For its tenth birthday the organisers of Splendour in the Grass threw caution to the wind and altered the structure that had been serving them so well for the previous nine years. The big change was the previously unthinkable move from New South Wale’s Byron Bay to Woodford (a site called Woodfordia that also plays host to the Annual Woodford Folk Festival) in Queensland which allowed an increase in capacity from 17,000 to 32,000 people. Additionally the number of days of the festival was extended from two to three which in turn allowed a greater amount of acts – both international and national to appear. After last year’s successful coverage we looked forward to a veritable Birthday feast, and boy did we get it.
Day One – Friday 30th July
School of Seven Bells started the weekend with a dose of twin harmonised atmospheric pop music. The set leaned heavily on cuts from their new album Disconnect From Desire and, as is par for the course with bands cut from the Shoegaze cloth, the band weren’t big on crowd interaction or on stage theatrics. Instead they concentrated their energies on delivering a quality performance helped by the addition of a drummer to their live line up which enhanced their on stage energy. They closed the set with a run through of “Sempiternal/Amaranth” which was as long and epic as its name suggests.
As we wandered over to the Amphitheatre to watch Yeasayer we got our first glance at the new main stage and it was a spectacular sight. The natural slope and size of the area allowed for much a larger crowd to comfortably enjoy a show while still maintaining a good view of the proceedings all with a breathtaking natural backdrop to boot — something that was sorely missing at Belongil Fields once the headliners came on. As an added bonus it allowed for the less energetic among us to sit comfortably and leisurely watch the entertainment. But this casual take on viewing sometimes worked to an act’s disadvantage with the distance between the stage and the seated section of the audience making them have to work twice as hard to bridge the gap. This sense of disengagement was evident while watching Yeasayer. It’s probably a fair statement to say that offbeat experimental ‘80s synth/prog hybrids doesn’t work best in a glaring afternoon sun playing to a half confused crowd on a massive stage.
Once the sun had set and the crowd’s ongoing consumption of mid strength beer had made them somewhat tiddly the evening really started to take shape. The chance to see Jesus and Mary Chain enthusiasts Black Rebel Motorcycle Club for the first time was exciting for this writer. Clad as expected in black, the band launched into a dirty set of rock anthems drawn heavily from both their newest album Beat the Devil’s Tattoo and their much loved debut, now ten years old. The crowd really took to the Rebels and they played with all the swagger and rock ‘n’ roll attitude that their reputation has afforded them.
We headed over for our first foray into the Mix Up Tent for Hot Chip it became blindingly obvious that any thoughts of getting even remotely near the stage were going to be foregone. As they opened with “Boy from School” they whipped the mix up tent into a frenzy and Hot Chip showed us how it’s done electro style. We struggled for a vantage point, as we, like many others, were in the thronging masses outside the tent, but they still sounded brilliant even from that vantage point. For a band that can be patchy on album, they sure had a rake of great tunes live. Their synth laden beats killed, the crowd eating them up like candy with “Over and Over” and “One Life Stand” making everyone grin like proverbial Cheshire kittens.
After a quick beverage refreshment we headed back to the Mix Up tent to see LCD Soundsystem. What we thought was a feast of Hot Chip, seemed more like appetizers once James Murphy’s gang hit full stride. With “Drunk Girls” out of the way early on it was “Pow Pow”’s scatterbrain drum machine that really kick-started their set. “Daft Punk…” benefited from added funk and with every thirtysomething’s anthem “All My Friends” sounding even better live, it turned their set into a real “we were there” moment. Never one to underplay the Bowie undertones “Never Change” ramped up the Berlin Eno factor before a rapturous “Losing My Edge” threw the last remaining energy out of this reviewer. The two guys in front of us, who danced their asses off while giggling like school girls at James Murphy’s lyrics perfectly summed up the whole experience.
While LCD still rung in our ears we were in need of some well deserved chill action and Grizzly Bear provided the perfect antidote for our sweat clad selves. Since last year’s Veckatimest was released Grizzly Bear have almost became the joy du jour for festivals worldwide. There were no complaints here though as we rounded off the day lying on the grass listening to a blissful “Two Weeks” and a stunning “While You Wait for Others”. Already our Splendour belly’s were full.
Not all of us were done though as I opted for over the top disco cabaret (in preference to the middle of the road musings of Ben Harper) of Scissor Sisters to close off the night with that other definition of camp. Being the quintessential party band it is hard to not enjoy them regardless if you were a fan or not. The night closed with their early hit “Filthy/Gorgeous” and some unexpected, actually maybe not that unexpected, male nudity from front man Jake Shears
Day Two – Saturday 31st July
Kicking off the day after the night before we attempt to ease ourselves back into it over at the Amphitheatre with Band of Skulls. Any cobwebs (read hangovers) were blown off with this English bunch’s brand of spiky pop punk. Single “Death by Diamonds and Pearls” got the slowly filling crowd going wild.
And the winner of the 2010 award for “Frontman with the Most Punchable Face” goes to…. Jonathan Pearce of The Drums! Well done Jonathan for proving that mincing posturing really can overshadow fairly competent music. A band that musically are so completely inoffensive they should be booked to play Sunday school picnics, but have a singer that makes watchers willing to kill kittens if it would make him stop. Let’s go surfing? Actually Jonathan let’s not.
We took some time after that car crash to survey the rest of the site properly. Where else could you go chill out at a wine bar, have a beer on a floating pontoon or simply watch some Gyuto Monks chanting in the sunset. Decision, decisions. We actually opted for all three and it was options like these that sets Splendour apart from the plethora of other festivals that simply offer a burger van, or if you’re lucky, some hot dog action.
Feeling invigorated we headed on over to check out Tame Impala. They have come a long way in a short time, their debut album Innerspeaker has been on high rotation since its release. Looking somewhat intimidated by the size of the assembled masses, the boys manage to comfortably hold everyone’s attention with their sweet spaced out psychedelic jams. Both the better known Triple J favourites and album cuts go over well but their biggest response came from their cover of Blue Boys “Remember Me” which scored them a few easy runs on the board with those who were unfamiliar with them.
Paul Kelly is something of a constant that everyone of a certain age in Australia has grown up with, much like the certainty that Rage will be on ABC this Friday and Saturday night. You can sleep comfortably knowing that he is still out there doing what he does best. With a minor Australian super group in tow including Ash Naylor of Even and Vika and Linda from The Black Sorrows, Paul launched into a crowd pleasing set littered with hits from his long and distinguished career. “Dumb Things”, “Before Too Long” and many other tracks become crowd sing-along’s with girlfriends hoisted onto shoulders and arms waved in the air. It was a testament to his skills as a composer and performer that he could so easily win over a crowd with an average age well below that of his regular demographic.
An attempt to head over to the Amphitheatre to see Florence & the Machine is aborted as word reaches back that the paths leading to the stage have been closed and that the locked out crowd has turned a little ugly. Thankfully this was the only time we encountered this problem, which turned out to be a result of the crowd remaining seated as people continued to enter. Not everyone wanted to go check out the sub Kate Bush warbling of Florence and we were content that considering the lock out situation we made the right decision to see Band of Horses. Frontman Ben Bridwell was in high spirits, especially after letting us know that he was almost raped by a kangaroo before the gig, but marsupial comments aside they hit their stride early with “Factory”. With a huge crowd that hopefully was not simply due to The Strokes lock out we were treated to a blistering set of their country infused rock. Early single “Funeral” has its obligatory outing and for any other band would be a highlight, instead they were saved for “Is There a Ghost?” and a rousing “Great Salt Lake”.
An easier than expected run up the hill took us to a throbbing full capacity main stage for what turned out to be a cracker of a set by The Strokes. Missing in action for a the later part the of noughties, The Strokes returned looking rejuvenated, ready to remind us why we all went nuts over them in the first place. The set was tightly packed with hits and fan favourites all delivered with a sense of urgency and purpose. The audience lap up every moment and the band came back onto the stage to lead a five song encore ending with a blistering “Take It or Leave it”. While no new material was played we certainly didn’t hear anybody complaining and we hope that they are working on some quality new material between festival appearances for a new album in 2011.
Day Three – Sunday 1st August
With the festival on its last day surprisingly on this morning we rose early raring to go like kids waiting for Santa at Christmas. What could’ve had us up this early? — criminally low on the bill Frightened Rabbit. It was an admittedly sparse crowd that greeted the Scottish boys but there was no diminishing some of the hardcore fans dedication down the front. With a set spanning their last two albums the boys opened with “Modern Leper” which saw them hit their stride early. As they showed off the full band’s harmonies with “Twist” their set sounded equally impressive in its quieter moments as with the expansive closer of “Keep Yourself Warm”. Hopefully the band won over some new fans and will make it back out here again soon.
Occasionally we were baffled by the popularity of some bands that just seemed outright terrible, so we were heartened to see such a large crowd assembled to watch Cloud Control so early into the day. The band were clearly thrilled with the turn out and gave a rousing run through of songs from their recent debut album with “Gold Canary” being a highlight. I hope Cloud Control might be the next band to make serious inroads overseas, at the very least critically. Equal parts classic twee/jangle pop and folk with an added dose of Talking Heads, the songs were propelled along by the soulful lead vocals of Alister Wright which in turn were backed by strong harmonising by the rest of the band. Tight playing, punchy bass lines and some outstanding percussion also abounded during the set.
From the old guard to the new guard, Ash have been around since I was a nipper. Well almost, but the band were determined not to become some nostalgia act like some of their peers. Not content with flogging their old hits round the circuit one more time, they took on the mammoth task of releasing 26 singles (from A to Z) last year. While “Kung Fu” and “Girl from Mars” sound as fresh as ever and were lapped up by an enthusiastic pogoing crowd, the new ones sounded like a bunch of b-sides, maybe some quality control would have been in order. It was great to see the guys again but maybe they could lay off Moby’s drum machine next time.
Wow, are The Vines really still together? And did people still care enough about them for them to be playing a major slot at a festival? The answer to this question should be a resounding no, at least for the second part. The Vines weren’t the absolute train wreck of embarrassment and hopelessness that they were at the Big Day Out in 2003 when I saw them last but I am sure that I wasn’t projecting my boredom and disinterest onto the crowd around me. Sure there were some people dancing around up the front of stage, but by this time of night it is akin to monkeys getting excited over a bunch of bananas behind a sheet of perspex.
It had been the worst of the timetable clashes but decisions made meant we had to leave Broken Social Scene after a few songs (who are one of those bands that sound incredible on record but never seem to cut it live. Maybe it was the band’s 36 hours of sleep deprivation but once again the indie Wu Tang Clan fail to elicit the response that we were hoping for) and headed to the Mix Up to check out Jonsi. We weren’t disappointed with our choice as with a set drawn from his recent Go album we were treated to one of the true individualistic performances of the weekend. Not to take anything away from an impressive backing band but Jonsi’s ethereal vocals sound as equally beguiling in this, a more pop context, as his day job. Nothing detracted from an artist who appeared to put his entire soul into his performance. From the lighting to the ragged costumes it all appeared perfect. His vocals soared and when he appeared back on stage resplendent in a headdress for an extended “Grow Till Tall” the energy on stage almost lifted the roof off the tent.
As we Headed towards the highest point of the Amphitheatre to secure what we were expecting to be very limited spots for the Pixies we caught the tail end of Mumford & Sons as their set apexed with “Little Lion Man”. The politest way for me to describe Mumford would be to say that they aren’t my cup of tea but far be it for me to piss on a moment that would have to be a highlight of each band member’s lives. The Mumford boys must have felt like they had been handed the keys to the whole country for ninety minutes as they were clearly the headline act in the minds of most of the attendees. While it was great for them, it still doesn’t remove the fact that I’m going to have to listen to “Little Lion King” played by every half arsed suburban pub covers duo I come across for the rest of my life.
With the Pixies about to hit the stage it makes us aware of the fact that some of the headline acts — Mumford, Florence, Grizzly Bear and Pixies — have all toured this country within the last six months. Personally, having the opportunity to see Grizzly Bear and the Pixies twice within six months seems like an awesome problem to have, but it could go some way to explaining why the crowd thinned out quite quickly after Mumford. Maybe if Richard Asscroft had hung in there for another two songs while people made their way down the hill he might have saved himself some embarrassment.
This was my third time around seeing the Pixies and it easily ranked as my favourite. Partly this was due to the rapidly depleting crowd which allowed me to run down the hill to the front of stage — the Pixies essentially only exist in 2010 as festival drawcards and arena fillers, the likes of the warm up show at the Zoo the night before are rare indeed — so managing to get within five metres of the stage was a feat in itself. Secondly the set list was incredible. Both previous performances (including, obviously, the Doolittle tour) their sets leant heavily on the first two albums, eschewing Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde. This time all four albums got a look in and I got to hear my two favourite songs “Rock Music” and “Alec Eiffel”. The band themselves were huddled up on one side of the stage quite close to each other and as is par for the course for a Pixies gig didn’t really interact with one another or acknowledge the audience. While their on-stage presence was dry the performance was spot on in every other sense. After three mammoth days of burning the candle at both ends having “Where Is My Mind?” play out as the final song of the festival was more than apt.
All things considered this year’s Splendour was a major success. Woodfordia proved to be a massive improvement as a venue and despite there being an extra 14,000 people, it didn’t really feel any more crowded than last year. Traffic was an occasional issue and the journey to and from the Amphitheatre was unpleasant at times. The extra day didn’t diminish the quality of the performances or stretch our patience at all as there was enough variety to keep punters of all tastes entertained and there was a plethora of other attractions to stay amused between downtimes. We look forward to Splendour at the same splendid venue for the same splendid time next year.
Scott Daniels — BRMC, Cloud Control, Jonsi, Mumford & Sons, Paul Kelly, Pixies, S7B, Scissor Sisters, Strokes, Tame Impala, Vines, Yeasayer
Garry Thomson — Ash, Band of Horses, Band of Skulls, Broken Social Scene, The Drums, Frightened Rabbit, Grizzly Bear, Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem
Marc Grimwade (Splendour in the Grass)