Splendour In The Grass 2012 day one kicked off with the most perfect weather, a buzzing campsite and rush of pre-festival adrenalin. Punters were more than happy to see the festival return to its original home in Byron Bay's Belongil Fields.
Opening the GW McLennan Stage, Chet Faker eased the crowd into one of the busier and more popular days of the weekend. Nick Murphy started off with a quiet, solo rendition of Burial's Archangel. The intimacy was hard to get in the festival environment, especially because it was only 12:45pm and people were just getting started. Murphy was thankful for the overwhelming turn out, humbly telling the audience that this was probably the biggest crowd he's ever played to – proof of the Melbourne artist's sudden rise to success. Playing sultry hits from his EP, Thinking In Textures, people were definitely feeling the sexuality that is highly present Faker's music – example A: a couple to the left of me were happily grinding away for the entire duration of his set. But it wasn't just all about the sex; the crowd sang along word for word to songs like I'm Into You and of course his Blackstreet cover, No Diggity, which closed his set. Playing with a four-piece band, the set fell a little flat at times, most probably because of the inability to meld down-tempo R&B with a buzzing, daytime festival crowd – but this could have been fixed with a fuller, denser and bassier sound.
From one extreme to the other, Pond were completely off their chops. Lead singer Nick Allbrook's banter was predominantly jibberish as he told the audience about the cough medicine bottle that he had been nursing on stage, calling it his “purple drank” and then referring to Lil' Wayne. To be honest, we lost him halfway through that little spiel. But musically, the band were thriving, completely belting out their psych-rock offerings at full force and letting loose on stage.
Starting in the highest, most painful pitch, Youth Lagoon – aka Trevor Powers – hit the Mix-Up Tent with his buddy on electric guitar. Thankfully, the sound levels improved, but since Powers' vocals are already of a high frequency, combining that with his shrieking synths really destroyed our eardrums. Playing the melancholic electro-pop songs from his debut, The Year In Hibernation, Powers extended the languid melodies and outros of each song – highlights including closer, Seventeen, and Montana – providing the perfect soundscape as the clouds rolled in. It was during his set that the psychotic storm took over Byron Bay with heavy rain and hail that was to begin the war between humans and mud.
Mud. Let's not even get started on the mud. Some fell face down in it, others were just soaked up to their shins. Now we know why they used to call it Splendour In The Mud. But mud aside, The Shins were about to take the stage. And to hide from the cold, I thought I'd experience their show side of stage. Probably not the best idea as the quality of the sound was far poorer, and the tech guys were preparing for the reunited At The Drive-In set that was to follow on the main stage.
The Shins took to the stage and jumped straight into one of their most loved tracks, Caring Is Creepy. Shortly followed by Australia, it was a little disappointing not to see James Mercer crack a joke or throw a dedication our way. Maybe that would've been too cheesy for him, but it would've been nice! Having never seen The Shins perform with their original lineup, it's hard for me to compare the two. The six-piece that Mercer recruited as his band were tight and in total control of their sound. You'd think that they've been touring and performing together for years.
Mercer didn't put much effort into his banter, but to be honest, you don't really need much showmanship from Mercer to be impressed with The Shins. All he needs to do is open his mouth and sing, as his voice is The Shins – and this also goes for the haters of the new lineup (if there are any out there). The warmth and homeliness of their music came to life at the Supertop when I think punters needed it most (6.30pm was around the time energy levels started to crumble away). And with a new band, of course, comes a different dimension to The Shins' sound. New arrangements that, like for New Slang, included female harmonies. For a song that is so popular and immensely overplayed, seeing it in this new light was refreshing and as equally mesmerising as its original.
At the end of the day, it was only fair for a young lady (such as myself) to have a meltdown due to the overwhelming amount of mud, exhaustion and freezing cold weather of Splendour day one. But hey, it was all totally worth it.
The Afghan Whigs thrilled a small but besotted throng of devotees with their first ever show in these parts, the six-piece emerging all clad in stately black and proceeding to smash out an hour of elegant, intense soul-specked rock that put their younger counterparts to shame. Frontman Greg Dulli is no stranger to Splendour, having smashed it in this same GW McLennan Tent a few years back with Gutter Twins, but that was nothing compared to seeing him here in all his glory, owning the stage as he and his clearly stoked band showed just why they're so revered. Scintillating...
Even though we were half expecting it, it's still disconcerting when after 45 minutes Jack White's band marches off with little fanfare and is immediately replaced with an all-female ensemble. Given his other outfits, it somehow makes more sense to see Jack surrounded by the ladies, and it changes the whole tone of proceedings, still rocking but slightly more refined. Hotel Yorba gets a great response and they deliver a cracking version of The Saboteurs' Top Yourself, followed by a ripper read of The White Stripes' I'm Slowly Turning Into You. A true festival showman, White saved his trump card for last, the opening notes of Seven Nation Army sending the packed tent into raptures. They drew it out for everything it's worth – a massive communal celebration to signify stumps on day one – and suddenly White is centrestage surrounded by both of his bands, a group hug turning into a mass farewell bow. Despite immense clammering for an encore, none is forthcoming. Bring on day two!
From young and homegrown garage punk Bleeding Knees Club to American pop icon and household name Lana Del Rey, Splendour seemed to have once again pulled it off: a lineup worth braving the mud, cold and heat for.
The Supertop kicked off with a searing set from lo-fi garage wunderkinds Bleeding Knees Club. The band have earned themselves something of a following, with a generous crowd turning up to sing along to gritty garage rock gems Nothing To Do and Teenage Girls. The band gave an impressive, high-energy start to the day despite the earliness of their set. This was BKC's first Splendour performance, and I highly doubt it will be their last.
Cast Of Cheers, with their driving bass lines and rapid-fire drum beats, gave an intense performance at the Supertop Tent. Their simple guitar lines served as a neat counterpart to the band's heavy, complex rhythm section. Cast of Cheers' highly energised frontman led the band through bold, shouted vocal harmonies.
Mosman Adler presented a collection of gorgeous, delicate sounds in the GW McLennan Tent. Their delicate fiddle lines and slow, morose vocals, dispersed with persistent drum beats made for a complex, rich sound. Their music was artful, their vocals interacting beautifully with their finely-wrought harmonic instrumentals. Their set closer, Tokyo, contained a gorgeous violin section, a high-energy drum section and intense instrumental bridges. Sadly, their early set meant that many punters missed out on this highly impressive performance.
Tijuana Cartel gave one of their typically bad-arse, wildly fun sets full of delicate Spanish guitar lines, insanely complex trumpet lines and the swagger of MC Regan Huskins. Their heavily-synthesised, almost dubstep beats worked strangely well with their bongo percussion and mellifluous guitar lines. The band attracted a huge audience, all of whom spent the whole set dancing.
What can be said about the antics of Brooklyn four-piece Friends? Their huge audience seemed to start building at least 30 minutes before their performance was due to start, probably due to the extensive triple j airplay of their recent singles, Friendcrush and I'm His Girl. Both singles were played by the band immaculately, to the delight of their huge audience. The band's ability to reproduce their recorded sounds – from indie pop to almost R&B – was remarkable. But the conduct of Friend's lead singer (totally illegal, probably dangerous and, in the end, totally cool) seemed to be the highlight of the set. Scrambling down from the stage, the young woman asked for all joints to be passed forward, and then stood at the barrier and smoked up, right under the nose of security.
Jinja Safari quite literally packed out the GW McLennan Stage, with at least 1000 fans dancing and singing along to tracks like Peter Pan and Stepping Stones. Their performances of these songs seemed a little lighter on the sitar and a little heavier on the electric guitar and drums than on their record – but then again, the delicate sitar strings did not carry very far in the cavernous tent. Set closer, Mermaids, was played in true Jinja Safari style, with plenty of raucous dancing and jumping around from the band, loud singing along from the audience and the punctuation of two huge blasts from confetti cannons.
The polished, groovy sounds of The Beautiful Girls brought a touch of roots to the GW McLennan Tent. The band have a relaxed, natural stage presence and command the attention of the audience with ease; every single one of their slick, well-arranged songs was sung along with by a proportion of the audience. Their saxophone lines seemed to bring a touch of classy jazz into the performance.
Mudhoney began their set with thick, grungy rhythms – quickly joined by their frontman's hoarse shout. With reverb coursing through the air and the band working up a three-part harmonic shout, the band seemed to be reinstating themselves as international princes of grunge music.
This reviewer was a little nervous for Lana Del Rey's biggest Australian show so far. Between her recent sudden cancellation and her notorious Saturday Night Live performance, it seemed that much could go wrong. Yet the minute Del Rey entered the stage, dressed in a short wedding dress with a veil draped over the back of her elaborate hairstyle, all doubts were assuaged. Del Rey descended a staircase by the side of the stage and stood by the barrier, making eye contact with as many fans as possible. In performance, it becomes clear just how many cultural references flow through every Del Rey show – from her Romeo & Juliet-esque balcony performance of Video Games to the Lolita imagery that seems to flow through the lyrics of each number. Ending the set standing barefoot in the mud at the front of the stage, singing somewhat presciently “American dreams came true somehow/I swore I'd chase them 'til I was dead,” Del Rey's set was a genuine piece of performance art.
Having ankle-depth mud, hot days and freezing nights to contend with, Splendour In The Grass required a kind of miracle lineup to attract fans. Somehow, the legendary Australian event managed to pull it off again, with Saturday night's lineup bringing together some of the most reputable and talked-about acts from Australia and overseas.
The sun came to Byron again for the last day of Splendour, but Belongil Fields remained, for the most part, a boggy swamp full of twisted bodies that were in dire need of rest, or more partying. Starting proceedings off gracefully in the GW McLennan Tent was Victorian songbird, Gossling. Joined by a three-piece band, Helen Croome was all sunshine in a yellow dress, acoustic guitar and that trademark twee vocal. Though no longer a unique way of singing (think Julia Stone and Lisa Mitchell), it was great to hear Croome pack some punch behind the reedy nature of her voice. The set was short and sweet, rounding off with her biggest hit, Wild Love.
Hundreds more flooded the same tent to see NSW country brothers (and friend), The Rubens. In the past, the boys have been criticised for contrived crowd interaction, but the set they delivered on Sunday was tight, humble and energetic. With tales of heartbreak and boys passing into manhood, their lyrics are smart, simple and perfectly suit their blues-soaked rock. Including crowd favourites My Gun, Lay It Down and Don't Ever Want To Be Found, it was a set that marked a band on their way up.
Previous triple j Unearthed winners Husky followed with a set that failed to heat up until the end. Their musicianship couldn't be doubted, their harmonised vocals flowed beautifully over country-tinged ballads, and long musical breakdowns saw them stretch into jazz territory on the keys, but the calm meditative nature of their sound seemed out of place under a big tent. Having lost Husky Gawenda's lead vocals under some of the music for much of the set, it was great to see singles The Woods and History's Door sung with some gusto at the end.
In a performance that was the polar opposite of its predecessor, Father John Misty (aka Joshua Tillman) engaged from sound check to end. The former drummer for Fleet Foxes seems to be happily embracing his solo onstage persona, a tall, cheeky presence who was all sex, rhythm and humour. Backed by an equally outlandish support, it was a set that screamed of the American West and South. Moments of honky tonk, blues and gospel all delivered with a strong dark vocal made this a kooky musical sermon, finishing with single, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and a dramatic stage exit.
In the last light of day, French electronic producer Yuksek arrived on the Mix-Up Stage with a full live show that had the crowded tent welcoming the night. A trained classical pianist, Yuksek was positioned behind keys and synths and joined on stage by a live female drummer and another musician who jumped from guitar to keys throughout. Energy leapt from their instruments and made this clever brand of electro pop radiate off stage, bringing the tent alive with singles Always On The Run and closing out with hit single, On A Train.
Aussie rockers Wolfmother started the evening's lineup in the Supertop, but failed to fill the tent to capacity. Opening with White Feather and rolling into Love Train and New Moon Rising, it was a live performance that delivered what their recorded music promises – long musical breakdowns, power stances and showmanship. But with only one new single to offer, Keep Moving, it was a show we'd recently seen and heard before, which made it feel a bit boring. Closing with a rendition of White Unicorn that dissolved in and out of Pink Floyd's The Wall, and a massive performance of Joker & The Thief, it was a good performance, but it still felt a bit stale.
In their only Australian show, English band The Kooks instantly filled the main stage with their happy pop sensibility. Covering tracks from across their three albums, the set flowed seamlessly from indie pop into blues jams and reggae beats, with Always Where I Need You To Be and Junk Of The Heart proving the biggest crowd pleasers. Frontman Luke Pritchard showed boundless energy as he went from behind guitars to leaping across stage and onto speakers (only upstaged by the guy who climbed one of the towers and brought the show to a halt by security).
Closing out the festival for 2012, the new lineup of The Smashing Pumpkins had the Supertop jumping. Despite the obvious physical changes to Billy Corgan, his vocals and performance were first rate, his distinctive nasal tones drifting easily from softer pop moments to thrashing screams. In what seemed a humble performance (until final bows), Corgan even pandered to our retro wishes, littering the set with classics such as Bullet With Butterfly Wings, Today, Tonight Tonight, 1979 and Cherub Rock. Perhaps the only band on the lineup that had an encore, they returned to play a brilliantly distorted cover of David Bowie's Space Oddity and a screaming exit with Mellon Collie's Xyu.
Veterans lead this week's releases with new albums from Tim Rogers & The Bamboos (Album Of The Week) and Daniel Johns plus albums from Ella Thompson, The Vaccines and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.