Since its 2001 inauguration, Splendour in the Grass has grown into a beast. Now revered amongst the likes of Coachella, Glastonbury and Primavera Sound at the very top of the global music festival tree – both in size and quality – it continues to be on the move, and on the move quickly.
As a Splendour debutant, it took only a few conversations with experienced North Byron attendees to understand the festival’s momentum. In recent years, the stages have mushroomed and the activities have ballooned. Not only have set clashes rendered disappointment inevitable but the superfluity of bars, games and random engagements have introduced a new ingredient for FOMO to thrive and prosper.
While the cynic in me questions the profuseness, it’s a young-at-heart 26-year-old that warms to such childlike grandiosity. If punters weren’t jumping through a washing machine to get into a secret bar, they were perched upon the top of a mountain with a bottle of Moet, swaying to the chimes of the Amphitheatre stage below them. The GW McLennan tent whisked punters away to the bush before the World Stage flooded them to 1920s America, where spiegeltents thrived and entertainment was at its most eccentric.
So with Splendour’s Manhattan-like immensity in mind, how did the music fare? What was the appraisal of the mere 30 – 40 per cent of music one was actually capable of seeing?
Well, for the most part, the music lived up to the expectations Splendour had built for itself. If there’s one thing to crafting a music festival lineup, it’s that you wear any of the mishaps or shortfalls that occur through poor performance or cancellation.
For those in the know, Chance the Rapper’s abandonment wasn’t any outrageous surprise. Australia’s no simple hopscotch from Chicago and with the rapper’s album out on Friday July 26, 56 hours of back and forth transit was never going to sit well the week of a release.
Nonetheless, festivalgoers were forced to be content with “illness” as Chance’s excuse for not fulfilling his headline slot. Let’s hope the rapper was legitimately sick and we weren’t privy to false pretence because this one hurt… a lot.
While Chance’s absence was gutting, Friday and Saturday both produced mammoth headline sets which went some way to quashing the overarching disappointment. Tame Impala have become titans of transcendent rock and their Friday closing set did nothing to dent their reputation.
[caption id="attachment_274942" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Tame Impala Photo: Joshua Braybrook[/caption]
‘Let It Happen’ is arguably one of the best album opening tracks of the last decade, so it was only fitting that this performance would unlock an Australian live vault gridlocked shut since the Laneway Festival circuit of 2017. Tame Impala played ‘Let It Happen’ first at Laneway also, so you could critique them for monotony but that would be crass.
‘Patience’ and ‘Borderline’ were the only new tracks to make their way onto the setlist and it seems that’s just the way the Kevin Parker cookie crumbles. Such is his strategic elusiveness; the seminal producer isn’t just going to unleash three or four unheard tracks on a crowd at once.
Increasingly grateful for the crowd’s affection, Parker proved a bit of a goofball behind the mic. There was an air of modesty behind his crowd participation and narration – refreshing irony in a music industry often dominated by egotism.
Childish Gambino filled the boots of the Saturday headline slot and produced a set for the history books. You don’t need me to enlighten you of this creative deity’s credentials and as he warmed into the set with two unreleased tracks, ‘Atavista’ and ‘Algorythm’, fans became acquainted with his stadium-sized production. His bandmembers appeared like ants in a paddock, shrouded by the performer’s ten-metre installation and dazzling light show. This did nothing to dent their musical influence however as they went pound-for-pound with every Gambino improvisation.
Closing out his set with a successive run of ‘This Is America’, ‘Sober’, ‘V. 3005’, ‘IV. sweatpants’ and ‘Redbone’, there was no doubt Gambino left his best until last – only fitting given it might have been his penultimate Australian performance.
Gambino is a supernatural entity but wasn’t the only mystic occurrence at this year’s Splendour in the Grass. 20 hours earlier, a somewhat fabled Australian band ignited the Amphitheatre stage like it was 2006.
Some might say Wolfmother stood out like a sore thumb on a lineup defined by its youth; others might’ve said they would’ve been better suited as the “mystery Oz act” instead a band that just won the triple j Hottest 100… real surprise.
Vocal individuality is probably the most difficult musical trait to obtain and if there was anything that lead singer Andrew Stockdale still had going for him, it’s that. His curling falsetto is a hook in itself and their 3.15pm Friday slot was one set time triumph from the Splendour organisers. Classics ‘White Unicorn’, ‘Woman’ and ‘Joker and the Thief’ kicked the festival into gear in a big way.
From there, the Amphitheatre saw FIDLAR ignite meteoric death pits with their riotous skate punk. There was no room for a shoey in a set that easily extended beyond its one-hour allocation, however, as the calls for the rite of passage were hosed down by frontman Zac Carper.
Punters who stuck around in the Amphitheatre were then treated to one of the festival’s biggest surprises. Hayden James, accompanied by a glowing wormhole-like stage installation, delivered one of Splendour’s biggest parties and wasn’t scared to welcome some guests onto the stage. Running Touch, Graace and Panama all appeared, yet the most triumphant moment was when Nat Dunn and the Brisbane City Gospel City Choir jumped on stage for ‘Nowhere To Go’. There was complete silence as the choir’s beautiful harmonies enveloped the main stage. Beautiful stuff, Hayden.
James kept the dancing separated between him and the grassy hills, however Santigold wasn’t having any of that nonsense, inviting the crowd up on stage for a dance during her Amphitheatre set. Don’t expect SZA-like energy from Santigold however – she was relatively placid as she roamed around the stage; her bass-heavy backbeat making up for any lifelessness.
Foals were the perfect warm-up for Tame Impala’s Friday headline set. These vivacious Brits know how to put on a show and it was evident the art-rockers weren’t here to solely parade their recently-released 2019 album, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1. ‘On the Luna’, ‘In Degrees’ and ‘Exits’ made up three of the first four tracks but then it was onto deeper territory with the likes of ‘Providence’, ‘Spanish Sahara’, ‘Inhaler’ and go-to set closer ‘Two Steps, Twice’. These guys appreciate the adoring listenership which beloved early albums, Antidotes, Total Life Forever and Holy Fire defined in the first place.
It was then onto the aforementioned Tame Impala who whisked their crowd far, far away with a supernatural performance.
The Saturday bill would bring a wonderful slew of acts, with the likes of Moaning Lisa, Dear Seattle, Channel Tres and Trophy Eyes dominating the early proceedings.
Making it in for Pond, frontman Nick Allbrook made it clear early on that this wasn’t going to be some ordinary rock show. Known for his eccentric stage demeanour, Allbrook threw himself around the stage and into the crowd throughout the band’s 50-minute set. The band’s Like A Version cover of Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ appeared and what sounded cosmic on recording didn’t quite have the same psychedelic punch in the Amphitheatre. Nice try though.
Catching the backend of Little Simz brought plenty of joy. Quickly garnering her foothold in a rap-obsessed America, it’s clear the word is starting to spread. Her Mix Up crowd was in raptures and its always nice to see a performer humbled by the reception. Bowing and waving post-set, that was Simz.
The Melburnian in me couldn’t stray from the GW McLennan tent for Tropical Fuck Storm who were probably Splendour’s most obscure billing. My heart dropped when I arrived to a sluggish crowd – merely sporadic buoys in an ocean ten minutes before the set. That quickly changed though, as a flood of overzealous punters roared in just as TFS kicked things off with ‘Chameleon Paint’. Gareth Liddiard was probably the most underappreciated musician on the lineup so hopefully some passerby was curious enough to stop and absorb the set. Thrashing and flashing on stage, Liddiard was as visceral as ever.
[caption id="attachment_274939" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Tropical Fuck Storm Photo: Joshua Braybrook[/caption]
A drink stop at the Moet Bar was then followed with a venture to see indie-dance kings and the night’s penultimate set, Friendly Fires. Their seminal self-titled debut was enough to carry this admittedly fairweather supporter to the Mix Up tent and it was over to Ed McFarlane to deliver one of the most energetic frontman displays of the festival. As he bounced and bopped with the energy of a jack in the box, the crowd matched every left turn – now even more anticipation shrouds their forthcoming third album.
Childish Gambino then took things into the night and with the party in full swing, the energy around the site was palpable – “I’ll get four vodka, lime and sodas, please”.
The news of Chance the Rapper’s cancellation had well and truly hit the Parklands by early Sunday and if single-day ticketholders weren’t busy preparing their refund request they were tossing a coin between late ring-ins Hilltop Hoods or What So Not as the day’s headline viewing.
Earlier in the day, the stage was set for the bouncy indie-pop of Last Dinosaurs, the buzzsaw rock’n’roll of Psychedelic Porn Crumpets and the brooding emotive pop of Mansionair.
The former of the three had punters in a frenzy for their mid-afternoon Amphitheatre slot. Cuts from the band’s beloved debut album In A Million Years stole the show. With the relatively placid ‘Dominos’ at the top, it took ‘Andy’ to get Amphitheatre grass-dwellers on their feet.
‘Time & Place’ also found its way into the setlist alongside the show’s penultimate song ‘Zoom’ – still the band’s crown jewel.
Lead singer Sean Caskey was flippant in his commentary – a seasoned campaigner inspiring peer pressure to “have a drag” or “take something else in your pocket”. It was tongue-in-cheek and probably not something the organisers would love, but you can’t expect millennials to sit around and watch the world go by, especially at a music festival.
Psychedelic Porn Crumpets play to the clickbait lyricism the likes of Dune Rats, Skegss and Hockey Dad have brought to the fore. ‘Found God in a Tomato’, ‘Keen For Kick Ons?’ and ‘Cornflake’ encapsulated such youthfulness, igniting the GW McLennan into a frenzy. Kids love this stuff and can you blame them?
Mansionair broke hearts and put them back together with a crushing performance at the Mix Up. Lead singer Jack Froggatt has the voice of an angel – it will be intriguing to see where this band take their talents. They’ve already played Coachella, so here goes.
Sunday then lined up with Matt Corby (and Tina Arena, Meg Mac and one-half of Broods) who performed before one of the biggest crowds of the festival. A rendition of Arena’s ‘Chains’ consolidated arguably the biggest on-stage collaboration Splendour 2019 produced.
The allure of James Blake and SZA meant that the likes of Tycho, The Teskey Brothers and The Lumineers would be sadly bypassed. Blake is known for his viscous production, but if you’d arrived hoping for a pick-me-up and a party starter… well I suppose you just don’t know James Blake.
Renowned track ‘Retrograde’ and his cover of Feist’s ‘The Limit To Your Love’ made it onto the setlist and literally sucked the life out of the crowd with their shuddering basslines, yet, while Blake has a voice soft enough he could put a baby to sleep, there was something missing here.
While Chance’s absence was a gut-punch to all, SZA’s stunning and relatable penultimate Sunday performance went some way to salvaging the ruins. Emerging in some sort of exalted altar that glowed in the night sky, the R&B queen truly delivered – a display Splendour truly needed after a male-dominated Sunday.
Like Kevin Parker two nights prior, there’s something refreshing about modesty and while SZA has the voice of an angel, she wasn’t afraid to let things falter as her vitality ruffled things up.
With a rendition of ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ by Wheatus, SZA had officially achieved it all. Such a track choice was no gimmick either with the St. Louis-bred artist noting the difficulty of her childhood.
Wandering quickly over to witness the dirty trap music of What So Not, by this stage, the festival felt complete. Not even a guest appearance from Silverchair’s Daniel Johns was enough to get me up and about for this show. And so, a fatigued reviewer then trotted off into the night sky, fantasising about what the next Splendour in the Grass would have in store.