There’s a certain smell to Splendour in the Grass. There’s that earthy bush smell – part grass, part manure, a distant hint of the sea, the scent of fresh mud baking in the late afternoon sun. There’s that people smell – that warm sweat pong that’s so overwhelming it’s almost pleasant, the shared burden of thousands of people who’d prefer not to join hour-long shower queues. Dozens of food tents share their bounty; cinnamon and chermoula and chili and chives dancing amongst barbecue smoke. Always smoke, the ever-present aroma of smoke, the commingled tendrils of burning wood, weed and cigarettes weaving their way through skeletal trees and densely-packed tents.
There’s something about that smell. It has a calming aroma, like being nestled around a camp fire on a family holiday. It promises freedom, reminiscent of that terrible, terrific odour of your first car, all petrol and grease and old leather. It’s a contradiction, a conundrum, a reminder of all the awful things about festivals that makes you feel incredible anyway. The smell is Splendour; the long queues and the thick mud and above all the music, the soaring, wonderful sounds that bring everyone together.
Without that smell, I don’t know that I’d feel so fondly about a festival featuring three hour car lines to even enter the campground, a festival with a carefully planned camping set-up that was abandoned before Thursday had even ended. I don’t know that people would tolerate waiting an hour to receive a wristband… before waiting another hour to wait to scan in using that wristband. And, certainly, not everyone will be able to forgive this:
(“This” being the surprise cancellation of the festival’s biggest headliner, Frank Ocean)
The fact that I turned up late Friday might explain my forgiving disposition. After all, I only heard stories about these epic queues second hand, along with horror stories about the Country Club deal (apparently an extra two hundred fiddy buys you showers and toilets that don’t even work). Turning up at six o’clock at night, straight from work, I didn’t even have my car searched (pro tip: wearing a tie and turning up in a Camry seems to do the trick), though I suspect our Canadian Club hidey hole would’ve stood up to some scrutiny. My first introduction to Splendour in the Grass 2013 was the hideous camping grounds, tents like ugly boils emerging from the earth, so densely packed they were practically interlocked into one tent-thing, a sprawling, uneven monstrosity.
The event grounds themselves were paradise in comparison, with the three main stages at each corner of a huge triangle with a segment of forbidding, eldritch forest separating them. The Supertop stage had nothing on the Woodford Ampitheatre, but broad thoroughfares made transit easy and each stage felt like its own oasis, avoiding the audio interference that has plagued previous Splendours. My first destination was the G.W. McClennan Tent, home for anyone strapping an acoustic guitar and with an appropriate country flavour, complete with Amish performance artists, a craft tent and the sludgiest stretch of mud on the grounds. It played host to the first You Am I gig of the weekend, a nostalgic rendition of their debut album “Sound As Ever” that took the occasional detour into songs from their early EPs. Tim Rogers displayed his usual brash charm, though I was only a fleeting tourist, listening to a few tracks before absconding to the Supertop.
The Supertop itself consisted of the same tent as the Gee Dub stage, just much larger. Itserved as the centre of a bona fide mini-metropolis. Drinking buddies Red Bull and Smirnoff Vodka lent their names to duelling bars either side of the space, trading throbbing basslines across the chasm. In between lay the merch tent, with all the twenty dollar pairs of socks you could ever want, while the Supertop itself was nestled between more traditional festival bars (read: tables, midstrength beers, that’s it) and the Country Club, uh, club: an admittedly impressive saloon-style place that served actual drinks.
In the Supertop, Babyshambles held court, and were about as shambolic as you’d expect given their name and lead singer, Pete Doherty, who demonstrated an impressive talent for being both alive and conscious. My knowledge of Babyshambles doesn’t extend much past listening to “Down in Albion” once or twice, but “Fuck Forever” is one hell of a track and it did not disappoint, Doherty’s drunken disorder anchored by tight drumming. TV on the Radio followed, and set a standard that the rest of the festival was never quite able to reach.
The Brooklyn group have hovered near the top of my favourite band list ever since releasing “Dear Science.” The last time I’d seen them live, at Harvest a couple years back had been …good, but below expectations. Their Splendour performance was just glorious. Not flawless – add “DLZ” to the setlist and skip those technical issues in “Staring at the Sun” and maybe we’ll talk – who the fuck needs flawless when you’re chanting along to the malevolent anthem “Wolf Like Me,” joining the chorus of hundreds of other wolves around, howling at the night sky?
If you were at Splendour, about this point in the evening you were probably watching Mumford and Sons with everyone else ever. My partner and I, while not adverse to a good hoedown once in a while, avoided everyone-and-their-dad’s favourite band to head to Mix-Up instead. Mix-Up was easily – easily – the best set up of the festival. Recognising that people might want to dance to dance music rather than cram into a tent and peer awkwardly over people’s heads at someone twiddling knobs, there was a tonne of space behind and to the side of the tent. Scattered around the outskirts was the Carlton Dry Deck to the side (a sizable bar with a full-size screen with footage of the stage), and the three jewels of the Wine Bar, Posh Pit and Truck Stop sparkling around the neck of the stage, promising everything you could ever want at a music festival: wine, burgers, and nice toilets.
On the stage itself, those scrappy electro-popsters called Klaxons entertained us for a spell as we lounged in the always-pleasant Wine Bar, before I dragged Jae, my reluctant partner, over to Architecture in Helsinki to end the first night. I say “dragged” because Architecture, a band once renowned for their sprawling stage shows featuring ten plus band members and a shitload of live instrumentation had gradually shifted into a boring-if-competent synth pop band. The last time we’d seen them they’d had enough people on stage to count on one hand. (So when I say “reluctant partner” I’m referring to her reluctance at seeing Architecture, not at being my partner.) For their first show in eighteen months, they’d bulked up their roster again to include a sizable brass component and produce performances of “Do the Whirlwind” and “Heart It Races” that I would’ve described as danceable… if not for the unforgiving mud doing a sterling impression of quicksand with a taste for human flesh, or at least gumboots.
When looking back on an event-filled weekend like Splendour, the moments tend to bleed together; concert into concert, a giddy blur of flashing lights and pounding drums. The real pleasures come in the quiet moments, whether it’s the quiet stroll back to your tent at the end of the night, the drowsy afternoon spent relaxing on the grass just within earshot of the stage … or waking up on Saturday morning to the news that Splendour have filled Frank Ocean’s rift in the line-up with none other than Lorde, the most exciting new artist of 2013.
Another memorable quiet moment of the morning was Tim Rogers’ oration at Women of Letters, an annual session at the Splendour Forum curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire where Australian musicians write, and then read aloud letters to their favourite song. Rogers penned his letter to “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael. I wasn’t familiar with the song, but you didn’t need to be to appreciate Rogers’ fluent, engaging way with the English language, whether sharing childhood memories or dressing down overly talkative bar staff at the back of the Forum. Honestly one of my highlights of the festival, a truly ascendant experience.
Palma Violets were not a quiet experience, putting on a raucous, enthusiastic rock show. The band were young, with the full gamut of young guy personalities – the awkward nervousness of guitarist Sam Fryer, the bookish intensity of Joseph-Gordon-Levitt-in-3rd–Rock–from–the–Sun-looking-motherfucker Peter Mayhew on keyboards (who demonstrated some wonderful, gangly dancing towards the end of the set), or bassist Chilli Jesson, who Jae aptly described as a “right cunt,” with that Johnny Rotten spitting on the crowd sort of vibe. Young men possessing this brand of self-righteous posturing tend to attract a certain kind of attention, as was the case on this sunny afternoon, with three young ladies doffing their shirts and sharing their own assets with the band.
Some unexpected nudity may have proved more memorable than the actual performance, though that’s not to say they didn’t put on a good show. While they suffered a little from “one album” syndrome, not having quite enough good songs to fill forty minutes, bright spots like “Best of Friends” or one of this year’s best songs, “Step Up For The Cool Cats” and a bout of crowdsurfing kept things entertaining. A trip to the Moët Champagne bar demonstrated how “rough” music festivals could truly be, filled with champagne and Spanish meat plates with pickled fennel and oysters with champagne jelly and such.
Chet Faker’s chilled out, so-smooth-you-can-hear-the-beard mid-afternoon set was the perfect accompaniment for a champagne buzz. He played his two biggest tracks (“I’m Into You” and “No Diggity”) at the end of his set, breaking the unwritten rule that most other artists seem to be following to place their most popular songs somewhere in the middle of their set. Something for Kate walked the line, dropping “Monsters” only a couple songs in. I admit that during SFK my attention was mostly on the skipping competition that seemed to organically eventuate towards the back of the Supertop during their show, which was slow enough for one girl to take the opportunity for a casual nap (pictured right). I do wish I’d stayed for the entirety of their set, only hearing their “Sweet Nothings” cover and “Electricity” from a distance.
All this – Tim Rogers’ wonderful soliloquy, Palma Violets’ British brattery, Chet Faker’s icy lullabies – were merely aperitifs, entrées for the main course: The Polyphonic Spree. The Polyphonic Spree are a large band, a pop conglomerate, an eclectic collection of a dozen plus members – what I’m really trying to say is that they’re a movement, a cult, one I cheerfully joined back in Splendour ’07 when they put on a celebratory, divine performance that’s still imprinted in my memories. It’s fitting then, that they would tackle one of the biggest cult films of all time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a movie overflowing with style and insanity.
They were a resplendent, absurd gospel choir, sharing the good news with patrons who’d brought along their own cardboard lips to wave above their heads, worshippers who sung along with every word and did their valiant best to “jump to the left” from the quagmire of mud beneath their feet. It was a spectacle in almost every sense of the word (the lack of a costume reveal during “Sweet Transvestite” was a disappointment, flash of stockings or no), and there was still more to come after the enthralling Rocky Horror exaltation, the Spree returning to share a few of their songs – “Hold Me Now’ was unsurprisingly fantastic – and closing with a triumphant, celebratory cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium” that had the whole crowd chanting and dancing along.
Invigorated by The Polyphonic Spree’s mad brilliance, Jae and I glided across once impenetrable muck, dreams of a night of indulgent merriment to match the revelry we’d just participated in, planning to dance like fools in one of the festival’s “clubs.” Sadly, a day of rich, spicy food and too much alcohol rendered us feeling less than festive within the hour. Nursing unappreciative digestive systems and sore heads, we caught about half of Flume’s show then a chunk of The National before slinking back to our tent. Flume is certainly talented, but he looks and acts like that quiet guy at the back of a university computer science class, lacking the showmanship to inspire a festival crowd. Much of his set consisted of him simply playing track after track from his discography with little embellishment (the occasional spell of live drumming, a live singer on a couple tracks); given he’s gone from playing in the early afternoon of festivals to headlining them within the space of a year, it’s not surprising that he has some room to grow when it comes to his stage presence. The National, meanwhile, put on a grand, melancholy performance that was impressive despite losing some momentum in the middle of their sprawling ninety minute set.
Sleeping at Splendour in the Grass within a slender slice of Saturday night presents its own unique challenges. Tuning out the noise of the battling stereos, the drunken banter, the hubbub of shared celebration is one challenge; trying to convince yourself that the sound of urination directly outside your tent is actually someone gradually pouring out a bottle of water is another task entirely. And this goes without considering that the density of tents means people are charging between centimetre-wide gaps, often stomping on the side of the tent – somehow we managed to make it through the night without receiving a boot in the face from someone losing their step.
Sunday morning has a mellow reputation, the best time for nursing hangovers over fried food; listening to PVT and Tyler Touché was just the right way to begin the day, swaying like saplings in a gentle breeze to PVT’s eddying beats and beeps, evolving to more of a shimmy as Tyler Touché guided the crowd through a tender, groovy mix of tunes. Touché was a finalist in last year’s Unearthed High competition and had that adorable shyness of arty teenagers, focusing mostly on mixing board throughout his set. He did crack a small smile when two of the audience brought out a bag of baguettes, before diffidently returning to his work.
Surfer Blood and FIDLAR amped up the energy as the temperature rose. The sense of summer holidays was rich in the air during Surfer Blood’s surf-pop jams. My last experience with the Weezer-wannabes live had been at a Splendour at Woodford, where their air, guitar-driven melodies were lost in the vast Amphitheatre. The more confined Supertop of North Byron Parklands was a more suitable venue, the echoes emphasizing the rawness at the heart of their music. “Twin Peaks” and the formidable “Swim” were clear standouts of a performance only real let down by an occasionally strained vocal performance from singer John Paul Pitts. FIDLAR ripped through a raucous punk-streaked garage rock set, exhibiting energy more emblematic of a late night sweaty hardcore show than the main stage at a music festival; never more obvious than during a fierce cover of the Descendents’ “Suburban Home.”
I would tell you a little bit about Lorde, but if the huge crowd that swarmed into the Supertop for her performance was anything to go by, you’re probably already a fan. It’s mind-boggling to see a sixteen year old girl conduct herself with such confidence in front of a many-thousand-strong crowd; she was awed but not intimidated. Her first words to the crowd were “I like you, Splendour,” and from the good-hearted aura emanating from the crowd it was clear that the feeling was mutual. Her replacement may not have softened the sting of missing Frank Ocean for everyone, but the organisers had made a great save, particularly given the short notice.
Her set demonstrated why Lorde’s gone from New Zealand high school student to world beater in the space of the few months. These were more than just catchy pop songs, rather a robust, diverse collection of songs. “Tennis Court” was only the third song into her setlist and I was briefly swathed in spinetingling goosebumps – not the first time that had happened over the course of the festival, but I never expected such a primeval reaction to such a new song. “Royals” was the undeniable highlight, with Lorde presiding over her loyal followers, an exuberant hive-mind joining their voices in a heartfelt sing along. The level of love for this song is intense: I would not be surprised to see it atop the Triple J Hottest 100 come January.
It was impossible not be in a good mood after Lorde, so Jae and I holed up at the Mo’rockin Wine Bar to keep the good times rolling. The Wine Bar has always been, for me, the essence of Splendour distilled, the festival’s feel-good ambiance in microcosm. The combination of vaguely Mediterranean décor, surprisingly decent wines and pleasant, competent bar staff all contribute to an experience at stark odds to the shove and stress of a typical festival drinking watering hole. It proved the perfect place to appreciate Hermitude and What So Not (Flume and Sydney DJ Emoh Instead) while drinking copious glasses of wine and chatting with randoms.
James Blake swept through with crystalline, wintery beauty, a cool breeze of precise, delicate tunes that cut through the comfortable embrace of the Wine Bar; a welcome intrusion. While I’ve since read that his set was apparently plagued with technical problems, it wasn’t evident from my vantage point. The last time I experienced James Blake was at a late afternoon set at Splendour 2011, and while his talent was unmistakeable, an oblivious Mix-Up crowd and excessive (if impressive) bass marred the delicate balance of power and sensitivity that characterises Blake at his best. The environment this year had no such problems, and while it wasn’t my favourite show of the weekend it was certainly the most moving, thanks to the quiet perfection of “A Wilhelm Scream” segueing into a heartbreaking performance of “Retrograde.”
The Passion Pit performance that followed was far from delicate, a full-bodied dance rock with an emphasis on the dance part. Singles like “Carried Away,” “Take a Walk” (which had the entire crowd trying out their own version of a dance-walk concoction) and, of course, closing numbers “Little Secrets” and “Sleepyhead” captured the pop sheen of the songs on record bulked up with a more muscular exoskeleton. Their album deep cuts weren’t as compelling; I’ve always found their discography to be pretty top-heavy, but I was certainly happy that I was able to catch them and James Blake after the Ocean-inspired timetable reshuffle.
The night – and festival – ended with Australia’s premier live dance act, The Presets unleashing a barrage of overwhelming electronica with a dark vein of energy pulsing underneath (the weather matched their mood, a bleak patch of cloud divulging a brief shower towards the end of the show). Their hour-long set didn’t quite live up to their fantastic live show at the Tivoli this year, though that show lacked the experience of joining thousands of others in the chorus to “My People.” There was a more festive note than their own gig, finishing with “Talk Like That” (“Anywhere” was nowhere to be seen), which was a fitting, jovial way to bring the festival to a close.
2013’s Splendour in the Grass was problematic in many ways, most of which I’ve glossed over here. These teething problems – caused more by inept staff and understaffing than poor planning – are understandable … and also, entirely forgettable. Only a few days after returning to reality, the details of the cramped camping grounds or clumsily-conceived wristband system are already fading away. The memories that linger are the special moments: Lorde’s charming sincerity, a crowd joining as one for “Lithium,” revelling in the bestial brutality of “Wolf Like Me” … or that smell, that terrible, terrific smell. It’s enough to make you not want to wash your gumboots.