Splendour in the Grass 2017
North Byron Parklands
Friday, July 21 to Sunday, July 23
Am I too old for this shit? Yeah, probably.
My first Splendour in the Grass was 2005, when Queens of the Stone Age delivered an almighty 10-minute load of ‘No One Knows’ into a yielding Saturday night audience, Moby closed proceedings with a glorious full-band extravaganza, and a group from London made their Aussie festival debut around 2pm in the arvo: Bloc Party.
Bloc Party are now an old-school vintage act. So am I. Returning to Byron Bay in 2017 for my 11th Splendour festival was unexpected. I swore I’d never do it again. But a few of the lads demonstrated an eagerness that tickled me in my giblets, and I found myself reaching for the nearest carrier pigeon to liberally apply for a review ticket.
I don’t want to overstate my reluctance to grease these aging bones and skip amongst the dandelions with the millennial zombie march forever bearing down upon me. I’m not afraid of the molly horde in my rearview mirror. The idea of Splendour is always appealing. I’ve been to 11 of them forfuckssake. I still love live music. I see a lot of it. Three days of it? That sounds very good.
[x_pullquote type=”left”]Schoolboy Who? RL Grime? The Goosebumps guy? Love ‘im. Is he doing a reading? Young Franco? You mean Dave? Meg Mac? Sure, I’ll try one. Does it include two all-beef patties? [/x_pullquote]But, in reality, you get to a certain age when ordering Peking duck at a near-empty and suspiciously affordable Chinese restaurant in a city’s rear-colon back alley becomes considerably more appetising than becoming a human Molotov cocktail and bouncing around to the Aussie dance producers of the same name. I can’t name you a Peking Duk tune. Did they release ‘Braise You’? Or was that Bok Choy Slim? Dance music remains a glorious blur of culinary delights.
It’s true that for a 33-year-old, the range of enticing bands peppered throughout a Splendour in the Grass line-up shrinks with every year. Schoolboy Who? RL Grime? The Goosebumps guy? Love ‘im. Is he doing a reading? Young Franco? You mean Dave? Meg Mac? Sure, I’ll try one. Does it include two all-beef patties?
I may not be as hip as I once was. I’m about 75% hip these days, and it’s mostly the right one that’s letting me down. But amongst all these strange pun acts, each playing to a Splended sea of humanity, are some artists that I really want to get involved with in 2017. So I’m going to get front and centre.
One of this year’s headliners is The xx, an indie band from the sexily titled London suburb of Wandsworth. They are the giant drawcard headliner, slated to appear on Friday night in the main arena. Here’s a strange fact about The xx. They literally have zero fans. I’m not joking. In a comprehensive survey conducted by yours truly on the Friday of Splendour’s proceedings, I speak with all 32,500 festival goers and none of them confirm their xx-fan status. Later, when I’m back in my crib and Googling online, it’s evident that they’re the first band in history to climb the mountain without a single Sherpa. Fascinating.
My questioning of Splendour punters goes something like this. “Hey there, quick question, do you like The xx?” Shrug. Blank stare. “Not really.” “Okay, well do you know anyone that likes them?” Shrug. “Nah, not really, ay.” I then attend the Amphitheatre stage as The xx play to a large audience of glassy eyed stunned mullets. I sidle up to audience members and whisper through the echoed storm of painfully uninteresting reverb, “Psst, sorry to bother you, but do you actually like these guys?” They each turn their head and look straight through me, as if the question has appeared to them as a detached voice hovering in the haze of self-induced euphoria. “I don’t know,” they each say, saliva visibly drying at the corners of their locked jaws and chapped lips, “not really, I guess.”
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Father John Misty on the other hand. Man, what an entertainer. Real name Josh Tillman, the dashing singer-songwriter strikes an imposing stage presence in the GW McLennan tent. Tall and tastefully dressed, FJM croons into the microphone, accompanied by full band as he performs the first four tracks from third album Pure Comedy. His lyrics cast a wry eye over the current state of affairs and he’s perhaps one of the more verbose and clever lyricists of his generation. His new material contains the romance and drama of old movie musicals, and there’s theatricality to FJM’s performance that can never be fully realised on record. The songwriter has stepped away from the Californian indie swagger of ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings’ and more into the territory of Gershwin and Bacharach.
His engagement with the crowd is a masterclass; stepping down to the barricade to hold hands and caress the cheeks of moist onlookers, before falling to his knees, buckling under the weight of his tortured soul. Someone has entwined the DNA of Glenn Frey and Laurence Olivier.
Earlier on Friday evening, also in the GW McLennan, was a sublime performance by New Jersey group Real Estate. Led by frontman Martin Courtney, the band’s lush pop sound carries the tradition of many ‘90s greats, with recent record In Mind drawing heavily on Teenage Fanclub and The Byrds. There’s modern synth flourishes, but an admirable reliance on quality playing and gorgeous vocal harmonies. After their set, I go for a little sit down.
[x_pullquote type=”right”]Fashion is a shape-shifting beast and at Splendour it’s apparent that breast bedazzling is now on fleek.[/x_pullquote]It’s apparent by Saturday that there’s not going to be any rain this year. “Splendour in the Mud” has been the theme since as long as I can remember, and it’s a well-earned title. But blow me down; the sun is out, the sky is clear and the gates of heaven have opened. It’s still a bit chilly, but young boys and girls are clearly sick of winter clothing. Any clothing. I observed at Groovin the Moo earlier this year that glitter and the g-banger were the new festival attire in 2017. Decidedly on fleek. But fashion is a shape-shifting beast and at Splendour it’s apparent that breast bedazzling is now on fleek. The beauty of covering your naked breasts with glitter and glued-on diamontes is that you don’t have to put up with the hassle of wearing garments above the waist. Such a hassle. “Nipple Bejewelment” or “Star Spangled Areola” is a bold form of expression and I, for one, am right on board with it. Shine on you crazy diamonds!
Baltimore synth-poppers Future Islands have returned to Splendour for an “exclusive” Australian show. They were astonishingly good three years ago in the GW McLennan, but programmers have stepped them up to the mammoth Amphitheatre stage. For the most part they deliver, but the intensity of Samuel Herring’s performance is diminished in this abyss. He still has a unique presence, but his descent into growling metal vocals remains an odd combination. Musically too, while their sound is strong, there’s a sameness to much of it – though the crowd comes alive when they drop monster hit ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’. I wanted more from Future Islands. Now I have to go for a little sit down.
One of the knock-outs from 2015’s SITG was two-hander Royal Blood, who melted brains in every corner of the Amphitheatre crowd. Now they’re back to lay waste once again. What’s particularly mind-bending about these cats is that they are just vocals, bass guitar and drums – and the sound is gigantic. Dashingly handsome frontman Mike Kerr is a wizard on the bass, making the instrument wail like a lead electric. He’s got some special tech at his disposal but there’s no hiding his dexterity across the frets. Drummer Ben Thatcher matches Mike in showmanship, often leaving the safety of the kit to step to the front of the stage. A sporting chap, he also downs a “shoey” of beer at the request of an audience member. Though he probably does that every gig, yeah? The gig is so good that I have to go for a little sit down.
[x_pullquote type=”left”]With Jon Theodore on the skins, this iteration of QOTSA is a monstrous force – and they’re tighter than a fish’s bot bot.[/x_pullquote]A cheeky 12 years since they last played Splendour, Queens of the Stone Age make an almighty return to the main stage. There’s a new record in the works, Villains, but tonight they’re here to play a fan-favourite set, albeit one aimed primarily at kids familiar with everything from their Songs for the Deaf record onwards. With Jon Theodore on the skins, this iteration of QOTSA is a monstrous force – and they’re tighter than a fish’s bot bot. Opening with the double punch of ‘You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, but I Feel Like a Millionaire’ and ‘No One Knows’, the first two tracks from Songs for the Deaf, frontman Josh Homme uses all his trademark swagger to show every other band on the Splendour bill how it’s done. ‘Sick, Sick, Sick’ and ‘If I Had a Tail’ are welcome inclusions, as are the smooth-as-fuck ‘Make It With Chu’ and the tightly coiled cow beller ‘Little Sister’. Party list ‘Feel Good Hit of the Summer’ is as deep into the catalogue as they dig, but we also hear fresh new single ‘Like You Used To Do’. After this huge show I have to go for a little sit down.
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Sunday has some quality acts but the first on my old-man agenda, to which I absolutely must drag my weary carcass, is The Lemon Twigs. These guys are a total hoot. This superb quartet from Long Island, New York, are led by brothers Michael and Brian D’Addario. Their sound draws on great British pop and rock, but has a certain off-kilter charm that’s utterly engaging. They sound like The Beatles produced by Frank Zappa. The Lemon Twigs are weird and wonderful, with vocal harmonies that give you a fair ol’ zap in the gooseberries. The band are multi-instrumentalists, and the brothers frequently switch between drums and guitar so the other can take lead vocals. Do yourself a favour and check them out. They’re so good that I have to go for a little sit down.
Pond draw a big crowd to the GW McLennan tent, and boy do they make a splash! These guys really have all their ducks in a row. A psychedelic rock band with close ties to Tame Impala (Pond singer Nick Allbrook was a long-time member of the band, they’re produced by Kevin Parker, and Jay Watson continues to be a member of both groups), their sound is all shimmering dynamics, pretty and golden one minute then thundering and groove heavy the next.
Sigur Rós have been invited back to Splendour for a second year in a row, this time bringing their astonishing live show to the Amphitheatre. Sadly, their progressive, unique sound hasn’t captured the imagination of the younger Splendour folk, and they are playing to an almost empty arena, save for a few thousand very lucky and discerning patrons down the front. One of the best live acts in the world, the Icelandic group take their audience on an emotional and spiritual journey, which demands attention. Time for a little sit down.
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LCD Soundsystem bring Splendour 2017’s festivities to a nostalgic close, opening with B-side ‘Yr City’s a Sucker’, before dropping straight into party starter ‘Daft Punk is Playing At My House’. With a menagerie of gear on stage and an extensive roster to create the live sound, singer James Murphy leads his group through hits old (‘Dance Yrself Clean’ and ‘I Can Change’) and new (‘Call the Police’). The expected singalong arrives with ‘New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.. A wonderful climax for this year’s instalment of “The Grass”. Time for a sit down.
Will I be back again next year? Yeah, probably.