Live Review: Fairgrounds

7 December 2015 | 9:22 am | Matt MacMaster

"We truly want this to keep going. Just bring more brisket next year!"

The hamlet of Berry lies just outside of Nowra, a two-hour drive south of Sydney. Roughly 2,000 people call its heritage-listed streets home. For 24 hours over the weekend that number suddenly doubled as locals and tourists alike swarmed over the central showground like ants on a dropped biscuit, lounging in the sun under a brilliant blue sky. 

The festival itself boasted ticket sales in excess of 3,500, with more expected at the gate. The folks amiably chatting in line enjoying the dappled sunshine weren’t just seasoned festival veterans in their 20s — joining them were families, kids, old folks and locals taking advantage of the good weather and the circus atmosphere of the day. Those at the front of the stage bobbed and swayed, chatting freely. The shade ringing the showground attracted more folks, enjoying the breeze that made odd shapes out of the sound coming from the front. Food stalls and lawn games offered more opportunities to gather and enjoy the day with strangers and new friends. Impromptu rounds of tug-o-war erupted that saw people running from across the field to join in, kids dangling on the rope while guys in Santa outfits struggled against brave mums and dads vying for a win. The sense of community was strong, even though these people had never met. For a time the festival seemed like a truly unique event.

The Oyster Bar raised the standard for festival food, with punters sipping Mumm and slipping oysters down their gullet by the dozen. Sydney’s newest BBQ heroes Bovine & Swine were in high demand, with this reviewer cursing his lack of foresight in not ordering two brisket sandwiches by the time he got to the front of a very, very long line. Other options included Happy As Larry pizzas, one of Sydney’s brightest food truck teams, Vietnamese, cheesecakes, gourmet pies, crepes and more.

Father John Misty sang to us at dusk, competing with cicadas threatening to derail his polished brand of casually devastating songwriting. It was a moody set that combined his talents as a showman (he’s a slippery sucker, writhing and swaying like a snake being charmed) and his killer material full of polished cynicism and rich, technicolour alt-country soul. His counterpoint was CW Stoneking. His gravelly, chewy brand of swamp blues was gleefully shambolic and unpretentious, and underneath it all was a deeply ingrained sense of fun and levity that was good to groove to. Mercury Rev seemed out of place, throwing out crashing waves of lush prog-rock that felt like overkill in the bright sunshine. The small crowd bathed in it, but their response could never hope to match the intensity of the performance. Their presence on the line-up was a pleasant surprise when it was announced, but on the day felt like a defibrillator in place of an alarm clock — not quite the right tool for the job, but effective nonetheless, and certainly memorable.

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Meg Mac looked like she stepped up on stage from amidst the crowd. Her large-brimmed floppy hat and dark garb was standard festival gear for many young women, but her voice is anything but ordinary. Coming on just as folks began dialling up the energy and gracefully easing us into the evening was a good move in hindsight, indicative of the well thought out set times, and her glossy pop set, crowned by Never Be, was effortlessly charming.

Ratatat lathered us with a set of oily krautrock-infused dance-punk, their trademark visuals twisting behind them. It was flawlessly executed, tightly controlled, and hypnotic. Early efforts by cult Perth outfit Methyl Ethel and Austinmer guitar group Shining Bird did great work, the former really throwing down with a lush pulsing sound. The early birds enjoyed it. Royal Headache softened their approach. The rough garage aesthetics were dialled down and the wide open space and relaxed audience drained the playful tension they tried hard to generate. It was a good slot, but not quite at peak power for them. Unknown Mortal Orchestra felt right at home, their blissed out dream-funk perfect for drinking in the sun. It was far too short: we would have loved to have another hour from them.

Ultimately, the line-up was a valiant attempt to bring to life a new kind of festival, one that appealed to those wanting a holistic experience. Families danced alongside classic festival douchebags (mercifully low in number), both either oblivious to the other, or fully accepting, glass half-full or -empty. The music was eclectic and of high quality, and the whole thing was conceptually excellent. Unforgiveable however, was how grossly underprepared the food and drink services were. Long lines suddenly halted and dispersed multiple times as they were told food was gone or unavailable, and people resorted to ordering pizzas from town delivered to the gates. Hangry folks do not a happy festival make.

That said, Fairgrounds provided a welcome alternative to the bloated beasts that grab headlines throughout summer. Its size, location and careful curation get big marks, and we truly want this to keep going. Just bring more brisket next year!