Honey, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Looking around the grounds of Splendour in the Grass, there was no denying where you were. There was the Miss Saigon karaoke, the Moroccan bar, a tipi forest, a German sausage stand, a taco bar, and a Thai massage place, symbols of the influences and inspirations that have fed into the melange of Australian culture.
Granted, the country takes quite some time to get to from most of the world, but the indomitable spirit of the people brought all these various cultural touchstones under their umbrella. That extended to the lineup as Australian artists received the devoted reaction of returning heroes.
Rather than the massive waving flags from the various nations in attendance (the kind of thing you’d see at any European festival), there were scores of fit, healthy, and attractive Aussies. The beachside town of Byron Bay bred a particular hippie strain as well, complete with tanned surfers, drum circles, hula hoopers, and many a bare-naked body.
There was an undeniable glow to the entire weekend, evident from the surprisingly boiling winter weather during the afternoon all the way through to the beaming smiles of the fans. Even for a few days, it was nice to stomp down yellow dust roads and drench my curiosity in a hefty dose of Australian spirit.
There was plenty of buzz in the air for Melbourne’s own Martha Brown, aka Banoffee, and sure enough, she felt all the local love, too. “I’m sure you’ve all come here with your best friend,” she said, mid-nod. “My best friend is in the audience, so go say hi if you can.” While I never made it to say hello to her BFF, Banoffee started to feel like a close friend by the set’s end. Her indie R&B pop thrills were the perfect complement to a cool Saturday afternoon, Brown tweaking her electronics and wringing her mercurial stage presence through the entire emotional gamut.
19. Michael Kiwanuka
A little thing like not having any instruments couldn’t keep British soul singer Michael Kiwanuka down. “Heathrow Airport is a mess at the moment,” he shrugged, more bemused by the situation than frustrated. “All of our equipment didn’t make it, so we had to borrow. Just bear with us.” However, once he and his band broke into powerful songs like “Black Man in a White World” and others from July’s Love & Hate, it was hard to consider any equipment being involved at all, the songs instead pouring straight out of his heart.
18. In Loving Memory of Szymon
Tragically, Australian singer-songwriter Szymon took his own life in 2012 at the young age of 23, after a few years struggling with depression. Only three years after his death did the beautiful Tigersapp find international release, bringing the world closer to the songs that leapt from his soul. A tribute band was formed to further celebrate his life and art, and while festival sets usually jump to the big and bombastic, their performance at Splendour in the Grass was one of the most heartfelt I’ve seen. Featuring guest appearances from members of Gang of Youths, Ball Park Music, Little May, and more, the crowd huddled together, swaying in harmony as if all minds, hearts, and bodies desired to be connected — both those in the crowd and on the stage. A moment unlike any I’d seen at a festival, and a touching tribute to a musician lost too soon.
17. The Strokes
The Strokes are one of the only headliners in this godforsaken world that crowds will allow for a late start. They’re also the kind of rare animal that can get away with awkward banter and a lack of connection. (“So, festivals eh?” Julian Casablancas offered at one point.) But when you’ve got the catalog that the classic New York garage rockers have, the ability to run through “12:51”, “Reptilia”, and “Is This It” with barely a split second to take a breath, any extra-personable banter or timeliness comes as icing on a very soggy, possibly undercooked cake. The massive crowd heaved and screamed through every song, even keeping the energy up for “Drag Queen” and “Threat of Joy” off this year’s new EP, Future Present Past. It all ended as it needed to, with a massive party along to “Last Nite”, the crowd bursting before they had to suffer their way home in the long cold night.
16. Band of Horses
“Thanks so much y’all! Shit!” smiled Ben Bridwell, proving that you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. The Band of Horses vocalist brought his South Carolina charm in equal dose with the doughty indie rock. Those two factors coalesced most sweetly on tunes like “Laredo” and “The Great Salt Lake”, the band climbing massive heights with unbridled energy. Ever the celebratory type, Bridwell made sure to congratulate Splendour on its 16th birthday and continue to keep the party atmosphere going, even when the heartfelt songs demanded tears splashing all over the show.
15. Beach Slang
“Rock and roll deserves to be drunk messy and fucked up!” Beach Slang’s James Alex explained. “And we want to be the torchbearers.” After seeing their Splendour set, it’s hard to imagine better representatives, the Philadelphia quartet bringing their heartland indie punk to the masses. As if to further ingratiate themselves with the locals, guitarist Ruben Gallego wore an Australian sports jersey. The crowd dug it, the dust from their moshing and the baking sun rising toward the sky. Alex (the self-professed love-child of Marc Bolan, Brian Jones, and Harry Potter) led the way, equal parts rocking sincerity and sincere rocking.
14. Fat White Family
Goddammit Lias Kaci Saoudi must not like his clothes, huh. By the end of his band’s set, the Fat White Family frontman had fully disrobed, continuing to lead the way on the London sextet’s gritty post-punk tunes with everything hanging out — his junk laying on the stage like roadkill. At least he checked his prostate health while he was at it, making the sandwiches thrown into the audience earlier in the set seeming pretty tame by comparison. Lest you believe that their set relied exclusively on antics, the Family also tore through songs from this year’s Songs for Our Mothers with surprising cohesion considering their chaotic predilections. Fat White Family may not be for the faint of heart, but those who either miss GG Allin or love sharp-edged jams stuck around for their … err … stripped down antics.
13. King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard are the type of band that have played enough frenetic psych rock sets to go so wild that it seems they don’t even know that anyone else exists. They’re so locked into the energy that each musician seems to be in their own world, attuned to some mystic power. And then their songs shift on a dime, a feat of musical unity that shows just how interconnected Ambrose Kenny Smith and co. have become over years of incessant touring. Touring on the back of Nonagon Infinity, the Melbourne outfit’s set looped and linked, collapsing in on itself in a psychedelic fit.
12. Little May
Little May’s brand of indie rock and folk has built a steadily growing fanbase, particularly in their hometown of Sydney and Australia in general, but expanding throughout the world rapidly. Their stature somewhat the opposite of which their name suggests. They’re doing that meticulously, too, making sure every element of their music works together. And, as if their well-drawn formula for nearly universal musical appeal weren’t enough, they craft their sets with enough majesty and arc to fit into a Hollywood mega-smash. “We’re quite nerdy when it comes to our setlist,” they shrugged. And the soft sweetness with which it was said belies their quiet charm, but also the leaps and bounds that Little May can make once they gain more confidence and experience.
11. Gang of Youths
Throughout the years, I’d seen underpants thrown on stage in plenty of TV and film parodies of concerts, but I’d never seen it done in person — at least not until Gang of Youths‘ set at the Amphi stage. But then the Sydney indie rockers were in the mood for a little celebrating, David Le’aupepe putting the undergarments on his head and acting like an ersatz crooner, fitting their slinky rhythms and sensual energy. Their brand of indie rock fits into the poppy, palatable realm of Foals and Coldplay, but that doesn’t mean they were there to play it calm and safe. (Guitarist Jung Kim’s wobbly shout about being too drunk made that clear.) The combined raw energy and people-pleasing grooves made Gang of Youth’s set another in a crowd of Australian favorites.
10. Melbourne Ska Orchestra
Somewhere out there, there’s a place where ska never died. After watching the crowd react to Melbourne Ska Orchestra, I’m beginning to suspect that the capital of Victoria might just be that ska nirvana. The dozens-large outfit’s afternoon set felt like a trip through the genre’s history, the massive crowd bouncing as if that might eventually lead their bodies up on stage. “We’re embracing the vibe of Australia and the multicultural diversity,” said conductor Nicky Bomba, and the many styles and inspirations felt during the set made that apparent. The crowd responded as a unified whole, too, but only when Bomba directed, raising his arm for a response from the saxophones or the crowd in turn.
09. The Kills
Though they were taking a rather small stage, The Kills’ set at the official Splendour pre-party felt massive. Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince commanded the space, attacking their microphones and burning with a ferocious energy — feeding the crowd to fervor, while they were more than happy to return the favor. Mosshart reminded me of a younger Shirley Manson, her long pink hair whipping like an insatiable flame. The UK duo fit right into the comfortable Aussie environs, shouting out the good-looking crowd between their fiery tunes. This was the kickoff that Splendour in the Grass needed.
08. The Avalanches
With all of the buildup, there was a lot of pressure on The Avalanches to do something great. That was true at their first return festival performance at Primavera, but that was especially true at their “homecoming” of sorts at Splendour in the Grass — before the enigmatic outfit delayed even more tour dates. And yet, split between their pre-party surprise set and their massive headlining spot on the festival’s main stage, there’s no reason to walk away thinking that they failed. Sure, their Primavera DJ set was a blast, but there was no telling what they’d have cooked up for either of the performances. The first was on a more intimate stage, where Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi were joined by Spank Rock and Eliza Wolfgramm, while the latter two filled in the vocal spots of the Avalanches’ various guest stars, their first live band set in nearly a decade and a half.
Chater, plunged in darkness, began spinning, and the place erupted into a frenzy by the time the rest joined and they kicked off “Avalanche Rock”. The main fest spot followed much the same way, also touching on massive sing-alongs for “Frankie Sinatra” and “Frontier Psychiatrist” (complete with Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” worked in for good measure). Only on the massive stage, things felt a little disjointed, a rock band, a rapper, and a soul singer all sharing a space, yet not necessarily united. But with the love of a home-country crowd, undeniable hooks, and profound dedication, they more than lived up to the expectations. Here’s hoping they find a little more chemistry by the time they get around to those next live dates — and that those dates materialize in the first place.
07. At the Drive-In
“Can you cut the smoke?” asked Cedric Bixler-Zavala. “We aren’t Spinal Tap!” While there wasn’t any miniature stonehenge in sight, At the Drive-In and its manic frontman certainly had their fair share of antics during their Splendour set. Bixler-Zavala ran around the stage like an eager goat, climbing onto anything in sight and leaping off, be it a bandmate or amp. At one point, he ripped a light from the stage, struggling with it for several minutes determined to get it out of his way, before eventually just throwing it like a cartoon boulder. And yet none of this hurt their set, classic Relationship of Command songs like “Invalid Litter Dept.” and “One Armed Scissor” still burning and tight.
06. Leon Bridges
“I wanna see if you got the juice, Splendour,” Leon Bridges said with a smile, and if the crowd singing along to every word of his songs hadn’t made it clear, the massive roar that followed surely tipped him off. The only thing as fluid as his sweet voice, though, were his dance moves, “Twistin’ and Groovin'” throughout the set. Bridges wasn’t the only one doing the throwback soul thing as plenty of youngsters in the crowd were swing-dancing along to “Smooth Sailin'” and “Lonely Road”. A cover of Ginuwine’s essential R&B tune “Pony” may have been out of character for the retro-leaning musician, but it still hit all the right sexy notes. “Let me see you smile,” he demanded. Judging from those around me, the reflection from the millions of gleaming teeth must’ve been blinding.
05. The Preatures
The Preatures’ Splendour set sat at a strange intersection. The Sydney rockers have been a growing institution since the release of their 2014 record Blue Planet Eyes, so this performance felt part of that upward trajectory. Yet they were also previewing new grittier songs, hinting at what might come next, a promising yet unfinished middle ground. This was also the final show that the band would play with Gideon Bensen, the guitarist who’s leaving to focus on solo material. But even that farewell came on good terms as the crowd squeezed into the tent, showing plenty of love as a goodbye. “Someone asked us the other day how we just burst onto the scene, but we’ve been doing this, as you guys know, for eight years,” chuckled Isabella Manfredi. “And so has this guy, and I’m so sad to see him go.” They sent Bensen off proper, with a rousing rendition of “Is This How You Feel?”. Even with all this change and uncertainty, Preatures seem to be on their way to even greater heights.
04. Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett’s set hasn’t changed all that much on this tour, and yet it never ceases to amaze — perhaps because of the excellent songwriting, or her effortless charm, or more likely a combination of the two. Barnett announced that this will be her last set of the year, taking a well-deserved break after months and months of festivals. “It’s a special one,” she smiled. The Melbourne rocker and her band delivered on that specialness, a little extra oomph put in despite the long tour that came before it. With the jangling solos, forceful harmonies, and swinging rhythms, I’d be tempted to say there was a little more swagger in their step, but Barnett and co. continue to be sublimely humble and easygoing despite their capability to push the crowd into a rocking frenzy.
03. Tegan and Sara
The award for the best banter of the festival definitely goes to Tegan and Sara. “We were here so long ago, but you look as beautiful, and as fit, and as drunk,” grinned Sara. “We made a new album while Beyonce was making Lemonade and Donald Trump was becoming the leader of the new world,” offered Tegan to a chorus of boos. “What? You don’t like that?” Crowd-work aside, the sisterly duo built their set with plenty of early highs, including opening with classic jam “Back in Your Head” and following later with infectious new single “Stop Desire”.
After a few slow-burning acoustic tracks, they built things back up to a headrush (“Lets turn this party back up to an 8!”), culminating in the unstoppable trio of “Walking with a Ghost”, “Boyfriend”, and “Closer”. “You’re like Justin Bieber, Tegan!” Sara exclaimed as her sister ran to the front of the stage to interact with the crowd. There’s raw fun to their new music, and it seems that they’re enjoying themselves just as much as us.
02. The Cure
Heading into Splendour in the Grass, the three-hour set time scheduled for The Cure seemed more thrilling than daunting. Few bands have the capacity and catalog to fill that kind of space, but Robert Smith and co. are certainly up to the task. Though they didn’t quite fill the entire 180 minutes, their 30-song set left few people complaining. There were too many gems in that setlist to try to list them, though the crowd certainly screamed a little more for stone-cold classics like “Friday I’m in Love”, “Close to Me”, and “Pictures of You”, at one point even leading a chant of “holy shit!”
The glow on the stage emanating from the band seemed supernatural, though they themselves noticed it too. “I feel like I’m on a spaceship,” Smith repeated, smiling and jiggling along. After about two and a half hours, it drew to a close with “Boys Don’t Cry”, Smith walking to the front of the stage, hands to his heart. “Thank you very much for being such a lovely audience,” he smiled sincerely. Though considering the superb set the Cure put on, it’s hard to believe they’d ever encounter anything else.
01. Sigur Rós
Though I’d seen Sigur Rós before, I’d never wound up crying like this. Or howling, should I say. Sure, I’ve cried (at every Sigur Rós set I’ve seen, of course), but the Icelandic band’s Splendour set left me bawling in joyous wonder at the beauty of the world. There was just something about this performance that seemed to exist in another stratosphere. Jónsi prowled the front of the stage, arms-length from the front row, howling (and quite audible even without a microphone — as if the mic was too restrictive, and he needed to let out the scream into as much open space as possible. He’d hold a note for nearly an entire minute and then stretch his fingers slowly towards his guitar strings, as if each note could change the world.
Jónsi stood hunched over his guitar, like a creature over its prey. It was almost as if being relegated to a smaller stage (as Flume pumped up the crowds elsewhere on the grounds) allowed for an even more intimate connection, their already massive emotionality feeling even more immersive. The three musicians felt so symbiotic, their new songs fitting in to the classics even better than the last time I saw them (just a couple months ago). After Sigur Rós closed on the majestic “Popplagið”, I walked into the night, changed, cheeks sticky with tears.
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Photographer: Lior Phillips