It was a really dumb idea to schedule Four Tet at 5.20pm on Sunday afternoon at Golden Plains. So the argument went on the drive through regional Victoria towards Meredith. The UK producer was surely a better lock for late-night party hour.
But think of a festival’s elements as static scenes in a zoetrope. Assembled from weather, line-up, infrastructure, the availability of talent, crowd goodwill, the particulars of performance and playing times, it’s not until the thing starts to spin that anyone discovers what might perfectly synch.
In the late afternoon, as a packed, sun-dappled tessellation of arms, heads and hands swayed under the spell of Kieran Hebden hovering over his tangled table of electronics, the producer seemed to be mixing nothing less than nature – not just simply stitching together gorgeous, thrumming beats, but crossfading the blotched post-storm clouds around the sun, commanding the frequency of the breeze to prod the lanterns above us, and panning the odd puff of smoke across the scene on the perfect angle to bloom with light. So in tune was his set, his rig may as well have had a preset marked “collective unconscious”.
As the languorous santoor strokes of Two Thousand and Seventeen from that same year’s New Energy LP trilled through the air, the Golden Plains zoetrope swung into pure, euphoric focus. Coming after the wonderful beat-heavy sets of Amp Fiddler and SK Simeon, and right before the guitar grooves of Khruangbin, Sunday afternoon was that zoetrope at its perfectly humming peak. Thirteen years in, Golden Plains might know what it's doing after all.
I assembled my ancient hunched tent at 8am and had the very same thought I have this time every year: I need a new tent. A broken nap and hours later, I thought the opening combo of Oakland, CA, retro-garage band Shannon and the Clams, and the “psychedelic pagan soul god shit“ of Ascot Vale’s Raw Humps (whose resplendent theatrical flags and geisha-like outfits were more interesting than their music) was a wonky beginning to the festival. London MC Flohio flipped that with a hard set of moody, trap-laced rap that had her and her DJ charging across the stage spilling the kind of charisma lacking until that point. The crowd let her know it. “This is what they mean when they say Australia is great,” she shouted back.
Artists hitting some sort of cultural stride are always fun to watch here – last year it was King Krule and Jen Cloher. This year it was Marlon Williams. As the early evening sky turned turquoise, the New Zealander and his crack band draped a set of luxury alt-country over the amphitheatre. But all that is a backdrop for Williams’s voice – a sonorous, effortless thing in the lineage of Roy Orbison or Chris Isaak that seemed to make knees en masse.
Slinky Dark Child was a highlight with its unhinged guitar ending, also the jerky Party Boy and Vampire Again, which had the lanky Williams mincing across the stage. A set-closing cover of Screamin’ Jay Hakwins’ Portrait of a Man and he was arching on the risers down front, stretching his buttery vocals to the hilt. It almost brought the house down. With one hand holding a cold Pink Flamingo, I clapped my thigh in silent but socially acceptable appreciation.
Magic Dirt last played the amphitheatre 15 years ago. Since then, founding bass player Dean Turner passed away from cancer, the band broke up and singer Adalita Srsen embarked on a pretty great solo career. So the return of the hometown heroes from nearby Geelong was always going to be emotional. “We’ve done a lot of gigs since Dean but this is the first one that makes me feel like bawling my eyes out,” said Srsen. That sentiment was channeled into a furiously powerful set of ragged rock spanning a career that never did flag. With mate Steve Patrick on bass, ’90s staples Ice and Supertear felt supercharged, Pace It and colossal set closer I Was Cruel heavy and vital. There’s always an air of nostalgia to a beloved band’s return, but a unit as timeless as Magic Dirt can easily be celebrated in the present. “We fuckin’ love you,” gushed Srsen on rapturous exit. “Fuck shit up man, fuck shit up.”
Due to an unforseen personal administration error, I missed Beach House. Caught their last song. Stupid. This disappointed me greatly as it sounded like a booming rush of romantic goth-pop, the band cloaked in smoke and visible only in silhouette. Rumour has it they brought in their own additional light and onstage sound system. Bold.
Japanese psych-lords Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso UFO played a confounding set of extreme psychedelia that swung between childlike sing-song melodies, sheets of feedback, oscillating white noise, and a hectic drum solo for kicks. With the grey-haired Higashi Hiroshi centre stage looking like a synth-wielding Gandalf, the band rarely settled on something like a song, instead pushing the limits of what one could be. A heavy statement for 10.30pm, but another reason why we keep coming here.
Hot take: The Internet are a terribly boring live band. The LA group smudge the lines between hip-hop, R’n’B, soul and pop, and while that blend might work on headphones, in person the band are anemic. Strangely uncharismatic lead singer Syd’s voice is barely a whisper. It sounded like she was singing over a backing track, and the lifeless group offered no help. At midnight on Saturday it was a joyless, undanceable downer.
But from there things got rosy. When the first Golden Plains went down in 2007, a static ring of lights hung through the trees with some coloured lamps dotted throughout. Now it’s a high-tech marvel, with coloured running rings of LEDs, towers of turning disco lights and pulsing lamps giving the amphitheatre the feel of a disco about to launch into space. All the late-night acts need do is fall in step, but Saturday night was a mixed bag: Melbourne disco big-band Honey returned fun to the menu with members boogieing in billowing tie-dye; local Horatio Luna dialled it back down with jazzy live electronica that felt too interior for the timeslot; and then Chicago producer Hieroglyphic Being pulled an hour and a half long set of house music that had the dancefloor heaving til close. After a pre-dawn “feast plate” from the Hare Krishna tent, I headed off to sleep tapping my foot and dreaming of my colleague Nick Buckley writing about Sunday.
By Marcus Teague
For the first time in my nine trips, the Supernatural Amphitheatre-wide “No Dickhead” policy was almost fully realised. There was not a single unwanted shove or spilled beer in the crowd to tarnish the admirable goal – bar one exception from Broadsheet’s photographer, who thought 4.30am was the right Time for the Percolator. Matt, there’s no need for a percolator when your campsite has an espresso machine and NutriBullet hooked up to a boat battery to frappé Espresso Martinis when the sun is actually up.
Well, the sun was sort of up. Brisbane artist Hatchie had just finished a ripping set of shoegaze-y power-pop when the announcement was made:
“Very heavy wind and rain is coming. Now is a good time to secure your campsite.”
Gazebos were lowered and a web of guy ropes attached to trees in the Blue Gums camping area continued to clothesline the inebriated. And Liz Phair’s set – which would have been a perfect follow-up to Hatchie – was abandoned by all but the most dedicated fans. But the storm was nothing a Cosmic Cowboy campsite party (playlist above) and spicy Palomas couldn’t fix.
The weather also couldn’t dampen the inspired sun-up party-programming, which included jubilant reggae and dancehall from SK Simeon, and 60-year-old Detroit funk musician Amp Fiddler who disguised a receding hairline with a killer corn-row-and-Mohawk combo. Rather than sticking to his classic funk and soul, Fiddler jammed out on a keyboard and crooned over booming house tracks like Gregory Porter’s 1960 What?.
All of this was the lead into what was, for many, the festival-best set from English electronic musician Four Tet. With a wildly varied discography from trip-hop to club burners to freeform psychedelic noodling, many thought he’d lean towards the latter given his afternoon billing. But the esoteric artist delivered a big, crowd-pleasing set, remarkable for the fact that it had so many iconic productions – from a bass-heavy remix of Angel Echoes to new single Only Human. One reveller even had a religious experience dropping to her knees and praying to the clouds (“Show me! We can make it sunny!”) as her hands trembled uncontrollably and ecstatic sweat beaded on her forehead.
Unpopular opinions to follow: To the complete disbelief of everyone I spoke to, I had fun at Happy Mondays. Singer Shaun Ryder delivered a steady stream of Mancunian sarcasm (“I hope the band remembers this song, it’s 38-years old”) and appeared completely aware of the ridiculousness of holding a walking stick while singing Madchester anthems written in the late ’80s during the ecstasy-addled Second Summer of Love. Waving around an upside-down Australian flag was tone-deaf, and repeatedly thanking Sydney suggests senility is setting in for the incorrigible band of reprobates. But at least they were having fun.
Which is more than can be said for a moping Jesus and Mary Chain and the comically unperturbed drummer of Khruangbin – the melting-pot band whose vanilla-psychedelia was, for the rest of Golden Plains, a big hit. The band draws on influences from Middle Eastern music to Thai surf-rock, but it rarely amounted to more than the sum of its parts. And in the worst instance, on the song People Everywhere (Still Alive), it would be fair to suggest that drawing influence had crossed over into full-on cultural appropriation – the band should be sending the estate of Nigerian musician William Onyeabor royalties for that one. But in a counterpoint to that argument, dropping a few bars of Apache – a song that was written in the ’60s, covered in the ’70s and sampled in the ’80s to create the most iconic drum break in hip-hop – was a reminder that the line dividing creative license and appropriation remains blurry.
Playing in Sunday’s peak time slot, Confidence Man had about as much depth as the cardboard cut-outs that stood in for vocalists Planet and Bones at the beginning of the set before the actual singers bounded on stage. Light-up shoulder pads and conical bras might have more wow factor than a pair of maracas, but Planet and Bones are only a few decades of youthful vigour removed from Happy Mondays’s 54-year-old hype man Bez. It was fun and cynical pop – the band freely admits to starting the project as a joke – that served its feet-moving purpose but ultimately felt hollow.
But Confidence Man’s set did limber up the crowd for the next seven hours of back-to-back burners from a stellar line-up of DJs. New York DJ Danny Krivit has had a storied career playing through the disco ’70s, hip-hop ’80s and into the ’90s, when he became an early proponent of house music – his mastery of which was on full display during his midnight set of house and disco.
Balearic icon DJ Harvey played darker than expected, periodically opening up his flawless set with triumphant disco. It could have been so easy to give either Harvey or Krivit the turntables until sunrise. But in a typical example of Aunty’s generosity, the weekend’s final set was put in the hands of Melbourne DJs Millú and Pjenné, who have been building a solid following over the last few years in Melbourne’s underground nightclubs and releasing mixes at online stations such as Skylab Radio. Backed by wild visuals that featured digital Tron grids, hovering carnival masks and floating acrobats, the pair played a mercurial set of trance-y techno and break beats that culminated in Bryan Ferry’s classic Don’t Stop the Dance which – if, like me, you had succumbed to tired feet and were listening from your tent – was a reminder to never ever go to bed before the last track. Serious regret.
By Nick Buckley