The lead up to the 24th instalment of Falls Festival wasn’t a smooth ride. Grouplove pulled out of the entire tour when lead singer Hannah Hooper was ordered by her doctor to rest her vocal cords. Major headliner Childish Gambino cancelled his Fremantle set – the most anticipated performance of the festival’s debut there – to prematurely fly back to the US for the Golden Globe Awards. (He won). Danish singer-songwriter MØ pulled out of the entire festival after being struck with pneumonia over Christmas. But last-minute set cancellations are common for large-scale festivals with big line-ups. The show would go on.
The next wave of problems was harder to move past. When news broke of the crowd crush that left more than 60 people injured and 19 hospitalised at the Lorne event, the Festival was heavily criticised. Not long after, the festival faced more scrutiny when three cases (now five) of sexual assault were reported to the Tasmanian Police at the Marion Bay event.
En route to the fourth instalment of Falls Festival Byron Bay I wondered how the news would affect the crowd filing into North Byron Parklands for a New Year’s Eve kick-off. It didn’t. The people were ready to party.
Also stirring quietly in the background during the festival was the news of the recent sale of Falls to international entertainment group Live Nation. This would be the last Falls independently run by its original creators, the Secret Sound Group, before the Los Angels-based company could act on its 51 per cent stake.
While the future of Falls is uncertain, I was ready to take in the local, independent and boutique-y vibes Falls is known for – just in case.
I entered the site – for my first Byron Bay Falls – to a moment akin to Dorothy’s arrival in The Wizard of Oz; “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Lorne anymore.”
There was a sand-filled Palm Springs Waterpark and a double-storey Carlton Dry Bar to my right; a huge, double-storey Captain Morgan Bermuda Triangle Bar to my left; the tips of tall, glamorous teepees in the distance behind me; the rotating carriages of a giant Ferris wheel in front of me; as well as a STRIKE bowling alley with watermelons for bowling balls. Nothing “boutique” about it. But perhaps those original Falls vibes never quite made it up north to begin with? As a passer-by explained, “Here it’s more like a mini Splendour.”
What was true to the Falls Festivals of past, though, was the diversity of both the music and the art, and the depth of talent on the stages over the three days.
Client Liaison battled under a beaming sun on day one in printed disco shirts and leather pants to get the crowd ready for the New Year’s Eve celebrations ahead. Closing with World of our Love, Monte Morgan had the masses swaying, singing and considering whether or not they too could pull off a permed mullet.
Highly anticipated headliner Childish Gambino lived up to expectations, bringing an electrifying energy to the stage from the moment he stomped out onto it. His enthusiasm resonated with everyone at the Valley Stage arena, and while there was disappointment he didn’t actually perform the countdown, he started 2017 with a bang.
Kiwi Marlon Williams earned big props on day two, appearing in a long-sleeve shirt, suit pants, leather boots, an old-school bow tie and a peaked cap in what was probably the hottest part of the day. Accompanied by the Yarra Benders, he satisfied those looking for some country, folk and blues as he strummed his guitar and sang of love, then vampires (which he admitted he wrote when he was high last Halloween).
There’s something special about an Aussie hip-hop set at Falls – Illy proved this once again. Drawing the Forest Stage’s biggest crowd of the festival, the masses gave their all for every chorus of Papercuts and Catch 22 in place of the tracks’ original guest vocalists, Vera Blue and Anne-Marie.
No one really knew what to expect from The Avalanches, but a comeback after a 15-year hiatus by one of Australia’s most loved groups is something worth visiting the Valley Stage for. Guest vocals by Eliza Wolfgramm and Spank Rock brought the new album, Wildflower, to life, as did a special appearance from local Oscar Key Sung. Psychedelic animations, cinematic visuals and colourful lighting allowed the no-show of original member and guitarist Robbie Chater to go relatively unnoticed.
Girl power was in full force on day three. Aluna George held back tears at the end of her song I Remember saying, “I’ll never, ever forget that.” Tkay Maidza dropped banger after banger, putting herself on the radar of those who hadn’t experienced her rapping, singing and dancing before. The ethereal pipes of London Grammar’s Hannah Reid always impress. But they were even more mesmorising in the torrential downpour that hit the festival for a solid six hours that night.
Booka Shade rounded out the final night performing its 10th-anniversary album, Movements 10, for a crowd of dedicated drowned rats. Smiling the whole time, the Berlin-based duo presented an electronic set that was both nostalgic and timeless.