Wednesday, March 14, 2012



Guest speaker Barry Hickens is, as is unsurprisingly by now, a well-chosen and perfectly judged twist in a unpredictable rollercoaster of a festival. Taking a willing crowd on a surreal, comedic ramble through religious history, philosophy and the constabulary travesties of Melbourne’s inner north, pearls like ‘All art is meaningless unless it’s from Reservoir,’ ‘1966 the year was charged with vagrancy,’ and ‘history is a dream, it’s not a lecture’ keep everyone interested and several people enthusiastically so.

Taking the high-stakes early Sunday morning slot and running with it come Harmony, one of the most unusual and exciting bands 2011 offered up. Combining post-punk massive atonal riffs and three-part gospel harmonies, singer Tom Lyngcoln’s warm valve-infused guitar crunches heave people up from their tents before howls them into morning sun to be soothed by the warm tones of singers Maria Kastaniotis, Quinn Veldhuis and Amanda Roff. Songs bludgeon then soothe, though primarily, it’s the atonal force and lack of repetition that keep the songs wholly unique and the show somewhat akin to watching a spider consume a butterfly.

If any band is capable of following on from the blasting that the amphitheatre has just taken it’s the fucked up holiday vibes of Lost Animal. Spector-al (and spectral) chords announce the backing band’s arrival, while a jaundiced dystopic swagger accompanies singer/songwriter Jarrod Quarrell. Another of 2011’s great Australian triumphs, Lost Animal’s expropriation of nostalgic 80s sounds and their subversion them into a ebullient bitterness is a masterstroke most people aren’t ready for this early in the day. Much of their Ex Tropical album gets an airing with Cult of Nature and the formidable, boot-worthy Lose the Baby being clear highlights.

First Aid Kit’s set does provoke some enthusiasm from fans huddled around the stage, but how anyone can get worked up about the overwhelming niceness of their flawless harmonies is beyond me. Consensus seems to return to the term ‘pleasant’, and ‘attractive’, though to these ears their act seems so carefully schooled and calculated, from their dedication of a song to Johnny and June, Gram and Emmylou, to their too-neat clothes, that while it’s impossible to disagree with them, it’s hard to remember them too.

‘Hi! We’re a Buck Cherry tribute band’ laughs Endless Boogie frontman Paul Major by way of introduction. This is music made by music nerds for music nerds. For people who love a guitar solo that uses more minutes than notes to make its point. Fortunately, a lot of music nerds are present and their brand of chugging blues jam finds a very warm reception. Most of those who didn’t raise their shoe for Bon Iver last night do so for Endless Boogie’s closing song Smoking Figs in the Yard that lasts an astonishingly brief eight minutes…

…About as long as it takes The Celibate Rifles to roll out half the side of an album. One of the very few punk rock bands of the early 80s to a) still be playing, and b) still be making music worth hearing. Never content to wallow when there is shit to charismatically celebrate, their arresting set takes in ‘the first song from our first album in 1983’ (Killing Time) to 2004’s We All Moved to Buttland. As the show progresses, the audience evolve to become mostly male, mostly thirtysomethings and exclusively bearing beers and happy expressions.

Which bears almost no resemblance whatsoever to the crowd that welcomes the late additions, Melbourne’s nine-piece Saskwatch. Announcing to the crowd that they ‘just want to get along’ before playing some damned proficient funk grooves, vocalist Nkechi Anele joins and matches the band for style and proficiency. Like a local Dapkings, the band is tight, smooth and everything else they want to be, except capable of transgressing the fact they’re a talented bunch of musos having good clean fun, which is fine, it’s just that they’re probably the only ones.

Thankfully, rescuing us from playtime at the conservatorium is the walrus of woe, Bonnie Prince Billy, who spends a good ten minutes gazing at the crowd, most of whom are writhing away to the DJ, who takes the opportunity to air some 70s funk. Billy is displeased. He and the band wait for their cue and he slips on some reflective shades to make sure we can’t gaze back at him. “As boys we fucked each other / As men we lie and smile” he solemnly intones by way of welcome. Playing with The Cairo Band, the talent on stage is dauntingly adept, the harmonies sublime and the effect oddly reverential. Their slow, confident delivery and its spell is broken only by Billy’s cry of ‘anyone got some acid? The best thing to do on a day like today is to take acid and have sex.’

Words taken to heart by the next act, the survivor many never thought they’d see, the forefather of psychedelic rock, the legendary and leonine Roky Erickson. As his six-piece band dive into a take on Bo Diddley, Erickson is ushered on stage where he stands awkwardly with a guitar before being given a plectrum. It’s a sad and conflicting sight, he occasionally hacking inaudibly at the guitar and looking to guitarist for a reminder of what they’re playing and what to play. However, as soon as he opens his mouth, his voice shatters any illusion of frailty. It’s a strangely howling rasp and a mighty instrument. His solo song Night of the Vampire, Bleib Alien’s Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer) as well as his 13th Floor Elevators Classic You’re Gonna Miss Me all provoke wild adoration from the first few rows.

Roots Manuva is a wildcard here, which doesn’t stop his beats from seeming ageless, his band tight and from generating one of the best sounds of the festival. Though punters leaving to stand in queues at the food courts ignore a lot of his set, Witness the Fitness earns several dozen boots as Roots moves into the Zion-loving sweet vibes of Heal Your Mind, which allows a nice bout of bass-assisted digestion.

Prime disappointment of the weekend goes almost unanimously to Urge Overkill who seem to have never ventured beyond whatever distortion pedal setting they stumbled on in 1993. Songs blend together, vocals are indistinct and the one saving grace of their set, the triumphant Sister Havana dies a linger death, with neither singer nor crowd able or willing to actually sing the hook. It’s a strange, vaguely depressing experience.

Thank the Lord then, for the pure soul and almighty power of Charles Bradley. With a backing band that look like the contents of a Northcote cafĂ© on a Sunday afternoon, the sexagenarian owns Golden Plains from the moment he stands beneath the small chandelier that crowns his show. With a face that seems perpetually on the verge of ecstasy or crying, it’s impossible to look away as he throws James Brown move after some hilariously goofy dance break, the band perfect and freeing him to go where he will, an unmitigated highlight and revelation.

Chic somehow manage to follow this slice of brilliance with a setlist that can’t be topped and a one-man promotion machine in the form of Nile Rogers. Opening with a sparkling Everybody Dance, Dance Dance Dance and I Want Your Love the set shifts from stone cold disco classics to whatever Rogers feels like reminding everyone he wrote/produced. Moments like Let’s Dance sung by drummer Ralph Rolle are almost overshadowed by the sheer exuberance of the crowd’s response which culminates in a minor stage invasion and Nile Rogers uttering the words ‘we’ve got fucking gnomes on stage!

As the final night winds in, Naysayer and Gilsun decide that if minds haven’t been sufficiently blown by seeing Nile Rogers sing INXS, then blasting us with a cultural filter that is, like most of the festival’s acts, set to ‘nostalgic’, then sampling without regard for genre should do it. Scenes from Pump Up The Volume, The Slap, Garden State and Lost in Translation are accompanied by punters squealing in recognition, and a hefty dose of hip hop, drum and bass, and icy laptop rock. It’s a brilliant way to pull together the disparate experiences spiralling amidst these performances.

Canyons may not be breaking new ground in their vast synthscapes and cruising BPMs, but it’s certainly no bad thing. The French new wave feel to the melodies and the disco-rhythms win over most of a by-now very vulnerable crowd who like the simply assembled and smartly dispatched tunes (despite a few wayward shifts in rhythm). Sometimes straying into a percussion lead Pigbag-ish party vibe, Canyons seem more concerned with mood than getting to a point, which, at 3AM, is just fine.    

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