Festival Report: Golden Plains Eight
What makes a music festival not merely good, but positively special? You can examine the various facets that come together to create a festival—lineup, production, logistics, performances—and assess each separately, but no amount of dispassionate dissection will render the secret alchemy visible. There’s something irreducible at the core of it. At least it feels this way while I’m at Golden Plains—held annually just outside of the quaintly bucolic town of Meredith, 122 km or so from Melbourne—which is arguably Australia’s finest music festival.
There are some things non-Australians need to understand before I can get away with such an ambitious claim. First: Australia is quite far away from both Europe and the Americas, which means that bringing a high-calibre international act over to tour entails a larger degree of risk than promoters elsewhere might care to shoulder. Second: Australians, in general, have a good deal of disposable cash—thanks, minerals boom!—and like to celebrate their good fortune by getting drunk and/or drug-fucked with friends. These two forces have combined to ensure that music festivals are (or, more accurately, were) big business in Australia. Our remoteness has not deprived us of many musical treasures, but the price we have to pay to see them is often the less-than-stellar experience of schlepping to a racecourse or football field, being felt up by aggressive security guards and having to walk through a gauntlet of drug-sniffer dogs, only to bake on the shadeless grounds while listening to very loud—but not very carefully mixed—music being blasted from five or more stages simultaneously. (Every Australian festival-goer has a tale of timetable clash woes.) Don’t even get me started on the $7 bottles of water, $10 mid-strength lagers, or the ridiculous ticketing systems one has to subject oneself to in order to get them. Perhaps as a response to the increasingly dehumanising and frankly awful experience that constitutes attending some of the nation’s better-known music festivals—Big Day Out, Splendour in the Grass, Soundwave and Future Music Festival amongst others—the bottom has recently fallen out of the festival market here. Several big names have folded, and others have had to accept harsh commercial realities by scaling down operations.
Despite this, boutique music festivals—and Golden Plains and its sister festival, Meredith Music Festival in particular—are going gangbusters. (The 10,000 tickets for this year’s festival were quickly snapped up despite their relatively exorbitant price, and the festival has long had to implement a byzantine ballot system to ensure that tickets stay out of scalpers’ hands.) In Golden Plains’ case, much of the appeal comes from the ease of attending. In contrast to the harrowing experience that is going to one of Australia’s large-scale music festivals, Golden Plains is a breeze: once you get through the queue of vehicles and a surprisingly rigorous security check (to ensure there’s no glass or fire lighting equipment in your car), you’re pretty much left to your own devices. Camping space is ample, and all camp sites are within a five-minute stroll of the Meredith Supernatural Amphitheatre’s one stage. One stage means no timetable clashes. Rather than padding its margins through the sale of overpriced liquor, the entire festival is BYO. And perhaps most importantly, there’s the now-famous “no dickheads” rule—which simply entails that if someone is being a dickhead in your vicinity that you politely ask them to cease. (Perhaps because it’s so well known, the rule is surprisingly effective.)
Since there’s only one stage, the timetable is a bit hectic—the first day runs from 2pm to 6am, and the second from 10am to 5am. This is great for those in their early twenties whose veins probably course with Red Bull (or other, less legal stimulants) in any case, but it does make a mockery of one writer attempting a comprehensive overview of the festival. (I tried once before, for another publication, and it nearly wrecked me.) So rather than aiming for comprehensiveness, I’ll focus on a few key moments from the festival—ones that, hopefully, say something about what makes it quite so special.
One thing you can’t help but be struck by when looking at the festival timetable is the predominance of Australian acts. This isn’t born of necessity – in fact, Australian acts are traditionally under-represented at music festivals across the country. (Promoter A.J. Maddah, the man behind the astonishingly successful Soundwave hard rock festival and now a partner in Big Day Out, reserves a special antipathy towards Australian bands.) More to the point, most of the Australian acts booked are characteristically and defiantly Australian—although Cut Copy, with their smooth musical cosmopolitanism, are perhaps the exception that proves the rule. Putting a band as undeniably provincial—in the best sense of the word—as Brisbane’s SixFtHick in the opening slot sends a strong message: this year’s instalment of Golden Plains will dialogue not just with the local music scene, but also with the more ineffable question of what makes Australian music, well, Australian. SixFtHick’s answer to that question is sheer auditory chaos: a primordial soup of pub rock, punk hijinks, and dissonant guitar sludge. It’s a good thing that brothers Geoff and Ben Corbett split the role of frontman, tag-teaming between songs—no one singer could spend the whole set rolling with the fury of their colleagues. Their set gives the festival something of a fillip, but it’s also a touch dispiriting once the noise subsides—it’s only 2pm in the afternoon and we’ve been given the soundtrack to smashing pots of XXXX in a grotty, sweltering Brisbane pub?
The festival is more than happy to mix the rough with the smooth, however, and the next act, the duo of producer Andras Fox and guest vocalist Oscar Key Sung (of Psuche, Oscar + Martin, and Brothers Hand Mirror), provides an insight into a small scene of Australian beatmakers largely influenced by contemporary R&B. These producers make a silky-smooth, highly textured form of dance music, one that’s hardly propulsive yet not exactly cerebral—more nostalgic and mood-altering. At its best this kind of music hits a sweet spot of ease and contentment, danceable yet not aggressively so—but at its worst it can be received with indifference, a soundtrack to banalities, and it’s fair to say that Fox’s beats are perhaps a little too slick to truly engage the crowd. Fox’s reception, however, is positively warm compared to that of Chet Faker, another member of this microscene who built up a good deal of buzz with his downtempo cover of Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’ two years ago. Isolated on the cavernous stage, with a backing band who only step in for selected numbers, he doesn’t have either the stage presence or musical heft to pull off a triumphant set, and is instead reduced to a kind of slick elevator muzak. When the inevitable ‘No Diggity’ gets rolled out, there’s a palpable sense of boredom—not helped by his atonal, listless vocals.
By contrast, the Australian rock bands—the very acts playing what might appear to be the most moribund types of music at the festival—are utterly engaging throughout the weekend. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard play a heady blend of garage and psychedelia, provoking a wild bacchanal of dancing as they close their set with the anthemic ‘Head On/Pill’ from last year’s Float Along—Fill Your Lungs. Former Magic Dirt frontwoman Adalita eschews the aching introspection of her set at the 2011 Meredith Music Festival with a set of spiky, shambolic post-grunge. The Drones pick up this thread, performing one of the best sets I have ever seen them give, full of deep cuts from their early albums (and a vicious cover of Lennon’s ‘Well Well Well’) rather than crowd-pleasers from I See Seaweed or Havilah. There’s a kind of demented precision to their work, a fine balance between the chaos that frontman Gareth Liddiard wants to unleash and his obsessive tendencies. (Liddiard’s own body betrays this tension—his guitar slung almost to his knees and his microphone stand set high, he has to continually stretch in both directions simultaneously, like a pulled spring.) Rumours swirl around the festival that this is to be the band’s last gig, perhaps inspired by the fact that regular drummer Mike Noga has been swapped out former Drone Christian Strybosch, but the bad remain inscrutable and offer no clues either way.
You Am I’s Tim Rodgers has a terrible poker face, and seems visibly annoyed at a series of delays that see the band emerge from backstage a touch later than planned. Being the gents they are, You Am I shorten their set to keep things running smoothly, but it’s no less powerful for that—a victory lap of a set that reminds the casual listener (such as myself) exactly why they are royalty of the Australian rock scene. Over the course of several decades they’ve crafted an admirable back catalogue, ranging from the melancholy (‘Heavy Heart’) and the bitter (‘Berlin Chair’) through to the exuberant (‘Mr Milk’) and positively anthemic (‘Rumble’), all of which they perform with aplomb (although ‘Purple Sneakers’ is a puzzling omission). Yet even You Am I are beaten in the pleasant surprise stakes by Cosmic Psychos, a ragged group of pub-rock old hands whose vitriolic, drunken take on Australian masculinity is said to have influenced a young Kurt Cobain. As they plough through a set of nasty odes to the Australian male’s most toxic impulses—drink, drugs and sex, refracted through the unglamorous prism of songs with titles like ‘Dead In A Ditch’—the power of their brew of punk rock and hard rock is hard to deny. One of the festival’s highlights comes during the set closer, when guitarist John McKeering shreds a hair-metal worthy guitar solo while holding his guitar above his head and performing a nauseating, rhythmic fat roll with his ample beer gut. It’s a moment as humorous and bracingly feral as their music.
The festival isn’t merely a conversation about Australian music, with a small but well-selected component of international headliners. Charles Bradley’s set strikes me as a repeat of his strong performance at Golden Plains two years’ prior—a remarkable feat for a man of his age to retain so much vocal power, and still be able to imitate James Brown’s stage antics, splits and all. Yo La Tengo’s set demonstrates that there’s still an element of danger in their work—when their pretty textures threaten to render their work anodyne, guitarist Ira Kaplan is ready to fuck shit up with his ferocious, choppy guitar work. Public Enemy’s placement on the festival bill is a curious one—headliners of the final night, they stand out in a festival bill that is otherwise remarkably white and guitar-oriented. There’s a palpable camaraderie between Flavor Flav and Chuck D—Chuck brings the technique and muscle, while Flav plays the hype-man to a tee, instructing everyone to whip out their phones and follow the group members on Twitter. (Never mind that nobody’s phone has reception in this corner of regional Victoria.) Their set is a masterful antidote to the seriousness of all of the guitar bands—a compact greatest-hits statement featuring ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ and ‘Bring tha Noize’. It’s a good thing for Cut Copy, who follow immediately afterwards: the crowd is primed for a good time, and even if the band chooses to showcase their indie-dance bangers over their more meditative fare, there’s a sense of communal bliss that blossoms as the Supernatural Amphiteatre heaves with revellers willingly ignoring the impending Monday-morning comedown and return to reality. An unspoken pact hangs heavy in the air: See you next year.