"[Falls Festival in Byron Bay] was characterised by blistering heat, sweat, and sunburn: true emblems of an Australian summer."
With half the country either suffocating under a smoky haze or genuinely on fire, it felt like Falls Festival might never make it to Byron Bay for its annual New Year's Eve bash. Indeed, the Lorne leg of the event was cancelled, but to everyone’s relief the first acts graced the stage just after noon on 31 December at the North Byron Parklands to begin festivities and usher in a new decade of crazy costumes, overpriced beer and glitter.
The first day was characterised by blistering heat, sweat, and sunburn: true emblems of an Australian summer. The Welcome To Country made a great addition to the program with a half-hour set that featured First Nations songs about caring for the land and its inhabitants.
The set from local rockers Mini Skirt was perfect for a crowd of closet head-bangers in fluorescent colours and Hawaiian shirts. The frontman, wearing his blonde mullet with pride, belted songs with an instantly distinguishable Australian twang. Set against his grungy vocals, the music seemed relatively tame and sensical, but the crowd only seemed more enticed by the raucous noise.
Despite their early billing, Cousin Tony’s Brand New Firebird had packed out the Jack Daniel’s Barrel House with punters queuing out the door, awaiting entry to sway under the band's velvety spell. Smashing through tracks from their latest LP New Romancer, the Melburnians appeared equal parts surprised and thrilled at the turnout, and they responded with an entertaining hour showing both skill and class.
Bec Sandridge drew a crowd but after the first half of her hour-long set was spent adjusting sound equipment, punters flocked towards the distant sounds of A Swayze & The Ghosts. Like a younger sibling to Jet, the band delivered a set filled with bold vocals and raw instrumental backing, with the added bonus of dance moves resembling a possessed rooster. In a surprise twist, the best vocals of the day came from the drummer, but the band had great chemistry with each other and with the crowd.
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As afternoon turned to evening, Psychedelic Porn Crumpets proved an energising force with grungy guitar riffs and dreamy vocal harmonies. The band may have been one shirt short of a set, but it could almost have gone unnoticed between the several metres of hair on display and the colourful, spiralling graphics in the background. Circle pits opened left, right and centre and tweenies hurled themselves on each others' shoulders in a moshing frenzy. Keen For Kick Ons?, Bill’s Mandolin and Hymn For A Droid were all met with rabid enthusiasm - even if the band’s mix was a little off. Psychedelic Porn Crumpets are an act that feel made for small, sweaty clubs as opposed to expansive festival stages, yet with the mass appeal the band has gained - exemplified by the jubilant reception of finale Cornflake - it might be a matter of the band adapting their act to the new platform.
Soon after Vera Blue made for a glorious contrast to the rock vibes, and dressed in a flouncy purple gown, she played the part to perfection. Rolling through hits like Private, Magazine, and Settle, she drew in a steady stream of onlookers, and her famously stratospheric vocal range had the crowd enthralled. After a confident set, her closing track, Regular Touch, had everyone on their feet and singing along.
With the Forest Stage well and truly packed out to the back, Parcels completely owned their spot on the Falls line-up. The Byron boys have had a huge year, and the celebratory feel was evident as they guided the crowd through their impressive catalogue of electro-pop. Now based in Germany, it was clear moving overseas hadn’t lessened their local appeal in the slightest.
The legendary John Farnham may be getting on in years but his vocal chops and cheeky sense of humour reached the young crowd with no trouble. He and his talented backing vocalists powered through hits like Every Time You Cry and Reasons with extraordinary passion, showcasing his incredible range, and capped off every performance with a dignified nod of the head. Immortal classic You're The Voice eclipsed every other tune for crowd participation, closely followed by an encore cover of AC/DC's It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'N' Roll), but perhaps the most memorable part was Farnham's short rendition of Sadie (The Cleaning Lady), with a side of classic banter: “I’ll watch you, and if you don’t sing along, I’m gonna come around your house.”
Farnham may have been a tough act to follow, but no one could have done a better job than Tash Sultana. Their set was like a flawless jam session, packed with lively reggae melodies, synthesisers, and almost enough joy to power the stage lighting. In fact, the thrilled facial expressions and movements may have been the best thing about watching this powerhouse in pursuit of the perfect performance. As they weaved winding, improvised melodies into Notion and Welcome To The Jungle, it became abundantly clear that for this set, Tash Sultana was truly the captain of their own ship.
The fluorescent outfits and bright lights on display through PNAU's hour-long set made even the boldest festival fashion look ordinary, a true testament to the group's unconventional style and sound. Solid Gold was an early set highlight soon followed by the familiar melody of Go Bang which set the mosh pit in motion. The crew stepped up their energetic dance moves to match the graphic effects in anticipation of their set finale Chameleon. It was the final piece of the puzzle, re-energising the crowd just in time for the countdown to NYE.
With ten minutes until midnight, Peking Duk took to the stage, unleashing a string of chart-toppers to bring in the new decade. With hits like Stranger, Take Me Over, and Fake Magic in their bag of tricks, they were well prepared for the challenge of the top spot. With many punters sticking around until 1am, it was everything a New Year's Eve set should be.
Fresh onto the festival scene, Jaguar Jonze came prepared to make the best of her early set despite telling us she had been bedridden over the previous fortnight. Expressive would be an understatement if used to describe Jonze’s vocal and physical presence, especially through her cover of Nirvana's Heart-Shaped Box and recent hit Kill Me With Your Love, but the real highlight was the musical chemistry with her band members as they crafted harmonies and ad hoc dance routines.
On the Galaxy Stage, Goons of Doom quickly had the assembled few dancing to their brand of beer-soaked pub-rock. The members constantly switched instruments and vocal duties, but remained as tight as any pub rock act on the east coast.
By the time TOTTY arrived at the Forest Stage, things felt like they were beginning to pick up some steam, with an engaged group of grungy tweens dancing along to their simple yet catchy brand of sad-punk. With a new bassist added to the lineup, the TOTTY train feels like it’s beginning to get some oil in the gears.
Amyl & The Sniffers on the other hand should have been a slick and confident act, given the amount of touring they’ve seen recently. However, things felt lacklustre, with front-woman Amy Taylor standing head and shoulders above her bandmates in both musical and performance ability. The crowd lapped up every second of it, but one couldn’t help but feel the three gents in the band were playing catch up to Taylor.
Fortunately for pop sensation Cxloe, post-X-Factor fame has made her into a festival veteran. She launched into her set with Heavy, accompanied by naturally rhythmic dance moves, and followed up with a string of hits in the making. I Can’t Have Nice Things and Sick spoke to the universal experiences of young women, resonating even more considering Cxloe’s confident yet humble stage persona. Her set closer Show You finished things off well, and no doubt stayed in audience’s subconscious for hours afterwards.
WAAX exploded like a New Year's Eve firework, tearing through hits FU, I Am and more from their debut effort Big Grief. It seems like WAAX have been on every festival line-up over the past few years, but their live show has benefited hugely from it, and a packed Forest Stage left both sweaty and hoarse in the aftermath.
The bold and controversial YUNGBLUD made for an unforgettable experience, and not only because of his provocative song lyrics. Flipping up his short black skirt, he made it clear that he planned on getting a reaction one way or another, and the crowd returned the favour with enthusiastic singalongs to Polygraph Eyes and Loner. The gig would have been worth watching purely for his infectious energy.
Holy Holy proved to be festival 'must-sees' with newer cuts Faces and Maybe You Know slotting in beautifully with older gems History and Elevator. The added backing vocals of Lily and Grace Richardson of alt-rock act Clews added a wonderful touch. By the time the band dropped their Like A Version cover of Lorde’s Green Light it felt like the party had really kicked off, with revellers dancing atop shoulders as far as the eye could see.
Lewis Capaldi made for a unique addition to the line-up, delivering a set free from tricks or gimmicks, with the exception of a token shoey. Capaldi seemed fearless, not only about baring his soul in heartfelt tunes like Don’t Get Me Wrong, Hollywood, and crowd favourite Someone You Loved, but also in the way he interacted with the crowd. He had no qualms about playfully demanding silence, and yet he was also perfectly happy to squeeze in an impromptu birthday song for a young fan, and he did it all while nursing a hangover.
If comfort is truly a sign of mastery, Of Monsters & Men were the perfect crew to elevate the line-up. A palpable sense of ease permeated their note-perfect renditions of Mountain Sound, Sleepwalker, and Waiting For The Snow, their vocal harmonies weaving seamlessly together and leading into anthemic crowd favourites Little Talks and Six Weeks. Even the addition of Aussie songstress Gordi only seemed to strengthen the stage chemistry. The invigorating performance saw even the drummer standing, using his kit as an elevating platform, and the smiles on the faces in the crowd seemed sure to last well beyond the end of the set.
G Flip was in no way affected by the international star-power in the Amphitheatre, and the conclusion of Of Monsters & Men's set brought in hundreds more to a well-over-capacity Forest Stage. The artist seamlessly combined her hip hop, pop and ballad elements together in a firepower set that proved she is one of the biggest draw cards available for the summer festivals.
It was then back to the Amphitheatre for a set of haunting and energetic folk and house fusion, courtesy of German wizards Milky Chance. “Our favourite live memory as a band was playing Falls Byron Bay in 2015,” shared frontman Clemens Rehbein who then proceeded to thrash around the stage and have the time of his life, much to the delight of the assembled mass. It was a set that was joyful to both watch and dance to.
Crooked Colours wrapped up proceedings on the Forest Stage, keeping the punters moving to their live mix of dark, experimental pop and trance. Combining their set into one big mesh of rhythm and singalongs, Crooked Colours were the perfect way to close out the side stage, keeping things at a cruisy pace and providing space for punters to dance under the treetops to their heart's content. It was a distinctly chill way to end day two, but with another round still to come, and in the wake of the New Year's Eve party, it felt like the perfect way to see off a massive day of some of the most exciting live music the '20s has at hand.
After playing an early-afternoon Falls set a few years ago, Halsey was determined to assert herself as a headliner, and instantly recognisable tracks like Nightmare and Castle helped her do just that. Physically and vocally she was easily one of the most energetic performers of the day, and one of the most provocative. Halsey has made a name for herself on the basis of her powerful advocacy against sexual assault, and songs like Colors really sent the message home. She put so much energy into each track that her audience felt compelled to give more, and the result was something truly unmissable.
Adrian Eagle's early set was enough to cement him as one to watch in 2020. His Like A Version cover of Ocean Alley's Confidence softened the crowd with ease, as did his irresistible cover of Amy Winehouse’s Valerie, but it was his closing track AOK that really got the ground moving.
Despite the sunburn, hangovers and empty wallets nursed by most people in attendance, a healthy throng still crammed into the Jack Daniels Stage to catch Samsaruh. Her mixture of dark, poppy hooks and solid riffage proved both entertaining and unique, with the only downside coming from her drummer bashing the skins with such enthusiasm it overpowered almost everything else going on. The live show needs a bit of work, but the passion and quality was there.
Over on the Galaxy Stage, Concrete Surfers had a healthy mix of surf punks and glammed up punters dancing to their brand of melodic punk. A tinge of pub-rock was present in their sound, and this was given its chance to shine when the quartet dropped a rowdy cover of Don’t Change by INXS.
On the other end of the audio spectrum, #1 Dad’s treated the Forest Stage to some mid-arvo dreamy pop therapy, with mastermind Tom Iansek (Big Scary) guiding the engaged punters through classic hits Life, Oh Life, So Soldier and more. With a promise of new music on the way, the return of #1 Dad’s was most welcome.
Perhaps one of the most unconventional acts on the bill, Montaigne’s Play School-esque costumes and disjointed movements made quite the visual spectacle for the considerable crowd she drew. Between her eccentric dance moves and the coloured spots on her face, her appearance might have distracted from the performance if her vocals hadn’t risen so well to the challenge. Because I Love You became a masterclass in acting through facial expressions, while I'm A Fantastic Wreck bordered on comedic theatre, but through it all her voice held centre stage. Whether she was lying flat on the floor during Losing My Mind or stumbling across the stage throughout What You Mean To Me, it was easily the most endearing performance of the day.
After a quick dip in the festival-tailored beach zone, a wildly popular area set up with dozens of pools allowing patrons to cool off, it was off to the Valley Stage to catch the highly anticipated (judging by the amount of merch around) set by Angus Stone’s fuzzy psych side project Dope Lemon. Stone’s subdued vocals left ample space for shimmering guitar melodies and the punters in the front row seemed instantly calmer at the sound, even when several masked men resembling lemons and woodland creatures appeared on stage, but the energy spiked for closer Uptown Folks.
With twilight kicking in it was time to really get the party started, and Baker Boy wasn’t just the perfect candidate, he damn well put on the best set of the entire festival. With a blistering stage presence, red-hot live band and knack for keeping the crowd hanging on every word, it was a head scratcher as to why he wasn’t put on the main stage, such was his charisma and the crowd enthusiasm. Every musician should watch his live show and take notes on how to perform.
Thelma Plum followed Baker Boy on the Forest Stage but despite her music being a few notches down as far as energy was concerned, she still pulled off a polished and enjoyable set of easygoing indie-pop.
Once the sun finally sank, it was time for Banks to light up the stage with electronic tapestries and intricate dance routines. Till Now and Fuck With Myself set the tone and with black costumes and red props, she had the crowd entranced. The red flags incorporated into Stroke were particularly symbolic, and yet it was the perfect timing of every movement, regardless of how big or small, which made it impossible to look away. Perhaps as much as the songs themselves, it was the craft behind her one-line intros that made the set what it was, giving away just enough information to let the crowd anticipate what was to come. Given the strength of tracks like Contaminated and Alaska, the set highlight would have been difficult to pick if not for hit single Gemini Feed, but to pick a weakness would have been a challenge.
Fatigue was definitely beginning to kick in for concertgoers. The crazy amount of dust in the air stuck to remnants of sunscreen and left even the most carefully planned festival outfit a sweaty mess. Thankfully Thundamentals brought something to smile about, with the feel-good hip hop crew rocking a packed out Forest Stage for an uplifting hour. Sally was always going to be the crowd pleaser and people left the Forest Stage with a smile from ear to ear.
Before British duo Disclosure could hit the stage, the crowd had swelled to fill most of the Amphitheatre, and there they would stay for the rest of the set. The pair clearly knew the power of delayed gratification, building their first track, F For You, from the ground up as the crowd swayed in time. From the very beginning there was something about the collective energy that made the rhythms impossible to resist. Tunes like White Noise were simply added bonuses on the way to the peak, and when the first notes of Latch infiltrated the mix, the crowd relished the chance to sing along.
By the time Vampire Weekend arrived on the stage for the final set of the festival, the feeling of exhaustion, both from heat stroke and sheer fatigue, was undeniable. Thankfully the New Yorkers' brand of indie-rock, meshed with all manner of world music, was the perfect way to see out Falls Festival. All the indie favourites got a look in, from White Sky, to Ya Hey, but Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa closed a huge couple of days.
As the hordes exited the main festival site (and a brave few headed to the Galaxy Stage for kick-ons to some classic party jams from last decade), there was certainly a sense that Falls organisers had pulled off a large-scale music festival with aplomb. As Falls enters a new decade and on an increasingly packed calendar, it will be interesting to see how the festival is able to keep the fans coming back. If the 2019/20 edition is anything to go by, it’s still time and money well spent - but not too different to other, easier experiences already on offer. Until next year!