Aunty, the godmother of Meredith and Golden Plains, has established such a strong and unfussy reputation for delivering festival after festival of all round excellence that the brand has overtaken the bands. It’s a safe bet more people are coming to Golden Plains than just to see Bon Iver, and that is surely a good thing in a season in which it seems another festival is against the wall with every week. The reason for their success is apparent everywhere, attention to detail. The smells of the various food stalls, the tanks of town drinking water, the feeling of drying hand sanitiser, the sound of complementary foam earplugs gently expanding to block nearby chattering campsites are tiny experiences that are uniquely Golden Plains’.
But if there is one thing that unifies the fantastically disparate range of music, personalities and weather, then this year it’s Golden Plains’ drug of choice, LSD. From Bonnie Prince Billy’s shout out of ‘who here is on acid?’, and the several hundred people who enthusiastically raise their arms before sheepishly lowering them, to the headlining set from Rock’s Greatest Acid Casualty Roky Erickson’s, and the exuberant response received by every late night performer, it and it’s effects were ubiquitous.
Fields of cars, tents, Eskis and lounging punters ring the amphitheatre, which glows beneath overcast skies as the first band of the festival follow on from the traditional Opening Ceremony. Local Triple J Unearthed winners Hunting Grounds are given the coveted opening slot which sees a rowdy group of several thousand respond warmly to their take on epic rock. Balancing the earthy integrity befitting a band Aunty Meredith chooses for Golden Plains, with the sky-high aspirations of a band that secretly aspire to be The Black Keys.
Rather than wearing the influences of 90s bands on their sleeve in their exploration of the darker side of garage rock, Total Control take things further back and revel in the late 70s post-punk take on that most beloved of styles. Dan Stewart’s lyrics are lost in the amphitheatre and the force of the music takes over, which may have suited a late night slot better.
Perfectly suited to their slot however are the first international band of the festival, New Jersey’s Real Estate, who put in a set about as interesting as their name. Smooth, anodyne and almost offensively pleasant, there is so little to recommend in their blog-vetted, engine-chugging niceness that their songs slip by with an innocuousness that is almost commendable. While their bouncing melodies and smart lyrics are one thing to listen to at home or while sitting in an ergonomic chair, at Golden Plains, their lack of charisma and manifold subtleties of songs like It’s Real and Out of Tune are lost and they come across like a more expensive version of Augie March.
While the weather takes us into a brighter, warmer realm, the music moves back to a time that Melbourne seems obsessed with revisiting; community radio endorsed, rockabilly-infused 50s rock chic. Lanie Lane has a voice to command attention and the songs to hold it. The simplicity of her songs and the talent that extends beyond ability and seems to have evolved, CW Stoneking-like, out of a lifestyle finds a perfect home on a summer’s afternoon. Songs like What Do I Do, Betty Baby and a cover of The Black Keys’ Gold on the Ceiling are fun, deftly rendered, and allow Aidan Roberts’ Gretsch to get a workout, which is always a good thing.
As the first of a billion bubbles makes its way across the crowd Wild Flag take to the stage and unleash a riotous racket that sounds as if it’s been beamed in from the Pacific Northwest circa 1995. Though the supergroup’s members seem to have taken the formation as a chance to revisit their halcyon days, it’s the audience that show the most excitement at floor-tom-laden, guitar chugs into brighter times. Romance, Short Version and Black Tiles generate the first moshing of the fest and their set takes a turn for the more upbeat and interesting as it reaches its end that may be as much to the band easing up as to the songs themselves.
As good as the preceding bands have been so far (and programming is almost uniformly brilliant throughout the weekend), the consistently unpredictable, eminently watchable and surprisingly effeminate Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti provide the early highlight with a set that epitomises everything that is good about using the sounds of pop music in a very non-pop setting. Boasting the charisma machine that is Lost Animal’s Shags Chamberlain on tambourine and ‘vibes’ (at one point described by Pink as ‘Shags. My Teddy Ruxpin’), the tight and textured sounds are bent through a number of songs, many of which seem new or obscure (and see Pink singing from a lyric book), but it’s the high points from Before Today that get the biggest response.
Playing the most divisive set of the fest Bon Iver enters to huge cheers and a heavy, noisy reinterpretation of Perth the first track from his most recent album. Soon descending into a free jazz spiral from which emerges Minnesota, WI, his crack band clearly have most of the audience on side from the outset, and use the freedom to have fun between moments of familiarity. Justin Vernon’s familiar falsetto pierces the cold night and silences the crowd during Holocene which is no mean task considering the sheer volume of empty cans at the end of his set. Perhaps predictably, the first and largest giving of ‘The Boot’ goes to Skinny Love. The Boot is described on the festival website as when ‘the whole of The Amphitheatre unites in appreciation of something that has wildly exceeded expectation’, which Vernon’s straight performance of patently didn’t do, still, the relaxed vibe, the near-full moon and the rapidly cooling evening combine to make a set a special one.
The cold comes in with sharp snap, and local cover band Kisstroyer follow in what is billed as a brave piece of festival programming. Their video pyrotechnics bathe the several hundred fist-pumping members of the 9000-strong crowd familiar with Kiss songs that aren’t I Was Made For Loving You Baby and the closing I Want to Rock and Roll All Night. The rest of the crowd show interest for the first few songs before dissipating and songs such as Shandi and a one-note bass solo barely register a response at all, which cannot be said about the ‘interstitial music’ DJs whose song selection provokes a bigger response than some of the bands.
Dexter takes over and any fears of him mimicking preceding festival slots exit stage left as he proceeds to pump out a set heavy on loping 90s west coast hip-hop and tick off reggae, ragga, ragas, drum and bass as he builds, cuts, detonates and scratches his way through his 55 minutes in fine style. There is still so much other DJs can learn from his seamless treatment of music and how identity can be projected by simply recontextualising rather than rearranging or reconstructing the music you choose.
By the time Seekae pull out their set of effervescent tones and immersive textures which triumphs over the alcohol and drug-fuelled distractions, still lower temperatures and tough timeslot the site is littered with cans, plastic crap, broken chairs, scrunched picnic blankets and passed-out twenty-somethings. The band however, sweeps all who pay attention into a rapturous zone that almost undoubtedly enhances the psychogenic experience being had by many. Doubling as a mellifluous lulling balm for those lying sundazed in their tents, they almost drown out the car alarms, late-night Cranberries’ singalongs and alacritous, plaintive cries of partying friends.