Splendour In The Grass 2009
Byron Bay, NSW, Australia - 25-26 July
“Enjooeeey yourseeeeuu,” Andrew Vanwyngarden drawls over the remnants of his smashed
up keyboard, almost vomiting up the chorus that’s propelled MGMT
to world stardom in a mere eye shut as the plinking pop of ‘Kids’ brings their set to chaotic close. Of course,
the singer’s dismissive slurring of a line he’s sung a million times before matters little to the tens of thousand
of fluoro-clad fans jumping along to that unmistakeable synth riff but make no mistake, MGMT hate this song. “Take only what ya bwaaaugh bwaaaugh,” he half
growls, half barfs in seeming disgust, looking down vacantly at the stage and, you suspect, the karaoke-mauled finale of ‘Kids’
In spite, maybe because of this, MGMT are by far and away the highlight of Splendour In The Grass. It’s refreshing to see they still have room for a bit of self loathing and there emerges a tingling sense throughout tonight’s set that after two years on the road peddling the same old wares the Brooklyn pair are ready to get serious. From ditching their clique hippy headgear, to opening with the rougher, darker sound of b-side ‘Destrokk’, to pummelling their equipment as the pre-recorded strains of their most recognisable hit sirens around a 10,000-capacity marquee, if ever there was a band ready to move on this is it – and on tonight’s performance that’s a very exciting prospect.
Sadly the same can’t be said for some of the other international acts gracing the main stage over the weekend. Despite repeated efforts Bloc Party are simply not cut out to headline a festival and, unlike MGMT, have hit a wall in owning too many songs to choose from, while at the same time suffering from a distinct lack of depth in their overall sound. The days when they thrilled packed out sweatboxes urgently re-jigging ‘Silent Alarm’ are, alas, a distant memory and now three albums in they just appear lost and plodding, none more so when the usually ice smooth ‘Two More Years’ is performed like some kind of knees-up sea shanty. But Bloc Party are massive in Australia and the crowd duly follow singer Kele Okereke’s orders to “get involved” prior to a raucous version of ‘Banquet’ , breaking down a security barrier to show their loyalty to the Londoners’ cause.
The Flaming Lips know no barriers, of course, arriving on stage through a giant animated vagina before Wayne Coyne jumps into his now famous life-sized rubber ball and jogs over the front rows. Who has more fun in all this – him or the crowd – is unclear, but those who’ve seen the band a few times would be forgiven for concluding this see-through sphere is some kind of magic washing machine/spin dryer combo to clean Coyne’s decaying grey suit, seeing as he’s worn it for the best part of four years. It must smell pretty bad otherwise. The live show hasn’t moved on a great deal either during that time. Confetti cannons – check. Dancing animals – check. Acoustic version of ‘Fight Test’ – check. Epic encore of ‘Do You Realise’ followed by tearful hugging among young girls as it dawns on them that getting twatted at festivals can’t go on forever – check.
The show-stopping glitter party is brilliant on the eyes, of course, and the universal feeling of euphoria generated by Coyne’s ramblings is an almost perfect note on which to end any festival on a high, but it’s just been done so many times before. Even some of the lines the singer/new age faith healer comes out with date back to 2006 – “This is where we’re supposed to do an encore but you guys just clap like we’ve gone off stage and we’ll just stay here and play another song, yeah?” zzzzzzzzz. What would be much better is if The Flaming Lips lent their stage show to other bands, y’know properly spread the giant handed love rather than hogging it all for themselves. Doves were amazing earlier in the day but the sight of Jimi Goodwin and his trio of dour Mancs besieged by a dozen dancing roadies dressed up as cartoon frogs would have tipped their show off the scale. As it was we made do with solid, workmen-like renditions of classics like ‘The Cedar Room’ and ‘There Goes The Fear’, which was good enough, making us all proud of our black and white towns back home as we let out a little tear.
Mention Splendour In The Grass to any Australian and they go a bit gooey-eyed, similar to the reaction provoked by the words ‘Bestival’ or ‘Green Man’ among any discerning British festival-goer. Set a few miles outside the hippy east coast town of Byron Bay – Australia’s furthest eastern point and the only place bigger than Ramsey Street not to have a McDonalds – the two-day event is seen as an edgy alternative to the corporate juggernauts of Big Day Out and V Festival which stampede across the outback from city to city every year. Location and festival appear to go hand in hand here, and you sense that if you were anywhere else Splendour wouldn’t be nearly as splendid.
The festival’s reputation has exploded in recent years to the point that its 17,000 tickets now sell out in a day, with locals given priority. The small ‘S’ shaped site of Belonghi Fields ensures it always feels busy and buzzing and the condensed bush, fed by the Pacific breeze, can make Splendour In The Grass feel more like a stagger round an enchanted forest. This is especially the case in the alfresco Tipi Village which is where the festival is really at, the hardcore dancing under the stars to psy-trance and hard house to DJs raised on a platform like the good old days of rigs in car parks. In fact, if there is one criticism of this festival it would be the absence of a main outdoor stage with all the arenas contained in often packed, occasionally claustrophobic marquees.
Still, the young Australian crowd are slaves to their live music and seem happy darting between arenas, which, to be fair, are all very easy to travel between as they methodically tick off the line up. Antipodean singer/songwriters Josh Pyke and Sarah Blasko have loyal followings but the planet straddling Midnight Juggernauts prove the stand out Australian act, treating a scrum of fans to euphoric favourites like ‘Discovery’ and ‘Into The Galaxy’ while hinting at an even more psychedelic future with a couple of stellar new tracks. Pub rocking survivors The Living End pull one of the biggest crowds after taking over from the elbow-injured Jane’s Addiction at the last minute and there’s even a ‘Michael Jackson is dead’ style rumour suggesting Powderfinger might come out of their lengthy live hiatus to perform here. They don’t.
Splendour In The Grass is no frills but it works perfectly. The festival’s size suggests a remote mid-sized gathering but its line-up (Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen played last year) boasts the status of an international music event. All this leads to the puzzling paradox of performances feeling personal and intimate despite the fact that 17,000 people have never felt so huge in number. It goes without saying that the Australian crowd is ludicrously friendly and they have every right to be on a weekend like this, wedged as it is in the middle of a winter down under. Unlike MGMT, still probably scowling somewhere as their manager tells them for the zillionth time they have to play ‘Kids’ as their encore, you can’t see the locals of Byron Bay and eastern Australia ever turning their backs on their most valued prize, no matter how many times they sing it.