Report: Big Day Out, Melbourne 2013
Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne
Saturday, January 26, 2013
Elliott Grigg & Marcus Teague
EG: Sweat soaked paradise or hellish crowd crush? Sanctified touring institution or largely irrelevant relic of the late 90’s? Must attend or must avoid? Whatever your opinion, Big Day Out continues to deliver on what it promises – namely, a gargantuan afternoon and evening’s worth of music festival.
Traversing the grounds, one can’t help but be in awe of the sheer magnitude of the event: the plethora of stages and promo tents; the all-new Chow Town precinct serving gourmet lobster rolls, chorizo burgers and salted caramel ice cream sandwiches (yes, there's still plenty of deep fried everything elswhere, savages); the carnival rides; the wide-eyed kids; the anxious parents of the wide-eyed kids; the wider-eyed attendees later on; the more anxious police accompanying them; the lines to get in, get a beer, go to the toilet, get a good spot in the crowd, get anywhere.
It’s not just the scale, but also the scope of the thing that’s striking -- a truly unique melange of performers and punters. Under the grey Melbourne sky, a kaleidoscope of tribal tatts, fake-tans, basketball tops, backwards caps, faux camo, flag capes, top knots, bikini bottoms and dreadlocks provides a shifting human carpet that completely blankets the green of Flemington Racecourse. They’re here for the punk-funk of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the pop-rock of The Killers, the rhymes of Childish Gambino, the nihilistic modulated drone of Crystal Castles...the tribal tradition of the Big Day Out as institution. And yes, it’s oddly appropriate that on an Australia Day (supposedly) intended to celebrate the diversity of a nation, swathes of fans of all musical creeds can find some common ground to celebrate, and come together to sink tins at a racing track.Apparently, there’s another thing that can unite the tribes. Walking past the appropriately named ‘XXX’ ride en route to the Red Bull stage, a carnie shrieks through his megaphone: ‘C’mon and give ‘em a hand, they just got their tits out for the triple x!’ Cue rousing cheers from absolutely everyone. Even with a suave gourmet-eating district positioned directly across the thoroughfare, as ever, the music festival is not the place for propriety.
It is, however, evidently the place for trying out novelty performance gimmicks, as showcased by the puzzlingly silent Red Bull ‘No Noise Nightclub’. The deal is thus; upon entry, everyone receives a pair of wireless headphones that are tuned in to the frequency of whatever the DJ’s are playing. “Less Noise, More Dance” is printed in huge lettering at the foot of the stage, but “Less Noise, Less Fun” would probably provide the more adequate descriptor. It’s difficult to find the appeal in reducing the vast sensory phenomenon of a live music show to such an individual and internalised experience, or in intentionally alienating everyone in the crowd from one another. You just spent half an hour listening to your iPod on the tram to get here to essentially continue listening to your iPod. Bizarre. Still Gold Fields forge on admirably, playing a DJ set of sun-soaked gloss that sees Adrian Lux’s ‘Teenage Crime’ meld into quiet union with Tame Impala’s ‘Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind?’, and The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s ‘Heads Will Roll’ blend with Toto’s ‘Africa’. Their set is perfect fodder for the Red Bull stage, saccharine sweet and full of energy. If only everyone could hear it.
MT: Death Grips are all the rage though aren't they? I don't know, I found them reminiscent of Roots Manuva at Golden Plains last year - the ghost of '00s nu-metal rap-rock flexing its way through the zeitgeist in a leaner form. Zach Hill is an awesome drummer and frontman MC Ride a compelling figure on stage. But as a live musical unit playing along to a backing track—and in front of a meagre couple of LCDs showing, at points, flames and grainy YouTube footage of themselves—any adrenalin-inducing goodwill from their supposedly wild sideshows is instead a one-dimensional melange of someone's idea of rebellion.
Vampire Weekend are probably the only main stage band I've ever seen who are better suited to performing during the day, in full sunshine. The quartet have an enormous crowd before them, and appear as maddeningly jovial as ever. 'Oxford Comma' and 'Giving Up The Gun' bounce along merrily into a closing trio from their self-titled: 'One (Blake's Got A New Face)', 'Mansard Roof' and 'Walcott'. Should be a pleasing late afternoon fixture for the rest of their career.
EG: Before having ever picked up a mic and started rapping, Childish Gambino—aka Donald Glover—was a student of New York’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, a scriptwriter for the popular NBC sit-com ’30 Rock’, an actor in the equally popular TV series ‘Community’ and a touring-stand up comedian. It’s an interesting backstory; particularly noteworthy because most rappers usually begin rapping before they move into acting rather than the other way around (with the exception of MC Joaquin Phoenix). But Gambino’s Hollywood roots seem to shine through from the moment he appears on stage, accompanied by an exceptional live band and their rousing rendition of ‘Firefly’. Bouncing around as if he spent too much time imbibing freebies at the adjacent Red Bull stage, Gambino works the crowd with a measured and conscious charisma, like an actor flashing their pearly whites at a red-carpet premiere. He freely switches between furiously energetic—rapping like he’s holding the crowd at gunpoint—and exuding the languid charm of an attempted late night seduction, but artfully manages to avoid dithering for too long in either mode.
There’s a similar multiplicity to what he’s actually saying too, with rhymes that are essentially lowbrow, crass and largely vapid in sentiment frequently dusted with cerebral references and sharply intellectual expression: ‘E.E. Cummin’ on her face, now that’s poetry in motion’, or ‘Swag out the ass, I’m the man, fuck Chico, took the ‘g’ out of your waffle, all you got left is your ego’, a clever play on both the 70’s TV show ‘Chico & The Man’ and American brand Eggo breakfast waffles. He moves through a bevy of hits including ‘I Be On That’, ‘Shot Callers’, ‘Do Ya Like’, ‘Rolling In The Deep’ and an exceptional orchestral version of ‘Heartbeat’. But as things ramp back up into the pounding ‘Bonfire’ and he starts squealing ‘I love pussy, I love bitches’, it’s time to leave Gambino to those feeling a little more childish in their giddy revelry.
MT: Here's another great thing Big Day Out finally did this year: they put the Vans essential stage and the Green stage in big tents. Not only did this grant the viewer the comfort of standing in the shade while watching the bands, it made the bands sound (and look) better. Good move. Into this scenario strode good ol' roots-rock band Alabama Shakes on the Green stage. Sometimes bands are so correct for what they're trying to do that they transcend analysis. Brittany Howard is the singer of Alabama Shakes and she has a rip-roaring voice and a way with the crowd that establishes her immediately as the matriarch of the piece. Even a power cut before 'Always Alright' doesn't sour the goodwill. The songs are competent additions to a crowded field of good ol' roots-rock that a sliver of humanity continues to impress upon our earth's history, but Howard is unique in her charisma. I find myself tapping my feet, maybe my hips move a little, then I pick a blade of grass and throw it up to see which way the wind blows. A home cooked stew wafts from o'yonder and it's going to be a good harvest this year and...anyway. The simple surprise of just feeling good and having a good time, sometimes, can't be underestimated.EG: Karen O and her art-rock darlings Yeah Yeah Yeahs waltz out onto the main Blue Stage and immediately get down to the business of conjuring up a flurry of cow bells and woodblock snaps that eventually wades into the slow, warped murmur of ‘Down Boy’. They continue, moving into material from their upcoming self-described “lo-fi” release in ‘Mosquito’; but the minimalist buzz of the track is met with a modest reception from the continuously swelling crowd. Instrumentalists Nick Zinner and Brian Chase riff with swagger, although they essentially provide the canvas upon which the charismatic O paints her vibrant persona. Unquestionably, the main intrigue of their set is derived from the expert mania of her screeching, howling and writhing over Zinner’s sludgy distortion. And no more so than in the excellent ‘Phenomenon’, where the lyric ‘she’ll make you sweat in the water’ seems especially poignant. She’ll also apparently manage to blow the speakers, as the sound system disappointingly struggles to maintain pace with the New York trio for much of their duration. But, despite a snare drum that sounds like someone’s cooking popcorn along to the beat of proceedings backstage, the glorious lustre of ‘Maps’ and the synthesized pulse of ‘Zero’ shine through the muck to render the band a trackside winner.
At the opposite end of the festival are British indie favourites Foals, who appear flushed in magenta light as they embark on a faultless hour's worth of indie dance music. Thirty seconds in, singer Yannis Philippakis removes a heavy black jacket to reveal a taut singlet, in a move that’s indicative of the sweaty verve with which the band gallop through their set. An opening burst of ‘Olympic Airways’, ‘Miami’, ‘My Number’ and ‘Blue Blood’ sets the tone for proceedings, with glistening guitars that swirl around Philippakis’ airy vocals anchored by the elasticised buoyancy of Walter Gervers’ bass lines and the constant hiss of drummer Jack Bevans’ rattling hi-hats. Those breezy guitars eventually carve out the gorgeous haze of chords that is ‘Spanish Sahara’, a muted moment that is besieged by a racquet of applause. An exercise in build and release, the splendid climb of the Sahara is accompanied here by throngs of people clamouring atop shoulders, as if hoping to clutch at a piece of the gorgeously ballooning atmosphere of the track. When it does finally reach that whirling climax, not even a view obscured by a hundred shoulder-riding attention seekers can hinder the scene. ‘Happy invasion day’ offers Philippakis glumly, before the band close on the superb din of new single ‘Inhaler’.
Well, the last of The Killers is absolutely epic. As singer Brandon Flowers runs through the last wistful lines of ‘When You Were Young’, the ceiling of the main Orange Stage erupts in a waterfall of sparks that cascade down all around the band. They sound impressive. They look impressive. They probably were impressive.
MT: They were. When the conversation comes up as to "who will headline these things in years to come, when the dinosaurs are gone", one not-unlikely answer might be *insert any currently popular DJ* and the Killers. I don't think they can single-handedly cause the mix to change on the main stages, but all of a sudden, 40,000 people back it sounds pretty good. Having seen the band in the relative intimate Palace Theatre during the week, the Big Day Out stage still looked small for the Las Vegas four-piece, who chew up the scenery with the relish of people who love being really good at being rock stars. Cramming fourteen songs into their spot means wall to wall hits, and beyond a short cover of 'Waltzing Matilda' (in the spot they'd recently been doing 'Don't Dream It's Over'), their general fizz doesn't abate for a second. Not least the aforementioned set closer, 'When You Were Young', which has a colossal arena-ready hook sheathed somewhere amongst its arrangement every few seconds. Everyone involved with the transaction between the Killers and everything else around them seem thrilled. The band, along with Arcade Fire and the Black Keys, seem like the last of the rock bands who could ever hope to ursurp the old guard, upon which this festival's bones were built.EG: A significantly-less-epic 10-minute oboe solo provides a strange segue into funky-town, before California’s Red Hot Chili Peppers burst forth onto the adjacent Blue Stage in all their irreverent glory. ‘ON THE DRUMS, IN RED, SATAN! HE’S A BAD MOTHER FUCKER. HE’LL BEAT YOUR ASS FOR NOTHING. HE’S CHAD MOTHER FUCKING SMITH!’ wails makeshift ringmaster (and celebrated Melbournian) Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary, and the drummer Smith takes to his kit for the opening sequence to ‘Dani California’. There’s a certain myth that envelops the Chili’s: the seemingly eternally revolving door of guitarists, the early 90’s appearances on The Simpsons and Beavis & Butthead, the light-bulbs-on-their-heads performance at Woodstock ’94, the nothing-but-their-socks performances of the early 80’s, the famously storied drug abuse, the rehab stints, the subsequent best-selling autobiographies. It’s easy to view them as an ossified rune of popular culture, more so than an actual band. But all of that explodes away from the moment you see and hear them playing. Because they’re a fucking good band.
Not only do they have a bewildering cavalcade of hits from which to build a set, they’re all gob-smackingly talented at actually playing their instruments (a surprising rarity these days). And further, given that they’re on the other side of 50 and now elder statesmen of rock, incredibly vivacious in their performing. Flea bounces around as you’d expect and they continue on from ‘Dani California’, cantering through ‘Otherside’, ‘Look Around’ and ‘Can’t Stop’. But they pause along the way to indulge in freeform funk excursions, extended bass guitar solos, Anthony Kiedis’ clucking and rolling of his tongue, a punked-out cover of David Bowie’s ‘What In The World’. Someone in attendance is heard to remark: ‘No one could get away with this shit but the Chili’s’ – and they’re right. Because the Red Hot Chili Peppers are so inimitable. They sound like no one else and no one else sounds like them.
The hits roll on, one after...
MT: Interjection: while this is all happening, a scout around the grounds shows RHCP have soaked up most of the crowd. Animal Collective's incredible stage set-up is impressive for its inflatable detail, as well as for how close the crowd can waltz up to it. In four-piece mode, recently missing member Deakin tends to spin around mid stage making unknown sounds on his guitar while the once upright Panda Bear is now solely on the drum kit, flanked by ever-jiggling Avey Tare and Geologist. Their hypnotic glug is going down well with the faithful but, with tent a third full, you wonder if they'll be back in this capacity—in this market—again for a while. Sleigh Bells are saying they will be on the Vans stage, Alexis Krauss finishing the set with a stage dive amongst a hail of feedback and piped in beats. Still an assault but beyond the addition of another guitarist, where do you go when all your songs are set to max? Bloody Beetroots have an answer: put a grand piano on stage.
EG: ...after another: ‘Throw Away Your Television’, ‘Suck My Kiss’, ‘By The Way’. ‘Under The Bridge’ and ‘Californication’ sees the crowd washed in the pale hue of 10,000 recording camera phones, as well as the band supported by an ensemble choir. Then the silent dark of the pre-requisite encore. Flea walks back onto stage in a handstand before grabbing his bass and thrashing out the opening to a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’. ‘Give It Away’. And they’re done.What’s probably most interesting about the Red Hot Chili Peppers tonight is the way they leverage that status as a cultural symbol of the 90’s in their sound and aesthetic, whilst indulging in the experimentalism that still defines their sound today. It leaves them occupying a space that is both wistfully nostalgic and actively fresh, and sees them tuck the past, present and future neatly into a singular fold. It’s a phenomenon that strikes as being oddly reminiscent of another grand ol’ dame of rock. Fondly looking back but always moving forwards. A celebration of the things that have defined music culture and the things that will. Everything for everyone.
The Big Day Out.
Elliott Grigg and Marcus Teague
(Photos: Tim O'Connor)