Splendour in the Grass

Good times, good tunes and plenty of stamina

Splendour in the Grass has become a rite of passage for Australian music lovers, a pilgrimage to party at the feet of some of our most beloved homegrown talent and notable international artists currently tearing up the industry. I stepped foot onto hallowed grounds at the North Byron Parklands for the 3rd year in a row in 2017; green rolling hills, clear blue skies, piercing sun rays almost as bright as the glittery punters rose up to meet me. A weekend filled with promise stretched out in front of me; I felt like I had come home.

Opening the Mix Up Stage on day 1 was Sydney-based 6-piece Winston Surfshirt. Simmering in a soup of soul, hip hop and pop fusion, the band made light work of keeping the bulging, bombastic crowd bumping. Vocalist Winston strutted around stage, donning yellow lensed glasses and despite looking like an even nerdier version of John Lennon (if that’s possible) he oozed sex appeal. His smooth and effortless delivery of tongue twisting, rapid fire bars added to their casual steeze, as their bassist, Bik Julio made himself at home by lighting a darb on stage. Pumping out banger after banger including crowd favourites Ali D', Be About You, and Polographia collab Sly, the jazzed up sextet blew the roof off the Mix Up tent, closing their set with Kendrick Lamar’s Humble, setting the tone for one corker of a weekend.

Australia’s answer to Florence Welch, Vera Blue took command of the Mix Up stage next.
Donning crystalline frills head to toe, and celebrating the release of her debut album Perennial that day, she stunned the early afternoon crowd with soprano pipes that soared, enchanting visual displays including high set snares that lit up and triggered synth upon activation via drum stick and a cover of MGMT’s Kids that had the entire tent swooning.

Bouncing from one sublime songstress to the next, I scooted over to the GW McLennan tent to catch Maryland native Maggie Rogers set hearts and souls aflame with her Australian live debut. Prancing around on stage in a one off primary coloured jumpsuit/cape duo, you could instantly tell this is where the songwriter/producer feels most at home; continuously thanking the crowd for coming out early to see her and appearing genuinely shocked we knew all the words to her folk electro fusion tune Alaska. Splendour roared with appreciation at the conclusion of the all too short set, sending her off like an old friend, and she returned in kind with promises of a swift return.
One of the many heartbreaks I faced this year was the Real Estate / Banks clash. I stewed,
eventually deciding to go with my gut and sway to old favourites and indie sweethearts, Real Estate. Having seen them once before in Brisbane at The Zoo a few years ago, I knew the boys from New Jersey would feed my soul with their down tempo, long instrumental interludes and jangle pop inspired cuts . The intricate guitar work that they've built their reputation on was the highlight, most notable in tracks Darling, It’s Real and Had To Hear.

Throwing on three more layers and switching gears, I found a snug spot for festival stalwarts Cut Copy. Being seemingly the only person in Australia who hadn’t seen the boys live before I was overwhelmingly unprepared for the cacophonous riot I was about to witness. The four piece’s Splendour shake down had punters going off like a cut snake to old favourites Saturday, 'Hearts On Fire', 'Need You Now' and fresh release Airborne; a dance-y little ditty that floored me with a guitar hook that got stuck in my head for days.

When Friday headliners The XX released their most recent album I See You, I recoiled when it didn’t live up to the lofty expectations I had set; as if any record could eclipse the minimalistic resplendence of their debut record xx. Regardless, I knew their Amphitheatre set would be one I couldn’t miss, so I dragged myself up the steep hill to the main stage to witness Wandsworth’s pride; a three-piece that Australia had been enamoured with for almost a decade. Stepping out in front of towering, mirrored, rotating, rectangular light installations, the band took formation. Romy Madley Croft on guitar, Oliver Sim on bass and Jamie xx behind the decks. They greeted the crowd with Intro, delivered a faultless set performing tracks from all three records including Islands, 'Shelter', 'On Hold' and even a Jamie xx cover Loud Places. The band were unassuming and at times presented as apprehensive, introverted and shied away from the spotlight. It became clear such an obvious measure of success — a packed Splendour Amphitheatre — can be confronting
for even critical and popular darlings like The xx and that they’re just three friends from London who happen to make indie/dream pop the world has fallen in love with.

Ripping straight back into it on day 2, I had a date with Memphis sweetheart Julien Baker at the GW McLennan tent. The singer songwriter has garnered plenty of attention nationally since releasing her gut wrenching single Something. Soft spoken and small statured, she sent her voice soaring to dizzying heights, then reeled it back in with razor sharp control; smooth, crisp and clear. She stood alone on the stage, a couple of guitars, a pedal board and an amp; Baker has no need for stage dressing, flashy costumes or gimmicks. Her songwriting speaks for itself - strong lyrical motifs touch on religion, identity, sexuality, love and family; with every note she lays her soul bare.

Peeling myself off the floor and piecing myself back together after such an emotional performance from Julien Baker, I wanted to lighten the mood with some electro pop, courtesy of Splendour old hands, Vallis Alps. It's been a busy year for the duo, releasing second EP Fable, a sold out national tour and setting hearts aflutter across the 'Pacific'; tucking some USA dates under their belts. It’s no wonder Aussie crowds can’t get enough of their serotonin releasing tunes, either - the musical marriage of Parrissa Tosif’s dreamy vocals and David Ansari’s masterful beat creation are a match made in heaven. Throw in the confetti cannons and their effervescent stage presence and crowd interaction with cuts like Young, East and Serity, Vallis Alps have me convinced the love affair with their music is far from over; and I couldn’t be more smitten.

Future Islands was a massive Splendour draw card for me, having never seen them before. While the set was engaging, it was almost wholly forgettable, save for front man Sam Herring’s intriguing and outlandish performance. Throwing himself around like a man possessed, steam rising from his sweaty body into the crisp night air and incorporating guttural screams over synth driven indie pop captivated but confused me. I was appeased with the closing number Seasons (Waiting On You) but my Splendour chaperone James Moffatt summed up the experience simply with “it’s just not good, but”.

 

Feeling somewhat dazed after baffling and unexpected set from Future Islands, Catfish and The Bottlemen were just what I needed to plant my feet firmly back on the ground. Their specific brand of Welsh indie pop was just the cure for the ‘Day-2- of-Splendour slump’ I had accidentally tripped into. Lead singer Van McCann seduced the crowd effortlessly, throwing himself into the set with the enthusiasm of a man who'd just gotten word tomorrow was the end of the world. The band demanded consistent audience participation, the crowd eagerly obliging, being propelled by the buoyant percussive breakdowns and rock infused guitar runs The Bottlemen are renowned for.

 

Committing Splendour heresy and swapping out Queens Of The Stone Age at The Amphitheatre for Two Door Cinema Club at the Mix Up tent was the easiest decision I made all weekend. Cramming myself in with thousands of other indie pop devotees, the moment the lads from Northern Ireland hit the stage until the moment they disappeared behind it the enthusiasm and electricity humming from the crowd was undeniable. Playing a diverse spread from their four most notable releases, (including singles I Can Talk, Undercover Martyn and Bad Decisions) and enhancing their live set with wild, neon visual displays sent the Mix Up tent into a frenzy. Writhing bodies were mesmerised by Alex Trimble’s smooth signature croon and guitarist Sam Halliday’s twangy, glittery licks. Building to a stormy, synth-y, sweaty crescendo, the three piece closed the
night with crowd pleaser What You Know, the band only just being heard over the fervid punters screaming along to the lyrics.

As I gingerly eased myself into day 3 of Splendour, and with nowhere to be until dusk when Client Liaison hit the Amphitheatre, I took the morning to take in Splendour activities I have often vetoed in previous years; too anxious to miss any second of a set. I poked my head into The Forum to catch The Go-Betweens doco; Right Here, stuffed my face with an exquisite cronut while chatting to official Splendour photographer Mark (who had been capturing special moments at the festival since its inception in 2001), dragged myself up the Amphitheatre hill to catch LCD Soundsystem’s soundcheck (an activity that got me more excited than a 10 year old at a sleep over whose diet for the day had consisted solely of gummy bears and red Fanta) and strolled past the Splendour In The Craft tent, perhaps a little too shy to pull up a chair and construct a keepsake for mum.

I legged it to the Amphitheatre to catch Client Liaison storm onto the stage just as the sun was dipping behind Byron’s rolling hills. Anticipating a spectacle, but not being completely prepared for the explosion of polyester, Australian 90’s nostalgia and carefully curated choreography had me in a tizzy. The foursome charmed throughout, punctuating their set with costume changes, The Pretty Lovers dance troupe, slinging Foster’s tinnies into the mosh, on brand visual displays and most notably introducing our nation’s pop princess, Tina Arena to serenade the 25,000 strong crowd with Foreign Affair (off Client Liaison’s recent Diplomatic Immunity LP), Sorrento Moon and Womack & Womack’s 80’s banger Teardrops . Monte Morgan and Harvey Miller’s commitment to immersing their fans in an Aussie-retro- corporate-synth- pop sensory overload has them
crowned kings of Splendour - luckily they already have their wardrobe sorted - royalty usually wear sparkly gold Matador uniforms, right?

Rather than gambling, and missing some of Sigur Ros’ set by prancing over to peep Pond at the GW McLennan stage, I stayed to take in Schoolboy Q, a performer, I’ll admit I know precious little about. Apparently, I was the only one unaware as the Amphitheatre swelled to accomodate a heaving crowd of hip hop enthusiasts. Being one of only a handful of rappers at Splendour 2017 the hype surrounding Q’s set was palpable. He rapped over a DJ’ed backing track, employed minimalistic visuals towering over the empty stage, navigated soaring shoes from punters insisting on ‘shoeys’ and threw in a cover of labelmate Kendrick Lamar’s MAAD City/Humble. I was blown away by Sigur Ros at Splendour 2016. Witnessing them transform the Mix Up Stage into an otherworldly paradise was a personal highlight for me last year, so endeavouring to catch them again, full scale at the Amphitheatre in 2017 was high on my priority list. Articulating the majesty of Sigur Ros’ set is tricky. The three piece hypnotised the sparse crowd with their masterful
application of tension and release, pulling you in then pushing you back, cracking open your chest, then sewing you right back up. Furiously heartbreaking, Sigur Ros’ ambiguous lyricism has always been incredibly cathartic; allowing me to find solace in my own interpretation. Facilitated by Jónsi Birgisson’s ethereal vocals, which act as another facet of their intricate instrumentation, their set sent me hurtling into another dimension and feeling fairly reluctant to join the moshpit down on the ground, afterwards.

The sparkling jewel in Splendour 2017’s crowd was LCD Soundsystem. The 6-piece closing out a euphoric three and a half days by cramming eleven years worth of crunchy, synth pop madness into a 2 hour set. The stage was packed to the hilt with analogue gear that looked more like a setup better equiped to launch the band into space, rather than host The Amphitheatre’s last dance party for the year. Setting course straight for the stars, the Soundsystem’s captain, James Murphy swaggered onto stage repeatedly introducing comrades Nancy Whang (on keys) and Pat Mahoney (on kit). Determined to leave absolutely nothing left in the tank, punters threw themselves around like rag dolls to favourites 'New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down', 'Daft Punk Is Playing At My House' and 'I Can Change'. Shoving my hands deep into my pockets, I displayed some wildly experimental dance moves, utilising my elbows to express my jubilation, and trying to stave off hypothermia; which as a Queenslander, I knew would lead to certain death. It
was clear I was not the only one feeling Byron’s icy grip: verified boss lady Nancy shivered through the first half of the set before being offered Murhpy’s coat. It was refreshing to bear witness to a trio that quite obviously had still so much love for each other even after such a long, tumultuous career. Something that cannot be said for other Splendour alumni; *COUGH* The Strokes. As the crowd danced toward midnight under a giant disco ball strung from the scaffolding of the main stage, LCD steered us toward their glittering, rapturous set climax. A scream to the heavens rang out when the opening keystrokes to 'All My Friends' reverberated through the Line Array speakers that adorned the stage. The entire hill fell into each other arms, screaming the closing lyrics 'If I could see all my friends tonight / If I could see all my friends tonight / If I could see all my
friends tonight'
.

All it took was a quick look around; sets like LCD Soundsystem highlighted the true community spirit of Splendour that cynics have been trying to convince us has diminished as the festival has expanded in recent years. It still lives in the hearts of music fans everywhere, coaxed out by outstanding, star studded rosters year after year, the tireless efforts from staff and volunteers, and the wondrous majesty of being surrounded by 30,000 of your closest friends, in a field behind Byron Bay, with no other objective than to just to Dance Yrself Clean.

Fiona Priddey

Photography by Jack Webster

Zed Facts

The 4ZZZ news team won a national CBAA award for Youth Contribution in 2009. This award recognised the news team's efforts in highlighting youth issues and providing a voice for marginalised groups.