This isn’t going to be a review of the Big Day Out. Unless you have a press pass with VIP access and the like, I don’t think it’s really possible to review a music festival. Even that hypothetical journalist isn’t really covering the whole festival, with four or five groups playing simultaneously across the venue and thousands of people experiencing it their own way.
What you’re doing is you’re telling a story.
My story? Well, let’s start with the bands. I missed seeing Brisbane mainstays DZ Deathrays and Violent Soho, who played early in the day. These are (talented!) bands that you can see live essentially whenever you want, so spending an extra couples in a thirty-plus-degree sun seemed like it wasn’t worth it when there was an air conditioned hotel room at the RACV Resort –
Actually, let’s not start with the bands. Let’s talk about the venue. This is my story so let’s go with my expectations of the venue. Ever since I was a teenager (and possibly ever since the Big Day Out has been running. I’m not looking that up, this isn’t a history lesson), the Gold Coast BDO has been held at the Gold Coast Parklands. With the Commonwealth Games moving in, 2014 saw the festival move to Metricon Stadium.
Generally new venues don’t work out in the first year. Things are put in the wrong place, sound bleeds from this stage to that stage, there’s too much foot traffic and too little space. Early signs suggested Metricon Stadium was going to be a mistake; the nearest parking was six kilometres away, the nearest train station was closer, but still a half hour walk. The only nearby accommodation was the RACV Resort which sold out almost immediately. Sure, there were shuttles from the train station and parking lot, but moving tens of thousands of people who all want to leave at the same time via shuttle bus is never a good plan.
We worked out way around the parking nightmare; friends were staying at the Resort so we simply parked there and knocked back some beers beforehand (the resort had signs up saying it was $10 to park but no-one was there to enforce the fee). The actual venue itself was remarkably well set up. Sure, I would’ve liked some better food options, but there was actual shade everywhere and stages far enough apart to avoid sound pollution but close enough to walk between. The stadium itself played host to the two main stages and was huge, allowing for the audience to spread out and watch from a comfortable distance with quality sound.
Maybe there were simply weren’t enough tickets sold, though. As far as I know, the festival didn’t sell out. For the most part the crowds were smaller than I’d expect at an average music festival, even allowing for the spacious venue. The most telling observation came from when I decided to catch Arcade Fire from the D at the last minute; when I wandered in less than half an hour before they began, there were only three or four rows of punters clustered up by the stage.
Still, the crowd was mostly pleasant. There were some dickheads on the walk in, yelling “faggot” at passing police and generally behaving like scum of the earth. But that old chestnut that Big Day Out is populated by rowdy teenagers and racist bogans didn’t really hold true, for the most part. A lineup headed up Pearl Jam and Blur (who cancelled) drew an audience with an average age closer to thirty than fifteen. It’s also reflective of a general cultural shift – Soundwave is “the” teenage festival now, while Big Day Out ages into irrelevancy.
Anyway, let’s talk about some music, shall we?
New Zealanders The Naked and Famous were adorable, performing in the early afternoon with that infectious enthusiasm that tends to bleed out of bands after a couple years together. They were followed on the main stage by Perth’s premiere psychedelic performers, Tame Impala. Their hour-long set featured single digit songs, meaning that most tracks were dragged out with extended guitar noodling. Some more psychedelically-inclined (read: stoned) members of the crowd appreciated this, but with three beers and three caffeinated beverages sloshing in my stomach, I was in the entirely wrong headspace. Like wearing a lovely, but ill-fitting suit. They made sure to play favourites like “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” and “Elephant” (which thankfully wasn’t dragged out). Personally, I appreciated that they threw a couple of the tracks from their debut EP into the mix, which remains my favourite release of theirs.
Grouplove were next. I caught their first Australian concert a couple years back at Splendour in the Grass, and the lovable California hippies spent most of their stage banter marvelling at the size of the crowd. They’d adopted a slightly more professional, slightly less delightful demeanour in 2014, but they still had lot of fun belting out their hits – “Tongue-Tied,” “Ways to Go” and so forth, finishing up with “Colours.” The Hives were a typically intoxicating presence on the main stage, putting on pretty much the same show they have for the last couple years. This isn’t a complaint; lead singer Pelle Almqvist is still a (literally) commanding presence on stage, lording over a sweaty crowd in the D. They were a lot of fun, but my story found me relaxing on the grass towards the back of the stadium, too tired to really engage with their effervescent antics.
Sitting out the back was the perfect spot for a time-honoured festival activity: people watching. And not just perving – although there were plenty of short shorts and bikini tops and bare chests and sideboobs on display, people wearing as little as humanly possible in the scorching heat – but just watching the rhythms of life. The crowd of thirty-something ladies who’d clearly had a few too many intoxicants drifting through what I guess was supposed to be dancing. The grizzled gentlemen clearly only in attendance for Pearl Jam, grumpily cloistered in stadium seats gathered around their midstrength beers. Generally the crowd is just as entertaining as the bands at these things.
Beady Eye followed The Hives. Both of these bands had been shanghaied in to replace Blur. Sidenote: I’m not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but I do wonder whether Blur were ever going to actually play the Big Day Out. Early publicity suggested that they would play after Pearl Jam at a completely separate stage (the “Love” stage). Ignoring the logistics of moving an entire music festival from one crowded stage to another, the timing just doesn’t seem to work. Arcade Fire were big headliners for the festival, and in order to accommodate Pearl Jam’s two-and-a-half-hour set began during the daytime. Was the plan really for Arcade Fire to start playing around five o’clock?
Sorry, no more conspiratorial digressions. Back to Beady Eye. Or, you know what, let’s not. I don’t really want to spend any time detailing Liam Gallagher’s shithouse band’s mediocrity, and I just want to pretend that their final song – a cover of The Rolling Stones’ classic, “Gimme Shelter” – just never happened. So let’s move on to the next chapter of the story.
After Blur’s cancellation, Arcade Fire were the only reason I could still justify attending the festival (here is where, if I were a grumpier fellow, I might malign Brisbane’s inability to attract sideshows from bands of this calibre. Or any calibre). So their decision to enter to the stage to the sounds of “Song 2” was perhaps a little cruel. But there’s not much else to complain about regarding their ninety minute performance. Yes, I was a little disappointed that my beloved “Intervention” wasn’t on the setlist, and maybe I shouldn’t even mention that but, remember, this is my story. Such minor qualms aside, their setlist was a good mix of hits, deeper cuts, rock anthems and indie ballads.
The Canadian group’s stage presence was pitch perfect. They found that middle ground between musicianship – playing their instruments well and elevating songs by connecting them with melody bridges and the like – and enthusiasm. The band has a reputation for being pretty boring, but it wasn’t reflected in their performance; they just looked like they were having a lot of fun, whether it was William Butler dancing around banging on a snare drum with a papier-mâché or Régine Chassagne cavorting with colourful ribbons. The stage show was equally well-judged and playful, with multifaceted mirrors suspended above and clever quirks, like the lights going out at the appropriate moment in “Sprawl (Mountains Beyond Mountains).”
I wish I could say that Pearl Jam finished the night with an equally impressive story, but instead I’m going to rant about things.
Pearl Jam were one of my favourite bands as a young teenager. Yield was my first “real” album (let’s just ignore that Backstreet Boys record for a moment) and “Given to Fly” from that album is probably the first song I ever truly loved. You know, that moment that you find a song that takes you away. I’m pretty ambivalent on Vedder and the boys nowadays, but there’s still a soft spot in my heart for that song. The song tells the story of a man who finds escape from a painful life through “flight” – a metaphor for spirituality or success or suicide or who knows. What resonated with me as a youngster was the contrast between the quiet sadness of the verses and the extravagant release of the choruses.
When they began to play the song only a few songs into their set, I felt that sense of nostalgia realised. For a moment, I was thirteen again, with shivers running up my neck. And then Eddie ejaculated his stadium rock bluster all over it and ruined the effect. Pulling shit like replacing “ocean” in the lyrics with “Gold Coast” because, yeah, that’ll get a cheer from some idiots. Taking quiet sections and turning them into “heartfelt” belting that devastated the emotional resonance of the verses, which were supposed to reflect the mindset of the song’s protagonist. Lines that were muttered offsides in the original track were instead screamed the audience. It was a timely reminder of how silly the “grunge” label of the nineties was; Nirvana, the main group to attract that label stood against the popular hair metal of the time. Pearl Jam were now embracing that excessive aesthetic and it was definitely to their detriment.
I escaped, to a hot dog and then a Snoop Dogg set that was more for ticking off the bucket list than appreciating the music; I spent the set lounging in the dirt up the back of the tent that housed the Dogg (or Lion, whatever) and his entourage. A surprise highlight of the night, though, came from the Deftones, the third act to be roped in to replace Blur. Like Pearl Jam, they’re a group that teenage me was fond of but twenty-something me had lost interest in. The music was capably performed and, I dunno, the lights looked nice. What made the performance so memorable, though, was the captivating, contradictory presence of frontman Chino Moreno.
A lot of Chino’s shtick on stage is pretty predictable if you’ve seen an aging metal band. Stomping about with an aggressive snarl, doubling over to roar into his microphone, all with the demeanour of a nostril-flaring bull in a loose black T. If that’s all there was, I wouldn’t waste words on describing it. But when he gets to the front of the stage, he seems to be possessed by the spirit of Enrique Iglesias or Ricky Martin; he twirls, he jazz hands, he spins his microphone cord around his neck seductively, he pops his hips like he’s truly living la vida loca. The contrast between his muscular masculinity and fabulous prancing is just amazing. I’m truly glad I got to experience it. Also, they played “My Own Summer (Shove It)” and it was great.
The story and the night comes to an end with Pearl Jam blasting out some classics: “Jeremy” into “Daughter,” then an “encore” [that wasn’t really] featuring both “Alive” (which was great, since it’s perfectly suited to stadium extravagance) and finish with a rambling cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” It was an appropriately old school conclusion to an aging festival.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the Big Day Out disappears from the increasingly crowded roster of Australian music festivals over the next few years. People my age are more likely to regard it with derision than nostalgia – not necessarily deserved, as the festival is not the beacon to racist moths it once was – and lineups helmed by Pearl Jam and Snoop Dogg aren’t exactly bringing in the youngsters. Whatever happens to the festival, it’s good to know that they can still put on a well-organised, entertaining, biggish day out. That seems like a good a place as any to end this story.