Did you hear it was hot?

Across the three-day Labour Day weekend that hosts Golden Plains, the temperature at Meredith hit 38.5, 37.8 and 35.6 degrees respectively – overnight lows a measly 22.5 and 18.6. I know it’s boring to talk about the weather. But extreme instances warp how festivals work.

Daytime acts played to crowds huddled in patches of shade. Tolerance for confronting sounds was low. Typically long stints in front of the stage were swapped for retreats to camp to sit around taking turns saying “Fuck it’s hot”. Dust swirled. Sun blasted. Night or day, the earth baked underfoot.

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Organisers did their best to temper the blast. Volunteers with water misters roamed the site hosing patrons. Extra showers were permanently on. Drinking water was amply provided. But goddamn if the 16th Golden Plains wasn’t molten.

Of course bands don’t form with the intent to distract from a heatwave, but that became the assignment. It had an effect on the highlights (Cymande, King Stingray, Braxe + Falcon, Witch), good vibes (MJ Lenderman, the Streets, Jeff Mills), hot finds (Charlotte Adigery & Bolis Pupul, the Slingers, Sunshine and Disco Faith Choir), misfires (Boris, VV Pete, whoever was on lights for the interstitial DJs), and everything in between (Regurgitator). This year continued a theme from last year’s programming: a day one line-up that refused to be categorised – sometimes against its own best interests – followed by a day two that just clicked.

Saturday

After co-founder Chris Nolan, who has been largely immobile and in a wheelchair since being struck with disease in 1996, opened proceedings with a “long blink” to a roaring crowd, garage punks Split System ripped into the perfect soundtrack for setting up my tent. Early Saturday highlights included Washington DC native Sneaks – aka Eva Moolchan – mooching behind a laptop and bass guitar to coolly deliver plain-spoken poetry over lo-fi beats, while North Carolina five-piece Wednesday repped similar slacker vibes in their indie, grunge-leaning rock. The sighing lap steel of Xandy Chelmis is the band’s secret weapon; so too the storytelling of singer and lynchpin Karly Harzman. When she sang, “I went to school about three days out of the week, watered down all the liquor and then pissed outside in the street,” on Chosen To Deserve, the guy in front of me leaned conspiratorially to his mate: “That’s the one that got me.”

If Wednesday’s singed guitars and frazzled tales of debauchery somehow worked with the heat, legendary Zambian band Witch embodied it. The nine-piece in native dress, jeans and singlets, were the celebratory pick of the arvo. Founded by frontman Emmanuel “Jagari” Chanda in the ’70s, a revolving door of members accounts for the band’s addictive mash of psych, disco, prog, funk and rock. Surprise guest Sampa the Great (a supreme highlight of Golden Plains 2020) appeared for her electric guest spot on Avalanche of Love, before a rabid version of Stax classic Funky Chicken sealed the deal.

Ten minutes into RVG’s 7.30pm slot, Romy Vager looked rinsed. The black-clad leader wasn’t built for the heat; neither is her band’s dramatic, striking, goth-tinged indie rock. The percolating synth of Squid helped keep early momentum, but it was no accident the band grew in stature as the sun finally fell. Vager’s voice quivering out “I used to love you and now I don't, and I don't feel bad” doubled as a kiss-off, as did consistently towering set highlight Nothing Really Changes.

With darkness on, the night was primed for fun. Instead came Boris. The long-running Japanese band’s high-camp onslaught of thudding metal, sludge and doom likely had the party people snapping their doof sticks. With a stage bathed in red lights, a massive gong above the drums and – no joke – the most pulverising sound the Sup’ has ever seen, it felt like the sun itself had dropped backstage, donned black jeans and walked on to bellow through a wall of amps. “Hell yeeeah, fuck yeeeah,” growled robe-wearing frontman Atsuo between songs; the thinning crowd said no.

Regurgitator were the correct band to headline a day one of whiplash genre-hopping. Building a career of zig-ing where others zag-ed, the trio’s set flicked through opener Sucker Like You, the Limp Bizkit pastiche of Fat Cop, the Cypress Hill rip of G7 Dick Electro Boogie, and 8-bit pop of Polyester Girl like stations on a ’90s FM dial. The songwriting duo of Quan Yeomans and Ben Ely are an odd fit: the cool Yeomans chewing the scenery when rapping on the mic; Ely’s rock guy schtick – including devolving into a baby voice to ask if everyone’s having a fun time – defiantly daggy. None of it matters when they close with the massive sugar rush of ! (The Song Formerly Known As), the packed Sup’ finally heaving as one.

The subversive vibe continued with fantastic Belgian duo Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul, whose gloopy synth arpeggios, brittle beats and provocative lyrics turned the place into an ’80s art-pop loft party. “What’s the shoe thing?” said Adigéry as the happy crowd held them aloft in appreciation. “Best act?” Seizing on the significance of the gesture, she undid her own boot to wave in delight, before launching into the perfectly timed Thank You: “Ooh thank you / enough about me, how about you?” A standout.

After such intuitive generosity, the self-promo comedown of VV Pete was a tough watch. Despite just 20 minutes to work with, the young rapper from Mount Druitt used it to tell the crowd she was the “baddest”, explaining she’d actually played Melbourne before, rewound a track to try it again, and asked between each song if we were feeling her. If you have to ask… Interstitial DJ Kasun was on hand to plug the party back in, with an all-too-brief techno interlude (boos rang out when his timely drop of Mason vs Princess Superstar’s Perfect (Exceeder) faded for the main-stage act). Finally Soju Gang launched into a belting hour-long set that – along with a 2am temperature of near 30 degrees – eventually regretfully soundtracked sleep.

Sunday

Open eyes, pat self down, all in one piece. Get dressed, drink water, hat, sunscreen. Set off in the direction of a feast plate from the Hare Krishna tent and an ice-cold Margarita from Eric’s Terrace. Let’s try this again.

I hadn’t seen the Slingers live, which meant I hadn’t caught how frontman Robert J Mahon elevates the group’s moody, bar-room rock with must-see theatrics. Lines like “Man, I hate this city, but she won’t let me go” and “I feel such an ancient rage in me” somehow hit harder from a guy punching the air and doing high kicks. I loved it. Ditto buzzy Frankston guitar band Belair Lip Bombs, who continued the tradition of undercard locals standing tall. As they packed up, Amyl and the Sniffers’ Guided by Angels virtually blessed them over the PA.

MJ Lenderman might only be 25, but the way his rangy voice twangs you’d think he was a droll sage twice that age. The Wednesday guitarist recruits the majority of that band’s line-up for his own set of distortion-stung Americana, and they returned to the stage looking slightly worse for wear. “Two items of business,” said Lenderman, following a lazy Toontown that felt particularly scorching in the searing heat. “I was at the Boris show and spilled a tequila soda all over two gentlemen in front of me. Hope you’re dry and not sticky.” He pulled a card from his pocket to read from: “Second, Liz and Enrique are getting married here today. They want to say they love you very much.”

The love language lingered for pint-sized Japanese vinyl guy DJ Koco, who replicated Japanese DJ and producer Soichi Terada’s love-fest last year with a fun as hell run through his collection of 45s – turns out snatches of De La Soul, Erik B and Rakim, and Hot Streak’s ’83 jam Body Work, can make you forget about sunburn for a second. As did Detroit techno pioneer Jeff Mills, who brought on French keyboardist Jean-Phi Dary, tabla virtuoso Prabhu Edouard and a lady wearing chain mail to hit a gong. From there Dary provided a round of piano loops for Mills and Edouard to flutter percussion across, weaving a completely improvised piece as danceable as it was dreamy.

“How do you follow that?” We wandered in the direction of a sunset drink. With a mashup of Bacao Rhythm and Steel Band’s Pimp and Talking Heads’ Burning Down the House, courtesy of interstitial DJ Joey Lightbulb, aka Mikey Cahill. A long-time music journo and Meredith and Golden Plains lifer, Lightbulb went off with a deeply danceable spotlight on fun over fuss. Along with fellow interstitial soundtrackers in Kasun, Lauren and Simon, and Steely Ann, these kind of local selectors are so often the secret sauce binding Golden Plains together. So a gripe that bugged me all weekend: it felt especially cruel for organisers to blast the house lights during so many of these after-dark interstitial sets. Was it to shift the crowd on? A ploy to keep exuberance to a minimum? Sell more hats? Whatever the cause, it’s hard to party when it feels like last drinks.

Fortunately the final leg was a downhill victory lap. Despite never playing here, King Stingray’s epic set just after sundown hit like a joyful homecoming. The five-piece from north-east Arnhem Land were on fire here in the bush – Lookin’ Out, the dramatic Get Me Out, dance-funk Milkumana and closer Let’s Go each sounding like upstart entries into the classic Australian songbook. From new legends to old: British unit Cymande dropped an effortless set of tough, big-band funk that kicked off with their 1972 classic Getting It Back and closed with … their 1972 classic The Message. These guys are true funk and hip-hop legends – this stuff has been sampled by De La Soul, EPMD, The Fugees and many more. I found this note in my phone: this is what happens when everyone in the band is incredible.

Mike Skinner did his homework. Word was the charismatic svengali behind the Streets explored the festival grounds on his own for hours before the show, which explained his banter shouting out Bells Beach, the exact price of tickets, and the shoe. Oh, the shoe. “We are the crowd, you are the band,” Skinner declared after a raucous Don’t Mug Yourself. “I will be the only one holding a shoe.” He meant well, if missing the point of it being an audience award. After Weak Become Heroes, he had a glowing smiley face doof stick shift to the middle of the crowd – the amphitheatre around him bounced for Fit but You Know It, sung in unison for Dry Your Eyes. At set's end, he crowd-surfed out, raised a shoe and asked we do it now too … though not without reminding his cameraman to follow and get the shot. I loved it – a set-long attempt to merge a one-of-a-kind performer with the crowd. So close.

From there, the dirt was a dance floor: first with the glammed up outfits of the Sunshine & Disco Faith Choir, who answered the question “What do techno beats with a stage of killer singers vamping over them sound like?” with “Perfect for this timeslot”, and then legendary French producers Braxe + Falcon put on an absolute masterclass of silky dance music strung between tentpole anthems Together and Music Sounds Better With You. At 3am, with the sun finally hidden on the far side of the world, we were released.

Then it was back. As we slowly packed up our tents the following morning, a volunteer in hi-vis cheerily wandered the campsite holding a cardboard box. “Anyone need condoms?” he called. Caked in dust and sipping dribbles of coconut water, we stared. Still ravaged out here on the tundra. No, thank you. We have to go home. Yes, the weather may have had its way with us. But we come to Golden Plains to feel it all.