Featuring the likes of Kanye West, Pulp and Coldplay, 2011’s Splendour in the Grass featured the biggest names of the festival’s existence. As Max Easton writes, it was not only their most adventurous bill, but one of their most successful festivals to date.
As I stared into the eyes of a restless eleven year old Rottweiler, I started to wonder if this was as good an idea as it seemed over a beer in the Caboolture pub. Hoisting my duffel bag into the space between the animal and the crumpled sheets that sat in the back of a ’93 Hiace, I ignored the smell of wet dog and spilled bong water that collected in the car of the guy who offered me a lift to Woodford. We drove past the 60 or so others queued on the footpath of Caboolture station, all waiting impatiently for a shuttle bus that was, unknown to all of them, a solely pre-booked service. With longneck in hand and smoke billowing out the open windows, I was on my way to Splendour in the Grass, and while the rest of the weekend involved numerous overzealous security pat-downs, in-depth police questioning and a pinched neck nerve from the ferocious Hives mosh-pit…it all started with a dose of hospitality.
For 2010’s festival, it was Splendour’s hospitality (via Triple J’s revitalised Unearthed program) that debuted Sydney indie-pop youths Jinja Safari to the festival circuit. After 12 months of steady growth, they played to the first reasonably sized Amphitheatre crowd of the festival, their varied set ranging from stilted indie arrangements to cleanly crafted pop sheen – and the crowd absolutely and unexpectedly ate it up. Going from complete unknowns to a band capable of rousing full crowd sing-a-long’s in exactly a year, Jinja Safari painted the early afternoon’s tone, finishing with their front-man literally carried away by the D-section before he led them on a sprint across the Amphitheatre and down towards the festival grounds.
With Jebediah continuing the feathered pop-rock at the Amphitheatre, it was Warpaint back down at the GW McLennan tent that painted the late afternoon black. With sunken eyes, Warpaint returned their dark harmonies to Australia for the second time this year. Note-perfect and generally adored, they were near to faultless, but not quite engaging enough to arrest the back-of-tent conversations. It was Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears who were Splendour’s most unexpected triumph though. Existing as probably the most unique Splendour act relative to its bill, their modernised take on old school funk and blues set them apart from the 2004 hype bands which built the crux of the line-up’s remainder. With simple, measured grooves their spine, the Honeybears complemented the broken moan of Joe Lewis to perfection; the mingling of Matt Strmiska’s solos with guesting vocal troupe The Relatives making for one of the festival’s early highlights.
Slipping into the same era of hype as the preceding Modest Mouse, Sweden’s The Hives comprehensively demolished the Amphitheatre. With one of the most impressive backdrops of the festival (featuring a ceiling-high puppeteer pulling strings that, at first glance, seem to be attached to the band) and dressed in their signature dapper black and white, they were not only one of the most aesthetically appealing acts of the weekend, but one of the most powerful. Crossing their discography with a hits-centric set, the mosh thrived with the band’s boundless energy, their garage anthems fortified by the unparalleled banter of their man at the front. Just like Modest Mouse before them, The Hives were at Splendour with no release to tour. You may question their intentions, but when they end up playing a festival set this dominant, it’s hardly worth complaining about.
By the time The Hives had left the stage, the crowd was at capacity, punters pushing to the sky-high limits of the Amphitheatre to catch one of the most divisive members of the bill in Kanye West. With either anticipation or cynicism building alongside the increasingly elaborate set, it wasn’t until Kanye raised out of the ground on a five-storey high podium with fireworks essentially shooting out his dick that everyone began to get the deal. There is no one else that can come near to building that kind of spectacle, and while he cut a handful of his songs to half-length and did little more than strut across the stage with a backing track in front of semi-naked dancers, he still managed to induce 18 year old girls to cry tears of joy. The question is though, do you really go to a festival for backing dancers and an mp3 play-list? With how little he physically delivered to induce the unparalleled audience excitement, you get the impression that West could have jacked off on stage for 90 minutes to elicit the same response…but honestly, that’s probably the only thing I’d be interested in hearing auto-tuned.
Saturday morning established one of the biggest gripes of the festival in the form of the aural clash between the Mix-Up tent and the festival’s second biggest stag in the GW McLennan tent. With Gareth Liddiard’s gripping acoustic set tainted by the sound-bleed of Motown inspired soul crooners Fitz & the Tantrums (forcing Liddiard to stop and dance slightly between songs before remarking “if I were to organize a music festival, the first thing I would do is not put me on it,”) it was to be one of the ongoing problems of the festival. Regardless, Liddiard’s charm was perfect for an early Saturday afternoon, comprehensively demonstrating that there is no one in Australia writing songs like his. Faultering occasionally on his strange finger-picked acoustic ventures, his stories were stunning; strangely inducing a scant few to sing along with him almost word-for-word for set opener Blondin Makes an Omelet. Reaching into his Drones catalogue for a light selection inclusive of Sharkfin Blues (referring to it as his Khe San,) Liddiard was brilliant; his vocal touches and variations from the recorded versions, particularly on Oh My, were incredible, his register dipping startlingly into the song’s chorus before rousing a shell-shocked applause.
From Liddiard to the main stage, Nashville southern-rock/punk unknowns Mona marked one of a handful of the festival’s glaring timetable errors, playing a boisterous set to the 30,000 capacity Amphitheatre for around 200 witnesses. Visibly upset by their timeslot by its completion, the four-piece impressed with their brand of rock n roll sub-genre mashing before an influx for the wildly popular Children Collide. Down at the Mix-Up stage though, it was Foster the People who drew one of that tent’s biggest crowds. There are few bands so consistently capable of writing a hook, and the sight of the bouncing over-capacity attendance was one of the more impressive receptions of the festival. With a mass exodus following their biggest hit in Pumped Up Kicks, the hollow appreciation of the Splendour crowd was outed as many remarked on their need to see bands for specific tracks rather than an entire performance – but it’s hardly unexpected. If festivals are for anything other than booze and drugs, they’re for a small taste of a hell of a lot.
The Grates may have surprised many with the departure from their lo-fi garage-pop sound on this year’s release, Secret Rituals, but it certainly didn’t stop the gathering crowd. With their drummer replaced and a new addition on keys and bass, The Grates are a whole new entity; slick, polished and with a rounded out low end. The evolution of the band was a welcome one; there didn’t seem to be much legs in the sound that made them, but the progression does seem to have seen the loss of the unique flavours of their debut, moving more and more towards a derivative of The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s. Their true achievement, though, was the set’s cohesiveness; allowing the raw pop-punk of 19:20:20 and Trampoline to mesh seamlessly with new tracks like Turn Me On. There’s a true skill in not fucking that up, and The Grates did it with gusto.
Over the past decade, Gomez have become a bi-annual Australian festival staple. It’s all but assured that they’ll appear on our festival calendar eventually, and the gathering crowd of Gomez fans with an encyclopedic knowledge of their lyrical discography testified to their ability to win over a crowd. In 2011 though, it’s all starting to grow a little tired…and it showed during their set. With silence meeting tracks from their latest album, Whatever’s On Your Mind, Gomez’s spirited performance of past hits like Get Myself Arrested managed to win the crowd’s adoration almost exclusively. There’s little new in the fresh material, and with no real growth or improvement since 2005 release, Split the Difference, you start to wonder how long they can keep their loyal fan-base interested.
Splendour’s Sunday was by the far the fullest day, with a legion of quality Australian acts littering the McLennan stage facing off against the big name English contingent to finish off the night at the Amphitheatre. Adelaide’s Leader Cheetah impressed early, the slightly off-putting waver of Daniel Crannitch falling into place after a few songs as they found their stride. A series of Neil Young comparisons have been plaguing the act of late, and while the arrangements and harmonies do tend to owe a lot to Crazy Horse, they have an unmistakable indie charm that won over the curious to affirm them as one of the local highlights.
Liam Finn followed Leader Cheetah with a confusing set of odd ideas. Fronting a four-piece, Finn continues to latch onto his use of a loop pedal in order to show off the fact that he can play drums really incredibly well. With a drummer waiting patiently off-stage, he opened the set recording a couple of riffs before sitting behind a drum kit of his own to replay those loops and drum over the top of them. With material from latest album, FOMO, existing as some of the best he’s ever written (particularly the crowd mover of Roll of the Eye,) it’s hard to understand why it’s at all necessary for him to waste the audience’s time with a spent gimmick.
The Sunday evening was stalled by a program misprint which saw The Vines’ and Elbow’s timeslots inexplicably swapped. This was a minor annoyance for Elbow fans heading up early to the Amphitheatre, but turned into a hilarious error when a handful of angsty, revved up rock fans missed last decade’s breakthrough Aussie rock act for the relaxed English crooners. With a near-capacity Amphiteatre laid out in front of them, Elbow played one of the most faultless festival sets I’ve ever seen, with rich-yet-spacious arrangements performed to perfection over Guy Garvey’s soaring and beautiful poetry. With the Amphitheatre falling silent under the brilliance of the Woodford stars overhead, the gorgeous echoed whistle that opens the serene Lippy Kids sent legitimate chills down the spine for one of the most beautiful moments of the festival.
For many, Pulp were Splendour’s true headliners, with Kanye West and Coldplay existing only as a big-name cash grab. While Pulp were probably the least known member of the 90’s Brit-Pop incursion to Australia, there’s no doubting their pull at the festival, and by the time they were done, there was no doubting their brilliance. Beginning with a ten minute laser show drawn out to amplify the trips taken in the minds of the festival’s crowd (“would you like to see a dolphin?”), the set fast became the festival’s most theatrical. While Kanye raised from the Earth, choreographed dozens of dancers and a pointlessly divided his set into two acts, Pulp set up a flowing story of middle-class struggles that was brilliantly choreographed with immense production. From the surprisingly early addition of Disco 2000 to the splendidly appropriate Sorted for E’s and Whizz (“oh, is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel? / or just 20,000 people standing in a field?”) Jarvis Cocker led Pulp faultlessly, his incomparable charm one of the festival’s clear highlights. Yes, Pulp were there only to gratuitously stroke themselves with their hits, openly mentioning that this is likely to be their last ever Australian appearance (as Cocker murmured sarcastically; “yes, yes, I know…bask in the momentous occasion,”) but their catalogue is so perfectly cohesive that a greatest hits set isn’t so much a hodge-podge of their breakthrough tracks as it is a fully developed work of art. It’s an overt piss-take, and at every moment you think that Cocker is fucked up on something, you realise he’s a perfectly stunning performer. It’s just a shame that the perfection of Pulp had to be followed by the comedown of Coldplay.
The thing with the Woodford site is that the Amphitheatre is just too beautiful a spot to miss when it’s filled with 30,000 people. There is no other Australian stage quite like it, and when an act with a pull as big as Coldplay plays there…well, you really don’t want to miss the vision. So you go and see what the fuss is about, and you start to get big ideas to ease your cynicism. Following Pulp, I started to consider that maybe Coldplay, too, are conscious of their ludicrous pompousness and the joke is actually on me…however, it was the look of earnest yearning in Chris Martin’s eyes as he sang “lights will guide you home, and ignite your bones, and I will try to fix you” when I realised they’re spine-tinglingly awful after all. A whole set of Coldplay proves that they never really evolved from that perpetual moneymaking hit Yellow. It’s frustrating to see them on a bill that has been such a vanguard of reputability on the Australian festival circuit, Coldplay’s delicately dumbed-down setlist proof of the limitations crafted in order to stay in that middle road where the album sales are plenty. Finishing their first set with a sickly ode to Amy Winehouse, the festival ended with a sexless death in the arse, but an otherwise incredible visual display of almost 30,000 people singing every nonsensical word that Coldplay managed to deliver.
Shuffled out of the Amphiteatre and back into the festival grounds, the obligatory depressing end to a festival set in. Disappointed by the sole options of a quiet beer, an insipid DJ set at the cocktail bar or endless jams in the chai tent, we settled for the option that scraps the remaining beer tickets laying crumpled and torn in the depths of our wallets. Staring down a waning fire symbolizing the dwindling festival atmosphere, the discussions settle on the bizarrities of the festival passed; Kanye West cheered for a 90 minute power walk, Coldplay finding the time to sing happy birthday to their drummer, Muscles playing the same song three times…and getting to the festival courtesy of a bong, a van and a dog.