As I navigated through the winding roads leading to Byron Bay Parklands, I reflected on how much had shifted since my first Splendour in the Grass, five years ago.
Comparing then to now, ‘then’ included weeks of outfit planning, packing little food and plenty of pointless un-necessities, printing the timetable pristine and ready for careful set time selection. ‘Now’, on the other hand, I had jeans and jackets – dressing solely for warmth, driving a van packed full of fresh food and only the essential camping basics.
Friday started slowly though immediately intensified with Wolfmother at the Amphitheatre – I predicted the mosh to be placid at best, expectation dwindling as the crowd closed in. The band were better than nostalgic, they were outstanding, practically faultless, slamming out favourites ‘Woman’, ‘Vagabond’, and rounding off with the awaited ‘Joker And The Thief’. I was amazed the group, 15 years strong, were such impeccable performers, music still strong, still relevant, still drawing a headline-rivalling audience.
Image © Kalem Horn
Fidlar seemed so fair dinkum it was hard to believe. The band hailed from the United States, singer Zac Carper dressed as if fresh from knocking off the worksite. The group are bloody likeable – full of self-deprecation and cynical views; the crowd chanted “Shoey!” between each song, their response: “We aren’t from Australia, we don’t have to do that!”
I’ve never been totally sold on Winston Surfshirt’s smooth boy attitude, but his silky set at the Mix Up Tent almost completely changed my perspective. He never missed a beat, whether rapping or nailing the highs of his impressive sopranos, his vocals paired with funky backing instrumentals – notably including a trombone.
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Foals are in the middle of what appears to be a total sound transformation, releasing part one of a two-part record featuring less indie, and more rock. Their show reflected the genre shift, and while at times it all felt foreign, the performance was undeniably tidy; they play like well-rehearsed professionals. Fan-favourites ‘My Number’ and ‘Mountain At My Gates’ admittedly seemed a little thrown to the side, though lucky viewers in the front few rows were rewarded with singer Andrew Mears’ crowd surfing.
Pond - Image © Kalem Horn
Saturday began with an early-afternoon taste of the west coast’s psychedelic underdogs, Pond singer Nick Allbrook’s face and chest completely covered in blue glitter. The show was a little kooky, the frontman bringing his theatrical performing a-game; new music stood strong beside better-known releases, ‘Burnt Out Star’, ‘Tasmania’, and ‘Daisy’ executed beautifully.
Maribou State flooded the Mix Up Tent with their smooth-crooning hues at sunset – while a vocalist accompanied many of their tracks, the lyric-less compositions (‘Beginner’s Luck’ – a standout) allowed their impeccable production skills to shine.
I meandered to the Amphitheatre and sat on the hill to admire the incredible Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice; her no-sh.t attitude and stunning vocals were impossibly captivating. While originally, the high-streamed ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ was the only song I presumed to know, I was bowled over by a tirade of familiarity as the English band swept through ‘Beautifully Unconventional’, ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’, and ‘Bros’. While the singer is an obvious talent, the band as a package are a force to be reckoned with, balancing Shirley Manson (Garbage)-like rock and roll with delicate, thoughtfully-composed instrumentals.
The ‘Oz Mystery Act’ of Splendour in the Grass attracted an almost frightfully enormous crowd, Ocean Alley standing before tens of thousands, many fans squished shoulder to shoulder. The band are so comfortably cool, handling their instruments with effortless ease, older tracks from debut EP ‘Yellow Mellow’ meshing seamlessly with the 2018 record ‘Chiaroscuro’ which sling-shotted the group to international stardom.
Ocean Alley - Image © Kalem Horn
The long walk to the campsite for warm clothes proved completely worth it; I caught a glimpse of Friendly Fires bouncing around during ‘Skeleton Boy’. Despite not releasing any new music for a mammoth eight-year stretch, the sabbatical only seems to have invigorated the trio – their energy was epic.
Although Catfish and the Bottlemen have recently dropped their brand-new record, ‘The Balance’, those songs were really only peppered between better-known favourites from ‘The Ride’. Frontman Van McCann asserted his rock star status without being arrogant or overly confident – he was alluring, interestingly announcing each track by its numerical place on the album. The emotional tug of Catfish’s music never ceases to amaze me; mix that with their nostalgic, late '90s/early 2000s alternative rock-esque, and you’ve got one lethal, tear-jerking combination.
After Childish Gambino’s recent tour cancellation, and Chance the Rapper’s disappointing drop out, I was apprehensive about whether the artist would actually appear on stage. He proved me wrong – he appeared indeed, armed with a choir, a full band, and intricate stage props; I was surprisingly starstruck the moment the cameras captured his wide-eyed expression. “I have two rules for this performance: First rule – love me, and love yourself. Second rule – put your phones away. We don’t need to share this. Treat it like church.” In an hour and 15 minutes, he somehow showcased the many facets of his musical personality, lulling the crowd over with his summer-inspired dip into the RnB pool, ‘Summertime Magic’ and ‘Feels Like Summer’, briefly venturing into trap territory with 'because the internet'’s ‘IV. Sweatpants’, rewarding fans with discography favourites ‘Sober’ and ‘V. 3005’, and flawlessly recreating the iconic dance routine in the film clip of ‘This Is America’. Though despite it being a ‘gig’, the setlist actually took a backseat – there’s no denying his vocal beauty (sopranos soaring during ‘Redbone’), or rare musicality, but Childish Gambino’s incredible ability to captivate a crowd and conquer a stage is what felt most defining.
Sunday arrived with its equal sentiments of exhaustion and last-day blues; I ventured into the festival early for newcomers Erthlings at the GW McLennan. There’s no denying the wow-factor of an all-female band, particularly when its members are very talented teenagers. Popular single ‘Bridges’ is an undeniable earworm, although the girls showed exceptional promise throughout the entire half hour set.
Phony Ppl - Image © Kalem Horn
Phony Ppl’s first-ever Australian performance was crazy entertaining – the Brooklyn band transporting listeners to a jazz bar overseas, “You’re in New York City now, welcome!” Every member of the soul-influenced five piece flaunted natural-born musicianship, each introduced and offered their moments to attack their instruments solo.
I watched Psychedelic Porn Crumpets from the side of a tent which was bursting with excited people; around since 2016, yet only recently gaining the traction they deserve. They’ve clearly found a fitting niche – centring their recent album around the chaotic indie-rock Australians adore, although despite the wild popularity of ‘Keen For Kick Ons?’ (many departing after it was played) I was disappointed by the boycotting of their older, more experimental music.
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Mansionair isn’t a band I’ve properly explored in the past, although the decision to watch their set at the Mix Up Tent wasn’t a choice I regretted. For starters, their debut album ‘Shadowboxer’ is an impressive hole in one, packed to the brim with stunning pieces tied by an underlying Mansionair theme, without being repetitive. Jack Froggatt’s gender ambiguous vocals are absolutely lovely, paired exquisitely with swoony electronics.
Image © Kalem Horn
My most anticipated act were just as brilliant as expected, Tycho only drawing a humble crowd, though those there were clearly devoted. It’s a marvel, listening to people singing vague instrumentals, instead of lyrics – often the post-modern rock group lack a melody entirely, songs instead balanced by various sounds. A singer did accompany a handful of tracks – her voice angelic – though it was the vocal-free classics that soared, expertly telling a story without words.
When I first reviewed Cosmo’s Midnight, they had all but three releases; the rest of their set was pieced together with cleverly chosen fillers. It was amazing seeing how much the twins have refined their sound since then – the boys performed back to back bangers, every song recognisably Cosmo’s, and almost every track having made its way to Triple J’s regular rotation. There’s no denying they’ve found a formula and are concisely following it while composing, but that formula is theirs and theirs alone – and it’s an unbelievably funky one.
I’ve been reflecting on how much has shifted since my first Splendour in the Grass, five years ago. I’m smarter about who I see, based on the vicinity of the stages. I don’t disregard the early acts, often hidden gems, to simply meander around the campsite. I pack more pairs of socks than I think I’ll need, and still go through every pair. I know how to slow burn energy, instead of instantly running myself down.
But the indescribable buzz in the air as you walk around the grounds, the warm and fuzzies of watching a band on the Amphitheatre hill, the laughter in attempting to pack up (and down) a pretty pathetic campsite, the unseeable force that makes festival-goers feel united, young and old, Splendour virgin, or veteran… A lot of things have shifted since my first Splendour in the Grass – but those core feelings have never changed, not even five years on.
Click here to read part two of our 2019 Splendour review.