Festival Review: Fairgrounds – Berry, NSW (05.12.15)

The first Fairgrounds Festival in Berry on the South Coast was exactly what festivals should be. A showcase of talent, relaxed and about the music. The Fairgrounds Festival was set up in Berry Showgrounds. Festival goers had access to two stages, a swimming pool, local market, a children’s activity area and a lot of food trucks. There was a lot of good at this festival but only one bad thing – they ran out of food, water and some alcohol in the afternoon. While the water was soon replenished, the food was not and when it was, the lines snaked halfway across the grounds.

This was a small hiccup in an otherwise well-organised and fun small festival. C.W. Stoneking heated things up early on the main stage. With his raspy AF voice, grooving riffs and catchy tunes, he got the crowd dancing and moving. The sound started strongly and remained this way for the rest of the set. His backup singers in sparkly gold dresses contributed beautiful harmonies and a lot of energy to the set. Unknown Mortal Orchestra blew everyone away with their soulful upbeat set. They brought it all: rocking drum solos, lead singer moving around to jump up on the speakers and melodic keyboard solos.

The best thing about a festival in a remote area is the quality of the sound. No noise restrictions, no muffled bass and no muddy mix. Exactly as it should be. I last saw Unknown Mortal Orchestra< in 2013 and since then, they've released strong new music and improved their live show even further. They're one of the best live local bands going around. Royal Headache stormed out on stage even though their guitar amp was missing. The lead singer was shirtless from the first song, and threw himself around the stage writhing on the ground.

Rock is truly alive and well when Royal Headache are playing. Lead singer Shogun sculls from a bottle, (“18 bucks!” he says through swigs) pours water all over himself so it runs down his jeans and makes it look like he’s wet himself while he scowls at the crowd. He’s reminiscent of an early Tim Rogers with his biting, sarcastic humour. The missing amp turned up midway through the set and he joked “Thank God we have a guitarist. That sounded like elevator music on mushrooms.”

Their set was loud, raucous and fast, and a standout of the day. As the temperature dropped, Mercury Rev brought the tempo back with a slow, earnest and atmospheric set with some long jams and solos. It was a great contrast to the fury of Royal Headache’s set and a good way to bring the mood down. Le Pie was over on the Newtown Social Club Stage, playing a brooding acoustic set. I’m sure many of us could relate to her song “Up All Night”, which she introduced as a song ‘about staying up all night and fighting with a partner’.

Meg Mac was blown away by the amount of people watching her on the main stage, and said it was the biggest crowd she’s played to. If she was nervous about the number of people watching, it didn’t show. What a voice! The whole set was enjoyable but the real highlight was the end, hearing the crowd drown out the singers while singing, “I will never be, praise the Lord.”

As the sun started to go down, there was an early indication the Father John Misty set would be something special – the pink tape marking out a path from the stage into steps so he could walk up to the barrier and interact with the crowd. The band walked out to Outkast‘s “Ms Jackson”, took their places and started to play the intro to “I Love You, Honeybear”. It was a strong start and set the scene. He danced, gesticulated and writhed his way through the lyrics while he walked off the stage and leaned into the crowd over the barrier.

There were some sound issues early on, with the main microphone not loud enough over the guitars. This continued here and there but wasn’t enough to detract from the atmosphere. At one stage, cicadas were chirping loudly in the surrounding trees, which made the band and roadies think there was an issue with the speakers. When they worked out the culprit, Father John Misty joked they had brought them over from America just to add to the atmosphere.

The set hit a bit of a lull after the strong opening, but picked up for the bitingly witty track “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment”, that contains some of the best lyrics I’ve ever heard, against upbeat melodic harmonies.

“I wonder if she even knows what that word means, because it’s literally not that.”

“And now insufferable convo, features her patiently the cosmos, of which she is in the middle.”

“I hate that soulful affectation white girls put on. ‘Why don’t you move to the Delta?’ I obliged much later on when you begged me to choke you.”

The quick tempo of “I’m Writing a Novel” took the set up another level with its energy and harmonies, and this continued into
“Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”, which had the crowd singing “I want to take you in the kitchen, lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in.”

The hilariously depressing “Bored in the USA” had the crowd giggling at the lyrics, “How many people rose and think, ‘Oh good, the stranger’s body’s still here, our arrangement hasn’t changed,'” outside of the laugh track applied to the last few lines of the song. He had some things to say about the state of pop music: “Isn’t it amazing to think a thousand years from now our children’s, children’s, children will watch that video and learn from our mistakes?” And “Have you guys heard of this Adele person? Please check out this music… Over the next year like a wave of depression will wash over the pop landscape as Bey and Taylor decide there’s no point in even trying. I hope pop music becomes fatally depressed. Don’t feel like you have to cheer for that it’s kind of a depressing sentiment.”

The band plodded slowly through “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow”, until the last chorus when Misty launched his guitar at a roadie side of stage, who thankfully caught it, and threw himself around the stage and into the crowd passionately, while screaming, “Why the long face? Jerk off, your chance has been taken, good one.”

The best part of this performance was, you thought you knew how songs would go and what he was going to do next, but at every turn he’d show you that you know nothing. From a slow acoustic solo to screaming and writhing on the ground, from walking into the crowd to standing quietly on the stage only accompanied by a keys player, it was impossible to tell what was coming next. “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” was the big hit everyone was waiting for, but despite its popularity wasn’t quite the stand out. The performance was strong – but it was nothing new, and other unexpected songs took the spotlight.

The sound was unfortunately slightly muddy with the electric guitar but it was still a hit. Set closer “The Ideal Husband” was electrifying and crazy. Those drums, those lyrics and the huge building riffs and keys lifted the roof off the stage. Misty screamed his way through the song, lying and crawling on the stage, taking it up a notch for the last verse, “I came by at seven in the morning, I said baby I’m finally succumbing, said something dumb, like I’m tired of running… Let’s a baby in the oven wouldn’t I make the ideal husband,” and screaming “Ohh ohh ohh” from the ground until the song came to an abrupt halt.

His talent, his passion, his goddamned hips were unbelievable and left me with my jaw on the ground and my heart fluttering. What an amazing, interesting and insane (in the best way) artist. The Fairgrounds Festival set the standard for a small, boutique festival. Despite the teething and logistical problems, those who attended will forget all that in time, and just remember the feeling of watching so many great bands perform in the middle of a beautiful setting.

Let’s all hope this festival isn’t a one-hit wonder and returns in 2016.