Boasting an impressive all-Aussie lineup, Queenscliff Music Festival was a chance to welcome back some of the country’s finest acts – just read the names: Missy Higgins, Something For Kate, You Am I, and the festival’s opening night headliners, The Cat Empire.

It’s well known The Cat Empire are a formidable live presence. For all intents and purposes they do nothing to contradict that tonight.

Having been away for a while, they open with crowd-favourite “Sly” and the crowd is already in their hands before the first chorus.

Lets dance and grind/ get so funk-inflicted it’s a crime,” Felix Riebl sings as a statement of intent. For the next hour or so, that’s exactly what the overflowing Lighthouse Stage audience does.

Genre hopping across their wide spectrum of musical influences, The Cat Empire take those assembled on a dizzying ride through jazz, RnB, Latin music, hip-hop and pure unadulterated pop. They also air a few new songs that will be appearing on a new album, due March next year.

Their performance isn’t flawless however. While individualism and virtuosity are a key part of their show and most of the songs ascend into wild, jazzy climaxes, such a heavy-handed approach feels a little excessive at times.

Initially, there are big roars for the horn heroics of singer/trumpeter Harry James Angus and the drumming of Will Hull-Brown, but after three straight drum solos and countless horn freakouts, these theatrics become a little tired. Still, it’s a minor grievance in an otherwise thrilling show.

Sensing the end of the set, “The Chariot” is belted out by the crowd. They have their arms aloft singing: “Our weapons were our instruments/ made from our timber and steel/ we never yielded to conformity but stood like kings/ in a chariot that’s riding on a record wheel.”

The cries for an encore are rewarded with “Fishies” before The Cat Empire finally depart, leaving a sea of big beaming smiles in their wake. Flush from a day of terrific music at the Lighthouse Stage, including earlier performances in the night from Brisbane melodist Emma Louise, the upbeat Loon Lake, and hip hop luminaries TZU.The Cat Empire are a formidable live presence. For all intents and purposes they do nothing to contradict that tonight.

Meanwhile, Perth rock stalwarts Baby Animals were the victims of an unfortunate clash with the headliners and Melbourne’s King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard dazzled the crowd on the much smaller Rip Stage.

Those who managed to rise early (at about 11 to be exact) to catch Kira Puru and the Bruise on the Rip Stage saw a stellar set by the Newcastle four-piece.

Puru’s voice is powerful and her soaring vocals do justice to an unexpected but well-executed cover of Kylie Minogue’s “Confide In Me”. A bit later, the Lighthouse Stage is lit up by emerging Sydney artist Ngaiire whose hooky pop songs and melancholic ballads suggest she’ll be further up the bill in future.

At the Pelican Bar stage, folk singer-songwriter Jordie Lane is quickly endearing himself to the crowd with his lively storytelling. Lane pulls an impressive following, although the audience starts to thin as a performance from the mighty Gurrumul looms large at the other side of the festival grounds.

Born blind and with only a loose grasp of English, Gurrumul is too shy to speak to the crowd. Luckily his crafted folk melodies and haunting voices easily cut through the language barrier. It’s no wonder he can count Elton John, Sting, and Björk among his many fans.

Across at the Hippos Stage, King Cannons are offering revved up rock – sounding somewhere between The Replacements and Bruce Springsteen.

The six-piece are energised and include a nod to The Ramones with “Rockaway Beach”. However, the soundman does them no favours and it’s impossible to hear the harmonica on many of their tunes.

About half an hour later, Lisa Mitchell has drawn a big audience back under the main tent. Unsurprisingly, the former Australian Idol singer-now-indie folk songstress is popular among younger festival-goers and her best known songs like “Coin Laundry” are well-received. Something For Kate show that festival performances can be challenging, intelligent and still wholly satisfying.

But despite smothering the audiences with her sparkly pop hooks, Mitchell lacks the stage presence or vocal strength to really make lasting impact on anyone who isn’t already a fan. Recent single “Bless This Mess” is limp compared with the recorded version, and “Neopolitan Dreams” is entirely vanilla.

Following Mitchell on the main stage is fellow Idol alumni Shannon Noll. His set includes enjoyable takes on Crowded House’s “Better Be Home Soon” and Green Day’s “Time Of Your Life”. Later, “What About Me” invokes the hearty sing-along you’d expect from a #1 single.

Still, Noll’s guilty pleasures have nothing on Melbourne royalty Something For Kate, who demonstrate why they’re one the finest (and most underrated) groups this country has ever produced.

Arriving with the literate alt-rock of “Monsters”, frontman Paul Dempsey’s vocals are commanding for the full hour in a set that also includes the crowd pleasing “Cigarettes and Suitcases”; and “Survival Expert”, the lead single from Leave Your Soul To Science, the band’s first studio album in six years.

Dempsey introduces “The Fireball At The End Of Eveything” as a song about a “traffic jam at the end of the world”. With a slow build and cathartic outro, it shows that festival performances can be challenging, intelligent and still wholly satisfying.

Later Dempsey plays an acoustic cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” and joins the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to drummer Clint Hyndman.

With their show drawing to a close, the frontman playfully mocks those who “like (their) old stuff better” before kicking into the exhilarating “Electricity” from 1999’s Beautiful Sharks. Rounding things off is “Deja Vu” from 2003’s The Official Fiction, a glorious finale.

Queenscliff’s attention soon shifts back to the Hippos Stage for Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes and their inspired 60s soul and R&B. Browne and her Rackettes tear it up with their raucous party vibe, which is lucky because the crowd are keen for a dance.

With their lengthy sax solos, costume changes and hilarious, choreographed dance moves, Browne and co. walk on the right side of the fine line between sublime and ridiculous. They might be a throwback, but they’re one worth remembering.

Speaking of sublime and ridiculous, Saturday headliners You Am I tumble onto the Lighthouse Stage with the ramshackle insouciance you’d expect from any band fronted by Tim Rogers.

The scruffian butts out the cigarette that hangs casually from his lips before they begin with “The Good Ones” from 2010’s You Am I, a curveball aimed at the same punters Paul Dempsey had joked about a few hours earlier.

This is You Am I’s first and only festival show for the year and initially there are problems with the volume of Rogers’ guitar.

The charming but sometimes volatile singer appears frustrated as he fiddles with the dials on his enormous white Fender Tonemaster guitar amp. “Sorry, we just want to make sure it sounds good for you,” he says earnestly.

Luckily his voice, often the band’s most erratic instrument, is right on the money tonight.

After a tour through more recent material, such as the punk-laden “Pinpricks”, Krautrock nodding “The Ocean”, and some cheeky surprises (“Jaimme’s Got A Gal”, “’Round Ten”) the sound issues are slowly smoothed out.

Things only improve when Rogers strums the poignant opening chords to “How Much Is Enough” and ragged cuts like “Cathy’s Clown”, “Mr Milk” and the rambunctious “Good Mornin’” shine with their swing, swagger and spirit.

Rogers shimmies, bops and shakes himself loose from his earlier frustrations. Rusty Hopkinson’s drumming is thunderous all night and guitarist Davey Lane splays licks in all the right places.

A cover of The Saints’ “I’m Stranded” hits particularly hard, while the anthemic “Damage” picks up where “How Much Is Enough” left off in the sing-along stakes.

Rogers’ banter is typically honest, heart on the sleeve stuff. After one song he makes a plea to “ugly kids with bad skin” to throw themselves into art. “When you turn 30 everyone will want to fuck you,” he suggests, “you’ll be ejaculating everywhere.” The mums and dads don’t seem impressed and luckily Rogers’ vulgarity is tempered by constant utterances of gratitude towards the crowd.

Finishing with #4 Record’s bombastic “Rumble”, they then hurry back on stage for an encore performance of grunge-pop classic, “Berlin Chair”.

Rogers spends the outro between the stage and the crowd, lapping up the attention of those desperate to get their hands on his ridiculously skinny frame.

By now it’s midnight but those who’ve skipped across to the Rip Stage to catch a glimpse of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard (many for the second time) are an energetic bunch and entering the tent – it’s not hard to see why.

With three at the mic, two drummers, and an almost diabolical urgency, they quickly whip the crowd into a frenzy that includes a full-blown mosh pit and crowd surfing teens. These seven Melbourne boys have been making waves recently and for good reason.

With clashing rhythms, speed, power, and a generally apathetic attitude towards anything resembling polish, this is adolescent noise-making at it’s best. Pure chaos.

If waking up early Saturday morning was hard for some, it was a real shame for some because main stage openers All The Colours were definitely worth checking out.

The Melbourne four-piece are sharply dressed, donning matching suits to mark the occasion. The high points in their set are covers of The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”; but their own songs are enjoyable too and their well-crafted harmonies and searing guitar solos demonstrate a keenness for musicianship.

The set from Owl Eyes (aka Brooke Adamo) is the first sign that the Sunday crowd is a hell of a lot younger.

Queenscliff is a family festival and pre-teens have swarmed the Lighthouse Stage tent. Owl Eyes has risen to prominence on the back of her Like A Version cover of “Pumped Up Kicks” so it’s probably no surprise she’s hip with the kids. Sadly, the cover is nowhere to be heard today.

Especially since the middle of the road electro-pop that she plays instead is pretty uninspiring. Adamo might have a great voice but without memorable songs, her live show is anything but.The roar that greets Missy Higgins’ arrival suggests she’s been sorely missed.

British India follow, and frontman Declan Sykes tells the crowd he “didn’t think (his band) were the right fit” for Queenscliff and thanks them for being so “accepting”.

Their set is typically noisy but also unusually tight and the tail-end is beefed up with a smattering of tracks from their punchy (and excellent) debut, Guillotine.

It’s those tunes, such as “Run The Red Light” and “Tie Up My Hands”, which prove the most festival friendly with their big choruses and jerky angular rhythms.

When Missy Higgins strides on stage an hour later, there are teenage girls everywhere. One of Australia’s most popular artists, Higgins has been away from music for a couple of years, devoting her time to other interests and generally avoiding the spotlight. The roar that greets her arrival suggests she’s been sorely missed.

The roar that greets Missy Higgins’ arrival suggests she’s been sorely missed.

Many of the songs she plays are pulled from her latest record, The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle. The varied sounds and influences show she has come along way since The Sound Of White. The kaleidoscopic disco of “Temporary Love” is case in point.

Current single “Everyone’s Waiting” is another new album highlight as is the gorgeous “Set Me On Fire”. The latter is helped by excellent backing vocals from bassist and co-producer/co-writer Butterfly Boucher.

The new songs are enjoyable, but it’s Higgins’ big anthems that garner the biggest cheer.

For example, she needn’t have sung a word on “Scar” because the masses don’t miss a single line. The same goes for the “The Special Two” and “Ten Days”, while “Peachy” is a stomper. Higgins calls it a day after a soaring rendition of “Steer”, the lead single from her sophomore effort, 2007’s On A Clear Night.

This year’s Queenscliff Music Festival looked set to be a big one from the get-go and for the most part it didn’t disappoint. From an ideological standpoint, there’s something special about a music event that caters to younger and older audiences, while striving to showcase Australian talent.

After all, we’ve got plenty. See you next year.

Be sure to check out our three-part photo gallery of Queenscliff Music Festival. Day One here. Two here. Three here.

Get unlimited access to the coverage that shapes our culture.
to Rolling Stone magazine
to Rolling Stone magazine