Bowled again …
The Big Day Out
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Brisbane is in the middle of its wettest summer in more than ten years. The rain started well before Christmas and there have barely been three days of straight sunshine since. Other cities further south swelter in the high thirties while in Brisbane it's hardly touched 30, and here we are well into 2008 with no break from the rain in sight. I am thinking of reasons why I want to go to the Big Day Out this year, and knowing that I'm not going to be baked in a caged field behind the Gold Coast is one. This year's band line-up is another, with Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Björk, Augie March and Spoon catching the eye. And then there's the feeling that I simply should - that leaving my family and suburban life for a day to take in a live-music experience with 53,000 people younger than myself just may be a good thing to do. I need to get out more.
This is my third brush with the Big Day Out, Australia's longest running (it began in 1992) and most successful rock festival. In 1994 I played the Gold Coast leg with my Brisbane band of the time. In 2001 The Go-Betweens did all the capital-city dates of the tour. Highlights were the Adelaide and Melbourne shows, and a cricket game in Perth between us, Powderfinger and Coldplay. It was held in a park beside the hotel. Fellow Go-Between Grant McLennan and I batted together for a few overs in this distinctly competitive but very friendly tippety-run match. I was bowled by a very good inswinger from the drummer from Coldplay. While we were batting came the frequent call from behind the stumps, "Come on! We've got to get these Go-Betweens out!" The wicket-keeper was Bernard Fanning. These are treasured memories.
I enter to Enter Shikari. They are from England, they are on the Converse Essential Stage and they are playing a ska-driven form of dark metal. Half the crowd is giving them the splayed-finger devil sign while the other half laughs. They are awful and it's 2.30 in the afternoon. Next up is Spoon. They are on the Green Stage, where in an hour and a half I will see Augie March. Spoon come from Texas with a big reputation. I have heard the odd track of theirs but no albums. Perhaps the 40-minute festival set-list doesn't suit them, or not today at least. They zigzag from a splintered kind of dubby rock to a euro-disco track to some Big Star guitar pop, and it doesn't all fit. They have some good songs and some good bits of songs, but the singer-songwriter seems like he couldn't be arsed and the awkward jamming of styles never builds to a coherent strategy for trying to win an audience over. I leave after 30 minutes.
Lack of enthusiasm is not a problem for Yves Klein Blue. They are a bunch of 19- and 20-year-olds from Brisbane who are grabbing the chance of playing the Big Day Out by the neck. It's pop with fierce rhythms - and they have songs. Being of tender age they tend to swerve madly between styles, and not all of it comes off. Energy and a cool belief get them through, though. There is a ring of young ladies in the front row staring at the handsome lead singer; the drummer is in a poncho. Up here on the hill at the Local Produce stage, watching them with the 300 indie kids that have braved the day, a positive of the festival emerges. The different tents and areas cut off the different musical and stylistic subcultures, giving you a taste of a world within walking distance of another world. How different these cultures are becomes apparent the moment I step into the Boiler Room. Jesus! It's a dance party. Here are 10,000 beautiful people with very little clothing on. On stage are Pnau and the moment someone walks on to join them dressed as a strawberry (I'm not making this up), the whole place goes fucking nuts. It's a throbbing, ecstatic mass of people listening to throbbing, ecstatic music. I stand there amid the crowd and experience the one moment of pure exhilaration I will feel all day. The sound is a rush that works on climbing levels to a juddering plateau which I can only describe as the musical equivalent of permanent orgasm; and then it suddenly drops, to start the build all over again.
I want Augie March to be brilliant. They start with a ballad, then peel off three magnificent songs from their last album, Moo, You Bloody Choir, and something's wrong. The bass is taking up at least half the sound, in its wake crushing singer-songwriter Glenn Richards' voice back in the mix. Dynamics are lost and great songs don't shine as they should, forcing Richards to complain of the loud whooshing bass sound he is hearing on stage. It is a tragedy - and bewildering given that Spoon, who played before them, had a crystal-clear mix coming through the speakers. The case could be made for Oz-rock heavy-handedness on the sound desk, as the bass drum is too loud and the whole kit sounds rough and clunky. What gets lost is the voice of potentially the best rock singer in Australia, who has with him a swooning batch of songs that need light and space. Watching them, you yearn for an acoustic guitar in someone's hands, an upright bass maybe, and a touch more old-style rock piano. But all of this could just be the sound problems of one day, and the full-electric approach they have might work perfectly on another day.
The minute Arcade Fire walk on stage, it starts to rain. Their fans would see this as some form of mystical collusion between the gods and the music their favourite band plays. I am caught too far back when they start and spend the rest of the time they are on stage trying to rectify this disadvantage. The sound this Canadian ten-piece is making is simply not hitting me in the chest and watching from a distance of 80 metres, with the band members throwing themselves at their instruments, makes their performance look like bad pantomime. I have to get closer. I use my backstage pass and suddenly I am on stage with them. Actually, I'm at the side of the stage and while I can now see them very clearly, the sound is bad. So I venture out again and watch from a fenced area to the side, and still there is not enough connection to the band. Finally, I jump a fence and join a section of non-drinking audience members in front of the stage and then the band is framed, the sound is right, but unfortunately they are on their second-last number. What are they like? It's tough to tell. I know and enjoy their two albums, Funeral and Neon Bible, and they perform all the best songs from them. It comes down to how you take the almost-exaggerated zeal with which they play. I'm left feeling less impressed than I thought I'd be, and yet remain a believer.
Daniel Johns from Silverchair has jammed his guitar up against his amp stack and it's feeding back. He turns to his foot switches and the sound squeals. It's a big rock 'n' roll ending to their set and in its way a perfect introduction to Björk, who arrives on the adjacent stage with the intention of subverting, or just gleefully dancing around, some rock 'n' roll clichés. She is great tonight. I've had Björk in the too-silly category for a while. The large brass section marching on at the start of the performance is expected; the boffins on keyboards and laptop computers are expected; the costumes and face paint she and the brass players have on is expected too. The surprise (and it shouldn't be) is the serious artist in the middle of all this. Björk is the one performer I see today who kicks away the props, the noise and the standard theatrics, holds a whole stage and says, Here I am, this is me, and I'll take the whole thing on with my brain and my talent. The songs are slowish, with a very cunning mix of electronic beats and melody rubbing up against the old-school feel of the brass section. Reigning atop the band is her voice, stacks of reverb on it, and her delivery is sensitive and precise. She is impressive. She dances and twirls and sings lyrics like, "I will go hunting," or, "How very Scandinavian of me," and it's not tricky or gimmicky but real on a day with much posturing and blasting.
The man who is organising the transport to and from the Big Day Out uses the word ‘fuck' at least once in every sentence. He tells me, "This place is a fuckin' nightmare if you leave too late. It will take you two fuckin' hours just to get out of here," as he points down the road. He's a jovial person and I believe him. So I decide to leave now, instead of staying to the bitter end. It means I miss headliners Rage Against the Machine, who I didn't want to see anyway, and LCD Soundsystem, who I did want to see. They are playing in the Boiler Room and, remembering what it was like at four in the afternoon, I can only wonder what scenes are going down there five hours later. Also, the tent is in something of a gully, and with the amount of people there it would be very difficult to see the stage. It's the one regret of the day, but - with 53,000 people under very dark clouds - I get on the bus and go.
Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.