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[REVIEW] BIG DAY OUT Auckland 2012

The Big Day Out did not go out with a bang, nor a whimper, at Auckland’s Mt. Smart Stadium last Friday, but perhaps something in between. Following the promotional clusterf*** of having Odd Future banned, losing Kanye West as the headliner, and then announcing a weak second line-up with a reduced number of stages, it was always going to be an uphill battle to convince regular festival goers to shell out NZ$160 for a lesser festival (I nearly didn’t go until I lucked upon a cheap TradeMe ticket). Ticket sales for the iconic Summer festival barely reached 10,000 by the morning of the event, and even with a last-minute stunt which let punters with previous year’s Big Day Out tickets or shirts in for free between 6-8pm, the crowd still didn’t reach half of its usual 40,000+ by the time headliners Soundgarden took the stage. It was bleak enough for frontman Chris Cornell to remark that it looked like some sort of post-apocalyptic scene from Mad Max. Still, that didn’t stop those who did turn up from enjoying New Zealand’s final Big Day Out, making the most of the uncommonly short queues, clean bathrooms, free seats, and easy access to the front of the four stages. I found myself feeling vaguely guilty for how I much I enjoyed this year’s comparatively stress-free environment, but it certainly took some of the celebratory atmosphere out of the event.

Take a look at a comparison between the 2007 Big Day Out at 1pm vs. 2012 below.

No wonder the promoters resorted to letting people in for free later on. Perhaps a better idea would have been discounting the ticket price in advance (they did offer a buy-4-tickets-get-1-free deal in the final week, which obviously didn’t go far enough).

Ruban Nielson impressed with his hypnotic solos (NZ Herald)

Unfortunately I just missed Brooklyn hip-hop crew Das Racist, who were on ridiculously early at 1:45pm, but from what I gathered they were good fun. The first band I caught was ex-Mint Chicks’ guitarist Ruban Nielson’s psychedelic-pop outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra. With brother Kody in tow on drums/backing vocals, UMO were a wonderful start to a Summer afternoon festival as they performed most of the infectious jams from their excellent self-titled debut album. Nielson channelled the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, impressing the small but dedicated crowd (including Kimbra) watching from the grass at the Green Stage with his hypnotic guitar solos. The obvious standout track for the audience was hit single ‘Ffunny Ffrends’, which closed UMO’s set.

Bethany Cosentino epitomises Summer during Best Coast's set (UTR)

Half an hour later, Californian indie band Best Coast took to the Green Stage with their dreamy blend of garage rock and surf pop, which was perfectly suited to the warm Summer afternoon. The crowd had swelled somewhat since UMO, but this was still a rather intimate gathering for a mid-afternoon Big Day Out slot. Bethany Cosentino and co. didn’t seem fazed by the small attendance however, seemingly having fun and promising to come back for a proper tour when their next album comes out. They performed several highlights from their great 2010 album Crazy For You, including crowd favourite ‘Boyfriend’.

The Boiler Room was reduced to a small outdoor stage (3 News)

Next up was experimental prog-rock group Battles, who previously played the 2008 festival. The Boiler Stage (previously the Boiler Room) was running late, and an awful final number from MayaVanya punished the patient audience. The lack of Boiler Room tent was certainly a disappointment, as the different atmosphere – not to mention sun relief – it provided in previous years was sorely missed.

Battles delivered a huge sound for a three-piece band (UTR)

Eventually, Battles surfaced and performed several thrilling instrumental numbers from their 2011 LP Gloss Drop, opening with ‘Africastle’. For a three-piece, Battles have an impressively huge live sound and they definitely raised the bar for the day. However, following the loss of their vocalist/guitarist Tyondai Braxton (who left the band following the Mirrored tour), Battles have come to rely more on samples and guest vocalists (pre-recorded videos of Matius Aguayo, Gary Numan and Kazu Makino played behind the band), which is to the detriment of their live set. I caught them twice on the Mirrored tour (The King’s Arms 2007, BDO 2008), and this performance did not match the thrill of either of those sets unfortunately. I still enjoyed Battles’ instrumentals immensely – John Stanier remains one of the mightiest drummers around – but the guest-vocalist led tracks left me unsatisfied, and the fun inventiveness of the shows with Tyondai was missed. For much of the crowd, who were no doubt seeing Battles for the first time, the standout performance was a jammed-out rendition of their definitive single, ‘Atlas’.

Kimbra wore the most interesting outfit of the day (NZ Herald)

As Battles wrapped up, I quickly relocated back to the Green Stage to catch the end of Kimbra‘s set. The Australian-based Kiwi singer was dressed in an amusing puffy pink dress, and I arrived in time to catch three impressive numbers: her single ‘Cameo Lover’ (which the crowd loved), new song ‘Samaritan’ (which she closed with), and a surprisingly fun Bobby Brown cover (!).

Girl Talk got the crowd up on stage to dance (3 News)

Following Kimbra was the longest stretch of average-to-poor music I have ever experienced at a Big Day Out (this year being my tenth). Something called Bassnectar insulted the Boiler Stage with what sounded like a parody of dubstep. Girl Talk followed with an upbeat, dance-y set that was no doubt fun if you were on some sort of uppers (like a majority of the kids who jumped on stage appeared to be). However, I never enjoy Girl Talk’s overly-pop focussed live mixes as much as the eclectic material on his albums. Kasabian bored the Main Stage with their generic take on UK indie rock, aiming for Primal Scream-meets-Stone-Roses but failing miserably. If only the promoters could have booked a decent UK indie band, such as Wild Beasts or the Arctic Monkeys (both of whom stopped by Australia in the last six months, but skipped NZ). Highly-buzzed L.A. indie trio Foster the People delivered an amateur-sounding set over on the Green Stage, sounding like an unpolished facsimile of MGMT.

After such a long stretch of mediocrity, Röyksopp came as a huge relief as they showed the Boiler Stage audience what decent electronic music sounds like. The oddball Norwegian outfit came out dressed in the sort of sci-fi garb you might expect from a metal group, and opened with an extended version of ‘Alpha Male’ from The Understanding. The group had a surprising live-band set up, with a guitarist and bassist alongside the expected synths and laptops. The early highlight for me was the single ‘Happy Up Here’ from Röyksopp’s great 2009 album, Junior. I stuck around for one more song (‘Remind Me’ from Melody A.M.), before regretfully hurrying off to catch the start of Soundgarden.

Chris Cornell and co. were on fine form (3 News)

Recently-reformed Seattle grunge heroes and headliners Soundgarden drew the largest crowd of the festival, but it was still possible to get relatively close with ease as there was no “D” barrier in front of the main stage this year. As the introductory sounds of ‘Searching with My Good Eye Closed’ played – an unexpected opening track from 1991’s seminal Badmotorfinger – Chris Cornell and co. emerged on stage to the loudest fanfare of the day. Two cuts from their breakthrough 1994 album Superunknown quickly followed, ‘Spoonman’ and ‘Let Me Drown’, satisfying casual and hardcore fans alike. The group’s sound was massive; Matt Cameron’s impeccable drumming, the odd time signatures, Ben Shepherds distinctive bass, and Kim Thayil’s searing, noise-rock solos were apt reminders of Soundgarden’s influence on the likes of fellow-BDO-rockers Battles (not to mention past BDO favourites The Mars Volta and Tool). Cornell paused to pay tribute to Christchurch, which was both sincere and endearing, dedicating the track ‘Blow Up the Outside World’.

Soundgarden fans were rewarded with a diverse setlist (UTR)

The band then launched into two of their most definitive songs, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ and ‘Outshined’, which elicited some of the biggest shout-along-stomps of the day. Cornell’s voice obviously can’t reach the ridiculously high wails of his youth anymore (aging, plus years of abuse, will do that), so he now employs more of a scream which mostly works fine as a substitute. Only once do they delve into their pre-Badmotorfinger catalogue, for an unexpected rendition of ‘Ugly Truth’ from 1989’s Louder Than Love. It’s a nice treat for fans of their lesser-known early work, although it’s a pretty unessential track and I would have preferred something like ‘Loud Love’ or ‘Beyond the Wheel’ (Gold Coast were treated to both). After this brief excursion into their early days, it was back to a best-of set with countless highlights from Superunknown (‘The Day I Tried to Live’, ‘My Wave’, ‘Fell on Black Days’), including crowd favourite ‘Black Hole Sun’ – which inspired the usual sing-along-holding-lighters bit – as well as curious Down on the Up Side single ‘Ty Cobb’, and plenty more Badmotorfinger highlights. ‘Drawing Flies’ was an excellent surprise, ‘Rusty Cage’ was as special as expected, but ‘Slaves and Bulldozers’ was probably my highlight of the night, as I’ve always had a special affinity for the track and I didn’t dare expect them to play it. The 90-minute set closed with another unexpected choice: ‘Room a Thousand Years Wide’. It was an appropriately noisy, jammed-out and feedback-drenched rendition, ending with just Thayil’s guitar humming away at the close.

Some in the crowd were expecting an encore, but their time was up and to ask for more after what was just given would be greedy. Soundgarden delivered an epic performance with a great, varied setlist which dispelled any doubts that this reunion wouldn’t live up to their impeccable track record. It was an absolute teenage dream come true for me to finally see them live (I was too young to attend back in ’94 or ’97), and they provided an appropriately nostalgic end to New Zealand’s last ever Big Day Out. Cornell promised to return once the band completed their new album, and I’ll definitely be there if that happens.

While I’m glad I was there to both see Soundgarden as well as experience Auckland’s final Big Day Out, and I was also relieved I didn’t pay full price. It’s unfortunate that the once-great festival ended the way it did, as having Odd Future and Kanye West on the bill certainly would have sold a lot more tickets and added more of a spectacle to the proceedings. I can tell you from my experience at Splendour in the Grass last July that Kanye’s current tour is absolutely stunning, and Australian Big Day Out-ers are in for a spectacular event. For an avid Soundgarden fan like myself, their presence alone guaranteed my attendance and I was not let down, but for casual or non-fans I can’t imagine how this Big Day Out could be anything other than underwhelming compared to previous years. Noel Gallagher fans seemed somewhat satisfied with his High Flying Birds performance, which included Oasis numbers, but I’m not a fan and what I heard on the way out did nothing to sway me. This final festival certainly had its moments, but they were too few and far between to justify its admission price, and ultimately, its existence. While I will mourn the loss of the Big Day Out, the diminishing returns of the last few years coupled with this year’s scaled back version have convinced me that it’s time has come, and I would rather attend a superior festival such as Laneway or simply see bands at their own gigs.

R.I.P. Big Day Out Auckland, 1994-2012. I will always cherish the multitude of great memories you have given me over the years, including: Iggy Pop crowd surfing next to me during ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’; The White Stripes’ incredible and indulgent 2006 headline set; watching Queens of the Stone Age perform with Mark Lanegan twice in one day (despite the sound issues) in 2003; Rage Against the Machine’s mammoth reunion performance in 2008; feeling privileged as Neil Young delivered a career-spanning best-of set in 2009; grinning as the rain made Nick Cave and Grinderman rage more furiously last year; seeing NIN and the Foo Fighters for the first time in 2000 and getting more lost and sunburned that I had previously thought possible…

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