The Harvest Festival is fast becoming one of Australia’s most essential music events — attracting eclectic, Pitchfork-hyped young indie acts and recognisable, influential ’90s headliners alike — and their second annual festival kicked off over this past weekend with back-to-back events at Werribee Park in Melbourne. I attended Sunday’s sold-out festival and was remarkably impressed; the line-up, sound, organisation, facilities, and overall atmosphere were so impressive and pleasant that it ranks with some of the best experiences I’ve had at the Big Day Out, Laneway and Splendour in the Grass festivals. For those attending this weekend’s events in Sydney or Brisbane, you have a lot to look forward to! And for anyone still on the fence about attending, I suggest you check out my line-up guide and head along for what is guaranteed to be a great experience.
The picturesque Werribee Park provided an ideal location (via Faster Louder)
Werribee Park is a remote venue located 30 minutes west of Melbourne, found adjacent to the Victorian-era tourist attraction Werribee Mansion. While it is most certainly a difficult place to get in and out of for punters — especially those travelling to the festival for the first time, such as myself, with the trains inexplicably cancelled for the day — its virtue becomes immediately apparent once you get inside and take in the picturesque, serene landscapes. I spent the early parts of the afternoon marveling at the spacious, sun-drenched surroundings, carefully curated with art sculptures and giant trees — some of which were decorated for the occasion — as well as various art sideshows and a wide variety of clothing, food and drink stalls. It was an utter delight to be able to buy a delicious apple cider — Australian festivals are usually limited to awful low-alcohol beers and RTDs — and wander from stage to stage without having to worry about drinking tickets, wrist-bands or designated drink areas, and thankfully the audience rewarded this move with a collective display of decent behaviour and lack of boorish outbursts.
Liars performed an energetic set of unpredictable, electronic-based rock (via Triple M)
After the aforementioned travelling issues — combined with an unexpectedly long crawl to the car park and a lengthy walk to the entrance — I was regrettably too late to catch an early set by Americana-psych-rockers The War on Drugs, but from what I heard they got the day off to an ideal start. The first act I saw on The Great Lawn — aka the main stage — was The Dandy Warhols, and I must admit I’ve never been a fan of their brand of smarmy, calculated Anglophile-alt-rock so they weren’t exactly the best start to the festival for me. They banged out hits from throughout their surprisingly long career, including the Vodafone-assisted ‘Bohemian Like You’, but I was disinterested and favoured the shade, heading over to The Big Red Tractor Stage — the smallest stage, covered by a tent — to wait for Liars to appear. Angus Andrew and co. stalked onto the stage and into position behind a stack of keyboards, launching into standouts from their great new electronic-focussed LP WIXIW, including ‘No. 1 Against the Rush‘, ‘Brats‘, ‘His and Mine Sensations’ and the dizzying title track, before taking to their live instruments for old favourites such as ‘Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack’ and ‘Plaster Casts of Everything’. The unpredictable Brooklyn-based trio set the bar high for The Big Red Tractor Stage with an energetic and diverse set, even if their dark aesthetic was as ill-suited to the daylight hours as The Horrors were at the Big Day Out a few years ago.
Mike Patton and a 25-piece band delivered a thrilling standout performance of Italian pop songs
As much as I was enjoying Liars’ set, their final 15 minutes clashed with a much-anticipated act and I had to hightail back to the The Great Lawn to catch Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane. The multi-lingual, prolific and restlessly adventurous singer brought an unlikely ensemble of 25 musicians — including a dozen violinists, a conductor, and a band made up of guitars, bass, drums, flute, keyboards, and theremin (operated by some kind of Italian wizard!) — as well as three back-up singers to replicate his 2010 LP Mondo Cane, which consists of his take on 1950s-60s Italian pop songs by the likes of Ennio Morricone, Gianni Morandi and Gino Paoli. Sung almost entirely in languages the audience almost certainly doesn’t understand (Italian and Neapolitan), this project is perhaps Patton’s most idiosyncratic to date and yet his set was never inaccessible, boasting melodic hooks and skillful musicianship to match his incomparable voice and charisma. Patton was in fine, self-deprecating form, admitting that it “probably all sounded like gibberish” to us while also making us smile with an awful/hilarious joke about the venue (“Werribee! You know how this place got its name? A little birdy told me today that when the early settlers arrived here, they took a look around and said, ‘Where I be?'”). The catchy ‘Deep Deep Down’ was a crowd favourite and provided the sole sort-of-sing-a-long of the set, but the manic ‘Che Notte!’ was another highlight as Patton went full Mr. Bungle-avant-garde on us — breaking out his trusty megaphone in the process. While it all may have been a bit too weird for some, I witnessed some seriously joyous expressions in the crowd throughout and this incredibly entertaining and passionate performance was arguably the best of the day. The eclectic group of musicians was certainly one of the most unique and sizable I’ve ever seen on a festival stage, and I applaud Patton for following his mad genius muse all the way down this bizarre path, not to mention the Harvest promoters for being brave enough to book him.
Following such a high point would be tough, but I figured I’d head up to the dusty Windmill Stage and give ’90s alt-rockers Cake a chance, despite an overall lack of interest and familiarity. What I witnessed was surely one of the worst festival performances I’ve seen in years, and easily the low point of the day. Frontman John McCrea, possibly wasted (?) or just ego-tripping, seemed to think the crowd was in the mood for a long rant about freedom and other such cliché nonsense, and what followed was so tiresome that after about 10 minutes I’d had enough and wandered off to the Big Red Tractor Stage to catch a bit of The Black Angels. I rather enjoyed the psychedelic jamming I stumbled upon in the middle of the Austin rockers’ set, and despite a minor sound issue towards the end they impressed me; in hindsight I wish I had decided to head right there instead of wasting my time on Cake.
Beirut provided an ideal soundtrack to the afternoon sunshine with a laid-back set
Up next on The Great Lawn was Santa Fe indie-folk collective Beirut, who were only in Australia and New Zealand earlier this year touring behind last year’s great LP The Rip Tide. Zach Condon and his dapper bandmates opened with a spirited ‘Santa Fe‘ and proceeded to perform several cuts from the latest album, but the crowd seemed to be more into old favourites ‘Gulag Orkestar’ and ‘Nantes’. Condon seemed a little tired and the group didn’t quite have the same spark I saw at their excellent show at Auckland’s Powerstation back in January, but they were enjoyable enough regardless and their laid-back sound was perfectly suited to the late-afternoon sun as many took the opportunity to recline on the surrounding lawns and soak it all in.
Snyth-pop pioneers Chromatics were the epitome of cool
With another 15-minute overlap between acts, I elected to leave Beirut early and catch the opening notes of Portland Italo-disco revivalists Chromatics, whose recent double-album remains one of my favourites of 2012. The perennially cool and detached trendsetters hit the stage as their tense Drive-featuring instrumental track ‘Tick of the Clock’ slow-built, before stunning singer Ruth Radelet joined them for a hazy rendition of ‘Lady’. More Kill For Love highlights followed, including the Johnny Jewel-fronted standout ‘These Streets Will Never Look the Same‘, and we were also treated to their brand new track ‘Looking For Love‘. As with Liars before them, Chromatics seemed conspicuously out-of-place in the bright daylight — I only ever imagined them existing in the early A.M. hours — but they managed to get the small crowd moving in spite of this anachronism, adding a more danceable pulse to the live renditions of their dreamy synth-pop numbers.
Beck satisfied audience expectations with a career-spanning setlist of greatest hits
Despite immensely enjoying Chromatics, I had to extract myself with a couple of songs to go — with no small amount of regret — in order to catch headliner Beck, who I’ve been hanging out to see live for over a decade. The genre-hopping singer-songwriter — joined on stage by the late-’90s line-up of Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Smokey Hormel and Roger Joseph Manning Jr. — opened to much fanfare with his Odelay hit ‘The Devil’s Haircut’. The hits kept coming from there, including ‘Loser’, ‘Think I’m In Love’ and ‘New Pollution’, as well the occasional obscurity such as ‘One Foot in the Grave’. The first half of the set was lively and the crowd was loving the best-of setlist, although Mr Hansen’s performance seemed a little lacklustre at times as he missed several lines and seemed to forget some of the lyrics to ‘Modern Guilt’, ‘Hotwax’ and ‘Guero’. Midway through he rambled in typically weird fashion about walking amongst the elephants and giraffes out the back (the Werribee Open Range Zoo is nearby) and coming across a shimmering thing that turned out to be a guitar solo from the 1980s (!), “which sounded a little something like this”. Cue a cheesy and kind of awesome noodling solo, with comedic interruptions (“Oh, I think that was Santana”) and a potential dig at the band surprisingly chosen to headline over him (“I should leave some solos for Sigur Rós, I’m sure they could use it”). Things slowed down in the second half with some ballads from 2002’s peerless Sea Change, including ‘Lost Cause’ and ‘Golden Age’, both of which were lovely and showcased Beck’s fine vocals. Things picked up again towards the end with ‘Gamma Ray’, ‘Soldier Jane’, and the obligatory crowd favourite ‘Where It’s At’, and despite a few hiccups and an overall haphazard vibe, the career-spanning set had some strong highs and managed to satisfy the biggest crowd of the day so far.
Grizzly Bear delivered a tight set made up of recent highlights
Perhaps due to complaints about the amount of clashes on the schedule, The Windmill Stage was mercifully running late which meant Grizzly Bear had not yet started. I raced up there to catch the first half hour of their set, which was packed with highlights such as ‘Sleeping Ute‘, ‘Yet Again‘ and ‘Speak In Rounds’ from their superb new LP Shields. The Brooklyn four-piece sounded just as amazing live as I had expected, with strong vocal performances from both Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen, and it’s really a shame that they weren’t placed on the main stage for this festival as they’re more than worthy. Taking comfort in the knowledge than I’ll be seeing a full set from the group in Auckland later this month, I left their set half-way through and headed back to The Great Lawn for the evening’s biggest attraction.
Audiences were transfixed by Sigur Rós’ epic headlining set (via Vulture)
Icelandic post-rock heroes Sigur Rós opened with their glorious 2005 single ‘Glósóli’, revealing an immense backdrop which dwarfed the band and their small orchestra — who were shrouded in darkness for the majority of the set, appearing mostly as silhouettes — as abstract images played on what looked like the biggest outdoor cinema ever. The combination of the giant screen (plus two side-screens), the intriguing images, the slow-building walls of sound, and Jónsi’s huge, otherworldly voice was absolutely overwhelming, and the slightly exhausted crowd stood (or sat) transfixed throughout with not a soul resorting to shoegazing. Several Valtari cuts featured, as did fan favourite ‘Svefn-g-englar’, but it hardly mattered if you knew any of these songs or not as each segued into the next like one long, hypnotic suite of cathartic, crashing climaxes and spare, ghostly interludes that seemed to make time and words irrelevant. This set was nothing if not transcendent, and I’m not sure I have ever seen anything quite like it on a festival stage before. For those game to enter Sigur Rós’ vast, mournful, elegant and controlled universe, they provided the most epic, powerful, memorable and visually stunning performance of the day.
Santigold closed the festival with an energetic performance (via Vulture)
While many festival-goers decided to call it quits once the headliners wrapped up, I summoned the last of my strength and headed back up to the Windmill Stage which was midway through genre-mashing alt-pop star Santigold‘s closing set. Backed by a diverse band and two infectiously groovy back-up dancers, Santi White performed upbeat tracks from her latest LP Master of My Make-Believe — of which the surprisingly energetic audience dug ‘The Keepers‘ and ‘Freak Like Me’ — and managed a couple of costume changes while her awesome dancers and/or hype man kept the proceedings lively. She also invited audience members up on the stage at one point, and the set standout for me was ‘Creator’ from her superior 2008 debut LP, which inspired the best dance of the day. I would have liked to have seen her entire performance, but I’m glad that I got to see half an hour more than I expected to thanks to the scheduling gods, and from what I witnessed Santi and co. put on one of the most purely fun shows of the day.
Melbourne’s 2012 Harvest Festival was a great success (via Vulture)
Overall, it was a remarkably impressive and thoroughly enjoyable festival. The eclectic line-up delivered — with standout performances from Mike Patton and Sigur Rós — the sun was shining, the facilities were above and beyond that of most summer festivals, the beautiful location made the travel worthwhile, the crowd behaved respectfully, there were no issues with sound bleeding between stages, and everyone from the artists to the audience to the staff seemed to be having a great time. If Sunday’s festival is anything to go by, Harvest will soon become one of the must-see festivals of the Southern Hemisphere and I certainly hope to return in the years to come.
For more information on this weekend’s events in Sydney and Brisbane, check out the details below:
Parramatta Park, Sydney — 17 November
Brisbane City Botanic Gardens, Brisbane — 18 November
UPDATE: Beirut have been forced to cancel their remaining shows due to illness.
Read the revised timetables here.
[All photographs © Dominic Pink 2012 unless otherwise stated]