H20 is essential for most life on the planet. Humans are comprised of around 60% water while the Earth’s surface consists of 71%. For the third Sunset Sounds festival in Brisbane that seemed to edge up to the 90th percentile. Water and its offspring mud was totally and utterly inescapable. It came down in sheets, hell it came down in slabs. Even those who came with waterproof clothing were completely soaked not just to the bone but to the very marrow. Sunset Sounds became Sunless Sounds, Soggy Sounds and Mudset Sounds. It brought out the worst in some people and the best in others. Still the show went on with artists, organisers, workers and observers alike all having a role to fulfill. Let us begin ours:

Day One – 5 Jan 2011

The prospect of noise pop darlings Sleigh Bells performing in daylight on a main stage (the unfortunately named Riverstage) doesn’t seem to affect them much. If we were looking at effort Sleigh Bells would win band of the day. Unfortunately with Alexis Krauss’s vocals are way down in the mix, it’s actually all pretty muddy sounding. Trying to crane to hear it’s not apparent where the backing track ends and the live music starts. Admittedly the kids down the front lap it up like parched dogs but it is the fuzzed out guitars that rasp so much on record that completely sail over this hill I’m standing on. In a sweaty tent they would raise the roof but here they simply don’t deliver.

One of the biggest crowds of the day greets Cold War Kids and it’s no surprise when they rip through a set mostly lifted from debut Robbers and Cowards. The band are tighter than a ducks proverbial and don’t miss a beat for their entire set, even when the clouds that have threatened so far decide to begin to do their worst. As a definition of ironic, when the worsening weather changes from a damp shower to torrential rain, it had to be during “Hang Me Up to Dry”. No one seems to mind though and to be honest it seems to galvanise the crowd more resulting in the obligatory festival sign a long to “We Used to Vacation”.

Meanwhile at the opposite side of grounds, New Zealand’s blandest export Pip Brown a.k.a. Ladyhawke takes flight. The “difficult second album” cliché is proving true as her second LP that ditches the synths for more guitar is just starting to be recorded some two years and a half years after her debut. The new songs on offer today lend credence to Brown’s claim of a new direction but replacing derivative electro-pop with by the numbers rawk’n’roll isn’t a step forward as such and the crowd award them the cool reception they deserve. The singles are received more positively but when confronted with band and crowd chanting the words I quickly realise how utterly banal the lyrics to “Back of the Van” and “Paris is burning” actually are. “My Delirium” is the only redeeming song of the set, and indeed her career, but it’s not enough for Pip to soar. Ladyhawke? More like Ladysquawk.

The National at Sunset Sounds 2011

After a break The National take to the same stage to not only a rapturous welcome but to a crowd packing in every inch of available space. From the outset it’s clear that the band is playing no ordinary phone-it-in festival set. It’s a home crowd to these guys and the energy and passion from the band are plain to see. Matt Berninger looks emotional at points especially during “Squalor Victoria”, and the addition of a horn section only adds to the mood. While the beginning of their set relies heavily on songs from last year’s High Violet, “Abel” and “Mr November” are just as well received. No one seems to care that what was once torrential rain has now ramped it up a notch to whatever adjective comes next. Berninger certainly doesn’t as he steps off stage and walks through the crowd for “Terrible Love”, leading a chorus of fans that join in to every word. It’s a fantastic set and I can’t help wondering why they weren’t headlining.

After such a cracking set we head on over to catch what’s left of Public Enemy’s set, promoted as a 20 year anniversary of Fear of a Black Planet, just in time for “Fight The Power”. It’s all a bit cabaret and becomes impossible to listen to the tail end  while dodging the increasing numbers of idiots sliding down the Riverstage hill in the mud. When Flava Flav ends their set with a five minute discourse on how we can all help to rid the world of racism and separatism it seems apt that even in the worsening weather no one seems to move a muscle until he’s finished.

Interpol at Sunset Sounds 2011

So then it’s left for Interpol, New York’s premier proponents of gloomy introspective rock, to lift the dampened spirits of festival goers. Still the rain, which hasn’t abated, might actually enhance the mood and it’s amazing to see the number of punters that have chosen to remain but then the impact of Interpol’s first two albums on the Gen Ys who make up the majority of the crowd, not yet born when the likes of Wire, Gang of Four and The Chameleons first emerged, can’t be underestimated. Interpol of course aren’t naive to their legacy so base the set heavily around those albums and Antics in particular. And who can blame them with epics like “Evil”, “C’Mere”, “Say Hello To The Angels”, and particularly “Take Me On A Cruise” (another song of huge ironic value) sounding expansive and thrilling. The new album is milked for its stronger tracks including the delay pedal switched to overdrive opener “Success”, the heavenly reverb of “Lights” and the paranoia inducing “Memory Serves”.  Throughout Paul Banks stands stoically in his Brokeback check shirt and mullet and Daniel Kessler glides around the stage like a guitar wielding elf. New bass recruit David Pajo can’t match Carlos Dengler’s stage presence but close your eyes and you can’t tell the difference. Interpol may have nothing left to prove but do they want to be the post-punk revival Oasis, forever relying on the strength of their first two albums? If not, album five better be a blinder. With the throbs of set closer “Not Even Jail” still echoing we make our way up the hill in an attempt to get out of the slippery slope lest it becomes our own jail and find a taxi driver who will pick a water logged festival reviewer up.

The hat girl at Sunset Sounds 2011

Day Two  – 6 Jan 2011

For most of today the rain eases to little more than a drizzle, praise the heavens, but the moisture of yesterday has made the grounds into a field of mud and mini lakes of foul looking water. I momentarily flashback to Glastonbury 1998 but soldier on valiantly in the Somme-like trenches.

At the Garden stage The Soft Pack has few surprises in store; they ply their fare of solid garage rock which is pretty faithful to their recorded versions. “C’mon”, “More or Less” and especially closer “Answer to Yourself” are three minutes gems with the right mix of riffs, melody, vocal harmonies and aggression. Despite originating from San Diego, I hear Australian garage acts of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s such as The Screaming Tribesmen and Radio Birdmen in The Soft Pack’s sound which isn’t a bad thing at all.

Later on the same stage Peaches performs a DJ set and while I’d have preferred the full she-bang I figure the Peaches concert experience is 80% spectacle and 20% musicianship at the best of times anyway. Scant regard is given to whatever tinnitus inducing 2011 version of electroclash she actually is playing, instead all eyes are on her and in particular her multi-breasted — as in rubber breasts — suit. She’s stands behind an ominous sci-fi style mixing console and remains reasonably static instead letting her two leather clad dancers, one of either gender, to gyrate and strip for visual appeal. While it’s cheaper than a visit to Love & Rockets (the Brisbane strip club, not the band) it’s not easy being sleazy at this hour of the day and my attention drifts to the crowd getting down and dirty in the mud instead.

After observing various mud slinging and mud bathing by punters in-between sets the The Morning Benders’ euphoric pop is the perfect prescription. The band is appreciative of the audience turnout for their final show of their first tour here as the constantly beaming face of Chris Chu attests. A cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” is welcome for many reasons including its punchy rhythm, Chu’s capability of hitting the same key that Stevie Nicks once did and its appropriate lyrical content (“When the rain washes you clean you’ll know” – oh yeah, I knew). It’s the bouncy, hand clap friendly single “All Day Day Light” and sing-a-long closer “Excuses” which ends with Orr on his knees singing at the top of his lungs sans-microphone that brings home how much The Benders put into their show. As if by magic soon after Chris finishes an actual sunset is glimpsed at the top of the hill, or was it a dream?

The Morning Benders at Sunset Sounds 2011

With the ultra violet interlude just a memory I catch the end of Washington’s tenure along with seemingly everyone else who braved the festival today. The local singer gone over to the big leagues has divided critics over the question of which side of the indie/pop divide she falls on but the people are voting with their feet and crowd and performer are loving every second of it. A cover of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” that segues into one of her piano powered anthems is somewhat obvious but that along with a version of The Divinyls’ ode to onanism “I Touch Myself” which has the multitudes in a lather.

It’s tempting to categorise Sweden’s Junip as merely acoustic troubadour José González with a full band to flesh out his sound. It’s also pretty much on the money. This is not altogether a bad thing though as the problems of González solo, namely his distinctive but narrow vocal range and repetitious tempo are mostly negated with Junip. Abetted by band mates Elias Araya on drums and the seemingly octo-handed Tobias Winterkorn on keys there is also an additional percussionist/multi-instrumentalist and bassist. As a five piece Junip create a plethora of textures and enough rhythmic diversity to combat any folk fatigue. In fact so easy it is to get lost in the vortex of sound it’s with some effort I pull myself away…

…and end the festival with Melbourne icon/legend/singer-songwriter stalwart Sir Paul Kelly. I first discovered “Dumb Things” in the late ’80s after it appeared in Yahoo Serious, a song which could have served as my soundtrack in the years since, but never have I seen the man in concert. “Careless”, “Before too Long” and “To Her Door” are universal stories that transcend eras or locations underpinned by sharp melodies that resonant just as much now as they did twenty years ago. Suited and booted the man cuts a lean figure and he has the smarts to surround himself with a seasoned band that includes Vicki and Linda Bull on backing vocals and Even’s Ashley Naylor on guitar. There are a few lulls, specifically when one of the Bulls sings the Raymond Carver inspired ballad “Everything’s Turning to White”, but the Kelly takes back the reigns for a snarling “Sweet Guy” and it’s with some regret I leave, rather appropriately, during “Deeper Water”.

Exhausted but elated at the same I trudge home to a hot shower and wondering how the hell I’ll get the mud off my shoes. Of course the rain continued long after Sunset Sounds ended. Less than a week later there would be mass flooding in Brisbane and the already sodden grounds would be totally engulfed by water. Any complaints of too much rain at the Sunset Sounds are now seen as petty in the scheme of things as I realise how lucky we got to see the festival at all. Just next year I’ll be praying for a little more sun to go with the sounds.

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Words: Garry Thompson (Sleigh Bells, Cold War Kids, The National, Public Enemy). Caleb Rudd (all others).

Photos: Caleb Rudd