Report: Harvest Festival, Brisbane 2012

Report: Harvest Festival, Brisbane 2012

Harvest Festival
Botanic Gardens, Brisbane
Sunday 18 November 2012

Arguably the hardest part of arranging a music festival is securing a headline act so superior that they simply can't be followed. For the second year in a row, Harvest has achieved this. Sigur Rós are a delight: challenging, brave, and pure. Like Portishead last year, their main stage set is a sterling example of how to end a day filled with remarkable music. It's a true spectacle, carefully structured to include peaks and troughs and the band work at eliciting a wide spectrum of emotions. There's a real art to this, and it doesn't go unnoticed by the thousands gathered before the Riverstage: a silent and attentive audience hangs on every note played.

Before meeting the day's peak, though, we find ten hours of solid entertainment bisected by a half-hour break in proceedings, owing to a storm cell menacing inner-city Brisbane. Organisers make the seemingly rash decision to evacuate the entire festival grounds – the first time I’ve heard of this happening in Brisbane – but in hindsight it’s a good call, at least from a public liability perspective. Hail and heavy rain lash the Botanic Gardens while thousands seek cover within the neighbouring university grounds, trading cigarettes and stories.

During the storm I stand beneath a QUT building, adjacent to a construction site filled with plenty of objects which could easily become deadly in high winds. That doesn’t eventuate, though, and we're all invited back inside at 6.30pm. A voice from the Windmill Stage coaxes us, urging us not to run, telling us that there’s room for everyone. Indeed. The situation is handled smoothly and professionally, all things considered.

It rains intermittently throughout the day, starting one song into The War On Drugs’ set. This is not particularly interesting; most of the crowd came prepared with ponchos, given that the city was assaulted by severe storms the day before. (I won’t mention the weather again. Promise!) I love War on Drugs’ stage manner: the Philadelphia indie rock four-piece are calm, unpretentious and confident - it appears that nothing else concerns them right now. Their positive attitude is contagious. How much of the crowd is here because of their name alone? There seems to be few serious fans among the hundreds watching, yet they’re met with wide applause. They comply with a request for ‘Buying The Farm’from diehards down the front; in the closing moments, frontman Adam Granduciel removes and retunes a broken guitar string in 90 seconds flat. I’m impressed. It’s a strong start to the day.

The Dandy Warhols are suited to the main stage when playing their singles, mostly taken from Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia; when indulging in slower, lesser-known material - including three plodders from 2012 release This Machine - they’re less appreciated. It’s a balance between crowd-pleasing and pleasing themselves, I guess. Their June 2011 show at The Tivoli was one of the best I saw last year. This feels a little flat in comparison. Silversun Pickups do too: the bass is nearly inaudible for the first few songs, Brian Aubert’s guitar parts are a little sloppy, yet his voice is spot-on. Drummer Chris Guanlao windmills his hair throughout the entire set, which draws material from their three albums. I’m a big fan of this band – Neck Of The Woods is one of my most-played albums of this year – but this performance feels far from their best. They namecheck Valley Fiesta, where Aubert tells us they played their first show outside of the US in 2007, and end strongly with ‘Lazy Eye’.

Mike Patton is at home on the main stage, leading an orchestra through Italian pop songs. It’s a highlight because it’s so different from every other performance today. The Mondo Cane album is fantastic, and it’s a pleasure to see Patton working the songs in person, ever the genial frontman. The music is elegant, majestic, and all of those adjectives. It’s great that Harvest decided to book them: it wouldn’t have been cheap to hire, rehearse and tour that orchestra, nor is there a huge audience on the hill watching it take place. But damn, it’s fantastic. The Black Angels played a blinder headline set at The Hi-Fi last year, yet their performance on the smaller Big Red Tractor Stage is no knockout. While they play, I think about the quality of the Harvest 2012 line-up, and how there are few overlapping genres. This Austin-based psychedelic rock act play it cool, showing little emotion or enthusiasm before the hundreds-strong crowd. “You guys have been great,” singer Alex Maas says at the end of their set, and it’s hard to tell if he’s being serious.

Once we’re allowed back into the site, Chromatics turn in a good performance at the same stage, though it’s a shortened set and they don’t play ‘Night Drive’ or ‘Tick Of The Clock’. They sound great, though, as lightning menaces the city and northern suburbs behind the stage. Their synth-heavy electronica is a nice change from the Angels’ distorted guitars. They end with a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Into The Black’, before being coaxed out for an encore. Beck, meanwhile, kills it on the main stage, laying the 1990s-era hits on thick as his (shortened) set winds down: the band tear through ‘Devil’s Haircut’, ‘Loser’, and ‘Where It’s At’ in quick succession, and end on ‘E-Pro’. The man’s a true genre-hopper and it’s a thrill to see him switch lanes with ease onstage.

Which brings us to the Riverstage headliner. The stagehands set up seemingly dozens of microphones and triple-check every instrument on stage before the Icelandic post-rock act emerge to wild applause. There’s a three-piece string section and a three-piece brass section. There’s also a giant video screen behind them which projects some cool animations for everyone to stare at while their songs ebb and flow, across 80 minutes. (They end at 10.20pm; the Riverstage always has a strict 10pm curfew, so clearly someone pulled some strings in light of the weather.) 

I’ve been standing in gumboots all day and my willingness to continue standing is at an all-time low but I can’t possibly look away from Sigur Rós. The set contains some truly compelling passages that rival the best concerts I've seen. There are moments where my mind wanders, but most of the time I’m lost in thought, studying the sounds that they make, watching Jónsi flex that bow across his guitar, focusing on that ethereal voice of his. It’s a cliché to refer to a musical performance as a ‘privilege’ to watch – everyone here paid $160 for said privilege, sure – but this feels like the right word. The power and complexity of their set tonight betrays the long hours of rehearsal, the tedious isolation that such music no doubt requires before it can be presented, fully-formed, to an awed audience of wet Queenslanders.

Cliché acknowledged, I’m going to stick with that notion of privilege when describing what I saw at the end of Harvest 2012. In the bus on the way home, I thumb through the festival programme and smirk at one sentence: “Sigur Rós have remained constant in one thing: creating live performances that birth regret in all those who made the mistake of missing out.” That’s awkwardly-worded, for sure - something lost in translation from Icelandic, perhaps? - but the sentiment rings true: I’m glad I saw them, I’m glad they closed the festival, and I’m glad I sure didn’t ‘birth regret’.

Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok)

(Photos: Justin Edwards)

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