Day One

Right, let’s disperse with the elephant – Frank Ocean’s no-show.

Everyone has their theories concerning his withdrawal. Most say it’s a torn vocal cord. Some question his motivation. Others believe the Russians are behind it (those slippery Kazaks).

Whatever the reasoning, Ocean’s empty slot is a kick in the kidney for this year’s Splendour, especially as it’s a festival that banks so heavily on the pulling power of its headliners.

Still, in an odd way, the mini-disaster actually demonstrates the festival’s new-found resolve.

In the past, such a blow may have knocked Splendour to its knees and left it wheezing. This time, the organisers, campers and artists collectively suck it up, blow it out and carry on with three days of well-handled merriness.

Plus, this year’s incarnation features a whole site dedicated to the Amish. And who needs Ocean when you’ve got the Amish in your corner? Right?

Day One begins with an unprecedented amount of attendees – mostly tradies – opting to tackle Splendour’s atrocious terrain in thongs. Rookie mistake, fellas. Indeed, the sight of separated Havianas and frustrated chippies provides plenty of chuckles and sends local gumboot traders rocketing up the ASX.

Revelling in the delicious heat, Deap Vally unleashes a far nastier grunt than their glammed-up perms and heart-shaped sunglasses suggest. Right from the first count in, the duo wields an uncompromising attack, with frontwoman Lindsey Troy spitting embers into a building early afternoon crowd.

Unfortunately, they don’t veer too far outside of a bluesy female bump ‘n’ grind. A hardened repetition sets in as the presence of several beach balls begins to snag more and more attention.

Following a Kokoda-like trek to the GW McLennan tent, Daughter commences a sound check that rivals the birth of the royal baby in both tedium and length. Still, the steady crowd lingers, patiently waiting through cricket claps and some simply cracking Simply Red intermission tunes.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing too immediately amazing about the English quartet, save for guitarist Igor Haefeli’s maniacal violin/guitar thrashing. They’re a band that prefers to wrench your heart the long way and not within the confines of an early afternoon festival slot.

Haim proves a snarlish contrast and loads the Supertop beyond her britches, pushing patrons out to the forbidden borders of the nearby Gold and Smirnoff Bars. Two things stand out – their youth and their variety. At times they dice things up with a poppy Tegan & Sara nous. Then suddenly they’ll rip out a grunting blues clench, thrilling a ten-deep-in-any-direction crowd with a rowdy mix of adolescent aggressiveness.

Next up is Clairy Browne and her Motown roots seem at odds with the wide-eyed Mix Up tent. To add insult, things don’t begin too well when Browne commences an overcooked rant about the ‘man’ stifling up-and-coming musicians (or something).

With a shake of the left hip, Browne steers things back into her favour, perfectly treading a line between vocal performance and choreographed sexuality. At a tick over an hour the set is a little too long, but she still maintains a typically dazzling vibe. Plus, I love her a little bit.

After s. Browne wiggles off stage, news filters through of Ocean’s withdrawal and the collective Splendour community shakes its head in disappointment. Even the gaggle of Amish folk down near GW McLennan start burning copies of Channel Orange. Well, not really, but you gotta love those guys.

The shock subsides and a surprisingly large attendance gathers at Boy And Bear. That’s not a slant against the band. It’s just that this incarnation of Splendour marks their 174th consecutive festival in a row. Haven’t we seen this set before? Like, numerous, numerous times?

Immediately afterwards, Pete Doherty and Babyshambles turn the Supertop into a glorified lock-in. They’re as quintessential a British mob if ever there was one.  Doherty is back to his juvenile best, standing atop of amps and hurling beers into a rousing mosh. He turns his time in the spotlight into a highlight of Day One.

An early arrival at the Mix Up tent for the Klaxons marks an immediate mistake on the behalf of this writer. Going in unaided amongst a nest of young, sweaty, tongue-chewing, air-grabbing youngsters is like a zebra casually strolling past a pride of lions for a lazy afternoon sip in the creek.

Still, the early arrival allows for the witnessing of the most unlikely of successful pairings – Yolanda Be Cool and Gurrumul. Oh yeah, it went down and, much to everyone’s surprise, it went down pretty well.

The Klaxons appear shortly after and begin spritely enough with ‘Atlantis To Interzone’. Unfortunately, they taper off quickly. The band is outstanding live – especially considering the intricacy of their records. It’s just that (a bit like Boy and Bear) they’ve been throwing down the same setlist for a while now.

They need an injection of something fresher, and they need it soon.

Headliners Mumford & Sons hardly need to play a note to have the crowd eating out of their callused hands. Even so, they rock out the hits early and quickly prove their worth as a genuine headliner. There’s a sterling live presence about the band that seems lacking in their studio efforts.

For an hour and a half just about the entire Splendour congregation unites as one. Thoughts of Frank Ocean disperses as the one true headliner stands, prevails and sets the scene for a riveting, hand-raising, tongue-wagging Day Two.

Day Two

After years of council interference and backdoor negotiations, North Byron Parklands has proven itself a worthy successor to previous Splendour locations Woodford and Belongi Fields.

While it won’t get a run in any Lonely Planet publications anytime soon, the surroundings are still pleasant enough and a chirpy Rosella is never too far away. Traffic congestion aside, it offers a practical layout, accommodating everyone from the serious music lover to the 19-year-old looking to squeeze in as many status updates as possible.

Plus, it’s a shoe’s throw away from the main drag of Byron – the festival’s spiritual homeland and chief supplier of cannabis.

The only flaws concerning the layout are man-made, specifically the scan-in/scan-out entrance and exit system. Taking a leaf or two from the book of Myki, the new initiative contains four entrances for fifteen-odd thousand punters, causing more than a few line kafuffles.

Day Two offers the most impressive array of artists. For those who refrained from overindulging in mid-strength Bundabergs and the local mushroom produce the night before, tonight is the time to go reckless and warn Mum you might not make it home Monday. Or ever.

Given Chet Faker’s sometime skewwhiff live performances, the decision is made to see Jake Bugg, and by Christ is the 19-year-old some talent. Sporting a mop top the fab four would approve of – along with his own starry-eyed front row of fans to match – Bugg moves through his set with a distant gaze, opting to let his old-time vocals and twenty-three different acoustic guitars stir the emotional broth.

Would we go as far to say he’s a talent as rare as Ocean but with more promise? It’s one worth pondering.

A cover of Neil Young’s ‘Hey Hey My My’ and Splendour title-track ‘Two Fingers’ rounds out the finest set of the festival thus far. Easily. Let there be no doubt – he’s headline material for 2016.

Our proposed plan to watch MS MR’s set is nearly derailed by the perfectly unfiltered vocals of Paul Dempsey, whose cover of ‘Sweet Nothings’ lures punters in like a well-planned bear trap. Oh, Paul – shucks. As tempting as it is to stay, the march goes on.

Anyone in doubt of MS MR’s rising popularity down under needs look no further than the busting attendance wedging itself into the Mix Up tent. They’re everywhere. Frontwoman Lizzy Plapinger can’t help but exclaim her giddiness with several gasps of “holy fucking shit.”

Surging from the crowd’s vibe, the band swirls a wide-eyed energy, reeling off fine workings of ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Bones’. Plapinger’s claim of “you’re the best crowd we’ve ever played in front of” might smack of cliché, but its hand-on-heart genuine.

Few bands occupy as pleasurable a spot in the heart, brain and loin(s) as Cold War Kids. Their singles are charming, their album tracks likewise, and LA-based frontman Nathan Willett has just as many issues as us 9-5ers, namely (now formerly) alcoholism.

Their pretentious-free musings washes warmly across a capacity Supertop, with ‘Hospital Beds’, ‘We Used To Vacation’ and cracking single ‘Miracle Mile’ propping up most of the cheers.

Empire Of The Sun – ever the extraverts – rolls on next. Oversized neo guitars and energetic backing dancers highlights a meticulous set that’s underpinned by the grunt work of Luke Steele and a sorely underappreciated sophomore release.

It’s Steele who, well, ‘steals’ the show. With Littlemore casting a striking background silhouette, it is he who hams it up with a headpiece not much smaller than your average chandelier.

The sound is full and brilliant – almost to the point where one might question the amount of backing tracks being utilised. Nonetheless, being the optimistic folks we are, we’ll claim the majority is coming straight out of the talented duo.

Once Empire wraps up their flamboyant antics, the Supertop empties like the clearing of Mordor (sorry about that).

Their destination? Flume.

Unfortunately, catching Harley Streten would mean missing the one-two of a Bernie Fanning and the slow-burning grind of The National. Ah, the ol’ timetable clash – she’s the cruellest of mistresses.

Watching Bernard Fanning valiantly try and sell his new material to pro-Powderfinger and Tea & Sympathy fans is a little tough to watch. As unfortunate as it is, his second solo LP – Departures – hasn’t latched on, neither in this performance nor on record.

Even the likes of ‘Songbird’ and ‘Thrill Is Gone’ feel undercooked on a festival stage. That fact the mud in the GW McLennan tent is sinking us halfway to Atlantis isn’t helping his cause, either.

It’s a sombre trot off to The National with Flume nailing some serious ctrl+p (PC only) way away in the Mix Up tent.

Like Fanning – albeit to a lesser extent – The National isn’t an outfit geared towards high-jinx festival antics. Theirs is a set of peaks and troughs. Thankfully, the peaks occur in all the sweet spots. Despite some mic issues and Matt Berninger’s voice straining at the top end, ‘Abel’ and ‘Mr November’ propel many an upward hand and contrast nicely with slower grinds ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ and new single ‘Demons’.

Though better slanted to a dark, empty studio apartment room with over-ears headphones, Berninger and his cohorts still more than warrant their Saturday night headline status.

Day Two complete. A reshuffled Day Three excites – as does the incoming ‘mystery’ band.

Day Three

The third day of any festival becomes more a matter of survival – a time for wet wipe showers, bratwurst breakfasts and increasingly irregular toilet trips.

All seems lost. The lure of packing it in is a comforting thought. But then the afternoon blends into evening and the electric breeze of a final day at a festival swirls across the campgrounds. Suddenly that hangover that had been declaring independence over your withering body is now a mere headache a few Nurofen will clear up.

Day Three confirms the worst kept musical secret since the coming out of Ricky Martin – Alt-J is Splendour’s ‘mystery’ band. Maybe it was the triangle on the ‘a’ that gave it away. Or it may have been those Alt-J t-shirts they were selling at the merch stand.

Earlier in proceedings, Snakadaktal’s bulging crowd at GW Mclennan gives thought to why they aren’t working their fuzzy air-pop stylings down on the main stage. Perhaps it’s because Airborne is occupying that spot at the same time and, frankly, it’s hard to envisage those crazy barstards rocking out a tent predominantly confined to folk and soft-rock outfits.

A criticism of Snakadaktal is that their live sound bounces and roams without cohesion. To their credit, the young band works hard to ratify such issues – and do improve it significantly – however such a criticism still holds true.

Then again, listening from 450 people back, it’s a little tough to tell.

A trot back to the Supertop sees Airborne practicing what they’ve been preaching since day dot; long hair, windmill strums and punchy riff-rock crunch. For a band so limited in scope, you have to admire their ability to carve a niche.

Plus, those needing a wake-up call could do worse than plonking themselves near one of their amps.

Everything Everything proves one of the more intriguing propositions. How will they go about translating such a schizophrenic rush into a live environment?

Somehow, the band delivers this in breathless awe without comprising the layered franticness of their original recordings.

Frontman Jonathan Higgs’ falsetto dips in and out like a sea bird scoping for krill in the ocean wash. Their three-part harmonies are remarkable, packing countless alternating time signatures and an intricacy that lesser bands wouldn’t even bother attempting. It provides a set as unique as any across the three days.

Back at the Supertop, a crowd is gathering that appears just as large as the one that assembled for Mumford & Son’s benediction a few nights prior.

It’s Lorde, the 16-year-old fill-in from New Zealand. Full credit to Splendour’s nifty plan-b – she proves an outstanding choice, warming the cockles of those still mourning Ocean’s decision to stick with his honey, lemon and tea.

Like Jake Bugg and Haim before her, she oozes craftsmanship and live delivery beyond her adolescent years and puts to shame the rest of us who really weren’t too productive during puberty.

The influx of people for Lorde makes it impossible to exit and witness the horsepower that is Gareth Liddiard and The Drones at GW Mclennan. The dream dies – and it still hurts a little now. Thankfully The Rubens’ appearance eases the pain.

Since travelling to New York to record their debut LP with hot-shot producer David Kahne, the boys appear to have misplaced their live spontaneity, primarily because they’ve been forced to remain faithful to Khane’s viscous edits and muted production.

Tonight is different. They appear looser and deliveries of ‘Elvis’, ‘Lay It Down’ and ‘My Gun’ promptly attest. It’s just deserts for a band who basically opened Day Three only a few years earlier.

A tapping of rain proceeds Alt-J’s utterly thunderous mark on Splendour 2013. With due respect to Of Monsters and Men – and even Ocean – they should be this year’s headliners. As it is, their later evening spot provides one of Splendour’s greatest highlights – and not just of this year.

Their sound is so crisp, so sharp, that it takes a slight distortion from the guitar of Joe Newman to realise the sound mixers aren’t taking the piss and simply belting their debut LP over the speakers.

Nearly every camper converges, with the only ones missing across at James Blake – a set that (from all reports) went great but was plagued by mixing issues and a stubborn cow bell loop.

No one act right now could fill the mystery slot better. Even those unfamiliar with their work can’t help but stare oval-mouthed. Remarkable.

Passion Pit appears next and consolidates the momentum sourced by Alt-J, though – to be honest – their set is far from perfect.

Lead singer Michael Angelakos’s falsetto appears faint and, at times, inaudible, especially during key tracks ‘Sleepyhead’ and ‘Little Secrets’.

Their crowd – who still fist-pump away in their juiced-up state – also seems smaller, an off-shoot of The Presets delivering on cue a few hundred metres down.

With the rain beginning to set, more than a few punters veto Of Monsters And Men in favour of catching the bus home or reinforcing their leaky Big W tents.

It’s a justifiable choice, as while the Icelandic five-piece delivers valiantly, it’s hardly an explosive climax.

As suggested, Alt-J appeared a more logical choice to cap things off.

It may not go down as the one festival to rule them all, but considering the obstacles faced and conquered, this year’s Splendour may go down as one of the most important. It gives the event backbone.

It also provides the reinforced belief that no matter what happens, punters will always be guaranteed a remarkable Splendour experience.

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