Having never been to a Splendour but having been to a great number of other festivals up and down the eastern seaboard, I can say I went in with a particular set of expectations and was delighted to have many of those absolutely smashed by my Splendour in the Grass experience.
The venue itself is huge and surprisingly well laid out and the flow of the nearly 30,000 punters was so smooth that I could have been forgiven thinking the numbers were less. Except for when we saw any of the amazing acts, then it became abundantly clear that the festival was at capacity with thousands of very happy festival goers rocking out at any given stage.
This year’s line up offered a great variety, so much so that there really were three distinct precincts within the site that allowed people to hang around stages that floated their genre boats.
The Timber and Steel friendly acts were evenly spread across the three main days and over two of the main three stages, so lets take a look at the folkier side of Splendour in the Grass.
Photo by Justin Ma.
The first act we caught was The Head and The Heart who delivered a really tight set and hearty performance for what was a modest crowd. “Ghosts” showed off their great harmonies in the live setting and the audience was treated to loads of favourites throughout their set list. They were a solid start to the festival and I feel like loads of people missed out by not catching them. They don’t often get to come to Australia so they profusely thanked the crowd for coming to watch to much cheering and applause from said crowd. They tried out a new song with a bouncy tempo and happy vibe which was all very well received. “Sound Like Hallelujah” created a chilled vibe but with an immensely satisfying full sound. “Lost In My Mind” drew a rousing cheer from audience as it begun and took over the space with great drum build up before the crowd took over with a sing-along. The last song was an emphatic rendition of “Rivers and Roads” complete with epic drums thumping before stripping back to a delicate a Capella ending. And tumultuous applause.
We checked out Asgier, who has cropped up on the scene while I was away, but who commanded a huge and somewhat vocal crowd, all comfortably held in the palm of his hand. They sang along in crystal clarity. They swayed, sang, cheered and danced through a beautifully balanced set of both chilled tracks and up tempo songs. His popularity is clear as a really responsive crowd eagerly anticipated every song, with cheers of recognition in each of the opening bars and a seemingly constant surge forward of people to join the throng. “Going Home” delivered a beautiful mix of earthy drums, clear cut piano and haunting vocals undercut by subtle harmonies. The entire tent would clap along at poignant points of a slow song before the whole vibe would morph through the build up to a huge all encompassing piano and drums sound sphere. And to top it off, he pulled out a stunning cover of “Heart Shaped Box”, wow, just wow! His manipulation of piano and chillingly delicate treatment of vocals had everyone hanging on every lyric and every note. Definitely worth seeing any time you can.
We’ve all been hotly anticipating the return of Angus and Julia Stone and they did not disappoint. Starting with some of their new stuff, their set came wrapped in schmick presentation with a tight and polished sound with an obvious comfort on stage, oozing cool. Their new music is a few more steps away from the folky sound they originally brought to the scene and accomplishes a more indie vibe. While the crowd lapped up the new materials, it’s the old favourites so many know and love that really stirred the crowd with mega sing-along to “For You” melding beautifully with the song’s acoustic style. Julia seems really strong and playful in her style rather than the breathy, demure self we’ve known, which was a lovely counterpoint to previous performances. As an alternate opening and sound for “Big Jet Plane” dawned on the crowd, it was clear that their Hottest 100 winning track will always be a staple, crowd favourite that they are so comfortable playing and can completely turn on its head for both our and their pleasure. Their playfulness with their back catalogue was evident and jovial, with “Private Lawns” amping up the reggae vibe and syncopation. Julia pulled out a brilliant performance of “You’re The One That I Want” capturing the audience’s imagination with it’s fragility, building in to a full band resonance that proves they really own it as their own track now, it is no longer a cover. And if that wasn’t enough, they proved without a doubt that “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”! A rousing set and a great way to welcome Angus and Julia Stone back in to the festival rounds.
One of the great things about Splendour in the Grass is the sheer space available to absorb the almost 30,000 punters that flock to Byron Bay in search of great music and a good time. Aside from the 3 main stages, there’s a multitude of smaller spaces where all manner of performances take place, from the exciting extravagance of the colourful Dr Sketchy’s Burlesque Life Drawing, to the ukulele classes, to the buskers stage and its revolving selection of grunge, blues, roots, rock and alt bands, even dancing to the wee hours of the morning at the Tipi Forest full of dance DJs and electronica.
Probably my favourite small (and surprising) space was the Amish Barn. In 2013, artist Bennet Miller ran a live installation called Barnraiser, where volunteers dressed as Amish people to raise a Barn. I kid you not. And this year, since the barn is complete, they opened it to the Splendour patrons for Rumspringer. Walk in to the barn at any point in the day and not only were you surrounded by Amish folk relaxing and enjoying the weather, but you could buy a drink from the bar and catch snippets of their pop-up bands playing folk in a ‘session’ style, or playing heavy rock like they were in their Barn’s garage band.
The sheer diversity of Splendour makes it an amazing experience. I hope to see the Amish again soon.
I haven’t seen anything of Darren Middleton’s new solo offerings, but as a Powderfinger fan, I was keen to see what he was serving up. As a duo with a stripped back setting on an enormous stage, their acoustic opening of guitar accompanied by violin and stomp pedal surrounded the small crowd with beautiful two part harmonies. Middleton is a humble performer, thanking the audience for coming to see him as he has played Splendour approximately 10 times in different acts, which must be some kind of record, and this time he plays it with his musical off-sider, Kelly. Picking through a back catalogue of numerous bands meant that the set was diverse and varied but sewn together with clever harmonies and a pristine acoustic style. His tracks from recent solo album, “Transition”, demonstrated the intimacy of close harmonies, plucky violin, upbeat acoustic guitar and stomp pedal in a big stage setting. While touring, they have taken to playing a cover, a track Middleton never thought he would play again, “Falling Slowly” from the movie musical Once which drew a hush over the crowd and the occasional quiet lyrics sung along by individuals in the crowd. Middleton is currently touring with Busby Marou, and with such a solid set from Middleton, the tour will be a strong 1-2 combination definitely worth catching.
Little May was new to me and they struck me as a sort of a combination of Lisa Mitchell, Gosling and Julia Stone all wrapped up in an indie pop 5 piece. They delivered great sound and a solid stage presence with a range of tracks including a rockier number with fabulous femme vocal harmonies.
Dustin Tebbutt drew a huge crowd in anticipation of his set. Opening with an ethereal quality and acoustic guitar built over top, he looked comfortable surrounded by his band creating a sensational blanket of music and melding sound. They make a cohesive group working together to scale the emotive heights of his body of work through the sweet ballads to the poignant numbers and his flawless falsetto. Tebbutt has the makings of a true balladeer. 12 months ago he was in Armidale planning to come to Splendour, and just starting to put out music. Sadly he wasn’t able to make it to Splendour that year but a friend reassured him not to worry, as next year he’d be playing Splendour. And there he was. The crowd loved it.
Tune Yards were a wild card on our list and if folkies wanted to go clubbing, this is what they’d see. Layered sounds and folky instruments looped to create danceable tracks and quirky grooves creating a somewhat “tribal tea party” soundtrack. They slip through genres, even the rnb and hip hop styles, with confidence and flair. In a nutshell, they are weird and quirky folktronica!
Vance Joy has the potential to be a one hit wonder or a rising star and attracted a huge crowd to prove it. The audience were animated and engaged throughout, a sure sign of good things to come. With a full band behind him, new tracks like “Georgia” soared as a ballad with beautiful accompaniment, a troubled love song. His set was full of sing-a-long’s with the audience including “Snaggletooth” and “From Afar” proving popular. Special guests from Sasquatch created a hullabaloo on stage with a full, robust sound, tangy horn section, altogether a bit like a hoe down vibe a la Mumford and Sons. New songs and old songs, everything was eagerly devoured by the devoted audience. Huge cheers and clapping along carried him on high throughout his set, and then, out came the ukelele to a huge roar from the crowd who sang along, word for word. He wrapped up the set with a cover of “Stand by me” to an enthusiastic crowd. Definitely a star rising performance.
This year was the first year the site featured the enormous amphitheater, and while punters complained about the huge hill to scale, the reward of that stage was worth all the huffing and puffing to get there. We realised that the amphitheater was large enough to contain the entire main stages area of The Falls Festival, Lorne and the absolute scale of the space really hit home. While the Timber and Steel friendly acts were predominantly on the GW McLennan stage, the entire festival benefits from the innovations and expansion of the site.
Nick Mulvey. Photo by Splendour Official
Nick Mulvey is someone I was told to keep an eye out for. An expectant audience gathered early with eager fans right up at the barrier claiming their spot. A small but dedicated crowd cheered him as he walked on stage. He opened with amazing classical guitar work, reminiscent of flamenco, and a really sweet voice with a low level resonance. As a soloist, his guitar style and confident voice really filled the space. The audience had tripled in size halfway through the first song, with a steady stream of people still coming in. Transitioning to a more bluesy, plucking style effortlessly for his next song showed off his diverse range and skill. He creates a really amazing presence through one instrument with really cool syncopation for emphasis and effect. With the crowd swaying along fluidly and the playful lyrics beckoning, I think every girl there wanted to do as his lyrics asked, and maybe some of the guys too… As his first trip as a solo artist to Australia and he could see a few people singing along and it’s obvious he is genuinely flattered by the audience appreciation which is evident throughout the set. Mulvey will be a force to be reckoned with on the scene. Watch this space!
Mikhail Paskalev is a Norwegian/ Bulgarian pop troubador by all accounts, and has a real mix of styles and variety of songs in his back catalogue which had the crowd pumping. He gave a very chilled out and mellow set with a woven sound of thrumming bass and vocal harmonies. Certainly a multifaceted act to look further in to.
I had heard of First Aid Kit, but hadn’t caught up with any of their music until Splendour. Their clear, crisp vocals attracted a decent sized crowd, complete with sparklers and incense. They have a beautiful on stage energy and presence and a light, airy delightful sound with an indie pop beat keeping it all trundling along. With a cover of Paul Simon and the occasional Carpenters-esque sound, their set was rounded out with a tinkly, delightful, angelic melding of voices and harmonies, even for their upbeat tracks.
Ben Howard. Photo by Splendour Official
Rarely have I ever seen a folky act that the crowd chants their name to get them to come on stage, but it worked and Ben Howard presented himself, centre stage with steel string guitar and a cheeky “G’day Splendour!” He instantly had the crowd beside themselves. His set was peppered with a bit of everything, something a little poppy, something a little indie, something bordering on a Placebo track, and a great blend of indie pop layers and strings. A plucky rendition of “Black Flies” had the crowd going mid way through the set. I felt like sometimes his music and performance was moody introversion on public display but then a quick switch would see the entire set move in direction. The upbeat, twangy riffs of “The Wolves” had the crowd cheering and clapping, singing along, rallying the entire tent and surrounds to an almost frenzied state of hoe down style dance. Truly a highlight of Splendour.
All in all, if I could have cloned myself, I could have had 3 or 4 entirely different Splendour experiences – from the Splendour in the Craft tent and it’s Craft singles speed dating event, to the comedy and forum stage, to the crazy fashions punters strut in, the art installations and amazing range of bars with their own DJs and themes, or spending a fortune at the amazing array of stalls selling handmade and bespoke coolness in all it’s forms – each experience would have been just as amazing (plus I could have seen far more of the amazing musical line up). But in a nutshell, I think the 2014 Splendour in the Grass is quite possibly the best festival I have been too. Do anything you can to get to the next one, it’s truly Splendid!
Photo by Lachlan Johnstone