As Hot Chip detonated the amphitheatre on the second night of Golden Plains in 2020, our friend appeared from the crowd glued in around us carrying eight Pink Flamingos, the signature vodka and grapefruit soda drink of the festival. I remember seeing his fingers dipped deep into the pink liquid while clasping the flimsy plastic cups, and I thought: "Well, that’s probably never going to happen again".

On the drive home the next day we recharged our phones to load headlines confirming coronavirus was getting serious. Four days later, rumours of a festival-attendee testing positive were confirmed, that same day Golden Plains’ co-headliners the Pixies cancelled the remainder of their Australian tour. Then 10 days later Melbourne entered what would become 262 accumulated days of lockdown.

Golden Plains was shuttered for two years, along with so many Victorians’ lives, jobs, social circles, relationships, families, bands, mental health and [gestures at everything]. For those counting, the events of the Labour Day weekend in March 2020, became the last time anyone could remember “before”.

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So to trundle through the gates of Golden Plains early on a blue-sky morning three years later felt both disarmingly normal and connected to some kind of deep emotional thawing. A pre-trauma deja vu of Andrew’s grubby fingers in the drinks, our elation at him finding us in the throng, and none of our lives being the same since.

Four Tet made me forget about it all this year. So did Overmono, Delivery, Mdou Moctar, 1300, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, I suppose definitely Carly Rae Jepsen, and all the rest – the trees, the couches, the crystalline weather, the fucking inane doof sticks. (Text on my phone: “The light on the purple dildo has gone out. Find us near the fries. Also kinda near the slippery when wet sign.”) What a sight. What release. What fun, again.

Phew.

Saturday
Maybe it was just the first year back for a while or a heartening sign of the times, but the attendance at Saturday’s opening smoking ceremony and Welcome to Country seemed the largest yet. In between came the official opening of the festival, in which co-founder Chris Nolan, who has been largely immobile and in a wheelchair since being struck with disease in 1996 but, as MC Sarah Smith told the crowd, “very much able to hear, think and communicate,” officially punched our ticket with his customary long blink and beaming smile.

Golden Plains regularly kicks off with a four-to-the-floor punk band – this year Rye’s own Stiff Richards took the mantle and ran with it, if not setting themselves apart. Following dramatic afternoon interludes from Mo’ju and Armand Hammer, psychedelic Tuareg guitar god Mdou Moctar and his backing trio flamed through a giddy set of chorus-drenched, finger-tapping solos and dizzying time signatures, elevating a sizzling afternoon crowd into a steamy, trance-like jiggle-fest.


Mdou Moctar

With the sun finally sinking through the trees, Angel Olsen let rip on a perfectly timed set of soaring ballads and dusky Americana, culminating in a singalong cover of Harry Nilsson’s Without You. “How great was that?” said Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna as her own fearsome voice prepped to shred any embers of longing left lingering on stage. “I was gonna cry my makeup off.” With Tropical Fuck Storm’s Lauren Hammel still filling in for unwell drummer Tobi Vail, the original riot grrrl quartet sounded a mite tougher than when I saw them at Mona Foma a fortnight earlier, the introduction of Hammel’s thunder and obvious glee vibrating off the stage.

Following an actual icon was always going to be a tough sell, but Perth’s Methyl Ethel weren’t it, sounding directionless and strangely unmemorable for a plum pre-midnight spot. The lineup and programming at Golden Plains is built on genre-hopping and whiplash diversity, but every so often an act feels like they’ve breached the walls and interloped. Despite a busy crowd and radio tunes like Twilight Driving and Ubu landing late, reaction stayed muted. All it took for London-born vocalist Rochelle Jordan to reboot the party was belting out a set of sublime vocals over a DJ spinning jungle, soul, R'n'B and drum'n’bass tracks. I’d tell you what she looked like but by this time a forest of neon doof sticks obscured the stage, Jordan’s voice apparently emanating from a flashing umbrella strung with vines and fairy lights. I wondered if it had a ticket too.


Rochelle Jordan

I only saw 1300’s last three songs but it might’ve been the funnest 15 minutes of the festival. The five-piece Sydney-Korean rap crew were livewire standouts, tapping into that slim nerve between laconic amusement and hyped swag – a closing run of Cardio!, Rocksta and Woah Damn sounded like longtime mainstage hits rather than recent singles percolating out of western Sydney. See them asap.

UK duo Overmono took 1300s hectic energy, turned the lights off and ramped it up into the night with an intense, cathartic web of cinematic techno, breaks and bass music. As well as their own haunting singles Bby, So U Kno and the duo’s edit of Turn the Page by The Streets, a gorgeous, pinging remix of tragic-showstopper I Have A Love by Irish newcomer For Those I Love blasting out across the glittering 2am scene in full-blown rave mode was, for this doof stick, one of the highlights of the weekend.

Sunday
Hot tip: all you have to do to stay nourished across the entire weekend at Golden Plains is go to the Hare Krishna tent at regular intervals and say “feast plate”. That and drink water. Probably about it?


Storytelling with Uncle Barry Gilson

I started Sunday in my tent listening to Freya Josephine Hollick yip and holler her country folk, before the eerie soundscapes of E Fishpool rattle my poles. Once I made it upright, Barry James Gilson’s agonising story of his people the Wathaurun, who were virtually wiped out at the hands of colonial settlers in the area (Wadawurrung Country) save for a single bloodline, drew real tears from both the storyteller and those in attendance. It was hard not to sit on the lush grass overlooking the peaceful scene fringed by leaves, streamers and towering speaker stacks and not ruminate on how it didn’t just arrive for us – it was taken.

Melbourne’s Exek are a fantastically sinewy, hypnotic proposition live in a way they’ve never been – or try to be – on record. With excellent drummer Chris Stephensen in lock-step with bassist Ben Hepworth on Sunday morning, the pair provided a muscular bed for the anaesthetised post-punk outfit’s whirring synths, shrill guitars, and blank stare of frontman and lynchpin Albert Wolski, who wandered the stage spouting spoken word non sequiturs when not making maracas sound moody. Their druggy script was flipped by the frenetic, springy local five-piece Delivery, who somehow manage to wring thrilling fresh life out of tight garage punk. Their debut album Forever Giving Handshakes has only been out for four months, but Delivery already have an impressive warren of tight, wiry hooks, escalating arrangements and good vibes to make their 40 minutes fly by.

After a restorative massage, feast plate and watching volunteers changing a bin put tools down to grind to Trinidad Ghost’s Big Fish booming over the speakers, legendary pianist Brian Jackson regaled the crowd with songs and tales of buddy Gil Scott-Heron, during one of those feelgood funk and jazz-inflected sets that seem forever pinned to 4pm. Then came Japanese DJ and producer Soichi Terada, owner of sunshine melodies, the loudest kick drum of the weekend and an impressive adoration of a Kaoss synth pad. Terada turned the afternoon into an all-in day party. Dressed in a florid shirt, the DJ looked like a kids' aerobics instructor with waving hand signals and leaning, beaming smiles. An interpolation of I Was Made For Loving You by Kiss towards close left no doubt at the intention of his generosity.


Soichi Terada

It pains me to say something not awesome happened at a Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever show. With an 8pm post-sunset slot priming the moment for lift-off, everyone’s favourite melodic five-piece guitar heroes strode out and…could not be heard. From where I stood in the middle of the hill the mix was a mess: no vocals, no kick drum, a wash of guitars and a collapsing, thin sound at odds with the vigour being displayed on stage. The audience bellowing the chorus to Talking Straight showed all were onside, but the band seemed unaware of any issues out front – four full songs of average sonic quality whisked by before the group’s signature, runaway-train cohesion began coalescing. Finally, in the back half of Clean Slate it clicked, on into Cars in Space, an enormous Fountain of Good Fortune with Laura Jean on backing vocals, and classic closer French Press smashing it home. Cue roars. Through no fault of their own, a killer second half-set snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Organisers, please return them safe (and with maybe more than 45 minutes next time?).

Fearful of losing a good vantage point, I stayed put and watched Soul II Soul’s full clown car of performers grace the stage for a set of deep bass, club music and leader Jazzie B regularly reminding us of his band’s legacy and the mantra: “A happy face, a thumpin' bass, for a lovin' race". Closing tracks A Dream’s a Dream, Get A Life and Back to Life hit the spot, but felt more on point than off chops. A sharp detour into full-blown technicolour mode for Carly Rae Jepsen beckoned.


Carly Rae Jepsen

After a long pause for her techs to get the onstage risers and new lighting rig just right, the unlikely sight of the Canadian pop star bounding on the GP stage was undeniably odd. Opening with the arpeggiated thump of Surrender My Heart, Jepsen unleashed a mini-arena spectacle never seen at the Amphitheatre. I thought I’d like it more. Tracks like the strutting Joshua Tree, treacly singalong Talk to Me and all-timer Call Me Maybe are the exact kind of titanic pop singalongs that beg to be experienced en masse. But the uncanny valley of her scripted show held the brain at bay. From Jepsen hitting her marks with practised precision, her band of studio jocks flailing around with forced smiles and confetti cannons blasting thousands of pieces of paper into the trees we’d been reverently respecting earlier with Barry James Gilson, it was hard vertigo to process. The strident Cut to the Feeling was a worthy closer, but I couldn’t commit. The raining confetti, joyful shrieks and flashing purple dildo bobbling gaily on a fairy light stick above my head suggested I was very much alone.

Or maybe it’s ‘cause Four Tet’s three-hour headline set on Sunday night – the UK producer Kieran Hebden’s third appearance in the Supernatural Amphitheatre – wiped my slate clean with an expertly deployed cinematic journey into the ether. Hebden’s first hour bloomed from twitchy minimalism into rubbery tech, lacing together snatches of his remix of Ne-Yo’s So Sick, unreleased ripper Baby Again… and his alter-ego KH highlight Only Human. From there it blossomed into Hebden’s considered sound design excellence, with twitchy percussion and thumping techno cascading over long, loping bass burbles for a good hour of joyful forgetfulness. KH banger Looking at Your Pager and a remix of Bicep’s Opal bled into a final hour of fun with hectic snatches of Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift and Minor Threat leading to come-up anthem Donna Lewis’s I Love You Always Forever sending things over and – at 3:30am – gloriously out.

I don’t often leave feeling “great” at Golden Plains. This year driving slow out the dusty lane I did. The thing was back on. A 15-year long opportunity for catharsis and communal generosity was returned to its rightful place on the Labour Day weekend. A broken link felt fixed. Andrew didn’t come this year, but I’m already looking forward to those grubby fingers fouling our drinks again.