I’ll be honest with you. Most of these resolutions, well, they’re not exactly life changing. But attending the Splendour in the Grass music festival is not merely another resolution, it’s a complete shift in perspective. If someone gave you the opportunity to queue online for hours for a ticket, queue in traffic for hours for entry, have your belongings pawed over and your alcohol snatched away, set up a tent in the mud in the middle of winter, forgo creature comforts for creatures of the eight-legged variety, have 30,000 other people as bedfellows, and indulge in cold showers, long walks, overpriced food and phenomenally expensive mid-strength alcohol for three days and four evenings of your life—you’d jump at the chance wouldn’t you? Of course you wouldn’t, because you’re not mad. In fact you’d probably say to that someone, “Rack off Ashton Kutcher, you crazy geezer”. But for Splendour in the Grass you do it. You do it for the love.
Splendour in the Grass typically hosts the most mind-blowingly amazing array of local and international bands of the entire Australian festival circuit. Previously hosted in Byron Bay, and now having temporarily located to Woodford, the festival has seen crowd numbers swell from 7,500 strong to a wild-eyed throng of 32,000 in the space of ten years. These days if you’re not one of the people attending the festival you’re one of the people whinging about not attending the festival (or you’re holidaying in Bali for two weeks and spending far less money). This is going to be a long blog post so you might want a nanna nap in preparation.
My particular “Splendour Bender” began on a sleepy Thursday morning after picking up the holy grail of campervans, a campervan that took countless hours (well, probably eight hours spread over a couple of months) of harried Internet searching to find. It was nicknamed ‘Cranky’ which I hoped was not a sign of things to come, but after my Splendour friend spent 45 minutes reducing the staff of the ANZ bank to tears over not being able to access his money, I could tell it was already working its way into our consciousness. I hastily renamed it the Splendora Explorer.
By leaving early we avoided the queues that would later take up to eight hours and within an hour we were at Woodfordia, fingers and toes crossed while our van waited in the queue for alcohol checks. Thankfully our search was cut short due to general incompetence and power struggles between the security guards and our bottles of vodka chinked together merrily as we took off over the hills in search of our campsite. A campsite so elusive that we we drove and drove AND DROVE until finally were directed to a small patch of grass as far away from the festival entrance as possible which we would call home for the next four days. So much for arriving early.
After setting up camp and swilling a bottle of wine while waiting for festival gates to open we donned our stylish (and sadly, matching) gumboots and headed in for an evening of pre-festival entertainment. The Woodfordia site was purpose-built to house the annual 7-day ‘Woodford Folk Festival’ held every Christmas. Having been to the Folk Festival five times previously I have grown to love Woodfordia as it is somewhat of a fairyland, reminiscent of the fey fayre found in Neil Gaiman’s ‘Stardust’, tonight being no exception. We spent the eve perched on a hillside listening to a DJ spin eighties tunes from a boat in the middle of a lake surrounded by fairy lights and bubbles while the troops danced feverishly. It was marvellous.
Boat DJ with bubbles!
But come morning those fairies would be stomped to death by 32,000 people rearing to have the best possible time EVER (Sad huh? But fairies aren’t really real so never fear.)
I felt ROUGH, a situation which was not helped by the 20 minute walk to the festival or the extra 30 minutes it took to find our friend’s campsite, handily located at the completely opposite end of the sprawling campgrounds. (Apparently there was a shuttle bus running but as one of our marshals explained, tracking it down was a bit like trying to find Narnia.) My almost fanatical obsession with, as the scouts so aptly put it, ‘being prepared’ had me suitably packed for almost any situation but being the middle of winter I did not expect a 20-bloody-6-degree day and so I had only a thick long sleeve shirt to traipse around in. I thought I was going to die.
(I must make further mention here of the camp marshals. They need a blog all of their own as their antics were clearly worse than any of the festival going public. While the rest of us suffered for our confiscated alcohol the marshals of Area I were sitting around openly knocking back beers as we passed by. They would not share.)
Due to the stealthy preparations of our friends their campsite was amply stocked and so a couple of well-deserved vodkas later and we were adamant to make it into the festival for local rock act, Violent Soho, having already missed two must-see bands of the morning. For half an hour we stood in front of the stage muttering amongst ourselves about how late the band was so when we heard ‘Hi, I’m Dan Sultan!’ our dismay at being at the wrong stage saw us hightail it out of there before he even played a note. The proper stage was a ten minute walk away. We had been walking for five when the enormity of this three day monolith of a festival slapped us in the face. My Splendour friend exclaimed ‘I can’t go on. Let’s turn back and get a drink’. And so we did. That brief visit was sadly the only time we made it to the GW McLennan stage.
A week before a festival I diligently highlight every band I want to see on a timetable, hopeful that I can manage to rush between stages and catch them all, primed like a pokemon master. After 15 years of festival attendance I still haven’t learnt that I might as well just rip those well prepared timetables in half because I ain’t gonna see even half the bands I planned to. Instead, all that important viewing time is overridden by meeting basic human needs and appeasing the whims of your cohorts. In truth, I think it’s more fun this way without having your day scheduled into hour long compartments yet I still feel so bitterly disappointed by all the bands I miss. At a festival like Splendour, you could easily spend all your time visiting the myriad of stores, attending workshops, fashion watching, looking at sculptures and talking to people while missing every band entirely and still have an amazing time but could you live with yourself for paying a $450 ticket price for the experience?
He lost a bet apparently.
For the next hour we escaped the sun in the Forum Tent, home to a number of panels presented by our favourite Triple J and ex Triple J announcers. We caught the first half of the ‘Music Trivia’ panel hosted by Myf Warhurst who every girl wants to be friends with and every guy wants as their girlfriend, accompanied by Sam Pang, the voice of Eurovision. I’m glad we didn’t choose to participate because the questions were way too hard and my brain was struggling simply to be PRESENT, so we left.
By this time it was 3:30 and we were still yet to see a band so we began the arduous trek to the amphitheatre for Yeasayer. The amphitheatre is a phenomenal venue comprised of a vast basin shaped hill which looks down onto the stage however it’s a ten minute walk from the festival hub, along a flat ‘low’ road which brings you out to the centre of the hill or a steep ‘high’ road which brings you to the top of the hill where the bars and toilets are. With magic hour upon us it was a perfect time for Yeasayer to hit the stage but as someone who wasn’t entirely impressed with their album, Odd Blood (although it was hard not to get carried away by the hype over their songs O.N.E. and Ambling Alp), I found my attention wavering to more pressing matters such as getting another drink.
I was quite keen to catch the end of Foals but my Splendour friend was adamant on taking a break back at camp and so deciding I wasn’t quite ready to tackle the crowd-shaped shit-fight on my own we opted out of festival life for the next few hours. (I later found out this desperate need to head back to camp was because my friend had organised a secret rendezvous with his ex-girlfriend. BUSTED.)
We returned in time for Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem at the Mix Up tent, two bands that have a song or two I quite like, but ultimately that I can’t really stand and I was simply overwhelmed by the immensity of the crowd and the disappointment over the long trek to the amphitheatre and the campsite to enjoy myself.
I believe the measure of a good festival band is one that commands your attention, one that immerses you so completely in their performance that you forget yourself entirely, even when their recorded music doesn’t float your boat. That band at Splendour 2009 was Bloc Party. In 2010, while other bands came close, that band was Scissor Sisters. Epic. Orgasmic. Utterly captivating. Now I’ve always desperately fancied crazy-eyed Jake Shears in all his glorious gaiety, and the gyrating, stripping and R-rated banter between himself and Ana Matronic just proves that stage presence is equally important as musical ability in a live setting. Apparently Jake got totally naked. I didn’t see it. I don’t know how I could have missed it! My eyes were glued to the man. Regardless, their performance alone justified the ticket price. In my memory they will always be a new and improved less-horror-more-disco version of the Rocky Horror Picture show.
By the time DAY 2 rolled around I was rearing to go, having made the mental adjustment required to tackle the rest of the festival and was awake and showered before my Splendour friend even opened his eyes. However, in a predicament that matched my own a day earlier, when the time came for action he was simply not having a bar of it and so I sat around waiting for him to pull himself together (I couldn’t ditch him cos his phone was dead), desperately trying not to punch people because I was missing Marieke Hardy’s ‘Women of Letters’ forum. I’m sure Marieke would have whole-heartedly approved of this lady-like behaviour had I not managed to contain myself.
Thankfully we made it to the festival in time to catch my first ‘CANNOT MISS’ band, Gypsy & the Cat. Recently discovered by Triple J on their Unearthed site, this was Gypsy & the Cat’s very first festival performance. They combine layered vocals reminiscent of the Bee Gees with 80s inspired electro-pop and I love them. Plus the lead singer is HOT and that never hurts. With a set that kept my limited attention span the whole time it was a perfect way to ease into the day.
Staying on in the amphitheatre we caught half of Jonathan Boulet, who, after aurally assaulting the audience with his first song, lead into his percussion heavy folk-pop classics.
Our spot was nearby
Sadly we had to rescind the ‘perfect spot’ we’d discovered on the amphitheatre hill which was right near the bar and toilets and even had plastic chairs to sit on, to venture to the Mix Up stage to check out Yacht Club DJs who energised the crowd with their mash-ups of classic songs and crowd favourites. It’s never crossed my mind before but I became convinced I’d make a fantastic DJ and my friend and I got carried away discussing how we could be the next big thing.
On our journey back to the amphitheatre and our plastic chair haven we saw the only crowd-stopper of the whole weekend—a massive GOANNA. The poor fellow was terrified and behaving erratically and so naturally everyone stood around carrying on and taking photos. Thankfully within a couple of minutes it managed to make its way behind the barriers and away from us frightening folk.
While lounging in our oasis we saw Band of Skulls (who I honestly wasn’t paying any attention to) and The Drums. Was that a reincarnated Ian Curtis leading the band? They were certainly doing their best to excite the masses with their energetic performance but sadly the crowd wasn’t really feeling it. Or maybe they were, and I wasn’t. Whatever.
My second ‘CANNOT MISS’ band of the festival was Delphic. I first heard these guys early last year on Richard Kingsmill’s New Music show and instantly fell in love with them. I tracked the band’s process, eagerly awaiting their album release which I bought the day it came out and in the process developed a strange sense of ownership over them which had me feeling genuinely surprised when hundreds of other people flocked to the Mix Up stage for their set. They did not disappoint with their New Order inspired dance sound keeping the crowd enraptured for the set’s duration. Superb.
Back up the hill despite the screaming of my calves I witnessed my third, ‘CANNOT MISS’ act, Tame Impala, whose psychedelic rock has captured my heart like none of their musical influences has managed to before. Sadly the set felt flat, which was certainly not helped by our prime hill possie being drowned out by a bright floodlight while the punter next to me droned on about how disappointing they were. Ah well. I’m sure we’ll meet again Tame Impala.
Art Vs Science
Down the hill we marched again to meet up with friends and watch Art Vs Science (we chose to forgo Florence & the Machine as we’d caught them earlier this year). Art Vs Science are a fun and frenetic live band even though, admittedly, their novelty music normally does nothing for me. Live, the band’s energy combined with the pure joy of the audience was uplifting and I found myself in hysterics for a good part of the set at the antics of the crowd.
It was around this point that shit hit the fan. While we should have been heading over to Band of Horses, instead we found ourselves caught up in festival hysteria. All the bars across the site stopped serving alcohol simultaneously, the festival gates to the Amphitheatre were closed and rumours began to spread that there’d been a crowd crush. With The Strokes about to start the panic was palpable and some folk simply decided to leave the venue, convinced their chance to see The Strokes had gone. Naturally this wasn’t good enough for us so we marched over to the cops and asked for information. Turns out the amphitheatre had just reached their 20,000 capacity and the gates were reopened minutes later. Admittedly it was a bit cosy but we still managed to find a prime spot to enjoy the amazing performance The Strokes served up. While rumoured their shows have been a let-down in the past there was plenty of banter from Julian between delivering their biggest hits, accompanied with a phenomenal light show that culminated in a set I would have been pissed off to have missed.
Plus we saw a dog run past. A dog. In the middle of 20,000 people. Although since we were the only ones who reacted to it and it seemed to disappear as fast as it arrived we chalked it up to group hallucination. About ten minutes later the dog was replaced by a naked man streaking along the hills. Sam from True Blood anyone?
After The Strokes our friend entertained us (and select other crowd members) with his make-shift drum kit made out of sticks, empty cans and two fairy floss containers he’d found(?). Hilarity ensued until the security guards kicked us out.
We attempted to keep the night rocking but our efforts were in vain and so we caught some shut-eye in preparation for DAY 3. (Seeing the marshals violently beat on a hippy while walking back to our campsite was not a highlight. Even hippies don’t deserve that kind of treatment.)
After a communal breakfast with friends discussing whether that dog incident really happened we bravely approached day 3, starting off with Miike Snow in the Mix Up tent, which we bored of quickly, before checking out Surfer Blood at the amphitheatre. I have one word to say to you Surfer Blood. Lacklustre. Although by now I was starting to suspect this had more to do with the amphitheatre stage than the bands. To amuse ourselves in lieu of their mediocre performance, Splendour friend and I played a game of “I’ll pick out guys from the crowd I think you’d fancy and you do the same for me with the ladies”—a game that proved so interesting even We Are Scientists could not divert our attention with their nonsensical off-putting banter. Hmm, day 3, hmm.
After a campsite reprieve we managed to catch the start of Jonsi. His dulcet tones combined with haunting compositions built into an atmospheric wall of sound that was just sublime, but when your friend says to you ‘umm, why did you want to see this band?’ after 30 seconds, all enjoyment is pretty much lost and one of my biggest Splendour regrets is walking away after two songs.
Next we saw Passion Pit at the amphitheatre and full points to them for exploiting the crowd interaction which made for an entertaining show. Musically, I can’t say I was blown away but the singer’s joy was infectious. Admittedly witnessing the big blow up zebra in the crowd meeting the small blow up zebra in the crowd and having a kiss-off was the highlight for me.
Afterwards I promised Splendour friend I’d catch Goldfrapp with him to make up for missing The Mess Hall. I don’t like Goldfrapp, not even a little bit. But Alison Goldfrapp’s Stevie Nicks inspired onstage writhing sure got the crowd going. Personally I was happier watching the kids nearby play with glowsticks.
At this point I was abandoned for the first time all festival as everyone migrated to the Pixies and I was left behind, adamant to see some of Empire of the Sun, praying I didn’t become the ‘friend lost in the field’ as Art Vs Science so adequately put it.
Luke Steele’s showy Empire of the Sun wankery isn’t for everyone but I’ll admit I’ve lapped it up wholeheartedly. If Luke Steele were to lead a head-dress wearing revolution, I would follow him without question. Even though he’s a peroxided, big-haired, make-upped chubby fellow I cannot still my beating heart at the thought of him. At first I decided to stay for two songs. Then three. Then four. I loved them, with Luke flouncing about stage accompanied by elaborately choreographed dancers. Loved. It. But after being barraged all weekend about how great the Pixies would be (even though I saw them earlier in the year) I simply could not miss them.
While schlepping up to the amphitheatre for the VERY LAST TIME there were so many people leaving that I thought they’d finished early. Then as I heard my first snatches of the Pixies it took all my power not to be drawn back by Luke Steele’s magnetism but I did it. I shouldn’t have. The Pixies played all the hits, of course, but they must have left their charisma at the airport because their set was sorely lacking in any form of emotion. Even Frank Black’s yelling seemed too perfectly honed now to carry any weight. Mind you, elsewhere Richard Ashcroft was chucking a tanty and storming off stage so it could have been a worse way to end the festival.
To the man who fell off his crutches and rolled down the hill, bowling several people over in the process, taking advantage of all the people who rushed to your aid, and then getting up and running off with crutches slung over your shoulder. You are an ass.
Afterwards we dwelled by one of the bonfires and lounged about in Tipi Village but any hope of sparking more exciting adventures had fizzled away. We had a couple of campsite beverages with friends but the icy-cold wind (oh, THERE YOU ARE WINTER) cut short any further proceedings and we sadly realised we’d ridden the Splendour bus as far as it would go. On the way back to our campsite we got lost for the umpteenth time and with our 20 minute walk turning into an hour I finally lost it and ‘Cranky’ got the better of me.
The next morning all traces of civilisation were gone. No more warm shower water. In fact, most of the bathroom units were shut off completely. While we had the choice to queue with 30,000 other people to exit the premises we had been told of a secret exit, metres away, by our friends the marshals. (This was after one of them proudly showed me his bruised knuckles from beating people up with the comment, ‘I hate it when people fall onto my hand’.) It took us a minute to get from our campsite to the main road and with that Splendour was over.
I’ve heard many people say this was the best Splendour ever. To be honest, I was left feeling a little hollow, probably because I never ease the hell up on myself. However, having relived all these memories in written form I could easily go back right now. This second. And do it all again. No regrets.
***Please note, the terrible photos are mine – I was using a borrowed camera I didn’t know how to operate. The beautiful photos were taken by Justin Edwards and were appropriated from http://www.messandnoise.com.