Review: Big Day Out: Flemington Racecourse, 26 January

I went to my last Big Day Out five years ago. It was a great lineup (the Rage Against the Machine year) and I know I enjoyed the bands I saw, but I also remember having no desire to attend another BDO after that day. I can’t remember why, just a feeling that has stayed with me saying ‘never again’.

On Saturday, I make my prodigal return to the racecourse. While attempting to find the media lounge, I get a lay of the BDO land. The oddest thing that stands out to me is how much the festival resembles the Royal Melbourne Show. There are amusement park rides and the merch tent looks like a showbag stand. A lot is going on to entertain punters, rather than a reliance on the live music to do just that (God, I feel like Milhouse). This year also sees the addition of Mexican wrestling and Chow Town, a cross-section of local eateries, which both seem entirely pointless. These additions are so far removed from the old attitudes of Big Day Out – since when did it become a destination for food connoisseurs? At a festival, food is fuel and nothing more. One hotdog, please.

I wander past the tiny Sea Shepherd stall as I make another zig zag across the site. It’s a small remnant of the political culture alternative music festivals used to support. It’s also funny considering BDO’s new partner C3 who run Lollapalooza, one of the original festivals to provide platforms for political groups. RHCP later promote the Sea Shepherd cause on the stage screens ahead of their slot, but that’s about as radical as things get. It’s another snapshot of how alternative music has found itself cross from the political to the commercial in the last 20 years.

I’m drawn in by the heavy, electric sounds of Jackson Firebird on the Red Stage. They play guitar blues that echoes ‘70s influences and are better in the flesh than you’d expect from their recordings. They need to learn to translate their live sound and energy to future releases – they’re heading to South By Southwest this year, so maybe they’ll get that chance.

I pass by the Boiler Room and wonder whether some singleted kids will leave the tent at all day.

Having interviewed Delta Spirit as soon as I arrived on site, I make sure to catch their set. Frontman Matt Vasquez is determined to engage the crowd during their early slot. The audience joins in on handclaps and some call and response, but when it comes down to it very few people have intimate knowledge of Delta Spirit lyrics. Three-quarters of the way through, perhaps noticing attention spans dwindling, Vasquez scales the stage right scaffolding tower while still singing. He gets people’s attention alright, a sea of hands raising to take photos of him passing by the ‘climbers will be evicted’ sign. They close with last year’s single ‘California’.

Meeting up with friends, we herd ourselves into one of the drinking pens. While reclining on the grass, the sounds of Jagwar Ma float by. I’m curious to hear what they’re like with their recent signing to Future Classic, and am pleasantly met with a sound similar to the Tough Alliance x World’s End Press. Their newest single ‘The Throw’ is getting a lot of attention recently, already amassing 31,000+ plays in five days. Both of these factors have me pretty excited for upcoming releases.

Worrying I won’t be able to find my way back to the media room (I accidentally ended up in the RHCP compound last time), I arrive half an hour early for my interview with Childish Gambino. Donald Glover and I talk aboutAdventure Time, his fight with Lena Dunham in Girls and we make a gif.

On a high I head back to BDO reality, wandering off to Jeff the Brotherhood, who I’d recommended my friends check out while I was away. The duo are a good recommendation and everyone in the tent is digging them, but my friends are nowhere to be seen. They haven’t left the bar.

From my locale I wonder who is playing the Essential Stage. It sounds like the vocalist has cotton balls in his mouth and shoddy guitars. I realise it’sDeath Grips and feel my hipster points drop. When I run into a friend later and say this he tells me I have ‘no appreciation for punk rock.’ I might not, but whoever is DJing between bands at the Essential Stage does, playing back-to-back Rage Against the Machine before Childish Gambino. This awkwardly changes to soul a few minutes before Gambino’s set.

He opens with ‘Fire Fly’ and with the majority of the crowd singing along you’d be mistaken to think people only know him as Troy from Community. He acts out every phrase and his body language matches up with the lyrics he raps, not like a pantomime but like someone who has spent years in front of a camera. His facial expressions and actions are a positive side effect of his acting and comedy credentials. It is a shock to the system to hear Gambino freestyle about ‘your girl sucking [his] dick’ and him ‘cumming in her ass’ only hours after our undeniably lovely chat. There are a lot of people who don’t take him seriously as a rapper for this reason, but as he says, he’s as honest when he’s rapping as he is in any other situation. This is just another side of his personality that he is expressing. As far as I’m concernedHipster Runoff can suck a big one.

There’s no chance of getting into the compounds for the Blue and Orange stages so late in the game. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have started by the time we find a spot. The YYYs play ‘Mosquito’ from their upcoming record, and perhaps it’s from being so far back, but the crowd seems only partly engaged by what’s happening up on stage. Karen O looks genuinely happy to be there, bouncing around in her tassled KO jacket and red pants. It’s great to hear songs like ‘Cheated Hearts’, but there’s that emptiness of sound that sometimes comes from playing at a festival, at least when heard this far back. Their biggest song is their last, ‘Zero’.

Not being a big Killers fan, I consent to stay and watch them purely out of the knowledge that there’ll be no way of getting back to our spot for Chili Peppers. The Killers easily win me over within minutes. You can tell their career started in the entertainment capital of Las Vegas, and the years have only added the best elements to their live performance. Brandon Flowers’ voice has effortless strength and he has a smile on his face the entire set. They kick off with ‘Mr Brightside’ and close with ‘When You Were Young’, interspersing the set with all of their hits aside from ‘Bones’, and even debut a couple of new tracks from their upcoming release including ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’. Reminding those without temporary tattooed faces that it’s Australia Day, the Killers chuck in ‘Waltzing Matilda’, which is impressive, though so high in corn that fructose intolerant sufferers immediately have to run for the bathroom. Perhaps the AFL should get them to headline the Grand Final one year?

The Red Hot Chili Peppers get off to an odd start with ‘Monarchy of Roses’, with Anthony Keidis’ vocals put through some kind of distorted filter. Whether it’s for dramatic effect or to freshen up a classic, who knows. Hardcore fans might love it but for the majority who are just here for the hits, it comes off as strange. The rest of the set goes hit/other/jam session/hit/other/jam session. Each hit is sprung on the audience who can’t know what’s coming next. It’s pretty special hearing thousands of people sing along to ‘Otherside’, matching lyrical dips and swells. Flea talks to the crowd even more than Kiedis, getting screams of appreciation when he says he ‘had placenta all over [his] face in this town.’ It’s only when you see the biggest bands of the ‘90s (a time before internet) that you realise how freakish their talent is. All four members have astounding skill, which bands just don’t need in order to be popular these days. They don’t play ‘Scar Tissue’, but the encore includes ‘Give It Away’.

It’s during RHCP that most of the friend-shoulder-riding happens. Big Day Out is probably the first festival in a long while where these people are heckled so viciously and even have things thrown at them. I’m not sure which is worse, the bottle-throwers or the view-obscurers. Making my way out of the festival site, I have managed to avoid most morons of the day, seeing only a few and from a distance. But within 20 metres of freedom from the crowds two guys come up from behind me – one riding a wheelie-bin, the other pushing it – and they ram into the back of my ankles. I can’t wait for Golden Plains.

Photo: Ian Laidlaw

Originally published 30 January 2013 on Everguide.com.au

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