Run by the same crew behind 70-band metal-fest, Soundwave, the touring Harvest Festival promised a relaxed take on the one-day festival. As Max Easton writes of Harvest’s Sydney leg, it was a promise well kept.
Melbourne’s leg of the inaugural Harvest Festival may have received the bar lines and food queues, but Sydney’s attempt was nigh on faultless. Setting up fort in Parramatta’s bluegum-speckled Old King’s Oval, the festival’s first attempt took a place misconceived as a cultural dead zone and delivered one of the year’s most complete and diverse festival bills; from twee indie to trip-hop.
With sweat on the brow in their black blazers, it was Brooklyn’s The Walkmen who were most defiant of the weather on the cusp of an Australian Summer. With all the swagger of Paul Anka, front-man Hamilton Leithauser wailed through lines of varied eloquence, screaming ‘you’re with someone else tomorrow night’ with the same assurance as the cliché chorus of Woe is Me (‘woe is me, woe is me, woe is me, woe is me.’) It was an inconsistent set, tightly played and well-crafted, but the successful experiments were just as common as the failed ones. The lonely reverb of their guitarist’s Rickenbacker sat as either artfully mirroring their front-man’s dejection, or mirroring the commonplace arrangement of their New York indie contemporaries.
The combination of daylight savings and a 10 pm curfew led to possibly the cruelest aspect of the festival, and that was dragging Mercury Rev into the sunlight. Regardless, front-man Jonathon Donahue (the happiest man on Earth hiding behind the sunken eyes of the saddest) hardly lost his grin, barely faltering even through the irritatingly frequent squeals of audio feedback. It took the muddy bombast of their first track for the sound mix to pick up Donahue’s voice, but by the time Holes hit, the opener to the classic ‘Deserter’s Songs’, it didn’t seem to matter. The mics could squeal, and the bass could drown out whatever the fuck it wanted…Mercury Rev had a performance up their sleeve more than capable of overcoming the audio faults. Plowing through hits of the past from Opus 40 to the cinematic epic of set closer The Dark is Rising, Mercury Rev delivered the rush that only a nostalgia bent can provide.
There’s no more fickle complaint than bemoaning a glut of choice. The density of quality line-up choices across the three main stages forced an all-day rush across the festival site in the effort of catching a morsel of one act on the way to another. TV On the Radio’s indie appropriation of the grooves laid out before them with the Sly-less Family Stone was an impressive snippet on the dash across Parramatta Park, their non-reliance on hooks a welcome break from acts like The Holidays who rested on a choral crutch. Meanwhile, the brief afternoon chill of Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah was a minor distraction to precede the push for a Bright Eyes vantage point.
With front-man Conor Oberst blaming a “ghost in the machine” for their 15 minute tardiness, Bright Eyes spent the ensuing hour switching between the many sides of their brand. From the folk-troupe that appeared on ‘Cassadaga’ to the darker rock band that stalked albums like ‘Digital Ash, Digital Urn.’ Half the appeal seemed to lie in the band’s ability to make this switch between entirely different sounds so effectively. The conviction struck by Oberst’s sullen sentiment in Landlocked Blues (“I put my hands up, I say ‘enough is enough’…and the little fucker shot me dead”) was just as powerful as the new-world bemoanment of the effect and distortion heavy Cartoon Blues. The band, too, managed the same efficacy across sounds, equally as haunting backed by a lapsteel as they were in the classic rock tinges of Shell Games.
Harvest was a festival with feeling; spinal chills elicited from all manner of sources. Whether that was the nostalgic rush of Mercury Rev, the lyrical eloquence of Bright Eyes, or the wordless post-rock journey of Mogwai. Backed by cinematic shots of cities in motion, passing landscapes and swirling digital shapes, the Scottish post-rockers journeyed through walls of steady noise, the audio issues plaguing the Windmill Stage’s earlier acts all but gone. Finishing on the inaudible vocal driven 2 Rights Make 1 Wrong, the crowd was left in stunned applause, as the edges began to swell for the festival’s main event.
With Wayne Coyne pacing the side of stage for its elaborate construction and an unusually unhappy looking Kliph Scurlock frowning behind his drums during sound check, it was looking like The Flaming Lips’ co-headline slot was a fuck-up in the making. Indeed, the tension seemed to last throughout their set by the time everything got itself together 45 minutes late, Wayne Coyne persisting with demands for cheers from an exhausted crowd (“come on mother fuckers, come on.”) Despite this, you could judge the set by the look of absolute glee on the faces of those assembled, showers of confetti the backdrop to whole crowd sing-a-longs of She Don’t Use Jelly, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and Do You Realise? The theatrics were unrivalled; Coyne bursting balloons full of (even more) confetti on the choral cues of The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song, wielding giant hands to shoot lasers at a disco ball and brandishing a smoke machine to drown out their backing dancers. The fucked up heights of the Lips were the festival’s unequivocal highlight…followed shortly by the note-perfect buzz-kill of Bristol mopers, Portishead.
If there was one thing Melbourne got right, it was timetabling Portishead before the Flaming Lips. The curiosity for the trip-hop pioneers was all but dead by the time the post-Lips rush was in effect, many spending the set at the edges talking about the day passed…but the sounds from a distance were a gorgeous soundtrack for a yarn, Portishead even finding time for some welcome anti-Tony Abbott sentiment. If anything, it was an excuse to sit down after five hours of rushing from stage to stage in the piercing sun, even if that was to the detriment of the attention paid to the festival’s biggest name.
Straight out of the grounds, on a train and in bed by 11:45 and Harvest had found a way to make a one-day festival work. In a bizarre turn of events, the festival’s odd billing as ‘a civilised gathering’ actually materialized, even after the nightmarish reports from the Melbourne show the night prior. Safe, comfortable and inarguably fun, Harvest managed to curate not only an artfully crafted line-up, but one that attracted a crowd of relaxed adults, and despite all the controversy (which can almost solely be blamed on promoter AJ Maddah owning a twitter account,) Sydney’s November Harvest was as good as perfect.