First held in 1980, the St Kilda Festival has long established itself as a mainstay of the Melbourne summer, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an event that just makes sense – take the already popular tourist hot-spot that is St Kilda, fill it with art, food, and of course, music and you have the makings of quite a party.
With so many festivals around the country folding thanks to economic pressures, the St Kilda Festival’s ability to survive as a free event is testament to its enduring appeal, and while funding difficulties almost placed the 2013 edition in jeopardy, it is to be hoped that as long as fans continue to turn out in their thousands, the festival will continue.
Although it started life as a one-day event, St Kilda Festival now runs over nine days, with attractions as diverse as art exhibitions, the open-air cinema, comedy nights and music industry workshops held alongside the ubiquitous live gigs throughout the week as part of the successful Live N Local program.
The event climaxes with the massive Festival Sunday, which sees St Kilda’s famous Esplanade and Fitzroy Street closed to traffic and filled with stages, market stalls, food vans, buskers, and thousands upon thousands of people.
The day is about much more than music, and besides the abundance of shops selling everything from hair extensions to fat German sausages, a stroll along the Esplanade and through the foreshore parks can take in the Beach Volleyball Victorian Open, motorbike stunts, carnival rides, and a dedicated children’s section.
One area of parkland is given over to the Hare Krishna Vedic Village, featuring yoga workshops and lessons in vegetarian cooking, while nearby the Latin Quarter offers a chance to learn some Samba and Salsa moves, or just kick back and munch on churros.
It’s the bands though, that provide the highlights. While The City Sleeps opened proceedings on the Main Stage at midday, entertaining the steadily growing crowd with their solid brand of alt-rock.
Despite not yet experiencing a full breakthrough beyond the local music scene, the Melbourne four-piece have been around for a few years now, and got a rousing reception from the appreciative crowd. With a debut album on the way, fans can expect to see them back for a few more festivals yet.
Over on the shady O’Donnell Gardens Stage, Eagle And The Worm drew an impressively large audience for such an early time slot. Featuring a horn section and slide guitar, the eight-piece bring an energetic and unique take on indie-pop, and while most chose to take advantage of the grassy space to sit and relax, the local band’s infectiously funky sounds had feet tapping and heads nodding all round.
In a set featuring a mix of familiar songs from their 2011 album Good Times and recent EP Strangelove, it was the slower numbers such as ‘Too Young’ that stood out, with the bluesy saxophone and slide guitar licks coming to the fore.
The occasional noisy interruptions from roller coasters in the nearby Luna Park were taken in stride as part of the St Kilda Festival charm, and by the time the band closed with the upbeat and jammy ‘All I Know’, a sizeable few had made their way down the front to dance along.
By mid-afternoon, a substantial crowd gathered to see Oh Mercy bring their popular slow-burning indie to the Main Stage.
Another local group, Oh Mercy combine persistent rhythms with gentle guitar riffs and occasionally soaring harmonies and, as with all the festival’s acts, were perfectly judged for the sunny afternoon mood. Tracks such as the swampy, blues-soaked ‘Fever’ brought the tempo up before they finished with an impressive and gritty cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Memories’.
Next up, hip-hop star Pez bounded out and launched in typically energetic style into a set packed with new and old favorites. Enthusiastically backed by a full band, including Melbourne singer Hailey Cramer, the rapped kicked things off with ‘Lost’, one of the stand-outs from his 2008 debut A Mind Of My Own.
Showcasing his smooth flow and easy rapport with the crowd, he moved fluidly through his earlier material, before covering Ini Kamoze’s reggae classic ‘Here Comes The Hotstepper’ and performing his earnest new single ‘The Game’.
Smash-hit ‘The Festival Song’ had the whole crowd bouncing and shouting lyrics back at the stage, before he wrapped things up with the more heartfelt ‘Shine’.
With shadows starting to lengthen, blues legend Ash Grunwald stepped up to take it through to twilight. Supported by the equally legendary Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst and Living End bassist Scott Owen, he ripped into an oh-so-funky set of covers and originals, including a thumping blues version of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’.
Grunwald’s scorching guitar work really shines on his own material, and tracks such as the raucous ‘Walking’ and smoky ‘Raw’ got the crowd grooving and grinding away.
Back over in the O’Donnell Gardens, local lads Loon Lake hurled themselves into a brisk and blokey performance of their muscular yet catchy indie-rock.
Fresh from a breakout year that included their single ‘Cherry Lips’ making it to #29 in Triple J’s Hottest 100, the five-piece from nearby Middle Park shifted effortlessly from frenetic sing-alongs like ‘Bad To Me’ and complaining about a lack of beers to a gravelly but surprisingly gentle cover of the xx’s ‘Angels’.
Coming to a close, they backed up the older but still popular ‘In The Summer’ with the mosh-inducing ‘Cherry Lips’ and a crowd-pleasing cover of ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ by The Darkness.
Following on from Loon Lake, Northeast Party House kept energy levels high and the crowd moving with their charming live dance music. Sounding exactly as their name suggests, Northeast Party House combine heavy base and rapid drum beats with catchy synth and guitar parts, and helped shift the evening into a full-on party, even inspiring a surprisingly hectic circle pit.
Ten years after their first appearance the phenomenally successful Cat Empire returned to the Main Stage as both the headline act and the day’s highlight.
With their ability to spark a party only enhanced over time, they opened with the always-irresistible ‘Sly’ before proceeding to roll out the hits from their extensive catalogue, including some of their original hits ‘How To Explain’ and ‘In My Pocket’. As ever, ‘The Wine Song’ prompted a passionate sing-along, complete with appropriately timed inflated goon sacks bouncing around the crowd.
The chemistry between front men Harry Angus and Felix Riebl remains effortless and undiminished, and their ability to play off each other on tracks like ‘Two Shoes’ is a particular feature of the band’s live work.
With the orange sun sinking into the bay as a stunning backdrop, The Cat Empire provided the perfect ending to yet another St Kilda Festival, and fans can only hope that economic concerns will not prevent them from enjoying many more installments of this iconic Melbourne event.