Festival Review: Sydney City Limits debuts with a bang at Centennial Park

It’s always going to be tough for a new festival to break into a seemingly saturated market and also have a line up that would rival just about any other festival across the world. Thankfully, the team behind Sydney City Limits know a thing or two about booking, curating and planning a successful festival in Australia.

After dropping the line up in late 2017 for its inaugural date at Sydney’s Centennial Park, I was honestly a little apprehensive about the return of a big indie festival in Sydney. With the demise of Big Day Out still fresh in the mind, I’ll be the first to admit I thought Sydney City Limits may have struggled to gain traction in the current market. Yeah, the line up was killer, but it seemed to have the same pitfalls that other big festivals some times struggle with: too much variety. There was a bit of everything, for everyone. Whether people were willing to pay almost $200 for a ticket for a one day festival and see 10 bands – if they were lucky – was one of my biggest concerns. I’m here to tell you now: I was a fool for thinking this.

Getting in early and catching 2017’s best Australian find in Stella Donnelly set things in motion for what proved to be a stellar day (not even sorry for the pun). Playing the best of her Thrush Metal EP, the dropping of the heartbreaking and completely beautiful “Boys Will Be Boys” was an early highlight as the West Australian held it down, solo, on stage. As the most important song of 2017, her delivery of “Boys Will Be Boys”, when matched with her wit and chat between songs, definitely highlighted why so many people have huge wraps on her.

Over on the Park Stage, Sigrid absolutely crushed her set. Admittedly going into her set knowing one song of hers, the Norwegian act was a massive surprise. Playing to a small but eager crowd, her mix of dance and indie pop was something I’d be more than happy to hear tour Australia again.

With the temperature hot and sunburn imminent, I ventured out to sample some of the beers on offer. Offering a good variety of craft beers through out the entirety of the festival was a masterstroke. Running out of most tap beers by 6pm wasn’t ideal though. A good mix of food stalls made it easy to choose something to eat, as I walked in on The Head and The Heart putting together a polished set. Their brand of alt-folk was a clear crowd favourite, as their cover of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” definitely got the Australian (and New Zealand) vibes going.

Staying over in the Big Top, wunderkid Car Seat Headrest fought through some early sound issues to deliver a killer set. While the closing few tracks did make their 45 minutes feel like it dragged on a little, they’d done enough earlier with “Bodys”, “Fill In The Blank” and “Drunk Drivers/ Killer Whales” for it to not matter all that much.

Heading over to catch Gang Of Youths, their sound was a little bit off as they drew what was easily the biggest crowd of the day. Through no fault of their own, I can only think it would sound restrictions that caused them to turn the amps down from 11. Still playing a massive set, the clear stand out moment was absolute sleeper hit “Let Me Down Easy”. Closing on “Say Yes To Life”, the crowd’s adrenaline was pumping as they were then greeted by your (and my mum’s) favourite act, Vance Joy. Having released his second album, Nation of Two, just the day before, it was great to see him play plenty of his older material as well. Throwing in a Lionel Richie cover, the artist formerly known as James Keogh won me over.

Catching the last half of The Avalanches made for a refreshing change for an act that were yet to live up to the hype that had been delivered over the past 17 years. Making this the third time I’d seen them since they re-emerged onto the stage two years ago, it seems as though they’ve finally worked out what type of show they want to play as a band.

Proceeding to suss out a decent spot for both Beck and Justice, catching the end of Future’s set definitely put a dampener on the mood through out the festival. I’m sure his set appeased the fans who camped out for him, but I’d be happy to leave Future’s set in the past.

Making his long awaited return to our shores, Beck seemingly had everyone aged over 25 absolutely frothing for him. I’ll admit, I only know four Beck songs (two of which he didn’t play), but his hour long set was a showcase in musicianship. It was clean and crisp, played up to the crowd and genuinely left you feeling like you’d witnessed something truly special. Dropping “Loser” second song in didn’t hurt the vibes either. What a master.

Closing out the night with the one-two French kiss of Justice and Phoenix was a triumphant moment for Sydney City Limits. With the bass of Justice and a cheeky sample of “D.A.N.C.E” serving me well, choosing to spend the last hour of the festival with Phoenix was a reward in itself. Playing a well balanced set that featured tracks mostly from their last three albums, the Parisians were the best I’d seen them. Dropping “Lisztomania”, “Rome”, “Lasso”, “Entertainment” and “J-Boy” through out the earlier parts of the set was pure bliss as a shortened version of “Funky Square Dance” left me completely satisfied. (On a slightly related note, the album version is an absolute tune). Closing out with “1901” and an instrumental backed crowd surf from front man Thomas Mars, I happily left Sydney City Limits stoked with how the day panned out.

As the return of the big festival was a resounding success on its first attempt, you’re left wondering how the team at Sydney City Limits will top next year. As a punter, I’m hoping they don’t rest on their laurels and keep creating a festival that will only continue to grow over the years.

The reviewer attended this event on February 25th. Photos by Bruce Baker.