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Live Review: Harvest Festival

19 November 2012 | 2:30 pm | Adam WildingAndrew Wowk

The organisers of the 2012 Harvest festival would have been thanking their lucky stars for the sunshine that emerged after the previous day's rain. However the luck seemed to even out with the late announcement that Beirut had pulled out of the Sydney show due to illness.

Dark Dark Dark's first set was just as good as their second later in the day (and at another stage), which prompted one colleague to impersonate through commenting “thanks for listening, we'll be playing the same songs later in the day at another stage”. Jokes aside, their traditional folk and old country-laced music was a perfect start to a Spring festival day.

Dexys' hit of nostalgia went down well with the audience and a number of super enthusiastic Brits up front, but it was the hit song, Come On Eileen, that the majority of people had come to hear live, predictably appearing (from earlier reports) at the end of the set.

The Dandy Warhols' set on the main stage was one of the surprises of the festival and as is the case with other former Portland, Oregon-based bands, they showed they have matured into a more relaxed, less ego-driven-but-still-perpetually-hung-over rock outfit, with frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor more an aging rocker who's enjoying it while it lasts. A string of hits, including We Used To Be Friends and Bohemian Like You, had a big crowd up and cheering, but it was perhaps the lesser-known numbers such as Horse Pills and Boys Better that were sounding uncharacteristically fresh.

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Andrew Wowk

Dark Horses' Wild West sounds were in stark contrast to their British roots and the continuing enthusiasm of frontwoman Lisa Elle is part of the appeal for the band. It wasn't a capacity crowd, but they were well-received.

Silversun Pickups introduced stand-in bass player Sarah Negahdari, who was filling in for Nikki Monninger (currently off on parental leave having twins), and she did a great job at that, as the rest of the band ripped through tracks off this year's Neck Of The Woods release and a few choice moments from their other two albums, including Lazy Eye to close their set.

You didn't need to know or own the album to enjoy Mike Patton's Mondo Cane, his most recent project taking inspiration from his time living in Bologna and listening to '50s and '60s Italian pop songs, the project and the set being a series of covers as sung by him, backed by a full orchestra and band, plus one guy on a Theremin who was not only able to play actual notes, but also had enough wild white hair to play Doc Brown in a Back To The Future remake.

The Black Angels' haunting and oft times maracas-flavoured music was another well-received, judging also by a lot of comments from revellers, whose fuzz and down-tempo tracks seem to stick 'round well after they had departed.

Talk about a '90s nostalgia power explosion with the inclusion of Cake in the line-up, which was a masterstroke by the organisers and something of a surprise. Playing a cross-section of songs from their albums including Never There and Sick Of You, the band showed they still have what it takes to rock out. Appreciative and humble until the bitter end, singer John McCrea thanked everyone and said the band might consider a return to our shores in, oh, maybe ten years. And yes, they did eventually close proceedings with The Distance.

Continuing with notable '90s bands, Ben Folds Five displayed their collective and unparalleled musicianship and vocal harmonies with hit tunes that still carry a lot of angst and bitterness today. Underground was played, as was their most well-known hit, Brick, pleasing those who have been waiting since their reunion.

Despite playing the lite version of the same set at the State Theatre a few night previous, Beck still awed the crowd with his unique blend of pop and shuffle, perfectly comfortable in festival mode and rewarding those gathered with songs like Loser, The Golden Age and Que Onda Guero.

Grizzly Bear looked to be relishing the opportunity to play songs from their characteristically slow-burn (and very listenable) album, Shields, for their Australian fanbase and against a setting-sun backdrop, it made for an engaging, sometimes ethereal experience. Relying on their respective talents as musicians, a number of standout moments such as the key change in Ready, Able, and the vocal lead of Daniel Rossen on Yet Again, were highlights from a set that also included the classic Two Weeks and the lesser known but equally important While You Wait For The Others.

Sigur Ros seem to draw on a crowd that's hell-bent on getting teary, which leads many people who aren't familiar with their stuff to be a bit sceptical. However, sceptics would have been somewhat humbled to see not only how well-received the band were in their main-stage setting, but the purity and a type of innocence that moved grown adults to tears.

On the small stage and with a very meagre audience you would not have thought Crazy P(enis) noticed, let alone cared that hardly anyone had turned up for them, but their brand of house music was still enjoyed, with their set being a banging mix of party tunes and deliciously cheesy pop.

It was a great day of international music and some top performances overall.

Adam Wilding

You know a festival has managed to impress when the biggest complaint an overly-critical reviewer can find with the day is that the “Big Red Tractor” stage was only moderately sized and neither red nor looked like a tractor. Harvest provided an eclectic line-up in a fresh location with an emphasis on a relaxed atmosphere and a respectful, but up-for-it crowd.

River City Extension opened the day on The Windmill Stage with their folky indie sounds, easing the modest, but growing, crowd into the day with smooth, forlorn vocals, soulful horn lines and sparkly guitars. The indie vibes continued on The Great Lawn with Los Campesinos!, who expertly brought to life cuts from across the entirety of their discography. Although the music itself was joyous and almost “epic”, the lyrics explored darker themes like ambivalence and rejection, creating an interesting contrast in the band's performance.

Completely stuck in the '90s – but that's how we like them – The Dandy Warhols brought their playful, irreverent alternative rock to a sizeable crowd at The Great Lawn which, for the most part, actually really liked the band and weren't just standing around waiting for Bohemian Like You (they did play it though and it suitably resulted in spontaneous singalongs). Lead singer Courtenay Taylor-Taylor's vocals are still excellent after all these years, easily shifting from low, breathy whispers to twangy wails, a talent that was especially well-demonstrated on We Used To Be Friends. At the same time, Basslines were holding it down at The Garden Stage, digging deep into their collections to provide classic and up-front dub, reggae, dancehall and even a touch of dubstep and jungle (don't worry, it was the good stuff). It was crisp and clean, but with lots of bottom-end, exactly what you need when you're called Basslines.

The Great Lawn continued to provide brilliance when man of many voices Mike Patton and his ridiculously large ensemble presented Mondo Cane. Officially described as a reimagining of classic Italian pop songs, Mondo Cane is probably better described as Mr. Patton indulging his playful side and not taking himself too seriously (if he could ever have been accused of doing that in the past, anyway). A complete orchestra, featuring drums, guitars, bass, keys, violins and cellos, as well as backup singers and a guy who had hair like Albert Einstein playing what looked like a tuning fork, supported Patton's ridiculously broad vocal range as he somehow managed to perform works like Urlo Negro, 20km Al Giorno, Ore D'Amore and Che Notte! in a manner that made them sound faithful to the originals, but incorporated all the various sounds and elements he has explored in his numerous projects. There will be people who will intellectualise the set, calling it “visionary” or “intelligent”, but really, it was just freaking fun and Patton himself seemed to be having as great a time as the crowd.

Texan drone rockers The Black Angels drew a big crowd for their mid-afternoon slot on The Big Red Tractor stage, representative of their (deservedly) ever-increasing popularity. Being a festival set, it was geared more towards making a statement than presenting their more obscure work, but both casual and die-hard fans were given reason to cheer. The aforementioned statement was something along the lines of “hey, we're The Black Angels, we love to play dark, introspective, droney rock driven by pounding drum rhythms and drench our instruments in feedback and effects; cop some of this bad-assery while we just casually switch who plays what instrument.” Bad Vibrations opened things perfectly, their set featuring material from all three of their albums, including The First Vietnamese War, Science Killer (which was reworked to the point it was almost an entirely new song and featured some incredible levels of thump from drummer Stephanie Bailey), You On The Run and Black Grease. Christian Bland's guitar work was of course superb, with him getting a few chances to play some extended solos and get tricky with his signature delay, wah and transform effects, while Alex Maas made all the girls (and even some of the boys) weak at the knees with his vocals. Newest member Rishi Dhir fitted right into the band, taking turns with Kyle Hunt to play the trademark grimey Black Angels bass, keys and rhythm guitar, even playing the sitar for a few tracks.

Chromatics was an odd act to follow the intensity of The Black Angels and to some extent their placement in the day worked against them. It wasn't that their performance was below par – indeed, Ruth Radelet's vocals were as hauntingly beautiful live as they are on the band's records and the spacey, washed-out synths and plucky porn music guitars sparkled in the late afternoon sun. However, it was just so much of a drop in intensity musically that their set just washed over you somewhat rather than really got into your soul. Synth-pop and Italo disco are amazing genres of music – and few do them better than Chromatics – but right after ballsy psychedelic rock, they just don't feel right.

Tasked with the sunset slot, Beck delivered one of the most thoughtful, well-programmed sets that any band has ever played. The easy route would have been to just open with Loser and then continue from there with a string of up-tempo hits, but instead, he offered up a wide range of cuts from his entire discography, starting off subtle, understated and funky, before ending balls-out. Black Tambourine and Modern Guilt characterised the first portion of the set, which showed off the skills of his band members and his charmingly carefree, almost lazy vocal delivery. A string of downtempo, acoustic pieces followed, including an almost tear-jerking interpretation of Lost Cause. And then, when everyone was dying for it, it happened: Hotwax, Que Onda Guero?, Devil's Haircut and Loser in succession kicked off a rapid-fire smack in the face of all of Beck's fun, lyrically uninterpretable gems. It was here that the band's ability to reinterpret the studio works live really shone, with plenty of impromptu solos and lyrical tongue-twisters, especially during Where It's At and E-Pro. One could ramble on about this set all day; suffice it to say this is one artist who is even better live.

Fuck Buttons delivered the intensity that needed to follow The Black Angels on The Big Red Tractor stage, toying around with stupid amounts of gear to create a combination of thundering drum loops, face-breaking walls of noise, ravey synths, rough feedback and guitar drones that was somehow danceable. Actually, not just danceable: fist-pumpable. The barnstorming Olympians was easily the highlight, getting a “let's kick even more ass” treatment and turning the dancefloor into a combination of carefree dancing, dropped-jaws and people who looked like they'd just been lobotomised. Sweet Love For Planet Earth was the perfect closing track, rhythmically pulsing without even needing a kick drum and leaving the crowd unsure whether to feel uplifted by the epic synths and feel like they just danced to perfectly normal music, or terrified of the screamed vocals and somewhat violated by the last hour.

Crazy P just felt almost lifeless after the onslaught that was Fuck Buttons and to an extent even felt out of place on that stage altogether (they would have suited an earlier slot on The Great Lawn or The Windmill Stage far more). Again, like Chromatics, the performance itself was tight, so it was a shame to not feel as moved by Danielle Moore's soulful vocals and the funky, playful disco, soul, jazz and house instrumentals that backed her as one rightly should have been. The Mad Racket DJs provided a suitable alternative for those needing something with a bit more punch, laying down a classy selection of jackin' house and techno to a modest but definitely appreciative crowd at The Garden Stage.

Finally, special mention has to go The Campfire Stage, hosted by Dave Callan. Throughout the day it provided a refuge from the crowds and plenty of laughs thanks to a comedy showcase (Smart Casual were especially hilarious), but even better an erotic fanfiction reading. Yes, erotic fanfiction reading. You've never truly appreciated Blinky Bill until you've heard about him having incestuous oral sex with his sister, Nutsy. Indeed, the story was so enthralling (not to mention the other pieces about Oprah and Posh Spice and David Beckham) that the typically excellent Silversun Pickups and Liars pretty much went by unnoticed while playing at the same time (sorry guys).