Review: Splendour in the Grass

The sun rises over a foggy mountainside where weary campers awake to dewy pastures and vast blue skies. As the native calls of “SPLENDERR” reverberate around Woodfordia, it can only be one time of the year, Splendour In The Grass.

Friday

The crowd hazily starts to build in The Mix-Up where young Melbourne upstarts World’s End Press try to wake everyone up with their infectious take on late 80s disco. While nothing spectacular or different is really displayed by this quartet, their formulaic take on a tried and tested genre is hard not to dance to, creating the perfect mood for the rest of the day.

To The Amphitheatre, where British Sea Power plateaued through a set of emotive indie ballads that mixed well with the surrounds but not with the crowd. Then entered a band that seems destined for bigger things, Jinja Safari. A lot has changed since these Sydney boys played Splendour 2010 as Triple J Unearthed winners, and the sizeable crowd gathered to see them affirms that entirely. The band rollicked through a small but punchy set that perfectly showcased their work as Paul Simon’s Graceland wrapped up in the emotional attachment that is almost required of good indie music these days.

The first of a few acts at this years Splendour that teetered dangerously on the cliff of hype was James Blake, whose unique combination of dub-step fundamentals and ethereality created easily the album of the year so far. As a result of this, the overflowing Mix Up tent greeted Blake and his cohorts with a raucous applause that was tinged with a cautious optimism, if only they had shut up as well. Blake’s intricate stylings were lost in a cacophony of sound created by a murmuring audience, and the set suffered. That said, at many points during the set, namely Limit To Your Love, Blake washed the heaviest base lines you will hear over the audience, putting a stop to their nonsense, albeit briefly. This did create a level amongst Blake and his band, which diminished their effectiveness and poise.

One group of girls who have no doubt in their talents and power is Warpaint. The LA quartet pulsed through a set that showcased their supreme control over their pace and volume, as well as the visceral attack on the senses that their music can sometimes be. Beetles provided the ultimate highlight of the set, with Emily Kokal testing her vocal chords more than sufficiently.
As the sunset over the Amphitheatre for the first time this year, Modest Mouse treated us to a set that never really took off. Sure, we all danced like idiots to hits like Float On and Dashboard, but connection between the band and the audience was nonexistent. Isaac Brock and co. spent much of their performance concentrated on the perfection of their craft, and as a result the crowd suffered.

Gotye is one of the finest musical exports that Australia has to export, the intricacy and finesse that goes into his practice is second to none, and his performance tonight only affirmed that. Wally de Backer had the sizeable crowd gathered to see him wrapped around his finger, with current Hottest 100 favourite Somebody That I Used To Know providing the highlight, Kimbra joining him on stage with the biggest sing-a-long of the set. It should be noted, however, that after this song had played, a fair portion of the crowd left to go seem some dude headline the Amphitheatre.
I however, did not leave. Shock horror. I decided to postpone Mr. West exert his authority over me by seeing the kings of post-rock Mogwai. A small crowd had gathered to see the Glaswegians, but they did not seem phased, slaughtering the audience with their unique reinvention of loud. Unlike other post-rock bands, Mogwai uses emotional attachment sparingly, rather expanding on single themes and constructs with a far more poise. They exhibited such unbelievable control of their sound, particularly in Mogwai Fear Satan, which after 12 minutes of diminishing sound explodes into a cacophony of noise with no warning whatsoever.

Yes, he’s a bit of a dick. No, Jay-Z didn’t turn up. Oh god yes, he put on a great show. Production values were paramount as Kanye West commanded the stage amongst ballerinas, lasers and fireworks. But the main attraction was obviously he, the man simply demands attentions from his followers. In what was essentially a ‘best of’ set, West also treated the audience to the best bits of his 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Somehow, Kanye West has managed to become the most notorious pop star of the 21st Century, whilst still being the one that defines it best.

Saturday

On first glance, today’s line up in undoubtedly the weakest. This, which many punters will emphatically attest to, is due to the lack of a relevant and relatable headliner. Today’s proceedings started noticeably later for the majority of punters, but those who rose early enough to see Tim and Jean would have liked what they saw. In what can only be defined as ‘happy music for happy people’, these hip young things bounced around the stage with their falsetto-laden disco-pop.

Dananananaykroyd (look it up) brought their self-proclaimed ‘fight pop’ to the Amphitheatre for the second time after two years, and not much has changed. The Glaswegians still play the same punchy and shouty brand of indie pop that while is not the most listenable of music, it’s pretty goddam fun live. Punctuating the set with the now famous ‘wall of hugs’ (you gotta try it), this rambunctious sextet won’t change many lives with their music, but they’ll sure have a lot of fun trying.

Perhaps the most underrated songwriter this country has to offer was up next in the GW McLennan, Gareth Liddiard. Although in some circles he his highly regarded because of his talents, the sometimes vicious and unrelenting nature of his performance and lyricism (both through his solo work and with The Drones) has limited his exposure. Liddiard’s humour and Australian drawl endeared him to a half packed tent, and he was quite open to that fact, stating that if he was a festival promoter “the first thing I’d do is not book me”.

As the Saturday afternoon sun began to descend, those in the GW McLennan tent witnessed The Jezabels come of age as a serious up and comer on the ever growing Australian music scene. Their brand of indie pop wrapped up in a Yeah Yeah Yeahs grunge is really making waves amongst the Australian market and the overflowing audience can attest to that.

Foster The People’s don’t really know who they are just yet. Indie summer balladeers? Madchester revivalists? The finger is not quite on the button just yet, but to be honest, all forms of this Los Angeles trio work on a live setting. Hits like Call It What You Want and Pumped Up Kicks all had the crowd moving, but for completely different reasons, which made the start of each new song like the start of a completely different set.

The ever-evolving state of The Mars Volta graced the Amphitheatre next, with all gathered maintaining absolutely no idea has to what incarnation of the vicious Volta they were to see. It wasn’t what they wanted, but what they got, they enjoyed. Declaring immediately that they would be letting us into they’re “private rehearsal” of new material, which sees the band move further away from the Latin-based prog-jams of old and more towards a funk based exploration of themes introduced in their latest offering Octahedron. Old Volta fans will be glad to know however, that they have moved away from the shorter song structure introduced in the aforementioned album, rather deconstructing them and reconstructing into extended attacks. In the end, Cedric, Omar and co. gave the audience what the came for with Son et Lumière, Inertiatic ESP and Goliath ripping them to shreds in a quick 20 minute burst at the end of the set.

The largest problem that faced this years Splendour was the distance between the Mix Up Tent and the GW McLennan tent, or lack there of. The extreme noise and bass tremor from the former could be heard non-stop from the latter, and especially considering the boutique nature of it’s performers, they suffered greatly. This is non more relevant to Regina Spektor. Her cutesy piano pop just couldn’t translate to the surrounds, entirely because of the fact that anyone more than ten metres away from her couldn’t hear her.

One pair of Sydneysiders who know how to fill a tent is PNAU, whose infectious dance music is dumb, but so much fun. Although they seem to be taking themselves a bit more seriously with their latest album Soft Universe, it still didn’t stop them swell a heaving mass of people into an absolute frenzy with hits such as Solid Ground and Wild Strawberries.

Sunday

For a band that has only released one EP, Grouplove already seem comfortable on a stage as big as the Amphitheatre. The troupe rollicked through a set with songs from their self-titled EP and forthcoming album, all of which radiated with a summery glow that was hard to shake.

The title of The Vaccines debut album poses a rhetoric hard to answer, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? Even with its release, and a growing live presence around the world, no one quite new the answer, but their performance today will go some way to help. Their simple guitar music was instantly translatable to the surrounds and their boyish charm made them immediately likable. Hits such as Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra), If You Wanna and a sublime cover of The Standells’ Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White.

If this Splendour is to be characterised in terms of moments, it won’t be Kanye West or Coldplay that should pop to mind, it should be the moment in time that The Middle East played their last ever show. By the time they had hit the stage, the news had spread around the entire site, as a result, no a spare patch of dirt could be found anywhere. The delicacy in which their music was created was apparent today, with such songs as Darkest Side and Blood rendered absolutely perfectly by the band. It is such a shame that a band of such majesty and grace with so much promise can be taken away from us so early into our love affair with them.

The last three acts to be enjoyed this splendour were all found at the Amphitheatre, and it seemed everyone at the site had the same idea. The sight of 15,000 people standing on this sacred hill is something that has to be seen to be believed, truly incredible. Kaiser Chiefs kicked off proceedings and did not disappoint. While nothing remarkable really exists in their music, their live presence is amongst the best in the world. Lead singer Ricky Wilson catapulted himself around the stage and into the audience much to the delight of those involved. I Predict A Riot nearly incited one and hits like Modern Way and Every Day I Love You Less And Less drawing the crowd into frenzy.

Jarvis Cocker is a god. Whilst nothing should be taken away from the merits of Pulp, there is no doubt that the lifeblood of this act lies in the skinny legs of this bearded fellow. Cocker scowled around Pulp’s set with a distinct sinister nature that is everything that those waiting over a decade to see Pulp had hoped. While those not versed in Pulp’s catalogue somewhat ruined the vibe of the performance until Common People was played, This Is Hardcore, Disco 2000 and Mis-Shapes gelled well with those who knew them, and those who didn’t.

These days, it’s become a faux-pas to like Coldplay, so the cynic in me wants to brand them the kings of soft rock, the cynic in me wants to point out that they’ve replaced one tiresome aesthetic with another, the cynic in me wants to say that there were so many possible acts that could’ve headlined this festival, but for the life of me, I just can’t. The fact of the matter is, these guys are professionals, and they put on one hell of a good show, so remove your thinkly-rimmed glasses and have some fun for once. Coldplay played every song you would want them to play with a few new songs cheekily dispersed throughout as well. The entire hill was already in fits of mayhem after Yellow was played only two songs into the set. The Scientist, Politik, God Put A Smile Upon Your Face and an impromptu tribute to Amy Winehouse at the start of Fix You all proved significant highlights.

Whether or not this years Splendour (or Splendours to come) will ever live up to what last year provided is irrelevant. Whatever incarnation this truly special festival takes, it will always be known as Australia’s most beloved festival.

Tom Grant

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