Festival Review: Splendour in the Grass – North Byron Parklands, Byron Bay (22.07.16 – 24.07.16)

Splendour in the Grass has existed as a must-attend festival in the minds of almost every Australian music fan since its inception in 2001. Widely regarded as one of the music events on the Australian calendar, the Byron Bay festival has seen some of the world’s best tread its stages and offer up live music experiences that would tickle the fancy of any punter looking for an unforgettable time.

For me, I’d never attended the festival myself until this year’s line up was revealed and I decided to finally bite the bullet and get myself out to the North Byron Parklands in the middle of winter. I say ‘middle of winter’, but this year’s outing at Splendour was anything but wintry, with the need for gumboots and rain being swapped out for sunscreen and plenty of cool bevs instead, as temperatures sat within the warm high twenties throughout each day.

Thursday night was spent at the Smirnoff House, where DJs took the club-goers through 2006, 2007 and 2008 in music – from Muscles to Bloc Party, Chemical Brothers and Sneaky Sound System, it was an easy way to get into the party vibe early before heading out to see Touch Sensitive and Wave Racer continue proceedings out on the Mix Up Stage at the tail end of the evening.

The Avalanches-5

FRIDAY

Wandering around the site early Friday afternoon, it’s obvious that this type of festival has become as much about branding and the ‘vibe’ as it is about the music on site. Nestled in amongst the Tiny Dancer and Mix Up Tents, the little hub housing Kiehl’s, Rimmel London and Aveda pop-ups remained popular stops for those Splendour fans wanting to perfect their festival blow outs each day or treat themselves to a mini-festival makeover, while Gelato Messina, Doughnut Time and the Bourke Street Bakery were situated nearby for people to sink their teeth into some awesome food. With ping pong tables set up, fashion stalls scattered throughout and miscellaneous bars/pop-up restaurants established in the same area, you could base your entire Splendour experience around this one part of the site, if you wanted.

The Global Village hosted yoga and meditation sessions in the mornings and if you were suffering from a hangover on Saturday (hands up, let’s be honest on this one), you could stop by any stall in the area and get those woes taken care of quickly. There were also some excellent opportunities on site for kids and families who were wanting some time out from the larger stages, with dance demonstrations and other more interactive experiences on offer.

Friday night had The Strokes and The Avalanches headline on the Amphitheatre, while Hermitude held things down in the Mix Up Tent. While afternoon and early evening sets by the likes of DMA’s, The Kills, The 1975 and Jack Garratt had set a solid bar for the rest of the night time program, I felt like I’d seen some of the best sets earlier in the day. Alex Lahey and Nothing But Thieves on the Amphitheatre stage earlier on Friday afternoon brought an excellent response by the crowd in attendance and we were particularly enraptured by Lahey’s command of the stage and the way the success of her set would continue to be talked about, even by Sunday night. Sampa the Great, over in the Mix Up Tent, was equally as impressive – it was the first time I’d seen her perform after hearing so many great things about her live show, I can’t wait to see her again.

Sampa The Great-5

The night belonged to The Strokes though, delivering in places The Avalanches simply didn’t. Both artists came to this festival after a considerable time away from Australian audiences and both came with a lot of expectation weighted on each respective set. I’d not seen either group before so I had nothing to base these Splendour experiences on, but I was keen either way.

The Avalanches, with their eerie delivery of Australian Crawl’s “Reckless” as an opener, had thousands upon thousands pour into the Amphitheatre to witness the performance of Wildflower material live for the first time in this capacity (festival with live band), not to mention Since I Left You classics. However, it felt like things were still a bit shaky and the first half of the set was a slow burner that lost a fair few people by the time they reached the midway point (though, much of the early leavers were likely to be heading for Hermitude or Band of Horses, regardless…). To give the band credit, once they hit their stride, they hit it well and had their rhythm found well and truly by the end of the set. On stage, Spank Rock appeared to be reading lyrics as he rapped them, which was slightly off-putting, but the enthusiasm exerted by the band and vocalists on stage was enough to keep us there for the rest of the set. It would be great to see The Avalanches on a headline tour where they get to flesh their full stage production out even further and have more control over the setting; I feel like a festival stage live wasn’t the best environment for such a long-awaited return.

The Strokes, with their effortlessly cool presence even now after they came burning through with Is This It back in 2001, picked up after keeping the audience waiting half an hour and didn’t waste time once on stage in delivering a set of old and new cuts that would’ve pleased any music lover with a passing interest in their catalogue. Even from our campsite, Julian Casablancas’ vocals could be heard clearly as he led the crowd through a rousing rendition of “Someday” and “Reptilia” – two of my favourites.

The Cure-9

SATURDAY

In my ‘Best Of’ wrap of Splendour, quite a few of those artists who made the feature were all on Saturday’s program. Starting strong with NGAIIRE in the Mix Up Tent that afternoon and finishing with the epic show delivered by The Cure in the Amphitheatre that night, the gravity of Splendour in the Grass in the eyes of many people all this time really sunk in for me. This was a festival where anyone could find some new piece of music they mightn’t have been interested in prior and at the same time, feel pangs of pride as they see they favourite Australian groups celebrated on arguably, some of the largest stages they would have played.

The goss around the site that day revolved around the huge traffic delays and issues that left a sour taste in many festival-goers’ mouths after Friday night’s program came to an end; some people opted to hitchhike back to Byron/accommodation elsewhere, while others waited hours to get out of the site itself. Even though I may have been camped next to a stream that, through the weekend was more like a ditch, I was stoked to have missed that entire ordeal.

Saturday afternoon saw some of my favourite Australian artists perform sets I won’t be forgetting for some time; some I’d never seen live before, some I’d seen quite regularly over the last 12 months. The Szymon tribute performance on the GW McLennan Stage was emotional and stunning – a set you can read a longer rundown of HERE. With the likes of Boo Seeka, Slum Sociable, Harts and Montaigne holding it down across the main three stages, festival-goers who had rolled up early were definitely treated to some quality local tunes.

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, a band who I always seem to miss whenever they come through Adelaide, hit the Amphitheatre for a 3pm show and it was incredible. Having two drummers in a band might seen excessive, but watching Eric and Michael perform with such precise synchronicity was a highlight in itself.

Gang Of Youths-7

Gang of Youths took over at 4:30pm and easily matched the crowd DMA’s had the previous afternoon, laying down one of the festival sets of the weekend. After seeing the band a handful of times in the UK only in May, at Falls over New Year’s before that and of course, on their April album tour, their set wasn’t much of a surprise to me (though, the decision to roll out “Knuckles White Dry” to a crowd easily exceeding 10,000 people took me by surprise), but all the same, this is a band that continues to excite and impress me. The hold they have over a crowd this big wasn’t something I was fully able to comprehend until I saw it being exerted on Saturday evening as the sun set and the band was leading the crowd through “Magnolia”, confetti cannons showering people who were already peaking euphorically. It was a special moment no doubt the audience and band alike would’ve needed a moment to process afterward.

Between At The Drive-In and The Cure’s Amphitheatre sets, Crystal Fighters, What So Not and James Vincent McMorrow had people scattering between the Mix Up and GW McLennan tents, bringing diverse musical flavours to Splendour’s largest night. With The Cure’s headline show coming through Adelaide on Friday night, I’d told myself that I would be okay with missing a half hour of their allotted three-hour headline set but as it turned out, I was glued to the Amphitheatre stage right until the end.

Arriving just after the iconic group doled out the first three songs of Disintegration, I was caught up in feels – having grown up listening to this band over the years, finally finally hearing Robert Smith’s vocals live was an experience I knew I had to soak up as much as possible. Though The Cure only played for maybe two and a half hours in the end, the set list was mint. Four encores following the main set, totalling in 30 songs all up, The Cure met all the expectations I’d had of them heading in and, as one of the main reasons I’d even decided to do the festival this year, I left as an extremely happy camper.

Sigur Ros-3

SUNDAY

Sunday was a slow, slow start – full disclosure on that front. If Green Buzzard wasn’t opening the Amphitheatre stage that day, there’s a good chance I would have remained passed out in my tent until later that afternoon. Still, it was a good decision made to pull it together enough to get out into the last day of antics early; after downing two Mary’s burgers in the Gold Bar that afternoon, I was ready for whatever came by. The one-two set punch of Green Buzzard and Blossoms back to back was enough to re-energise; both bands delivering solid sets of indie rock during the steamy afternoon.

The late afternoon portion of our final day on site was spent wandering through the Global Village and between the GW McLennan and Tiny Dancer Stages, where we jumped from the sounds of Marlon Williams and the Yarra Benders over to those of Remi who, by the time we got to the Tiny Dancer Stage, had Baro on stage with him turning things up. Williams and the band on the GW McLennan stage also made our ‘Best Of’ feature, but probably stood out as one of the few bands I watched over the weekend feeling immensely proud of, as much as anything else. Not many other acts could storm a Splendour stage and whip the crowd into a frenzy laying down some frenetic bluegrass on a late afternoon time slot. Nor could many vocalists render the majority of a crowd that big silent, armed with a powerful range and an acoustic guitar. Seeing how far Marlon and the Yarra Benders have come over the past year alone has been fascinating, and their place on this festival line up certainly solidified the status their sound is reaching within a more mainstream Australian audience.

Marlon Williams-4

Ducking back down the other end of the festival site, Courtney Barnett and Boy & Bear were holding things down at the Amphitheatre, bringing a powerhouse few hours of Australian music to the crowd before things were toned back with James Blake‘s arrival. The British musician, along with two band mates on stage with him, deserved a much larger crowd on Sunday night but for those of us who were there, hearing that voice pierce the chilly night air was something special. Atmospheric, evocative and oozing with charm, Blake was the perfect precursor to the experience waiting for us over at the Mix Up Tent – Sigur Rós.

The trio had the crowd at an eerie standstill when I arrived – entering the tent, you were entering a realm of live music that was equal parts hypnotic and meditative. As their only Australian show, the was an extra layer of ambience applied to Sigur Rós’ show on Sunday night; we were all lapping each and every sound up, knowing this was a show not to be seen elsewhere in the country. People cheered when it was appropriate to do so but otherwise, remained completely entranced by the lights, the vocals, the musicianship. Truly beautiful. Taking time to go and sit outside the tent and soak up the last half hour of their set, Sigur Rós provided the perfect late night soundtrack to come down off three days and nights of running around and partying to.

While Flume was busy bringing an all-star array of Australian guests on stage with him at the end of the night up on the Amphitheatre stage, I was happy to not be in the throngs of fans for it. I was tired, but satisfied with my first Splendour outing – I get what the fuss is about now. It’s one of those festivals everyone should do at least once, and now I’ve gotten one on the board for myself.

Top work, organisers.

All photos by Andrew Wade. Head HERE to access our full hub of Splendour in the Grass coverage!