At Winter Freedom Time this year, the question people kept asking was, “Where is everyone?”
It was the festival’s second winter outing at the Coburg Velodrome. The big top circus tent was significantly smaller than last year, and the path to the front of the stage was easily navigable. The Ferris wheel was empty. An army of listless bartenders looked on, waiting hopefully for someone to order a drink. Wait times for the Portaloos were non-existent. Really, all of these are good things. Despite the festival feeling significantly smaller this year, festival organisers told Broadsheet festival attendance was in fact up by 200 guests.
In the lead up, the festival’s Facebook event page was flooded with posts offering tickets for resale. Perhaps people felt burned after Freedom Time’s New Year’s Day, 2018, edition, where technical difficulties saw the sound cut out during Sampa the Great's set and on the Wax'o Paradiso stage. There was also also a particularly egregious example at the pinnacle of headliner Larry Heard’s closing set when the musician's own gear failed.
Speaking of headliners, previous editions of Freedom Time hosted dance-music luminaries like Heard, Theo Parrish, Floating Points and, at Winter Freedom Time last year, the iconoclastic DJ Harvey. The closest thing to a big name this year was New York DJ Joe Claussell, who is well respected in dance-music circles but remains relatively unknown to a wider audience.
It's especially sad seeing tickets being offered for sale, because those who showed up were treated to an exceptionally entertaining and diverse line-up. As someone who was fatigued by three nights in a row of unrelenting, droning electronics at Dark Mofo the previous weekend, Saturday’s outing was joyous and vital. It proved that brooding heaviness isn’t a prerequisite for good underground electronic music.
The heavy moments that did exist – such as Minimal Wave founder Veronica Vasicka’s set of pounding house and electro, wobbly bass lines and obscure electronic gems from decades past – retained buoyancy in even the deepest synthesiser tides.
If it weren’t for the unfortunate sound bleed from the larger stages, the highlight of the festival was arguably the smallest of the three, curated by Amsterdam-based label Music From Memory. Known for releasing visionary outsider electronic music, both new and old, the label showcased a varied series of acts interspersed with club sets from label founders Jamie Tiller and Tako Reyenga.
Japanese band Dip in the Pool stole the crowd’s heart with their ethereal dream-pop. Despite having released eight albums since the mid ’80s, the band remained largely unknown until Music From Memory reissued its 1989 12”, On Retinae, in 2016. Both producer Tatsuji Kimura and, in particular, singer Miyako Koda looked gracefully bemused as to why anyone had shown up to see them play on that cold winter evening.
“Yesterday I found that the position of the sun is different here. It feels like it goes from West to East,” said Koda, elegantly dressed in a long, brown-paneled coat over layered petticoats, and a delicate silk peacock scarf. The 58-year-old singer won over a young, initially chattering crowd (some who were doing shots out of an iPhone shaped hip flask) with overwhelming poise and grace – despite looking as nervous as a teenager performing at a high school assembly.
The closing set from the previously mentioned, relatively unknown Joe Claussell, delivered from behind a chopped-in-half sedan, was a joyous, headline-worthy performance. Claussell began by layering West Coast boogie vocals over thunderous kick drums, before moving onto emotive Latin guitar tracks, and then to hands-in-the-air house. Freewheeling keyboard and horn solos skipped across sprung kick drums, leading to a rapturous finish.
Small festivals such as Freedom Time that book diverse, experimental but always approachable line-ups need support to survive. The other option is to put up with a bombardment of advertising and mainstream acts at a major festival, in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a headlining megastar from the back of the crowd.
If you were one of the gronks trying to offload tickets on Saturday, I’m sorry pal, you screwed up. Don’t make the same mistake when Freedom Time returns on New Year’s Day, 2019.
This article was amended on July 4, 2018 at 7.12pm.