Gig Review: Fairgrounds Festival

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Saturday 5th December @ Berry Showgrounds

“Ryan, turn down that fucking death metal, I can barely think”. I’m on my way down to Berry with my Mum, for Fairgrounds Festival. Besides the obvious reasoning of using her as a diversion tactic to sneak in enough drugs to make a Mexican cartel leader feel the threat of competition, Mum had never been to a festival before in her whole life, and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. A three hour drive and plenty of argument over what to play on the stereo later, and Mum had her notepad out and was ready to critique the shit out of her first festival experience.

Full disclosure: my Mum doesn’t know a lot about music – she loves Madonna, ABBA and Bruce Springsteen, and that’s about it. So, keep that in mind when reading her comments on the festival. 

The first thing you notice about Fairgrounds is how insanely beautiful the surroundings are. Maybe its because my experience with the festivals in Sydney have been reduced to whatever concrete structure the headliner can pack out, but going down to Berry was like seeing a whole new side of NSW that a lot of city dwellers like myself probably don’t get to see. Father John Misty aside, it’s definitely worth a day trip. What’s more, the audience at Fairgrounds is completely different to any other festival I’ve been to. Sure, you can argue that it ain’t too hard to beat out the three long day scream of “BROOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” that hangs over Falls and Splendour, but the air of complacency and relaxation that smothers Fairgrounds is unreal. There were more picnic blankets, sunshine and smiles than a Sunday arvo football game on the Hill at Brooky Oval when the Sea Eagles are up by 20.

Mum: It’s so beautiful down here – they’ve done a really great job with picking this site out. Do you know who picked it? I really like it here, Ryan. It’s so nice. I’m going to tell your Dad that I want to move here. 

Shining Bird, the Leisure Coast’s greatest treasure, opened up Fairgrounds with their assortment of lush, extended jams that blow apart the doors of what psychy dream pop can do. They’re the equivalent of being thrown into a bed with a thread count of infinity, over and over and over again. The addition of a saxophone to their crew has added a brand new element to the Shining Bird sound, adding a little more electricity and warmth to their hum. Watching them live has a certain mesmerising quality that puts them leagues ahead of their contemporaries.

Mum: I missed most of their set because I was parking the car, but I thought they were awesome. I really love their t-shirts [she bought one before the festival]. I think I’m in love with Dane. 

Following Shining Bird are Methyl Ethyl – the Perth trio have been getting all sorts of adulation for their debut album and their live show, but I just don’t see it. Having witnessed them a fair few times now, their set at Fairgrounds just cemented the fact that I don’t get this band, and it didn’t feel like anyone in the audience did either. They felt awkward, listless and disconnected on stage, and with the exception of “Twilight Driving”, nothing felt too memorable about Methyl Ethyl.

Mum: I think they’re boring. But I liked that one song. I really didn’t like that they didn’t say hello or goodbye, or even thank you. No one clapped, that’s how bad they were. 

Watching C.W. Stoneking is an experience that should be recommended to everyone. He’s weird, and feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere, which is great. He thumps along on his guitars and banjo charismatically, howling and groaning like he’s just come off a shift with a chain gang. Visually, the band are just as striking – Stoneking sways in an all-white suit that must cost a small-fortune to get dry cleaned before every gig, and he’s complemented with a booming double bass and a couple of astounding back up singers who sway like they’re late for their gig with The Temptations. Whilst the heat beats down, C.W. Stoneking splashes the crowd with a sound that feels cold and refreshing, a cocktail of genres, styles and accents that feels just as illegal and sought after as the Prohibition bar that it was ripped from.

Mum: Their sound is confused. It doesn’t work. The girls in the glitter dresses and the mixed moaning country sounds, its like urrrgghhh neeerrr nerrr. I don’t like it.

Time for a fun fact: excluding the five or so times we went and saw BJORN AGAIN, the world’s premier ABBA cover band, Unknown Mortal Orchestra were the first band Mum and I ever saw together. I was 17 and had a fake ID, but needed a responsible adult to complete the guise, so she came along with me. You can actually read a really poorly written review I wrote of that gig here.

Although my ability to string words together hasn’t increased, Unknown Mortal Orchestra have become one of the biggest bands on the planet. My personal opinion of them now is pretty “meh”, but their live show is still something to behold. Ruban Nielson has a voice of silky chocolate, a Valentine’s Day gift bursting forth 365 days a year. Meanwhile, the songs are transformed, shaking free of the psych-pop restraints and rolling into all sort of different musical territory, from hammering riff-rock to placid R&B-lite. Nielson is surprisingly energetic, far more of a frontman than last time we witnessed him, clamouring onto the PA stack to lounge and serenade from above. Whatever you think of the band themselves, if the opportunity arrives to catch them, seize it.

Mum: This isn’t the same band we saw ages ago, is it? Really? Well, I like the older stuff better than the new stuff, the stuff I recognised, my hips were swaying. I like the lead singers voice, it’s awesome and unusual. I thought they were really cool. 

Up until this point, the bands had mostly relied on their music to engage and entice the crowd. Not Royal Headache: Shogun is the centre of attention, a crooning, beloved and charismatic frontman who doesn’t so much capture attention as he does wrangle it like Paul Hogan and a crocodile.  Even when an amp fucks up, and a song goes by completely guitar-less, they can carry on off the back of pure charisma, and the error is completely forgiven and forgotten by the time guitarist Lawrence Hall is back to strumming. Fast forward to a sore and exhausted Ryan keeling over a barrier, trying to hold in the vomit post-“Down the Lane”, mosh pit marathon, and the memory of the band looking on frustrated has been completely replaced with joy and mild bruising.

Look, it’s hard to express what’s been said a million times over already, but I’ll just add my two cents and say that Royal Headache are the kind of band where every song makes you exclaim, “Fuck me, this is my favourite song”. Watching Royal Headache re-affirms why I like going to see live music: there’s an exhilaration, a thrill, a shot in the arm of ecstasy that’s impossible to find anywhere else but the front row of a rock show. Maybe it’s because my world-view is pretty limited to the bands that have hauled themselves through Sydney, but I still feel that Royal Headache are the best band on the planet.

Mum: He’s quite hyper! I don’t think he should have taken his shirt off though, that was maybe a bit OTT. I really loved it, the people were going crazy and I loved that he got everyone going. I really like the guitarist, he had a nice presence. 

Following the exhaustion, sweat and threat of sunburn that pervaded Royal Headache’s set, it was nice to sit down on one of the gazillion picnic rugs and soak up Mercury Rev‘s performance. Their set faded into one bombastic flood of guitars spilling over the Berry Showgrounds. It was a slow-burning avalanche, tumbling forever, mostly soft and buzzing, and then occasionally bursting at the seams like old school Marlon Brando trying to squeeze into skinny jeans.

Mum: Oh my God, Ryan, I love this band! I was having a nap, and I heard them, and had to come and check them out. They’re my favourite band so far, they were mesmerising, what a bunch of incredible sounds. What instruments do they use to get those sounds? What genre is this?

Le Pie was in full swing by the time we arrived, playing to a packed out shed of enthralled bodies. Most lay on the floor, sprawled out with grins flicking up whenever Le Pie kicked into another one of her dazzling tunes. Today, she plays with a stripped-back version of  her band, just a quiet bass, an acoustic guitar and a tambourine, which actually put a bold emphasis on that enthralling voice of hers. Things go into a much more pop direction, closer to Taylor Swift than Kim Deal, and that’s not too bad, is it?

Mum: I remember you showing me Le Pie ages ago, right? She’s awesome, I love her. She’s got a real Taylor Swift vibe, no?

One of the only teething problems Fairgrounds Festival had in its first year was a lack of food. By the time the sun wasn’t trying to actively kill us all, most food stalls either had a 45 minute waiting period, or had sold out entirely, leaving the only option available to be the wonderful Berry pub – $5.20 for schooey and the biggest goddamn slices of calamari you’ve seen in your life, no fucking dramas. Worth missing Meg Mac over, for sure.

The sun’s going down, and it’s time for Father John Misty. Similarly to Unknown Mortal Orchestra, his music is a bit hey-how-ya-goin, but his live show is essential. The man is all over it, a religious figure and a cult leader who happened to choose the guitar instead of the Kool Aid. As the sun bleeds into the sky, the bearded maestro bounds around, committing to his performance with a strange enthusiasm that defies his morose lyrics and tempered music. The crowd is in his hands, and even when the set begins to drag at the 40 minute mark, their eyes stay fixated. But credit to his abilities as a performer, Papa John sees out his hour of power with a triumphant melody, including “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” (aka The Aubrey Plaza song), joined by an equally brilliant and theatrical live show. Even though he looks like a Surry Hills barista, Father John Misty can stay.

Mum: What is it with these beards, Ryan? I don’t get it, they’re so rank! They’re disgusting! Is this a new thing? But I really, really like this guy, he’s fun and he’s got a lovely voice. 

By this time night has settled upon Berry, the show ground now more closely resembles a glen from A MidSummer Nights Dream, with trees lit up like rainbows and fairy lights adorning every spare centimetre. Finishing out the night are Ratatat, who seem like a strange choice for a festival closer. They do a decent job, aided by some severe visuals and a laser show that wouldn’t be out of place at Burning Man, but it feels slightly flat. It also looks weird to see two blokes absolutely throwing themselves into a keyboard and shredding guitars like they’re auditioning for Jeff Hanneman’s spot in Slayer, when the music that’s emerging is relatively middling. Comparatively, the visuals seemed to fuse with the music far more than their strutting figures, a psychedelic mixture of birds of prey, multi-limbed toddlers and lots of explosions.

Mum: I don’t like this doof doof stuff. They’re very talented, but this is terrible. The lasers are good, but the visuals are shit.

 

Overall, Fairgrounds provided that “something” in the festival calendar that has been missing for so long. In an environment that can be fairly predictable and void of genuine headliners, Fairgrounds found multiple acts of first-class calibre, and sought to create NSW’s very own version of Meredith. Although it did see a share of teething problems, the way these impacted the day were minimal. Furthermore, the range of small treats on hand – bands getting to the stage on time, the sack and three-legged races raging in the haystacks, the record fair, the swimming pool – didn’t go unnoticed. The dickheads were non-existent, and the general atmosphere was completely different to anything else that exists on the festival radar. Having experienced Fairgrounds and its bevy of little wonders, you come to realise how essential it is, and how much you’re looking forward to going next year. As for my Mum, well, she had the time of her goddamn life, and is now a festival junkie – she’s already booked her tickets for Psyfari and is starting a strict shredding regime for Stereo. So yeah, thanks for that Fairgrounds.

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