Our top 10 acts of Splendour in the Grass 2017

Non-headliners ruled Splendour in the Grass this year, and if anything defined the festival for 2017 it was that interest is shifting towards locals who are giving it their all, swiftly outshining headliners for what has become the proving ground for many a homegrown musician over the years.

As a festival, Splendour is one of most important and anticipated platforms for Aussies looking to take their work to a higher level or reward their fans with something special. That much was proven time and time again, from a career-defining performance by Client Liaison and a potent political punch by A.B Original to a surprise reform by Powderfinger and an enormous heroes homecoming by Peking Duk.

It’s become increasingly difficult to try pick just a few highlights from the three-day festival but the following 10 are the ones which seemed to stand tall above all others. We’ll remember Splendour ’17 for many reasons, but it’s these performances which will stick with us for the longest.

A.B Original

(Photo: Andrew Wade)

“Put the medicine in with the food”, a line from one of Prodigy‘s very last interviews before he passed away earlier this year. The legendary Mobb Deep emcee explained that phrase as being one of the driving forces of the group’s music since the very beginning – especially Prodigy’s more philosophical solo material. Indeed its one of the central philosophies behind all good hip-hop, at least the kind that actually has something to say. It’s a similar idea as the idiom “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” I guess, dictating that more didactic or important messages should be encoded into an artist’s work in a way that “tastes good” to the audience, making it accessible but also balancing that with the need to clearly express what may be some confronting issues. That’s the crux of what A.B Original are doing with their scorching socially aware hip hop, perfectly summed up by Trials at their excellent Mix-Up Stage set on Sunday: “Our subject matter is fucking serious, but our tracks are baaaaangersss”. It takes true talent to strike that balance, more so to deliver it in such a powerful and affecting way in a festival setting.

Briggs and Trials both delivered such strong, breathless performances while they spun their verses for tracks like the thunderous “2 Black, 2 Strong” and “ICU”, the latter featuring the first of their “fuck-tonne of friends”, the jazzy-voiced Caiti Baker. This was potent political rap covering one of most important issues yet to be properly confronted by Australia, reiterated by the constant image of Aboriginal teenager Elijah Doughty who was killed last year when a Kalgoorlie man struck him with a ute. Just days ago that man was found not guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison. “How the fuck are we supposed to unite when they’re killing our kids”, shouted Briggs early on in the set, representing a sense of frustration that fueled each and every one of these tracks as they were flung at the crowd with sheer strength.

“If we don’t leave you with something to go home and think about, what’s the fucking point?” asked Trials, whose excellent worldplay comes across well live, him and Briggs switching flows for each track but always unifying on the hook, powerful refrains to which the crowd couldn’t help but chant. “No justice, no peace” was a motif thread through the set, which capped off with some of the day’s biggest moments: first, Dan Sultan was brought out to help with the G-funk inflections of “January 26” and then the one and only Paul Kelly surprised us all, making an appearance to help with “Dumb Things”.

– Chris Singh

Banks

(Photo: Stephen Booth)

Stepping out from smoke-machine shadows, flanked by dancers dressed in all black and a stage bathed in blood-red light, Banks (aka Jillian Banks) created a mesmerizing performance that really kick started the festival. Her dark deconstructed R&B has this moody, assertive appeal that is hypnotizing- felt by everyone in the Mix Up tent as they dropped low to each track. The performance brought to life her 2016 album The Altar with the choreographed satanic dances mixed with the black veils and churning smoke clouds, reflecting eerie tracks like “Judas” and “Poltergeist”.

If you pay close attention to the lyrics of each of Banks tracks, you would not be surprised that she is a psychology major. Touching on dark subjects with rhythmical texture, they’re filled with cryptic poems. From the brashness on  “Fuck With Myself”  to the empowerment of, “Weaker Girl”, with such an intense and powerful display, it was hard not to walk away from the set feeling liberated and slightly emotionally violated (in a good way).

– Giselle Bueti

Dustin Thomas

I feel embarrassed for not even knowing who Dustin Thomas was before this year’s Splendour. He wasn’t on my radar of performances to see at all, but after leaving Sampa the Great‘s exceptional set at the Mix-Up I needed something to help fight off the icy temperatures. The chai-heavy menu at The Bohemian Lounge seemed like the way to go so I took a little detour to the Global Village, grabbed a choc-chai and sat down on one of the lounges. Thomas was doing a brief sound-check and talking to the crowd at that point, right before launching into what turned out to be the weekend’s best acoustic performance. With a prepossessing, vulnerable voice and some truly thought-provoking songwriting – sharp and witty with plenty of religious symbolism – Thomas completely owned the small space. He’d break into well-placed beatbox interludes at the perfect moments, even bringing out a fellow musician to boost his sound with some pro-percussion on the calabash, a traditional African instrument which is basically a dried gourd with beads. From beginning to end it was mesmerising, strengthened by storytelling which was both thoughtful and entertaining.

There’s nothing quite like a calabash verses beatbox battle, sandwiched in between powerful, beautifully expressed songs, many of which Dustin said he had never performed live before the set. It was an added bonus that he was one of the very few international acts performing multiple times throughout the weekend (three more times on the World Stage).

– Chris Singh

The Smith Street Band

(Photo: Ian_Laidlaw)

By day three of Splendour, punters were feeling tender. It’s Sunday morning, the suns out, it’s been a big couple of days of constant grooving. So it’s no surprise most chose to have a late start. But as the afternoon rolled in, it seems that every man and their dog pulled themselves out of their tent and to the Amphitheater to catch The Smith Street Band. And I would bet that every single one of them was glad they pulled their shit together.

Wil Wagner‘s voice seems as though it was designed for this stage; his booming vocals stretching over the sea of people tucked into the Amphitheatre. The band delivers a tight union, expressing a sturdy instrumentation that weaves nicely together. New members Lucy Wilson on keys and Jess Locke on guitar, slot right in as though they were always there.

Playing a handful of songs from their new LP, More Scared Of You Then You Are Of Me, the tracks went from liberating shout along lyrics with shredding guitar riffs to emotional ballads with delicate composition.

The intimacy of the subject matters explored in the lyrics, mixed with Wagners crackling croons, made for a powerful impact. “I will remember this for the rest of my life,” said Wagner as the set drew to an end, and with the crowd buzzing and hanging on his every word, I think most will agree that they will too.

– Giselle Bueti

Sigur Rós

Sigur Ros (Photo: Andrew Wade)

It’s not easy to put into words just how much of an impact Sigur Rós has live, creating these enormous set pieces of emotion and sound that reach out and draw you in before blasting you with intense swathes of music that truly transcends convention. They are one of the most anticipated and unique bands in the world – always have been, always will be – and their ability to lull you into a false sense of security then whisk you away on a journey no other band in the world can offer is unparalleled. Nothing has changed about that, and here they gave us true ascension as they opened with Takk highlight “Saeglópur” closed with the breathtaking “Untitled 8 (Popplagid)”, the latter of which featured the most intense sonic soundscape of the festival, something not even Queens of the Stone Age could recreate. And this came from just three musicians on stage.

– Chris Singh

Client Liaison

(Photo: Justin Ma)

Client Liaison were possibly the most colourful of the weekend with their tacky retro extravaganza. The detail in the stage, with the office desk and water coolers, the synchronised back up dancers, Monte’s constant costume changes (which he did so swiftly, that I swear every time I looked up he was wearing something new) made for a gloriously glamourous performance that stuck in my mind like the glitter that won’t come out of my hair.

The surprise guest appearance from Tina Arena was the present you didn’t know you wanted. At the end of the day, whilst everyone loves a shiny new bike, there’s nothing like your favourite old two-wheeler that you’ve shared so many memories with. Nostalgia hits you right in the heart, and that was Tina. Sharing a duet with Monte for “A Foreign Affair”, before belting out “Sorrento Moon”, the crowd was lapping up it up. Then the pair went into a cover of Womack and Womack’s “Teardrops”, and well that sent the crowd into a frenzy.

But not to be overshadowed, once Tina left the stage, Client Liaison came back with full force, as though feeding off the energy and morphing into a rave machine. “Off White Limousine” and “World of Our Love” burst off the sage like the streamers being ejected into the air. Client Liaison’s fun and ecstatic energy during a live performance is so infectious that it leaves you in a euphoric disco daze.

– Giselle Bueti

Sampa the Great

(Photo: Jess Gleeson)

Sampa the Great really took things to the next level at Splendour’s official kick-off night, speaking to the quality curation by Red Bull Sound Select on the Thursday. Proving the only thing holding her back is a lack of recognition – no doubt set to change real soon – the exceptional performer stomped across the stage with booming, commanding raps set to left-field and inventive beats. Over the past 12 months especially, Sampa has become one of the most exciting emcees not just in Australia, but the world, and she’s obviously aware of those Lauryn Hill comparisons with one of her best cuts sampling “Fu-Gee-La”, both in hook and beat.

– Chris Singh

Meg Mac

Meg Mac (Photo: Ian Laidlaw)

Meg Mac has a voice like no other. Her soulful hooks latch onto your skin and pull tight. Mac’s placement in the timetable meant that she was caught in that spot between the end of a big day and the beginning of a big night. Having just come from Kilter, I was on the cusp of wanting to continue to rave/debating whether to fall sleep on the spot. Knowing that Meg Mac’s sound is soft and dreamy, I almost couldn’t do it. But then she came on to the stage and unleashed her demanding wistful vocals, and smacked me right back into action.

Even the band seemed to be in awe of her talents, playing softly in the background and all joining in to clap along to “Grandma’s Hands”. Though working beautifully together and adding that extra element to her songs, I was so transfixed by Mac’s voice I almost forgot they were there.

With the audience knowing the lyrics to almost every one of her songs, it’s hard to believe that she has only just recently brought out her first Album. Released only a couple of weeks ago, everyone sung along to the songs from Low Blows as though they’ve been listening to it for years. If this is only the beginning of her career, then this set confirmed Mac’s potential in becoming one of Australia’s best performers.

– Giselle Bueti

Cut Copy

(Photo: Mitch Lowe)

Many Aussie music lovers have seen Cut Copy plenty of times before. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have, having witnessed their debut at Splendour 10 years ago and their ever-changing set every year since. It’s great to have them back making new music, shaped into what is perhaps their tightest live show to date, a non-stop barrage of their best cuts tweaked with fine details that lifted them far beyond the recorded versions.

The energy never dropped as soon as they shot through with opener “Need You Now”, the pulsating disco-rave ebbing and flowing spilling from tracks like “Hearts on Fire” and “Out There on the Ice” to new song “Airborne” and closer “Lights & Music”. Hell, they even threw it all the way back to “Future” and tried their best at making it fit with the more modern material.

– Chris Singh

LCD Soundsystem

LCD Soundsystem (Photo: Andrew Wade)

Over the weekend, one thing that was constantly murmured throughout the camp site was, “I never thought I’d get to see LCD live.” The excitement that surrounded this performance was overwhelming. Even if you weren’t fan or hadn’t heard their music before, the intrigue was enough to know something special was about to take place.

Sure enough, when the time came LCD Soundsystem had the Amphitheatre swarming with people. The stage was overflowing with equipment; old vintage keyboards, synths, amps, drum kits and countless band members. And then there was James Murphy, looking a little rugged, standing amongst this clutter looking like an old writer standing in a room full of sticky notes and story boards. When the music started and the lights turned on, magic unfolded.

Although extremely quirky, with his strange stage banter, Murphy proved that he is the definition of an artist. Weaving between the instrumentalists and gear, with a retro microphone in hand, he made old songs feel new. There was so much detail in the combination of sounds and the stage (a timer counting down how long they had to play); every beat, every note just as pulsating as the next. The band played extended versions of already epic tracks like “Call the Police”, “Yeah” and “Home”, dragging into an almost two-hour retrospective set. For me the highlight was “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”. Murphy’s earnest vocals tearing into the seams of the instrumentals, sending goose bumps down my spine. It was like watching an electric orchestra play, and Murphy was the conductor bringing it all together.

The set ended with “All My Friends” and as people swung their arms around the shoulders of their neighbour, swaying to the music, I couldn’t think of a better way to end a weekend filled with beautiful of music.

– Giselle Bueti

Feature image: Andrew Wade.