Almost everyone I talked to in the lead up to the 29th Meredith was feeling lukewarm about the line-up. The annual music festival’s mythical caretaker, Aunty Meredith, had seemingly circumvented the “no dickheads” policy and booked Liam Gallagher to headline. People were flogging tickets (bought for $400) last-minute for as little as $150.
But what at the outset appeared to be the least hyped Meredith in years turned out to be – to awkwardly use a rap colloquialism – the most hype festival in memory. Hip-hop and rap dominated the festival more than it has in the eight years I’ve been heading to the Supernatural Amphitheatre.
The first embers of Friday were lit at a smoking ceremony and Welcome to Country by Wadawurrung elders, the traditional custodians of the land. And soon the fire was roaring when Australian-Fijian rapper Jesswar hit the stage, replacing the festival’s usual punk opening set in genre but not in raw energy. Stalking the stage in a yellow puffer vest, the Brisbane-based artist laid down brutal diss raps, like this doozy slamming Iggy Azalea:
“RIP Biggie / I’ll dig a hole for Iggy / Vanilla Ice and Iggy should get married and sell bindis in Mullumbimby.”
A set by Briggs – one of the shining intellectuals of the Australian rap and hip-hop scene – may have been a massive party, but the lyrics from his A.B. Original track January 26 (“Wave it, wave it, change it / Wave it, wave it, eat the flag”) were a stark reminder of the work that still needs to be done in this country to address the wrongs committed against its First Nations people.
On Saturday night, the iconic straight-edge NYC-raised political rap group Dead Prez (who replaced South African rapper Sho Madjozi) introduced the crowd to their 20-year-plus career with rap sermons on the benefits of clean living. (“All my cyclists, my skateboarders, my climbers, anyone living an active life. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this fit-hop life. But we’re about to turn Meredith into a gym.”) In one track they rapped about the value in difference, and the lessons they’ve learned from studying religions such as Christianity, Buddhism and Rastafarianism.
It’s at times like this – when an artist creates a bridge between the stage and the crowd – that Meredith really comes alive. And for the international artists who play the festival, it can make or break their set if they fail to reach out to the crowd in a meaningful way – a situation that affected two of the festival’s biggest headline acts.
Róisín Murphy’s Saturday night set may have involved endless costume changes and a silver alien puppet, but she failed to acknowledge the crowd much beyond the first couple of rows. And despite it being part of his schtick, former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher’s curmudgeonly performance, resentfully singing through beloved Oasis hits such as Wonderwall, felt at odds with the generous ethos of the festival. Yes, it must be frustrating to have the crowd desperate to hear your old material when you have a super-tight band and some great new tracks – but he should take a page out of Neil Finn’s book (who graciously sang through Don’t Dream It’s Over and other hits without complaint at Golden Plains 2017) and take pleasure in the joy his songs have brought to so many people.
Despite this, there were many standout sets worthy of the boot (a tradition at both Golden Plains and Meredith where punters take off a shoe and hold it in the air during the best performance or track) at this un-hyped Meredith, from the raging electro-absurdity of Vanessa Worm screaming everyone to bed on Friday night, to Viagra Boy’s brass, synthesiser and bongo-fuelled punk send-up of hyper masculinity.
But the ultimate moment of unification came at the end of DJ Koze’s set. The German DJ (a last-minute replacement for London jazz collective Steam Down) had just run through a flawless set of big percussive house music, Brazilian drums and descending Arabic arpeggios. When the sound of a ringing phone played – the beginning of Koze’s remix of Liverpool singer Lapsley’s track Operator (He Doesn't Call Me) – a woman on someone’s shoulders at the front of the stage started waving an old telephone receiver around her head. The crowd began to lose it.
And then, despite having played it hundreds of times before, Koze played his anthem Pick Up, and hundreds of people leapt into the air, boots held high. This is the magic of Meredith.