Festival Review: Listen Out – Centennial Park, Sydney (01.10.16)

Long before the lockout laws, something else was killing the vibe among Sydney’s party scene: competition. One or two day festivals across the country were dropping like flies and it seemed like Fuzzy’s long-running Parklife was about to meet the axe, until the business made the wise decision to go boutique.

Downsizing and effectively avoiding the hammer with a less-is-more approach gave rise to Listen Out, the pragmatic three-stage festival which tapped into a tightly curated lineup of the year’s biggest acts, with an even closer commitment to rising local artists of whom more often than not have opened and closed each leg of the festival. Quality control like this wasn’t really seen outside of St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, which is now the biggest traveling festival in Australia, and for the past few years it’s been working out very well for Fuzzy.

A bit of a move away from just dance music and its various off-shoots was also a strength, bringing in more hipster-friendly hip hop – the turn up variety – while also maintaining an open mind to other styles, which is why this year saw early-afternoon show-stealers like the dynamite Tash Sultana, the impressive JOY, and the soulful NGAIIRE. Three different takes on dynamic vocal-driven music, three incredible voices, and three homegrown artists who have a very bright future ahead of them, evidenced by the crowds – your typical dance music festival scene – embracing these artists with the same enthusiasm that a few years ago would be reserved for international headliners.

Stormzy‘s disappointing no-show was a blow softened only by the very welcome addition of One Day, the seven deep inner-west collective whose strength comes from how well these since-high-school friends complement each other on stage. You can’t recreate the chemistry that is built through years of friendship and that’s mirrored in how these artists work in concert; magnifying each other, but dropping back when the time calls for it, like when Jackie Onassis‘ Kai floats through a snippet of “Smoke Trials” or Horrorshow‘s Solo steals the show with some of the duo’s latest material. Rowdier, limb-flailing scenes came with the group’s rambunctious version of Scribe‘s “Not Many” and breakout hit “Love Me Less”, the smooth single taking on a more energetic form live.

Ducking out for a quick feed from Doughnut Time or Monster Rolls was a must before legging it over to the other end of the field to watch Cosmo’s Midnight bring the more familiar sounds of electro-house to the 909 Stage. It was a relatively calm and melodic moment for the thickened crowd before the atmosphere exploded with LDRU, the home-run-hitting producer who demanded much more energy than the one-note Yung Lean, the meme-generation champ whose mumbling bass-heavy turn-up worked well over at the Atari Stage, but fizzled after a few tracks.

The sunset slot was all about Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals, undoubtedly Listen Out’s MVPs, as far as musicianship goes. From “Come Down” to “Am I Wrong” – the latter featuring a seamless but all too brief instrumental cover of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” – .Paak had us dipping in the sun-soaked waters of Malibu with an incredible performance that coated hip hop and R&B with dense flakes of disco, funk, and rock, bringing life to one of the year’s greatest records.

It was hard to let go of hip hop once .Paak came and left the stage smoking, but Gorgon City and Claptone made a strong case for deeper-than-deep house, and in the latter’s case a furious blend of techno and disco bolstered by some seriously dazzling visuals.

Baauer was relentless with his big, muscly drops, any sense of calm only lasting for mere seconds before he’d throw us into an irresistible stupor of head-banging, back-bending bliss from set opener “Higher” straight through to the finish. Unlike Yung Lean before him, Baauer can keep repetitive, “all about the turn up” sets interesting with creative samples and a formula that actually works, incredibly well. Not many producers can turn Busta Rhymes’ stuttering into an earth-shattering beast and make it stick.

Though .Paak was the highlight of the entire day, one of the biggest surprises of the night was A$AP Ferg. Not because anyone was expecting him to bad – anyone who has seen him live before knows that he is more than capable on stage – but the range of sounds that Ferg expertly navigated could have summed up the festival all in one (and a bit) hour. He had hip hop, he had turn up, he rhymed over drop-driven trap (the electro perversion), and Ferg did it all with that fluid, dynamic flow which has seen him rise as one of Harlem’s finest. Whether he was getting a bit deeper with “Tatted Angel” or turning way, way, way up with a medley that included “Hella Hoes”, “Shabba”, “Work”, and “New Level”, Ferg spit brighter than the giant 400 degrees level fire that coloured the screen behind him. Though it’s awkward being in a crowd full of white kids aggressively dropping the ‘N’ bomb [a nasty byproduct of the cultural appropriation of hip hop slang and the ‘street image’ that apparently comes with it, largely thanks to clickfarm media and Instagram] so comfortably.

Travis Scott is one of the few who use autotune in the right way, hitting all the notes with that gravely texture the technology has given his voice, and it all comes across clearly on stage. It’s far from just ‘lit’ and ‘turn up’, though those are the words that would come easiest when asked to describe his set. It was pure energy and while not as impressively diverse as A$AP Ferg before him, Scott gave us more than a few reasons to rush out and pick up a copy of Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, while giving the security guards more than a few reasons to never want to work Listen Out again.

Local heroes RÜFÜS couldn’t quite get the crowd to rage like Scott, but they most definitely earned that headline slot, beaming that giant lighting set up across the field and proving an unstoppable force for Australian dance music. A few years ago they would have had an early set, now they are blazing through top billing at one of the country’s last-standing major dance festivals; that’s impressive in itself and shows how much their live show has evolved, no doubt growth credited to their time spent dominating dancefloors around the globe.