Live Review: Falls Festival, Byron Bay Day 2

3 January 2016 | 4:24 pm | Mitch Knox

2016 gets off to a rocky start but has plenty of magnificence about it courtesy the likes of Oh Wonder, The Maccabees, Alpine and Bloc Party to keep spirits high on the second day of Falls

Day 2: A Happy New Year, Eventually

I’ve spent the past several years covering events such as this, and feel that, in that time, I’ve seen pretty much the full gamut of the best and worst of humanity when it comes to campsite behaviour. I’m also well aware that people come to these things to party, and party hard, and nobody should be able to take that away from them. I am, after all (and despite common perception), not a total grinch.

We’re a temporary community here and everyone’s rights only extend insofar as they don’t infringe on those of others.

The problems start – as they do for us this morning, all of two hours into 2016 – when certain groups come to believe that their right to a good time trounces that of those camping around them. And the group of arseholes (there’s truly no other word for them) pitched next to us are in the fevered grips of that belief at 2.30am, blasting System Of A Down and early-2000s Eminem, revving their van engine and using a drill(!!), all while making easily audible racist and sexist jokes and generally being the worst people imaginable. I don my imaginary Fun Police hat and step out for a chat, politely (I think, anyway) asking them to turn their tunes down a smidge. Not to stop partying or having a good time or perpetuating redneck stereotypes or whatever – I’m not delusional about my own authority – but simply, maybe, if they wouldn’t mind, pulling the volume down a scooch; reach a happy medium. Because, you know, we’re a temporary community here and everyone’s rights only extend insofar as they don’t infringe on those of others. I think it was a pretty reasonable request.

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I am wrong, obviously. Cue verbal and physical abuse, having my body (and our car) pelted with whatever they could find at arm’s length as they continue to loudly threaten us while actively, audibly looking for me around the campsite once I give up and return to my tent. Security arrive; the group give them lip. Security are stern but justifiably lenient at this advent, letting them know that they're on the radar now. Some girls in the group express their annoyance at the boys, but even the threat of forced abstinence doesn’t seem to have an impact. About 4.45am, the police rock up, finally bringing the circus to a close. I am, at this juncture, most interested to hear that alpha dog Jake (who, along with some guy called Wazza, is apparently the “brains” of the operation) doesn’t actually follow through with his boisterous assertion, prior to their arrival, that he’d punch any cop that looked at him funny “once for every day of the year, and knee them in the face once for every month”.

In the light of day, we report the incident to our camp controllers, Carmel and Tracie, who, along with head of security Sam King, are the primary reason that I even bother to bring up this unfortunate chain of events. These three – along with Carmel’s husband and fellow camp worker (not to mention Grinspoon bassist, nbd), Joe, who is possibly one of the loveliest humans alive – deserve all the gratitude and hugs in the world for the professionalism and thoroughness with which they follow everything up. If we’d felt unsafe, curmudgeonly and threatened at 4am, by 9.30am it’s the complete opposite story. We would never have been able to re-attain this sense of comfort and vindication in our actions had it not been for their responsive, friendly demeanour, decisive action and genuine concern for our well-being, as well as that of the campers around us (who largely came out of the woodwork to corroborate our version of events in the safety of daylight). If any organisers from Falls – or these staff members themselves – are reading this, please accept my heartfelt thanks for basically turning around our entire festival. 

Speaking of which – that’s why we’re here, right? So, we head into the grounds to check out all the non-arsehole offerings for day two of the event. We hear Banff kicking off the proceedings over at the now-open Forest Stage as we hunt down coffee, breakfast (hey, even journos have to eat) and check out the still unusually sedate vibe of the parklands. We consequently miss Bootleg Rascal and Goons Of Doom – sorry, Bootleg Rascal and Goons Of Doom – but make it back to the Forest Stage, along with seemingly 90% of the attendees – to watch the comedy styling of Tien Tran and Randy, with MC Nick Cody. Well, ostensibly it’s for that reason – but, being honest (and informed from several years of seeing how many people bother with Splendour comedy acts), it’s probably more that this is easily the shadiest spot in the grounds, not to mention literally the only place with anything happening. Either way, the jokes themselves are hit-and-miss, but nobody really minds.

Not many laughs, but plenty of shade.

Following the intermittent giggles and also at the Forest Stage, Meg Mac proves a more than capable performer, and her audience is into it, but a personal taste for her brand of uneventful ephemera has yet to be acquired, so I can’t bring myself to expend too many characters on her performance (it was, in summary, fine).

However, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard? I could write for days. As always, the ever-reliable King Gizz prove a wholly rambunctious, wonderfully chaotic prospect. From go to whoa, the many-membered metronomic savants provide a frenetic, rarely relenting aural assault stuffed with imagination and throwing convention to the wind. The 5/4 cruise of The River, sleuthy and sneaky as it gets, enjoys an extended instrumental interruption as the band effortlessly flaunt their clear technical prowess, while the filthy rock of Danger Money – a definite highlight – attracts appreciative applause at its outset, much less by the time they conclude it. But it’s Cellophane, the band’s closer, that truly elevates this to next-level performance. It’s an utterly massive jam, filled with shredding and noodling and introspection/self-indulgence; a twisting, turning behemoth of technically adept psychedelic rock, and it remains one of the finest things this unspeakably prolific outfit has ever produced. Bravo, again.

One note for the audience, and this may sound worse than I intend it to – unless specifically encouraged, probably don’t try and clap along to complex/mixed/compound time signatures (your 5/4, 7/8, 9/8, 11/8 etc), not because I'm trying to make a habit of telling people how they should or should not have fun, but because you will inevitably go out of time and make everything way harder for the musicians on stage, not to mention you’ll sound like a chimp who can’t follow the most basic of rhythmic changes simply because it doesn’t end on “4”. It’s a mess. Avoid it. Just dance instead. Everyone wins.

Back on topic, London-based electro-poppers Oh Wonder put on a similarly impressive (if less technically demanding) showing for their eager audience, opening up with the laid-back vibes of Livewire and easing the pain for the physically (and probably mentally) dwindling folks in attendance. It doesn’t take long to become apparent that, even live, this band’s vocal work is sublime, the intertwining harmonies of Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West at once both distinct and confluent. Second cut Dazzle also marks a particularly early highlight, as does mid-set rebellion song All We Do (“it’s a song about not playing it safe, and taking risks,” Vander Gucht tells the crowd). Oh Wonder trade in captivating electronic intrigue, using all manner of aural processors, synths and loops/effects to craft a surprising clarity of sound, given the setting. Moreover, they’re clearly appreciative of their antipodean fans and their dedication, Vander Gucht expressing disbelief at the volume of people singing the band’s own words back at them. It’s a special performance for everyone, it seems.

We cut our time at Oh Wonder short just enough to catch most of Courtney Barnett, probably 2015’s most hyped Australian act. However, to look at her scattered audience – on the festival’s main stage, no less – you wouldn’t know that she’d spent the past 12 months atop a wave of hype. Nonetheless, the crown queen of Aussie talk-rock pulls out her A-game (or near enough to it, in keeping with her general vibe), much to the delight of those here who are truly into it. Admittedly, Barnett really does possess a way with words, a fact that's obvious as she ploughs through a solid, steady set of what amounts to the musical equivalent of homogenised milk, including apparent fan faves Elevator Operator, Avant Gardener, Dead Fox, Small Poppies and Pedestrian At Best, which is starting to seem less and less like just a clever name the longer this goes on. People dig it, though, and, really, who am I to judge? I don't have an ARIA.

Reliable indie-rockers Birds Of Tokyo keep things moving at the Valley Stage, busting out an Eye Of The Tiger mini-cover in the middle of Plans before the stompy ebullience of the acoustic-flecked I’d Go With You Anywhere takes the reins. Puzzle rears its head with emotive opening strains, giving way to vocalist Ian Kenny’s startlingly powerful falsetto juxtaposed atop bottom-heavy instrumentaion. Wild At Heart provides a moment of restrained atmosphere before opening up sonically, while a late-set appearance from the highly sing-along-worthy Lanterns reinvigorates their audience in preparation for the evening’s final leg (although, how many songs that seem custom-built for AFL Grand Final anthem glory can this band possibly write?), as This Fire brings their polished performance to an uproarious conclusion.

Back in the enclave of the Forest Stage, UK rockers The Maccabees do a fine job of keeping the energy up as they launch into their set with the driven strains of Marks To Prove It. Singer Orlando Weeks explains to those expecting to see him wrangling a guitar will be disappointed – he’s injured his hand today, so the band are operating without his contributions, but manage the setback with aplomb. The vibe stays strong with Feel The Follow, a bouncy, bombastic bassline-driven pop sparkler, an easily digestible slice of broad accessibility that allows itself freedom to roam.

Capricorn begins, but not before Weeks calls out people behind the stage for being too loud (it’s not just us, see!), politely admonishing them, “Please be quiet while our show continues.” This, too, is another song that showcases the band’s imaginative bottom-end work, so rarely does bassist Rupert Jarvis seem content to occupy the role of root-note fort-holder so often ascribed to four-string-slingers the world over. For any fan of the instrument, it’s a rare treat for discerning ears to hear in such an outfit. Classic track Precious Time nabs a dedication to fellow Falls artists Kurt Vile & The Violators – fortunate, then, that it’s one of the set’s highlights among a broadly capable showing, especially considering the circumstances.

We stick with the Forest Stage for ascendant indie-poppers Alpine, dual frontwomen Phoebe Baker and Lou James looking a right pair of Florence Welches in white bodysuits adorned with magnificent confidence. Villages elicits early appreciation from their sizeable crowd as James appears to take an on-stage spill (blinked and missed it) while Baker playfully admonishes her, “That’s not how it goes!”. The hushed harmonies of Crunches provide a stark insight to the vocal synergy achieved by the two women up front, though the entire band operates wonderfully together, no particular part ever truly becoming unbearably dominant. However, the flipside to that is that the mix probably lets them down somewhat; Baker and James’ vocals honestly sit a little too low to be clearly audible, resulting in – sweetly intoned as it is – a kind of indecipherable mewling for many songs. It’s truly unfortunate because, with a touch more oomph behind the microphone, these melodies would simply soar.

If there’s an Aussie band that has better taken to sudden stadium-level stardom than RUFUS, I don’t want to know about them, because we’re already more than spoiled with this young three-piece. Putting on an A-level performance with effortless confidence, the band blend electronic and live instrumentation to great effect, whipping their seemingly boundless Valley Stage audience into a heaving frenzy of energy and revelry. They expertly navigate their set of alternately atmospheric/funky jams like they came out of the womb dancing, hitting standout moments with Take Me, You Were Right and Desert Night amid the rest of their more than acceptable performance.

…Which is more than can be said for Bloc Party. Look, Bloc Party have — in my experience — never been a particularly good live band. They weren’t good live circa Silent Alarm, and they’re not super-good now. Now, because half the current band weren’t actually in Bloc Party around Silent Alarm, it’s safe to lay the blame for this consistent mediocrity at the feet of frontman Kele Okereke, whose generally lifeless vocal performances in situations such as this have yet to land with this reviewer, despite several encounters over the years.

THAT SAID, Bloc Party shows are nonetheless always unabashedly fun affairs, as those close enough to the stage to not really care about what the music actually sounds like ignite the infectious flame of movement to emanate out to the wider crowd caught in the aural firing line. If you’ve kept up-to-date with the band’s later offerings (say, A Weekend In The City onwards), you’re in luck – songs such as The Good News (which opens the band’s set and comes from their forthcoming album Hymns, as does late-set cut The Love Within) flow thick and fast throughout the band’s set. Octopus, from 2012’s Four, also makes an early appearance, along with AWITC staple Hunting For Witches.

Still, Okereke clearly understands the affinity for Bloc Party’s earlier, rockier work, with some well-placed Silent Alarm-era classics adding to the comprehensiveness of the performance as the band firmly keep their eyes on the future while being unable, or unwilling, to totally disavow their past. As long as that remains a fixture of Bloc Party shows, then even the people who think that Kele sings like his batteries are constantly dying will walk away with a smile on their face and a song in their hearts, and the band can consider their performance a success.

We pass a pumping (well, we think) Silent Disco on our way out to the campsite. It's funny; we are spent and sated, though for many others, clearly, the beat rages on.

As well it should – as long as it doesn’t fuck up everyone else’s experience in the process.

Dance on, you beautiful disasters.