Splendour In the Grass – Review Part 3: The Final Dash
Photo credit: Savannah Van Der Niet
Splendour in the Grass is arguably Australia’s biggest music festival, located just north of Byron Bay where the weather stays a little warmer during the winter months. It’s been held annually since 2001, growing each year with more acts and bigger names. This year saw the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, LCD Soundsystem, The XX, Dune Rats and Paul Kelly, among so much more.
The festival began Wednesday the 19th of July for the super keen, and ran right through until Sunday 23rd of July. Friday, Saturday and Sunday housed all the main acts. Over each of these days Splendour saw 35,000 attendees. Splendour is more than just a music festival; featuring things like arts and crafts workshops, comedy shows and even a Q&A session with Labor minister Anthony Albanese and Greens leader Richard Di Natale.
Saturday. For those on the early ticket, that’s three days you’ve been camping here, and frankly, life before the festival at this point is hazy. You vaguely remember the trappings of routine: job, place to be, something to wash. All of it carrying the putrid stench of nagging responsibility. But these things are as alien as moon-rock to you now, having lobbed it overboard as you set sail Wednesday.
“Good riddance”, someone said, as I watched the land behind me recede off into nothing.
Now firmly adrift, in this vast, grassy Splendour sea, my friends and I converge on the idea we’ve got it all figured out. The kinks are ironed, the rhythm of the festival clicks and the motif of sore feet and dusty clothes disappears into the white noise of the background. Sip a cold drink, glance over the setlist, and queue a few non-negotiables to anchor your day around. For me, I go Dune Rats, Dope Lemon, Paul Kelly and QOTSA.
Today the list is tantalizingly full of huge names, they start early and gain momentum toward the prime time slot, seemingly adding more as the hours of the day run toward zero. The pace has the feel of being on a dilapidated truck, one wired to explode if the speed drops below 60km. It’s frantic, and the sheer amount of choice can render you indecisive. Cut through the paralysis with some honesty though, and admit that you can’t see it all. After all, some of the joy in a festival like this is stumbling across something you didn’t buy the ticket for.
One of these groups is Confidence Man, something I went in for blind. Stumbling across them mid-set, beckoned from a stroll past by the alluring sound of ‘Boyfriend (Repeat)’. The electro-funk is perfectly curated by the boogying and gyrating on stage. There’s something extra to that dripping swagger and sassy delivery. The crowd agrees, bouncing to the incessant pull of its jungle groove.
The Dune Rats performance later is every-bit as wild as you’d expect. They race on to the Amphitheatre stage saddling mini dirt bikes, dodging huge inflatable shakas and beer cans along the way. As soon as Danny Beausa strikes that first power-chord, the crowd rips into a huge swirling, human washing machine. Beausa smiles up on stage, like some conductor of the dark arts, ecstatic with the carnage he’s unleashed.
There’s a brief respite when the band takes a moment to chat to the crowd. Before long though the quiet is usurped. A rolling bass riff crashes into gritty guitar and out belts Beausa with a yew – off goes the washing machine, to ‘Dalai Lama Big Banana Marijuana’. Turn your volume up past what your neighbors find acceptable and press play below, to come within a few clicks close to the experience.
Next It’s Dope Lemon at the well populated G.W. McLennan tent, the sun here has long melted into night. It’s a dimly lit show, with a red fog cast all across. The figures on stage move about as silhouettes, stripped of their features, it lends everything a psychedelic ambience. Angus Stone however, looks as distinctive as ever, donning a beret and overalls, the trademark beard finds a way to cut through. A large smiling lemon sits back-center stage, while a light hangs from the roof, shooting a beam of light, perforating through the red cloud. Angus at one point grabs hold of it, twirling it around as though it were a lighthouse beacon, granting the audience safe passage through the melodies and groove. He’s happy to fall back into the mix of the band as he is moving up to front the vocals. His voice he admits during the set, is extremely hoarse and nearly lost.
Silence lingers on stage, the band loiters, waiting for a directive. They look to Angus, who hits the first few strings of an arpeggio that everyone knows well, the band follow. Around they go a few bars, then, he fronts the microphone, voice hoarse, whiskey soaked, and out like the hounds of hell he howls ‘House of the Rising Sun’. His notes grate out like charred coal, forcefully wrought from every bit of energy it seems he has left. For me, it channeled the sorrow and seething resentment that bled all through Eric Burdon and the Animals’ version. One of those performances you feel shoot up your spine. A memory even now, that feels vivid as the seconds in which it was made.
Living legend Paul Kelly was up next – something I decided to go up front for. And let me tell you, there’s a lot of love for Kelly going around. Every word from his mouth and chord from his guitar brings the adoration of the crowd. Plenty of Splendour’s bands had members that were up the front and center too, right there to iconic tracks like ‘Dumb Things’ and ‘How to Make Gravy’. You feel lucky to be there, witnessing something heartfelt, sincere and still full of life. The pacing of his set has all the touches of a master, as he deftly weaves in stories and banter between songs that give everything the feel of being effortless.
Dan Kelly, Paul’s nephew, deserves special mention here too, because the man can sling the six-string. If Paul was band leader and singer, Dan was chief sound-scape architect. His licks and solos added vivacious colour to the canvas, a perfect supplement to Paul’s acoustic chugging.
His last song was protest track ‘From Little things Big Things Grow’, co-written with Aboriginal folk legend Uncle Kev Carmody. The placement of it felt timely. It’s a song that has always felt present, it’s message of resilience, protest and courage in fighting for what’s right being timeless. The incendiary politics engulfing Indigenous rights of late though, including the despair over events like the killing of 14-year-old Aboriginal boy Elijah Doughty, and the absence of any corresponding justice, brought to the performance an extreme urgency. The song brought most people to tears, of which I’m not afraid to say I was one.
From there, it was up toward Queens of the Stone Age. Through the neon gate that led up the hill into the Amphitheatre, and into the belly of the beast. My friends were already in deep, though at this point I was more than happy to kick up back near the top. To put it lightly, it was like watching rock royalty. Their signature blend of guitar laced filth and understated groove rolling over the Splendour hills and smacking you in the ears. ‘Make it Wit Chu’ saw people near me whip out their air-guitars, high-fiving each other as they went note for note with Josh Homme. By the end my feet were blistered, my back ached, and each step I took back to camp felt like it did damage – you wouldn’t trade it for anything though, because you were really there, watching QOTSA and Paul Kelly, up in Byron Bay.
So Splendour, you weird and wonderful beast, these few days in the sun have been a blast, and the pleasure indeed, all mine. You’ve been many things: Purveyor of arts and crafts, host of late-night comedy, meeting place, an exhibition on out-there festival fashion, and of course, a celebration of music. Everyday we were lucky to bask in golden weather.
Three to four friends seems like a good number to take up with you, allowing a solid home-base at camp, but enough diversity of opinion to push you to see acts you might not of thought of. It’s a long trip up and back for Melbourne festival goers too, a Van-trip up taking around 18 hours. But driving up allows you to savour the journey, the festival in the fore of your mind as the excitement builds exponentially all the way to Byron.
Why go? Well, in the end what’s stayed with me most, capturing those idle thoughts at a break on work, or been the topic of conversation with a mate or two, is the people. Those laughs with strangers you share at the food stalls, the mutual acknowledgement of a trombone solo at Winston Surfshirt, and the random conversations about bands with fellow music lovers you’ll never see again. It’s those fleeting instances of experience you relish with other like-minded strangers. It makes you present, forgetting about before and after, and in an age like today with smartphones begging your every attention; a chance to be in the now has been a rejuvenating experience. So on that point, Splendour, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Words by Matthew Toohey.