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Live Review: Secret Garden Festival

1 March 2015 | 2:00 pm | Jack Lynch

No one could claim to have had a bad time at Secret Garden Festival.

A title other than Secret Garden would be misrepresentative of this party. Even when setting up camp the wonders that lay within the gated staging area remained a mystery.

This was the seventh edition of the festival and organisers have mastered the art of the ‘one percenter’. The little things which surreptitiously build atmosphere and excitement – key ingredients to a successful music festival. The response from all in attendance would make such small and tedious efforts worthwhile. Suggestions to come in costume were heeded by almost everyone. The efforts were astounding and they were justly acknowledged with smiles, high-fives, and photographs by their impressed peers. Signs were good early for Secret Garden with a great crowd, outstanding weather, and a killer line-up full of local talent and a sprinkling of international stars.

Day One

Friday’s theme was Secret Garden’s 7th Birthday Slumber Party which leant itself to all sorts of costume iterations and decorations. Most clad in various forms of pyjamas, the crowd was slow to build as they, presumably, filtered in from an all too lengthy Friday.

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For a seventh birthday party, the band name’s irony appeared lost on most as Spookyland brought their eccentric pop on the stage to little fanfare. Successor Jeremy Neale and his five piece unit provided some more palatable tracks as he worked through triple j hits closing with In Stranger Times.

Gang Of Youths put in a performance worthy of a bigger arena.

 

Secret Garden was all about encouraging nostalgia. The corridor into the evening’s main Birthday Stage had lego paraphernalia, scrabble squares, giant pizza slices, and lollie wrappers. Reversion into pre-youth was solidified with the set from resurgent children’s troubadour Peter Coombe with the Bellyflop in a Pizza Band. It was near impossible not to be swept up in the overarching ‘daginess’ with sentimental favourites Newspaper Mama, Spaghetti Bolognese, and Juicy Juicy Green Grass ending his show. They sounded just like they did on cassette in the car in 1987 and the adoration for Coombe was just as exuberant as it was then. It was an unlucky clash for Tees who opened the Fern Gully stage with sound troubles and a rushed schedule. People saw them, but seemed more interested in catching up with one another rather than listening to the Phantogram meets Zola Jesus duo.

Gang Of Youths put in a performance worthy of a bigger arena. When their star rises, they will be known as the Australia’s The Gaslight Anthem – a band who are often touted as having the ‘new’ Springsteen sound. They must be aware and pleased with this comparison as frontman David Leaupepe covered an, “old American folk song,” – Springsteen’s I’m on Fire.

A stark comparison was Milwaukee Banks who were playing at the same time at the Fern Gully stage. The much-hyped Melbourne future-hop team performed a bass-dirty rap show with plenty of vocal effects. Patty Mills proved that they are were intent on not being classed as US rip-offs. The crowd was more sedate here than at the hobo-punk outfit Little Bastard who inspired hoedowns and evoked imagery of drinking moonshine and chewing hay whilst head-banging.

Luen and Oisima confirmed that there were two streams of people at Secret Garden – the cool kids and the dags. All the cool kids were at the Fern Gully stage appreciating this dj and electronic producer, but they were heavily outnumbered by the dags who danced without pretension in their onesies and dressing gowns. 

Both groups converged for the night’s closing act Willow Beats. The niece/uncle pairing had prepared their usual heavy, under-water electronica with siren Kalyani Mumtaz cuing the audience with her mechanically fluid dance moves.

Day Two

Waking to the bucolic sounds of sparrows and bellbirds as the sun worked on burning through the morning’s myst ensured that even the most dusty reveller could see the upside to Secret Garden’s second day. Two more stages were to be revealed and another 3000 ‘gardeners’ were to arrive. This, in conjunction with a new entry funnel to the stages gave the festival an entirely different feel. Like a juvenile’s dream, the lights and sounds of Friday night’s slumber party had all but been erased. It was now a visual free for all. No costume idea was frowned upon as fairies, crayons, cricketers, and even household appliances were wandering around without a skerrick of self-consciousness. It was becoming increasingly clear that this was not a merely a music festival, but an occasion for people to get excited about others in the community – a chance to show off creativity and craftsmanship with other like-minded people. It was time to have fun with strangers.

As expected, early sets from alt-country band The Morrisons and easily comparable rock trio Rolls Bayce were sparsely attended despite their quality. Hip-hopper Baro was able to get some early morning crowd participation but the set was probably a little more energetic than some were looking for. 

The remedy for this? Pepa Knight. The co-leader of Jinja Safari plays music similar to his band but with a few extra instruments thrown in. An ewi, sitar, flute, and plenty of different types of hand drums featured in the day’s first mass participated dance. Some Hindu inspired iconography was a little bit weird but no one seemed to mind.

To say they are the next Client Liaison would do them a disservice but their unhinged show allows some comparison.

 

The Gooch Palms’ thrash garage was notable for their insistence that Newcastle is the, “best city in the world.” Alas, the crowd began to shrivel in the hot sun and missed much of the humour. To get people riled up a bit, Leroy played the second half of the set with only his guitar hiding his dick. It was to no avail, not even We Get By got a reaction. Hopefully the bands’ antics gets a better reception at SXSW later this year.

After Velociraptor’s fun set, Oh Mercy provided the day’s biggest disappointment on the main Garden Stage. There was confusion as to what their set would entail. “Haven’t they broken up?” said one person, “Isn’t Alex overseas?” asked another. Alex Gow has returned and he played a solo set of Oh Mercy tracks. It was pretty tiresome, one man and a guitar playing songs we loved half a decade ago. Rightfully, the crowd payed him about as much attention as they would for an acoustic cover artist at a pub and most occupied themselves with an impromptu cricket game. Gow, dressed in West Indian cricket regalia quipped, “Hey I’m Viv Richards and can’t wait to have a bowl with you later.” He was largely ignored – a real shame. Many left the hapless Gow to watch the stage-invading antics of Holiday Sidewinder who invited a whole lycra clad cycling peloton to the stage. It was a lot of fun and fans were even thrilled with the site of Donny Benet on stage – his first of three appearances for the day.

To help get over the disappointment was the first international band. Little known Boston soul-folkers Lake Street Band were lapped-up by a few vocal fans. Others were steadily entranced by Perth-born singer Rachel Price. It was a smooth way to round out the day’s early sets.

Dispersive druming, apache flute, and ghostly lyricism was Stolen Violin’s answer to the heat. Their Fern Gully stage set was captivating but, like many bands on this stage, suffered at the hands of second-rate sound quality and flakey crowds. 

Jack Ladder also experienced the effects of his stage having no shady vantage points. But, by the time The Miracle had concluded a hip swaying, head-nodding crowd were very appreciative of the local’s effort. By the end of Her Hands numbers had swelled and his popularity was confirmed (as was Donny Benet’s in his second appearance).

The pre/post set DJ is an underrated role. It can either disperse a crowd faster than a hailstorm or keep the party’s momentum rolling. Total Giovanni owe their warm-up button presser a beer or two for his efforts. Michael Jackson, Sugar-Ray, Architecture in Helsinki, and Solange not only kept the crowd at the Birthday Stage, but got them moving. The '80s inspired disco funk band made fun look effortless as they bounced into Human Animal. To say they are the next Client Liaison would do them a disservice but their unhinged show allows some comparison. What a vibe. You should see them next time they are in town.

From the fun the to sombre, Sharon Van Etten (the clear-cut headliner) played to a small and disinterested crowd. By the third song, however, all the bros who wanted to hear ‘bangers’ had left and the quality of the show rose exponentially. Obviously more suited to a club show, Van Etten was affable in banter and emotive in performance with Your Love Is Killing Me the highlight. Fans were overheard to be a little disappointed with the lack of Serpents and Our Love.

Triple j fans would have been irked over the Remi and The Griswolds clash but, due to the Garden Stage running behind, it was not to be. After seeing the natural performer Remi interact with the crowd as all good emcees do, it became apparent that most ‘gardeners’ were more interested in the Griswolds. A huge crowd sang along to the hits and were (dare it be said) overjoyed by Joy’s Riptide cover.

Wintercoats played to a crowd fluctuating between seven and 11 people. He does things the hard way, looping all sounds through his violin including percussive beats. His show has been largely the same for the last few years and it would be really nice to see him form a band and expand on similar ideas. Think of tUnE-yArDs’ evolution…

Crowd members had just started to relax into an electronic dance vibe and then their ears were blown off by the brash Yankee foursome… so where were the crowds?

 

It was past 8pm and time to dance because, as we all know, everything changes under cover of darkness – especially at a music festival. Fishing always gets a great reaction to their electronic calypso dance music and because of the main stage’s delay, they had a large crowd. 

This delay meant that the crowd had to wait for hype-machine Client Liaison. The wait was worth it. Harvey Miller and Monte Morgan know how to get a crowd moving and this was no exception as their inhibited retro dancing, tacky lyricism, and corny rhythms always hit the mark. INXS’ Need You Tonight medley finished the show with an explosion of confetti and a crowd full of grinning fans. 

There was no time to stop dancing as No Zu hit the Birthday Stage. Clever percussion, a trumpet and a saxophone makes this band impossible not to enjoy. The echo delay on the trumpet during Bust Body Move was a genuine ear shocker (in a good way) as No Zu’s cacophony of noise seemed to be perfectly positioned in the Secret Garden line-up. It was after 10pm and the band’s sound is suited to any mood because It can be raucously danced to, watched for the spectacle, or enjoyed in the background.

One mood that is fixed is Japanese Wallpaper’s. The young producer is known to be ‘nice’ and under the romantic lights of the Fern Gully stage, the couples of Secret Garden lapped it up. For the non-couples, it was pretty boring and needed some level adjustment. Hitting a sample pad is visually exciting but with Japanese Wallpaper, the sound fizzles and feels half inflated. This dispiriting display was further exacerbated with the heavy sounds of neighbouring stages. His ideas are great but need to be altered for differing moods.

It was then time for Parquet Courts. Surprisingly, the fast and loud American rock group from New York had one of the smallest turn outs for the festival. In hindsight it was bizarre placement for the band. Crowd members had just started to relax into an electronic dance vibe and then their ears were blown off by the brash Yankee foursome… so where were the crowds?

Not at Donny Benet, that’s for sure. Well, some were there but they were mostly his mates like Jeremy Neale who Benet asked to bring some women with him to the stage because, “there’s too much meat on the dance floor.” Some people were at the #campqueen stage but not enough to account for the lack of fans at Parquet Courts. Most were wandering aimlessly or flaking on the pristine grass of the Garden Stage. 

Tuckered out after a big couple of days, festival goers summoned their strength to attend Hot Dub Time Machine - a DJ who works his way through the last forty or so years in music. He played portions of classics which everyone knew and could dance to but the lengthy breaks between songs could have been axed in favour of mashing them together. The visuals were not particularly inspiring and the cuts to some songs were unexpectedly abrupt which was disheartening. That being said, there were a tonne of people dancing and singing with one another so it was not all bad.

Hot Dub’s completion saw the crowd to move in every direction – most to keep their night alive under the glowing moon at the #campqueen stage where the party would continue until most were content.

The music at Secret Garden was good but it was upstaged by the experience. People weren’t necessarily there for the bands which was evident when someone confused Sharon Van Etten with The Griswolds, and The Gooch Palms with Jack Ladder (I mean… come on guys). A kissing booth, karaoke tent, ‘Olympic’ arena, speed dating sessions, and stand-up comics were just a few offerings which provided alternative entertainment for those there for the vibe.

Visually, the place was spectacular. It is always pretty tough to outdo rural scenery but ticket holders easily trumped it with their impressive costumes. The only complaint was the omnipresence of police whose strong numbers were a little off-putting at first, but were unthreatening and thankfully not required for any serious misdemeanours. 

Next year there will be another Secret Garden and it will be as simultaneously relaxed yet flamboyant as ever. No one could come away from the two days at this festival and claim to have had a bad time, whatever their agenda.