow. The fact that said sideshow was only announced a week before it happened lends considerable weight to this argument. c) The inclusion of the Pet Shop Boys as co-headliners with Pixies made even the most eclectically inclined music lovers scratch their heads and wonder.
I arrived at the main stages to hear the sounds of Phoenix drifting in the crystal-clear autumn afternoon. While Phoenix are one of those bands I’ve heard people rave about but haven’t given much attention, I have to admit these guys certainly know what to do with noisy guitars and a little bit of synth. Continuing the French theme, Nouvelle Vague popped up next on the alternate stage. I was eager to see how they went over live, as I am constantly amazed by the way these guys effortlessly transcend the “novelty band” genre to which, by all indications, they should belong. They obviously have a deep love for the tunes they cover, because what sounds like an awful idea on paper is a beautiful thing in reality. Maybe it’s just nostalgia kicks for aging hipsters, but there’s something nice about the light in the heavily made-up goth-girl’s eyes when she finally recognizes that the tune being covered is “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”
Halfway through Nouvelle Vague’s set, god-awful noises started to emerge from the first stage. The extremely poor stage layout meant that I now had a New York Dolls/Nouvelle Vague stereo mash-up going on. I had been so entranced by the nostalgic beauty of Nouvelle Vague that I’d shunned the New York Dolls — thinking that the reformed group might be a walking car-crash anyway. Instead of moving toward their noisy theatrics, I waited until Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse took the stage as Gnarls Barkley, and cheered along with everyone else as they launched things with a triumphant cover of “We Are the Champions”. Leaving Gnarls before the obligatory “Crazy,” I made our way over to Jarvis Cocker. I don’t get into his music much, but he is one funny bugger. Only Jarvis Cocker could sing “Cunts Are Still Running the World” as though he were unaware of the slightest hint of obscenity. He performed “Black Magic,” and a friend and I had an argument over where he’d stolen the chord progression. My friend was backing “Sweet Jane,” but I still think he lifted directly from “Crimson and Clover.” At least the man knows quality when he steals it. True to his reputation as an artistic maverick, Beck’s set featured both a bizarre, bespectacled dancer, and a puppet show replicating the band’s movements. Like a Russian doll that opens into smaller and smaller parts, the puppet show itself contained a miniature puppet show. Trippy artistic genius, or trite lamer bullshit? You be the judge. Beck concluded his set solo and acoustic, as his band sat down to some tea. Pretty soon they were jamming with the plates and cutlery while Beck gave us lonesome renditions of “Lost Cause” and then a portentous cover of “Wave Of Mutilation.”
There was absolutely no doubt that the majority of people at this festival had come to see Pixies, and they aren’t the kind of band to disappoint. Their set rapidly turned into the biggest sing-along I’ve ever witnessed, as thousands of trippers bellowed along to “Where Is My Mind?” and an equal number of rockers thrashed out to “Planet of Sound.” I had now seen Pixies twice on two consecutive notes, and the grin on my face took days to wipe off. In the end, the V Festival took me by surprise; I expected it to be far more ramshackle than it turned out to be. There’s only one thing that still bothers me; has it really come to this? With all the rules, disclaimers, heavy police presence and sniffer dogs, have we regulated ourselves to the point of inanity? I wonder what our music-festival-loving ancestors would think if they could see us now. Don’t take the brown wheat-grass shot; it may contain traces of nuts.