Splendour in the Grass
July 27, 28, 29 Belongil Fields, Byron Bay
A little rain can go a long way. A little hail goes even further. For the most-part, Splendour In The Grass 2012 delivered perfect festival weather – moderate temperatures and picture perfect blue skies. Except, that is, for one 30 minute blast early on day one, when the heavens opened up and rained down upon us, literally flooding parts of the site and turning much of the rest into quicksand-like mud. From there, the rest of the weekend was character building, to say the least.
But a little character can also go a long way, and with a typically fine line up on offer the capacity crowd got on with watching bands, sampling the diverse festival cuisine and draining mid-strength beverages.
This reviewer was watching an outstanding Australian debut from San Diego native Youth Lagoon, aka Trevor Powers, when the storm hit. With an additional guitarist fleshing out the sound of his terrific indietronica slash Americana debut album The Year Of Hibernation, Powers built songs from sparse electronic drums up to lush crescendos.
At the smaller GW McLennan tent, Australian up and comer Emma Louise pleased a loyal crowd with her breakout hit Jungle, but elsewhere her set was like toned down trip hop and lacked impact.
Michael Kiwanuka came with big wraps having taken out the BBC Sound Of 2012 poll, and his set delivered faithful interpretations of debut album Home Again, Kiwanuka’s voice the obvious highlight.
Kate Miller-Heidke was a surprising stand out in the same venue, her mash up of Eminem’s The Real Slim Shady with Nikki Minaj's verse from Kanye West's Monster a real crack up.
Friday night's run home on the main stage was as strong as anything all weekend, with The Shins packing their set full of classics alongside tracks from new record Port Of Morrow, the rousing singalong to latest single It's Only Life standing up particularly well next to older material.
At The Drive In took the first day honours however, their post-hardcore intensity perfectly suited to the live arena as they leant heavily on their final album, Relationship Of Command. One Armed Scissor closed out the set, and the energy at the Supertop main stage was as high as it would be all weekend.
A quick trip back to the GW McLennan tent was required to take in the epic post-rock sounds of Explosions In The Sky, a band that simply belong on the stage. Then came the tough but ultimately wise call to high tail it back to the main stage for Jack White's Australian solo debut performance, halfway through Explosions' set.
White was clad in black, and had a similarly clad black backing band made up of guys, that swapped halfway through his set to a second, completely different backing band, dressed entirely in white, and made up of women. The stage never looked as stylish all weekend, as White tore through a set that bettered any White Stripes set this reviewer has seen. The closing one-two punch of Sixteen Saltines into Seven Nation Army brought house down.
With sore legs readjusting to trudging through the mud, Saturday was off to a slow start until Last Dinosaurs rocked out the main stage with post punk energy to burn. But Brooklyn quiet achievers Here We Go Magic were calling at the GW McLennan tent and they didn't disappoint.
Perhaps a little lacking in the stage presence stakes, they made up for it with technical virtuosity and some excellent white noise soundscape peaks at the end of songs. Collector and I Believe In Action proved the highlights.
Fellow Brooklyn outfit Friends had one of the most infectious stage presences of the weekend thanks to charismatic lead singer Samantha Urbani, but it couldn't hide that their songs need work. Over at the main stage, Band Of Skulls proved a favourite of many, unleashing some swaggering retro rock, the combination of Russell Marsden and Emma Richardson's lead vocals proving a winner.
Seekae were one of the surprises of the weekend, their late afternoon slot on the big stage at the Mix Up Tent proving they could hold their own in a stadium style environment as well as any club. By the time they got to standout track 3, they had the crowd in their collective palms.
Ladyhawke was another to exceed expectations, with massive singalongs to crowd favourites My Delirium, Paris Is Burning and Sunday Drive literally shaking the foundations of the Supertop. Another band set on shaking foundations was punk-grunge pioneers Mudhoney, who look in surprisingly good nick and gave their devoted thirty-something fans plenty to get excited about with a ball tearing rendition of Suck You Dry. When he put his guitar down, for a moment Mark Arm could have been a younger, healthier Iggy Pop.
Mudhoney's crowd numbers swelled towards the end of their set, but it wasn't the Seattle veterans they were there to see.
In the only real programming disaster of the festival, Lana Del Rey was hosted on the smaller GW McLennan stage, and the migration of a crowd hell bent on hearing Video Games was something to see. For her part, Del Rey brought a white baby grand piano, string section, guitar player, and a neat "balcony" jettisoned off the side of the stage that she could both climb onto, and walk down to the crowd barrier from, in order to "see my people," as she put it.
Hardly the trainwreck many were hoping for, the lack of any beats or the hip hop element so present on her debut album meant the performance was, however, a little one dimensional. That said, Video Games was as special as many hoped for, with perhaps the loudest singalong of the entire weekend.
It was left then to the worst clash of the weekend to close out the day. The Dirty Three looked to be in fine form headlining the GW McLennan Tent, with Warren Ellis showing off some typically eccentric dance moves between shredding his violin mercilessly.
Perhaps it was a mistake to leave early for Bloc Party then, who were by no means less than awesome, but not quite as awe-inspiring as the Dirty Three. The set list was solid, although the newer material didn't come up particularly well. In something of a surprise, the encore belted out Ares, Flux and the typically brilliant Helicopter, but left out Like Eating Glass. It wasn't Bloc Party’s best Splendour outing, but it was the most packed the Supertop would be all weekend.
With hangovers aplenty, thankfully the mud had started to dry out a little, and organisers had done a good job of piling woodchips on the worst bits.
Edinburgh four piece Django Django gave the mid-afternoon revellers plenty to get excited about with their unique and fairly warped take on electronic pop. With plenty of loopy sounds and crazy, matching outfits, it was hard to leave their stage for ex-Fleet Foxes drummer J. Tillman's Father John Misty project.
It turned out to be the right decision though, with the bearded and scruffy front man turning in a performance of Warren Ellis proportions, dancing and strutting his way around the stage like Mick Jagger throwing caution to the wind. The hilarious Every Man Needs A Companion, with its sly references to the Bible, was an undoubted highlight.
Perhaps the most unlikely inclusion on the bill this year, Fun. (sic) proved to be just that. Doing the smart thing and leaving their best known songs We Are Young and Some Nights to the end of the set, lead singer Nate Ruess worked the crowd to maximum effect, ensuring a chorus of voices shouting along.
Metric were one of the most anticipated acts following their outstanding Parklife shows a couple of years back, but after a strong opening that included Artificial Nocturne, Youth Without Youth, Help I'm Alive and Synthetica, the power cut out and by the time they returned their set had been cut dramatically short.
Missy Higgins drew an impressive crowd to the GW McLennan stage, but it was over at the Mix Up tent that the hype machine was hitting overload, with Azealia Banks getting ready to take the stage. It was a short set of no more than 25 minutes, but in that time she sure managed to leave a mark. Her signature gorgeous smile combined with biting lyrics to devastating effect, marking her as the smiling assassin of hip hop, and on Jumanji and especially 212, she worked the crowd into nothing short of a frenzy.
With The Kooks in their element live and performing catchy Brit pop like it was 1995, there was an abundance of choices to the end. But as with Coldplay last year, and the Flaming Lips the last time the festival was held at its Byron Bay, "spiritual home" of Belongil Fields, Splendour saved the best for last.
Much maligned for his music industry tirades and revolving door of musicians, few would have guessed the Billy Corgan's Smashing Pumpkins would live to rule the day. But with a cover of Kiss's Black Diamond, followed in quick succession by Zero, Bullet With Butterfly Wings and Today, the Pumpkins army rose as one and were clearly alive and well.
A few choice new cuts were thrown in by way of The Celestials, Quasar and the 10 minute Oceania, but by and large it was a greatest hits set, with Tonight, Tonight, 1979, Ava Adore and Cherub Rock all in the mix.
Corgan left a couple of surprises up his sleave for the end of the show however, with Muzzle closing off the main set, before an extended encore brought a simply electric cover of Bowie's Space Oddity, followed by an insanely heavy and epic sermon in the form of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness deep cut X.Y.U. "Bye bye... Baby bye bye!" Corgan screamed at the moshpit, and then, in a flash of blinding lights he was gone. Mesmerising.
There's nothing like finishing on a high note to make you forget the endless queues and mud, and while Splendour wasn't without its pitfalls in 2012, as ever, the superior artist programming ensured it was memorable. First class honours to Smashing Pumpkins, At The Drive In, Dirty Three, Jack White and Azealia Banks, while special mentions also go to Bloc Party, Explosions In The Sky, Seekae, Father John Misty and The Shins, who rounded out the top ten.