Monday, January 08, 2007
Leading up to this festival there was a lot of talk about the lack of big names, an increasing reliance upon acts who had previously played and a consensus that festival programmers were getting lazy, safe in the knowledge that a festival will sell out with barely an act announced. There is no doubt that Falls is a rite-of-passage event in the way only well-established festivals can be, and, as with any long-standing annual Australian event, the reason becomes an excuse to down piss. Falls seems to have inadvertently taken it upon itself to cross schoolies' week with Meredith and, in almost every way, it succeeds wildly. Most impressive were the security - no, really - they were great; amping up the crowd, singing, dancing, starting waves, taking photos for crushed punters, starting ball games and generally having as much fun as the kids.
The layout, organisation, band order, setting and weather were near perfect too; a little rain mid-Sunday, but all those who hadn't braved the shower queues (and those who had) needed a clean anyway. The toilets took a typically festival-worthy battering and were ready to be declared a viable chemical weapon by Sunday evening with no Kenny in sight. Last year's addition The Village – a bohemian sideshow of music, theatre, comedy, art and food which peaked between 1 and 5am - was a welcome break from the ever-present schoolie-factor. Special mention must also be made of the cloud that descended every dusk, enhancing the sound and light, adding to the sense that we were somewhere far stranger and otherworldly than a bit north of Lorne.
More noticeable than anything else was an overwhelming sense of positivity that imbued every show, interaction and acquaintance. Each artist had a wildly enthusiastic crowd. Whether it was 50-odd at Melbourne's finest Asian-dwarf pop-pushers The Punisherz (who drew the midnight NYE time-slot against Wolfmother) or Hilltop Hoods who packed the entire Valley and held punters in their palm, people LOVED The Falls. This culminated in a massive show of respect as the organiser and his parents who own the site welcomed in the new year. Every Fallsie took to their feet, noisily gave thanks, and were rewarded with a combination of You Am I and Wolfmother covering (what - a 70s rock anthem?) The Who's Baba O'Reilly.
Musically, one key presence was The Evelyn. Take any band with a 2005/06 residency, put them at Falls and you're onto a winner. Illzilla, Labjacd, Custom Kings and Blue King Brown all pursued a rootsy fusion of polished folk, funk, hip-hop and blues which pushed the right buttons for the festival crowd. In fact, you could pencil them in every year and get the same reaction so good are they at what they do. Blue King Brown had a choice mid-afternoon slot and several thousand drunk teenagers dug their uninspired percussion-heavy Wailers-ripoff sounds. Figurehead - indeed God - of this carefree, gently political and Marleyesque hippiness, Michael Franti, managed no less than three sets over the weekend. That they were largely the same bothered no one. His version as Michael Franti and Friends was more an acoustic ravedown to Spearhead's propulsive rhythms, and one which set his cliche-ridden and wordplay-heavy polemics to the fore. Franti's impeccable political pedigree, consistent requests for audience participation and willingness to wander the festival meeting and greeting fitted in perfectly with the festival vibe.
It was this idea of an act's vibe that, in some cases, proved to be more important than the songs, especially with less familiar international acts like The Bees, Cansei De Ser Sexy and Jamie Lidell. The Bees put in a wonderful set with balmy English-summer, organ heavy, music hall-influenced daftness, a set which included their ace version of Os Mutantes' A Minha Minena and "hit" Chicken Payback. Their new songs were more guitar-based and allowed them to get a bit heavier - which went down a treat with the 10 000 odd punters who had packed in to see Wolfmother, who were up next.
At once visually stunning and with a energy that exuded pure fun, pop and sex, Cansei De Ser Sexy (CSS) were an exciting revelation and a pick of the fest. Why they played at 12:55pm after a lovely Josh Pyke set is a question best left to the programmers. Though all were transfixed by singer Lovefoxxx and her skin tight violet body-suit (indeed, security rarely took their eyes off her) it was their songs and inimitable style that got the crowd on side - especially JJJ fave Let's Make Love (And Listen To Death From Above). Choruses like "Hey, do you want to drink some AL-cohol?" and "Music is My Hot Hot Sex" ensured CSS were in a league of their own. Another act who seemed to have won a tentful of new fans was Jamie Lidell - a smooth and decidedly memorable performer. His supreme style, sparkly trousers and perfectly executed white-boy soul gave the punters something different that stood out from the safe bets.
Epitomising a different sort of class and a Festival highlight for all who made Fabulous Friday were Basement Jaxx, the only act who made the two huge garish fluro motifs of Australian animals that graced either side of The Valley Stage work. Costume changes, a great light show, neon pom-pom dancing, killer beats, a horn section in kilts and songs that most people knew were all factors which made them a class act and a revelation live. Seeing dazzlingly dressed and uninhibited performers, free from the confines of guitars and mic stands, reinventing their songs in a way that the audience loved was a real thrill. As was their blistering and in every respect "large" encore of Where's Your Head At, which surely caused the ground itself to be stamped several feet lower.
Dexter followed and pulled out his usual dynamite combination of hip-hop, reggae, funk and pop which kept most of the punters in the Valley til the wee hours, a trick also pulled off the following night by Death Of A Disco Dancer. Their mix of electronica, indie, general dark grooves and a seemingly limitless supply of inflatable balls resulted in a stellar set. Sunday night saw DJs Jennifer Tutty and Katie Drover play an equally killer set. Banging tracks and shameless on-stage dancing abounded, which ensured that when Purple Sneakers took over at 4:30am to close the festival, every punter in the house was in it for the long haul. A notable minus was the lack of between-set music, something Meredith does brilliantly. Playing Bob Marley's Legend for the third time while roadies moved gear smacked of a missed opportunity.
What us punters DID get more of was the Woodstock-style vibe that epitomised Falls. John Butler Trio got a massive reception and saw the girls-on-shoulders quotient increase dramatically. Even the camera crane operator - who seemed to know most of the words and wasn't averse to dancing while going in for the close-up - was down with JBT. Something's Gotta Give opened their show followed by Better Man, a new song Better Than That and an extended guitar instrumental that saw Butler noisy-up a crowd by simply kicking a mic and subtly use a volume pedal - more than most managed in sets twice as loud. His closing acapella had EVERYONE in the place singing Peaches And Cream in a dusk that felt totally free of cynicism and self-consciousness (you had to leave Melbourne and be at a festival where more than half were from interstate to make this happen, but happen it did).
Another exponent of this funkified balladry was Matt Costa, a man who comes across as a forgettable sub-Jack Johnson folkie in print but showcasing a wonderful line in Buckley/Nick Drake/70s AM radio smoothness and who provided the perfect soundtrack to a wet afternoon. Tracks like Sunshine, Miss Magnolia and Don't Break My Heart were everything Pete Yorn would love to be. His successful efforts to get a wave going and inability to scull a can of VB while every male in the place chanted "scull, scull etc" only made him more adorable, even before his golden voice silenced them. Looking and performing like a man twice his youthful years, Dan Sultan also pushed this easy-listening-for-the-young barrow and is a name to remember as he is likely to be as safe a bet for an ARIA in the future as he was for Falls organisers.
Breaking up this wholesome goodness was Saul Williams. A fearlessly powerful performer, one who professes the same politics as Franti and most other performers at Falls , but who chooses harsh industrial sounds and in-yr-face soundbite rap ("Every being has the ability to uplift the entire fucking world") which pushed most of the crowd away. Those who stayed were sucked in, no cigarette lighters or mobile phones held aloft (a la the Franti show), just a small forest of fists and hands. The sound was (unusually for this festival) a little too compressed and some impact was lost, but there was no missing the message.
The band who stole much of Williams' crowd, The Audreys, played most of their recent CD and the sunnie-sporting, sunbaked crowd, flopped down amongst tinnies and empty water bottles, returned a listlessly positive reception. Singer Taasha Coates came across like a geisha's ghost; with her pale face, wispy arms, red and white dress and distinctively fragile voice. Their take on Moon River and the CDs opening track You And Steve McQueen were clear highlights, as was Tristan Goodall's distinctive guitar and banjo work.
Distinctive stringwork also came from Fourplay, who amped the crowd in a way it's doubtful any other group wielding just violins, a cello and a viola could. Genreless and with a great line in melody and dynamics, Fourplay succeeded in being both familiar and original with their take on Jeff Buckley's Grace, wringing even more emotion out of it's themes with each glissando and pizzicato stab. But it was their own pieces that really impressed, and their recent "environmentally neutral" CD kept them in line with the overall reduce-reuse-recycle vibe that the Falls love to push.
The parallel opposite of Fourplay then was the success story of 2006 and the reason for more screaming and crowd surfing than any other band, the bringers-in of 2007 and the latest proponents of big hair: Wolfmother. If only ripping off Pete Townshend high-kicks and windmills, Angus Young duck-walks, Jimmy Page's guitar collection and being rough with an organ equalled a good show. Something those 70s sounds had that was missing tonight however, was warmth. Surely with walls of amps and authentically dated gear you'd think it would make it's way through, but tonight all we got were the songs, in all their familiar bombastic glory. The crowd bought every second and the sound was huge, but the boys looked a little tired (for good reason, too) and the songs lacked guts. Instrumental breaks were lacklustre and showed up how little time they've had with their instruments, though their effects pedals seemed to be working fine.
Modest Mouse, on the other hand, used their armory of sounds and dynamics well and sung quality songs about things that are actually real, PLUS, they had Johnny Marr. This set was a cracker. As Isaac Brock belted out catchy tune after crowd-pleasing fave, each song seemed to make you miss the Pixies just a little less. Float On and Ocean Breathes Salty were deafeningly received as were OC-featured Paper Thin Walls and The World At Large. The band seemed unfazed by the small pack of devoted fans positioned in front of Marr who screamed his name, pointed, and generally paid their "respect" to the guitar god he again proved himself to be. He actually smiled, too!
Also pushing quality tunage to rowdy fans were the authors of what is already considered one of the most misunderstood albums of 2006, The Sleepy Jackson. Luke Steele, perhaps making the most of this "misunderstood" factor, looked astonishingly like Bob Dylan circa-Newport. Words were mostly, and unfortunately, lost amidst the busy and harsh sound the band are now a smartly dressed 6-piece, and sound nothing like the record; far more darkly melodic and cold. The quality of songs still shone through though, especially those not reliant upon grand pianos, orchestras and choirs: Bucket Of Love, and Come To This on particular.
One band who once again proved themselves beyond reproach were You Am I. Whether fueled by youthful exuberance or an assured cockiness Oasis would bicker over, Tim Rogers never gave less than 100%, from Last Gunslinger In Town to set closer Berlin Chair. Whether he remembers any of this blinder of a gig it's hard to say, but he was on form; sculling wine, narrowly missing the spit he shot regularly into the air, tearing off his shirt, grabbing another gorgeous Rickenbacker semi-acoustic and launching into what he rightfully called "another classic". Purple Sneakers, With Friends Like You, New Pompeii, Adam's Rib, She Got Soul and The Damage We Done were all totally compelling.
Bringing a sense of Americana to Falls was M Ward; sporting two drummers, strong and low-key delivery, bluegrass guitar breaks and a great line in trucker caps. Ward covered Daniel Johnson's To Go Home to great effect, but it's his own down-home songs which allowed him to shine, and his band to stretch out, bringing Tennessee to Lorne. Set closer Big Boat sounds far bigger and better live than on last year's Spunk sampler CD.
Midnight Juggernauts were blessed with an ace light show and great sound as they reeled off what must be their 50th gig this year. Not quite at the energy levels that their songs inspire, they came across a little static, confined to precisely working with 4/4 beats. Ultimately their sounds did lift them and, naturally, the punters loved them, especially during their airplay hit Shadows.
Hip hop was a uniting force at Falls. Hilltop Hoods played a brilliant set that showcased their rapport with each other and the crowd, highlighting their confidence as performers and arrangers. Scribe threw a house party on stage that was the hottest ticket of the festival. Quite how he sounds like he's from The Bronx when he sings a song like Christchurch about his hometown is a mystery, but you can forgive him for anything once he starts rhyming. So. Damn. Smooth. Local duo 2 Up though, were derivative, tedious and, mercifully, almost entirely forgettable. Kid Kenobi and MC Sureshock dealt some warm and welcome electronic squelches which held a late night chill at bay, seeming right at home with the decks a welcome hearth. Murph And Plutonic closed the Valley Stage on the last night and held the crowd where they wanted them with their strong and sure rhymes and tight live drumming.
For the punk contingent Mach Pelican gave us punk-pop for virgins and Ramones fans. Spot on playing and perfect for festivals like this, She's A Mod and Here We Go Again were energetic bursts of fun that helped dispose of the early casualties of the festival. The Exploders were adrenaline incarnate and an unhealthy reminder of The Tote on a good night. Oddly mid-paced and malevolent tunes, loaded with sneering and smelling of danger. That smell lingered long on the stage after The Bedroom Philosopher pleased another crowd with his comedic tunesmithery, too. Happy pooglets were made still happier by his and Charlie Pickering's set that slotted in well, just before crowd favourites the Mountain Goats. Quality all round.
In the early hours of Monday morning, as the final song of the festival (Jackson 5's frankly untoppable I Want You Back) closed Purple Sneakers' set, Falls turned into a wasteland of empty water bottles, crushed cans, spilled food and several hundred mad punters dancing to nothing. Daftness reigned ("Where is satisfaction made? A satisfactory!") and initial drunken thrills wore off with daylight. 2007 was sleepily embraced to the sound of inboxes filling, as cars and buses crept back to the very non-Falls world of hung-tyrants and yacht races. Mad.