Fairgrounds 2015: a festival for those who've outgrown festivals
You really felt like you were at an old country fair when you first arrived at Fairgrounds in the town of Berry, two hours south of Sydney. The air was fresh, the flies were everywhere and the livestock sheds and regal old grandstand of the Berry Showgrounds were intact and seemingly unchanged in many decades.
But, instead of creaky carnival rides and sheepdog trials, it was live music from some of the world's best current indie acts that filled the air.
There were a few key issues that the festival got wrong in its first year, issues that will hopefully be rectified in the years to come. But more on that later.
There were so many reasons to love Fairgrounds. The festival's small capacity meant that you never felt claustrophobic, despite the fact the event sold out. Organisers perfectly executed their aim for this to be a family-friendly event. Hopefully more parents will learn this is a safe and fun environment for both them and their kids next year.
But the winner, as it always should be, was the music.
The highlight came courtesy of Father John Misty. The incredible performance Josh Tillman and his band offered can't have disappointed any fan, old or new. Tillman writhed around the stage and launched himself into the crowd during opener 'I Love You, Honeybear'. 'Strange Encounter' was even more epic thanks to a bold sunset that burned behind the stage.
The heat had subsided, the setting sun was stunning, the audience were primed. It seemed everything was set for a perfect Father John Misty set. The only issue was the deafening, chirping cicadas of Berry. But they were no match for Tillman.
"Do you have any idea what it costs to import American crickets, just to take my show to the next level? Just to set me apart from the other bands performing today? Unfortunately the zen garden waterfall sound effect is on the fritz."
Moments like that prove that Tilmann is the whole package. We already knew he was a smart songwriter with an amazing voice, but he proved he's an amazing performer as well.
Speaking into a camera phone, he was self-effacing. "Isn't it amazing to think that, thousands of years from now, our children's children's children will watch that video and learn from our mistakes? 'Great great grandfather, why did people listen to homeless Chris Isaak when they could have been listening to Adele?'"
He also wished for a shift in pop music's mood.
"I really hope that pop music becomes profoundly depressed," he said. "Existentially fatalistic."
But most importantly, the music was a perfect representation of Father John Misty's lavish records. While there are no strings or horns on stage, you don't miss them. Tillman's brilliant band replicates every note and every emotion perfectly.
'Bored In The USA' was depressingly close to home, 'I'm Writing A Novel' was as rousing as it was when we first heard it years ago and hopefully no kids picked up on the themes of the brilliant 'Chateau Lobby #4 (in C For Two Virgins)'. All in all, it was a flawless set from one of 2015's most revered performers.
While no one outshone Father John Misty, the entire day was filled with magical musical highlights.
Meg Mac proved why she's become such a formidable star of Australian music over the past couple of years. That powerful voice sounded even better live than on record.
Everything – from the musical arrangements to the way the stage was set up – just seemed flawless. 'Never Be' already feels like a classic just a couple of months since its release and the Fairgrounds crowd seemed to agree.
Everything is grandiose when it comes to the music of Mercury Rev. Sweeping strings, Jonathan Donahue’s soaring vocals, the big drums, long, resonate guitar chords.
Their music is enormous, so it stands to reason that the band delivered it with fitting flamboyance at Fairgrounds. They made enormous gestures as they played through a set of classics and new material and it looked like they were having so much fun.
The highlight of the set came towards the end when they played ‘Holes’ and ‘Opus 40’ back-to-back. It was heartening to see the core members of the band still have such affection for these songs. And nice to see parents exposing their kids to the music they found so epic and awe-inspiring in the ‘90s.
The Newtown Social Club stage was a hidden gem of the festival. It's an unassuming little shed, offering much-prized shade, plus hay bales and rickety benches to sit on. What's more, there was some amazing music to witness there.
Where a typical country fair might have a bush poetry component, the warm, relatable, overtly-Australian narratives of Adam Gibson & the Ark Ark Birds served as a kind of indie variant.
Later, Jessica Pratt played a haunting, intimate set. You couldn't tell which guitar parts were played by her or her offsider. They were so brilliantly interlinked. Her voice was unmistakable though. It's precious but strong, tuneful but strange. She had a small crowd, but one that left raving about her set.
Royal Headache singer Shogun prowled the stage, shirtless and menacing. He was part Iggy Pop, part Sam Cooke, part Jimmy Barnes and his band were scintillating behind him. Even when their guitar dropped out they played 'Wouldn't You Know' with aplomb. Even if Shogun said it sounded like "elevator music on mushrooms".
The crowd tried to match Shogun's intensity on new songs 'High', 'Another World' and 'Garbage'. But it wasn't until older songs 'Down The Lane', 'Psychotic Episode' and 'Girls' that they really let loose. The band ended up finishing early, the heat and technical issues soured their experience, even though we loved it.
The addition of keyboardist Quincy McCrary has transformed Unknown Mortal Orchestra's live show. The sound was richer and it even allowed frontman Ruban Neilson the chance to put down his guitar, strut the stage and climb the speakers at one point.
'From The Sun', 'How Can U Luv Me' and 'Ffunny Ffriends' were all extra funky. Conversely, 'Multi Love' was remarkably unchanged. The entire band nailed every note just like it sounds on record. If you’ve heard it, you know that’s a special thing.
By the time C.W. Stoneking and his band started, it was seriously hot. It didn't seem fair that the whole ensemble could still look so good.
But it took more than afternoon sun to stop a big old dance party during the noisy old-style rock'n'roll 'Get On The Floor' early in the set.
Stoneking has always been a great live act, but the addition of Madison and Memphis Kelly on backing vocals has been an absolute revelation. They’re brilliant singers and dancers and made ‘Mama’s Got The Blues’ sound particularly spooky.
Stoneking’s music takes us to a different time and place. Somewhere older, scarier, classier, or completely fantastical. That served as some much appreciated respite in the sizzling Berry heat.
Locals Shining Bird got us started with some laid back and lazy indie rock at midday, closing on excellent and epic new single ‘Rivermouth’.
Methyl Ethyl kept things cruisy, more than living up to the promise they’ve shown on record. Jake Webb is one of the country’s best vocalists and soon plenty of people are going to know it.
It wasn't just music that made Fairgrounds a worthy experience. There was plenty more to see and do outside of the acts that appeared on the timetable.
Kids ran around freely. They made use of the field games. They enjoyed stories read to them by strange older people who have their parents star struck.
Both young and not-so-young revelers relaxed in the on-ground pool to escape the heat. Those without offspring drank beers, ate oysters and lazed around in the shade on the periphery of the main grounds.
But Fairgrounds was not perfect.
Just about every vendor on site had run out of food before nightfall, an obvious and understandable point of bother to many people. It's not fair to call such an enormous and vital miscalculation a teething issue. When there's an event of this length, particualrly one geared towards families, there needs to be sufficient food and water.
There also needs to be shelter - and there was. But the blazing heat and lack of shade near the main stage made watching every band a hazardous ordeal. To do the festival sensibly would mean sitting out an act or two throughout the day so to minimise the effects of the harmful summer sun.
But the fact that these are the biggest issues in a festival's first year means they've done pretty damn well.
If Fairgrounds gets the right line up again in 2016, don't sleep on sorting out a weekend in beautiful Berry. Everyone will want to be a part of it.