There’s something wholly unique about escaping the clutches of adolescence. Sure, an 18th birthday is a big deal for most, and a 21st certainly makes for a wild piss up, but there’s just something about the twilight between the age 19 and 20 which makes for something a little more introspective. More often than not, however, this little Segway between adolescence and maturity acts as a glimpse of what’s yet to come.
Now in its 19th year, Splendour In The Grass has become more than just an annual music festival of mammoth proportions: it’s an opportunity for music lovers to taste the experience offered by the mega festivals of the European summer. Similar to what Glastonbury, Primavera or Roskilde might mean to those in the UK, Spain or Denmark, Splendour is essentially Australia’s musical Mecca. As I made my maiden pilgrimage to the holy land in the North Byron Parklands, I couldn’t help but wonder what Splendour would offer to hungry punters like myself to see out the decade, and upon returning to my laptop in a rather dusty state on Monday morning, I found myself wondering still - although there’s probably a more explicable reason for that. So, without much further ado, here’s an honest and wholly sentimental reflection on nineteen things we learnt as Splendour In The Grass kissed its adolescence goodbye over one sunny July weekend.
Friday July 19
Punk still reigns supreme
Whoever said punk was dead is definitely not worth anything more than a penny. After Triple J Unearthed artist Tones And I opened the Ampitheatre with a bang, early crowds were treated to a triple dosage of short-but-sweet slammers from Tasmanian rising talents A Swayze and the Ghosts, tatted UK twosome Slaves and Californian sk8r bois FIDLAR to set the Friday mood. With the midday sun beaming down and tins getting thrown down throats at best session rate to act as premium moshpit ethanol, the festival couldn’t have kicked off in any better manner – kudos to Splendour for the premium set scheduling.
K. Flay? More like K. Slay
After a knockout set from 21-year-old Melbourne soul upstart Kaiit, who heated things up for punters with breakout single ‘Natural Woman’ and the stoner-love anthem ‘OG Luv Kush Pt. 2,’ the GW McLennan Stage was graced by kickass US artist K. Flay for a welcome 45 minutes of alternative hip-hop goodness. Loaded with fresh tracks from her recently released record Solutions, her mid-afternoon Friday set showcased a formidable performed concoction of indie, rap and pop and a livewire stage presence which demanded all of the tent’s attention. ‘Blood In The Cut’ was lapped up by the crowd like warm milk, while ‘High Enough’ and ‘Bad Vibes’ definitely hit the spot more than once. If she’s not on your radar already, adjust the parameters – K. Flay’s not one to be slept on.
Sound issues are a kick in the teeth to any set
Look, you can’t really blame anyone for things going wrong at a music festival, because those guys backstage really work their asses off and do a great job at it. Sometimes, shit just doesn’t go down like it should. Case in point: Santigold’s mainstage set. While previous act Hayden James experienced a crystal-clear mix (his live rendition of 'Nowhere To Go' with Nat Dunn and the Brisbane City Gospel Choir was a huge Friday highlight) the American electro-reggae star’s 7.30pm set at the Ampitheatre unfortunately fell flat in the sonic department, particularly in the bass department, which is a big no-no for an artist whose rhythms knock as hard Santigold’s. Although the set wasn’t a total clanger – Jay-Z collab ‘Brooklyn Go Hard’ and Major Lazer’s ‘Hold The Line’ definitely still slap, and getting a crowd of fifty people on stage to groove with her, the sound issues bountifully detracted from what should have been a huge party starter set.
Yannis Phillipakis is one of the best frontmen in the game
Foals have a reputation for putting on quite a show, and given their longstanding association with Splendour over the years, anticipation for their penultimate Ampitheatre performance was paramount. Kicking things off with the one-two punch of ‘On The Luna’ and ‘Mountain At My Gates,’ Oxford’s finest ponies stormed through a raucous set chock full with tracks from March’s Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt. 1, with ‘In Degrees’ and Holy Fire’s ‘My Number’ proving to be mid-set standouts.
Premium musicianship oozed from this set, particularly Jack Bevan’s machine gun drumming and Jimmy Smith's dominance on the Jazzmaster throughout ‘Spanish Sahara’, however it was Yannis Phillipakis who darted across stage and took multiple dives into the crowd to really rile things up. Tailend belters ‘Inhaler’ and ‘What Went Down’ saw the frontman command the feet of the crowd like spastic puppets, and by the time the band concluded with a ferocious rendition of Antidotes brainbender ‘Two Step,’ you’d be tweaking to think the energy exuded by Phillipakis a festival highlight.
Iron ore might be Australia’s biggest export…
… but Tame Impala would be a close second. The group’s Friday headlining set was undoubtedly one of the most anticipated of the festival, and Kevin Parker and co. certainly lived up to all expectations, delivering a sonic and visual spectacle which will surely go down in Splendour history. Kicking things into overdrive with Currents opener ‘Let It Happen’ (and yes, the riff was a big moment) and segueing into this year’s conga heavy groove of ‘Patience,’ the Western Australian psych powerhouse ensnared the energy of the crowd early on and never slacked off. Although their setlist was rather predictable and Currents heavy, the band seized those craving some fuzzy psychedelic nostalgia early on with the woozy Lonerism cut ‘Mind Mischief’ and their mainstream breakthrough ‘Elephant,’ which might just have one of the most singable guitar solos of all time.
‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’ proved to be a massive midset singalong, while lasers piercing through the sky during an extended version of ‘Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind?’ definitely would have freaked a few mashed punters out. ‘Yes I’m Changing’ and ‘Eventually’ saw Parker deliver an incredibly precise vocal performance to really hit the crowd in their feels, while bassist Cam Avery and stand-in drummer Loren Humphry (Florence and the Machine) instrumental touches on recent single ‘Borderline’ showcased just how tight this band has gotten since their elevation to headline status. Winding down with the dancefloor filler of ‘The Less I Know The Better’ and ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’ accompanied by a massive payload of confetti being fired into the audience, it was clear Splendour had just witnessed something quite unforgettable. if Tame Impala weren’t already the best band to come out of Australia in the past decade, they certainly affirmed it on Friday.
Saturday July 20
Channel Tres IS the controller
For those who wanted to skip out on some of the tried and true guitar-driven tones of the Ampitheatre and boogie down, the Mix Up Tent was definitely the place to be. Offering a delicious smorgasbord of electronic, indie and hip-hop, this tent is revered as being a bit of a hotspot across the weekend, but it was Saturday’s offerings that took the cake. After an enjoyable stage-opening set from Thandi Phoenix, Channel Tres took to the tent to inject early punters with a dose of midday madness, proving many a time over just why he’s one to keep an eye on. Armed with a thumping arsenal of originals and big-name remixes, the LA-based rapper’s fusion of rap and house definitely would have won him plenty of new fans after the reception he received from hungry punters, who ravenously devoured singles ‘Sexy Black Timberlake’ and ‘Topdown.’ Needless to say, when Tres launched into the booming groove of ‘Controller’ with a ludicrously slinky flow and moves to match, shit went through the roof. A big way to open day two.
Jay Watson might just be the SITG MVP of 2019
Less than 16 hours after wrapping up his headline set playing keys with Tame Impala on the mainstage, multi-instrumental wizard Jay Watson once again took to the ginormous Ampitheatre Stage to play bass and synths with fellow Perth psychonauts Pond, who also played on Thursday night - mental. These guys are notorious for their insane work ethic and hectic touring schedules, inevitably forging a fervent fanbase who go fucking bananas for the band’s brain-melting psychedelia at each gig. Playing an assortment of newbies from this year’s Tasmania (a frontrunner for Australian album of the year for many listeners) as well as a handful of vintage scorchers, Watson’s instrumental smarts, glitter-specked frontman Nick Albrook’s trademark stage persona and the wild guitar playing of Shiny Joe Ryan elevated the group’s performance to another level. If you’ve somehow not managed to catch Pond in a live setting, etch it on your to-do list today.
Little Simz is one to keep an eye on
While news spread around the festival that Sunday headliner Chance The Rapper had pulled out of Splendour due to a supposed illness (a disappointment, but given his recent cancellations at Roskilde, Longitude and Way Out, not a surprise at all), another hip hop artist was making waves at the North Byron Parklands. She’s bubbled under mainstream recognition for a minute now, but with the release of this year’s commercial breakthrough Grey Area, British hip-hop artist Little Simz might have finally established herself as one of Britain’s best MCs. Her live show on Saturday afternoon proved testament to the powerful vocal performances and intuitive grooves of her LP, delivering a knockout set that saw punters flock to the Mix Up Stage in droves. Backed by a tight live group and no backing tracks to be heard (an increasing anomaly in the world of festival hip-hop), Simz tore through Grey Area tracks ‘Pressure,’ ‘Selfish’ and ‘Boss’ with an energy and passion matched by few artists across the weekend. Nothing Little about this set!
Some things will forever remain a mystery
I don’t really get Ruby Fields. A product of the Triple J publicity machine, her mid-afternoon performance at Splendour pulled many a punter to the GW McLennan stage, and given the hype around her, I trundled along to suss it all out for myself. Look, ‘P Plates’ and ‘Dinosaurs’ are objectively well-written songs, I won’t lie – but it’s really just candy for the indie-loving Triple J crowd. Fields’ performance itself was a little lacking, and although she definitely looked like she was having fun (which really should be a priority for all musicians playing onstage), there were more than a few flat notes that rang throughout the tent – her shambolic cover of Brittany Spears’ ‘Toxic’ being particularly cringey. She seems like a pretty cool person though, and I’m sure she’s played ripper gigs, but it just didn’t do anything for me. Oh well.
Dance music performed live = festival bliss
Here at Mixdown, we talk a lot about guitars and heavier musical stylings. However, I’m a big nerd for electronic music, and there’s nothing that gets me going quite like electronica performed by an ensemble at a music festival. While I was definitely familiar with British dance duo Maribou State’s two LPs, I didn’t quite expect them to be my favourite set at the whole festival. I honestly can’t gush enough about how good their mid-afternoon Mix Up Stage set was. Joined by an insanely talented live band and the vocal talents of collaborator Holly Walker, Chris Davids and Liam Ivory set the mid-afternoon mood at the Mix Up Tent early with their Khruangbin collaboration ‘Feel Good’ before launching into a showcase of impeccably performed electronica. Walker shone on ‘Steal’ and ‘Nervous Tics,’ while Kingdoms In Colour cuts ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Glasshouses’ went down an absolute treat with the crowd. ‘Midas’ provoked a massive response on the dancefloor, and by the time the band wrapped up with ‘Turnmillls,’ it was clear the Mix Up Stage were sold on Maribou State. If you’re a sceptic about electronic music, let Maribou State be your helping hand to discover just what’s out there. Mental stuff.
Allday somehow assembled Australia’s musical Avengers
Yeah, I know, that’s a weird sentence to read. If you’re like me, you probably became first acquainted with Allday around five years ago via his social media antics and relatively vanilla, radio friendly brand of hip-hop. However, it’s 2019 now, and Tom Gaynor’s done some growing up and apparently now holds the key to assembling one of the tightest Australian supergroups to ever grace Splendour. Joined by longtime DJ/producer Mikey Hunj, Kllo’s Simon Lam and the talents of Japanese Wallpaper’s Gab Strum, Georgia Smith and the percussively proficient Jackson McRae, Allday performed a wild set packed to the brim with special guests like Asta, Mallrat and Nyne to one of the biggest Mix Up crowds of the entire weekend. ‘You Always Know The DJ,’ ‘Dynamite’ and ‘Wonder Drug’ definitely made for huge singalong moments, but it was the entrance of The Veronicas for a performance of their naughties anthem ‘Untouched’ that pulled the loudest screams of the entire weekend. Not bad at all.
Australians really, really go for reggae rock
If you can throw your mind back to a few years ago, you’ll remember that Sticky Fingers once pulled one of the biggest crowds the Ampitheatre had ever seen. Then it turned out the band were a little problematic and got blacklisted from national radio play and festival slots left right and centre. The whole thing was a mess, and left more than a few reggae-rock loving Australians in dismay. Then, all of a sudden, another band of shaggy Sydney stoners by the name of Ocean Alley rose to claim the throne left absent by Sticky Fingers, and all was right again. The reigning Hottest 100 winners certainly took the Ampitheatre by storm on Saturday, knocking out a string of wah-drenched fan favourites from last year’s Chiaroscuro to mass appeal. With set highlights including ‘The Comedown,’ ‘Yellow Mellow,’ ‘Confidence,’ their beloved cover of Player’s ‘Baby Come Back’ and set closer ‘Knees,’ Ocean Alley are definitely crowd pleasers – it probably doesn’t hurt that they all look like Byron Bay natives either.
Rock ‘n roll antics are getting very cliché
I used to adore Catfish and the Bottlemen. Their 2014 debut The Balcony is an unforgettable high school record for me, and I really enjoyed 2016’s The Ride a whole lot too. I also witnessed their infamous 2017 set at Falls Festival where a deluge of torrential rain restricted them to a measly 30 minute performance, which went down in my books as one of the most memorable and intense festival sets I’d ever seen. It’s just simple meat and potato indie rock which is easy on the ears and translates well on the live stage. Maybe I’ve outgrown them a bit, or maybe I should have been closer into the pit, but personally I was really conflicted by Catfish’s Splendour set. Of course, the band are exceptionally tight, and guitarist Johnny Bond is a phenomenal player with a whopper guitar collection to match, but new tracks from The Balance like ‘Fluctuate’ and ‘2All’ showed zero creative progression from the band’s first two records. Furthermore, frontman Van McCannn’s onstage mic-stand-dragging antics and howls felt overtly cliché and at times even rehearsed, resulting in an unexpectedly confusing experience. ‘Soundcheck,’ ‘7’ and ‘Cocoon’ still delivered huge singalongs from the Ampitheatre crowd, and set closer ‘Tyrants’ is always a belter, but yeah, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just getting old.
Sorry Donald, but Mike Skinner is God
This was a tough choice, but I actually bailed on Childish Gambino’s highly anticipated mainstage set so I could go witness The Streets at the Mix Up Stage - for the first hour or so, anyway. I did manage to catch ‘This Is America,’ ‘3005,’ ‘Sweatpants,’ ‘Sober’ and ‘Redbone’ after The Streets wrapped up, so at least I saw the hits. He is brilliant, in all his weird grey bearded, spliff smoking, body contorting glory, but I’m sure you all already know that, and thankfully, I wasn’t at all disappointed with my decision. Original Pirate Material and A Grand Don’t Come For Free are definite masterpieces in my books, and both records were represented well, with ‘Don’t Mug Yourself,’ ‘Has It Come To This?’, ‘Weak Become Heroes’ and ‘Blinded By The Lights’ sending the crowd - a beautiful mix of seasoned ravers, hardcore fans and unsuspecting cookers - into a garage-induced frenzy. With years of touring under his belt, Skinner sure knows how to work his crowd, and his banter throughout the evening was impeccable – “you know what my favourite Australian word is? Pinger!”, “holy fuck – someone has literally thrown me up two pingers”, “fuck me, I feel like Billie Eilish” and the token “geezers geezers geezers!” were a mere smattering of one liners uttered by Skinner throughout the set. Closing his set with the lighter-waving breakup ballad of ‘Dry Your Eyes’ and the hectic dance punk classic ‘Fit But You Know It,’ the latter of which saw Skinner dive into the crowd to engage with a fried punter dressed as Freddie Mercury, The Streets were undeniably the finest veteran act of the festival.
Sunday July 21
Keep your eyes peeled for Phony Ppl
Despite playing a relatively early and short set on Sunday – a wretched time for any festival goer – Brooklyn neo-soul collective Phony Ppl certainly established themselves as a hotbed of funky fun for all who got down to their performance at the GW McLennan Stage. Oozing the carefree vibes and tight musicianship of cosmic funky forefathers such as Parliament-Funkadelic and Outkast, Phony Ppl were an early standout for all those who witnessed it, with cuts from last year’s mō’zā-ik. and 2015’s Yesterday’s Tomorrow sending punters into a groove-induced trance. Give ‘why iii love the moon’ a listen, and you’ll probably get what I’m talking about.
There’s never a bad time for the Tipi Forest
If you know, you know. It’s a haven for all the grubs of the festival to get loose to every subgenre of electronic music under the sun, packed with seshed out units, bum bags, sloppily rolled darts and absolutely filthy beats. Saturday night certainly brought out the grubs in the punters here, and there was some premium mixing on Sunday in the mid-afternoon too. I was chuffed to finally experience the doof-like aura of this little rave cave after hearing so much about it in previous years. Worth a visit to ease your knees from the ache of climbing the hill to the Ampitheatre, anyway.
Matt Corby is one of the best Australian artists of the decade
After slogging through the catchy-yet-dated sounds of Brisbane indie-rockers Last Dinosaurs and ever-reliable crowd-pleasers The Rubens – who offered plenty of singalong moments and even debuted a very unexpected collaboration with Vic Mensa – the Ampitheatre was treated to a bit of a religious experience from the wondrous Matt Corby on Sunday evening. Personally, I’ve loved watching Corby’s musical evolution over the years; from his days as an Australian Idol contestant to a Triple J endorsed indie-folk hero before culminating in becoming what’s best compared to as the Australian D’Angelo, I genuinely think he’s about as good as it gets here.
Opening with the gospel-inspired ‘Monday’ before launching into the lush Mellotron laced Rainbow Valley cuts ‘No Ordinary Life’ and ‘All That I See,’ Corby hopped from keyboard to drums to guitar in quick succession, demonstrating both his instrumental prowess and mental vocal range. 2012’s massive single ‘Brother’ received a whole lot of love from the audience, as did his duet with Tina Arena on ‘I’m In Chains,’ and ‘Resolution’ definitely boasted a holy aspect to it. However, it was ‘Miracle Love,’ possibly his best track to date, which moved the most people. Joined by a star-studded array of backing vocals from Meg Mac, Joyride, Broods and Hayden James, there couldn’t have been a better pick than Mat Corby for a Sunday evening at the Ampitheatre. Amen.
James Blake is a festival must see
Splendour In The Grass loves James Blake, and it’s fair to say that Blake’s also pretty fond of Splendour too. Bringing fresh tracks from this year’s brilliant LP Assume Form with him on his third visit to the Parklands, Blake and his phenomenal band were surely a festival highlight for many punters, and it was undeniably one of the best sounding sets of the weekend. Crisp electronic drums pierced the night in tracks like ‘Assume Form’ and ‘Love Round Here,’ while bass rattled beyond comprehension throughout ‘Timeless,’ the classic dubby wobble of ‘Limit To Your Love’ and the Travis Scott-featuring ‘Mile High.’
When Blake turned ‘Vouyer,’ an ingeniously produced cut from the tail end of Overgrown, into a ten-minute mini rave with a thumping kick drum and nasty, nasty sine bass, it provoked one of the biggest dancefloors I’m sure the Ampitheatre might have ever encountered. I’ve got goosebumps thinking of it now. Concluding with the slow-burning genius of his lush, synth-heavy crowd favourites ‘Retrograde’ and ‘The Wilhelm Scream,’ James Blake seemed genuinely happy to have received such an extraordinary response, and his unmatched display of dynamic mastery and technicality surely resulted in one of the most proficient and musically inspiring sets of the festival.
SZA is worth the hype
SZA’s 2017 debut Ctrl was hailed as an instant classic upon release, popping into just about every end-of-year list that mattered and creating a media buzz similar to that of fellow R&B artist Frank Ocean’s own debut channel ORANGE. Despite the massive personal loss of her grandmother in the weeks preceding her appearance at Splendour, the singer kept all Australian tour dates scheduled and treated the Ampitheatre to one of the most life-affirming and passionate sets I might have ever seen. Backed by an insane bent steel stage structure and a super tight backing band, SZA almost played Ctrl in its entirety, delivering flawless renditions of ‘Supermodel,’ ‘Doves In The Wind,’ ‘Garden’ and ‘Drew Barrymore’ to a huge response.
SZA performing her rendition of “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus. pic.twitter.com/n38RA3YzQ4
— DAILY SZA (@CampSZA) 19 July 2019
An unexpectedly welcome cover of Wheatus’ ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ proved to be one of the biggest singalongs of the weekend, while an unreleased third verse on ‘Love Galore’ and a brief interpolation of the Calvin Harris remix of ‘The Weekend’ at the conclusion of her original version kept punters on their toes in the middle of the set. SZA’s got insane vocal chops and they translate beautifully in a live context, with every single song boasting its own little moment to get teary about. Before wrapping things up with the woozy ‘Broken Clocks,’ ‘All Of The Stars’ and an upbeat version of album closer ‘Twenty Somethings,’ SZA was glowing with gratitude and optimism, and it made for a very special moment. It was one of those sets where couples linked bodies and sung the words to one another all doe-eyed, and while it’s a little lame, it’s also really heart-warming seeing just how music can mean so much to some people.
While Sunday’s replacement headliners Hilltop Hoods doubled down on the success of their huge set at last year’s festival to close out the Ampitheatre and What So Not treated the crowd to walloping trap and bass over at the Mix Up Stage, swarms of crowds fled from the Parklands to simply flee the sheer exhaustion induced by a three-day bender and the bitter nip of the night. Those with a bit of juice left in their blood, however, seshed it out at the Tepee Forest. And then that was that. Once again, Splendour asserted itself as the juggernaut of Australia’s musical festival landscape, dishing up a rather diverse and extremely contemporary lineup of musicians to appeal to those from all walks of life. Bangers, anthems, ballads and slammers were delivered in copious amounts by all mediums, brain cells were deleted, shoes were ruined and despite the cancellation of Chance The Rapper, I’m relatively certain there were no negative incidents to report on. Till next year, over and out – let’s bring on the big 20!
(Feature image credit: Mitch Lowe)