You’ll find Strawberry Fields a leisurely four hours out of Melbourne’s CBD, just over the New South Wales border and hidden away in a picturesque stretch of dusty bushland. It’s cuddled up next to the Murray River – just follow the trail of face paint, glitter, and the thumping of bass in the distance. You’ll know it when you see it.
This year marks the fifth birthday of the boutique festival, an impressive milestone for the event that lives by a motto of complete escapism, inviting punters “to gather friends new and old, leave the urban mundane behind, and depart for a wild weekend deep in the great Australian bush”.
Perhaps it’s this mission statement that explains the palpable excitement in the air when you get through the car line and finally step foot onto your campsite. Everyone at Strawberry Fields is there for the same reason – to enjoy the company of friends, like-minded strangers, and some brilliant (mostly) homegrown music.
The festival itself is comprised of four stages, each aesthetically different from the rest. The Deep Jungle Stage, which provided a slick range of progressive and house beats; the Pyramid Tea Lounge, a more relaxed setting complete with rugs, pillows, and complimentary tea; the Electric Nectar Bar with its flowing drinks and killer DJs; and Wildlands Arena, the central, pulsating main stage that never seemed to fully die down.
There were plenty of odd and ornate installations on top of these stages and sights scattered around the field’s many hectares. Near the Deep Jungle Stage there was a semi-hidden ball pit fit for a cozy dozen or so people, and a hollowed-out tree trunk near the Baby Burger stall that was a bit of a tight squeeze, but the perfect place for sneaky munchies nonetheless. If you were lucky you might’ve found the artificial beach – the perfect place for a mid-afternoon dip.
The organisers need to be given huge props for the picturesque set-up. You could feel the care that was put into each homemade nook and cranny you stumbled across, and the DIY nature of it all added to the good vibes that could be felt throughout the Wildlands.
Onto the important part: the sounds. This year’s special anniversary bill saw the usual eclecticism upped even further with a hugely expansive list of acts falling somewhere in the broad spectrum of electronica. With an array of artists playing across all stages all day, the schedule guaranteed that you’d leave with a long list of highlights, although this also made it somewhat inevitable to come across a clash.
Day one saw an impressive lineup at the Pyramid Tea Lounge featuring some of the most innovative acts currently rising to the top of Australia’s bustling independent electronic scene.
Azure Maya and Colourwaves both played blissfully down-tempo live sets. Their swooshing, cinematic soundscapes ushered in the night in the dreamiest way possible. Snapping the crowd out of their trance and pulling them from the cushions to their feet was Silent Jay. The producer turned up the tempo, blending hip hop and electronica in a set fit for a sweaty boiler room, proving why he has become a staple name in Melbourne’s music scene.
The stage was then given over to Melbourne duo Alta. Comprised of beatsmith Julius Dowson and singer-songwriter Hannah Lesser, the pair’s brand of experimental yet pop-skewed RnB was utterly compelling. Lesser’s soulful voice is simply inescapable, as is her stage presence, and the packed out, dirt-stomping audience evidently couldn’t get enough of it. Easily one of the standout acts of the weekend.
With the bulk of the lineup playing on the busy second day, there wasn’t much time for a sleep-in.
Getting down to the Deep Jungle Stage at a painful 10am was rewarded with a brilliant collaborative set between Melbourne producers Bee Ampersand (Chris Apeitos) and Flash Forest (Sam Maguire), who fused a live set of mellow house jams and hip hop samples before gradually building into a bit of an early morning trap, because why not? Their set was the perfect way to warm up for another day of summer festivities, and would’ve been more than worthy of a primetime midnight slot.
Later in the afternoon saw 19-year-old Thomas Guida, otherwise known as Leaks, deliver a truly captivating set. After being nudged by three strangers demanding to know the name of the long-haired guy behind the laptop, it’s unsurprising that Leaks’ performance earned him more than a few new followers. Striking sonic comparisons to the likes of James Blake and Mount Kimbie, Guida stunned with impressive vocals and dreamy, celestial production. He almost remained straight-faced the whole way through, but eventually broke character with a beaming smile. Who could blame him.
More ethereal electronica filled the afternoon air with sets from producers Menagerie, Guerre, and Oisima, before dream-pop outfit I’lls provided a welcome mix-up with their expansive soundscapes. Frontman Simon Lam’s looped, drawling vocals were chilling as they drifted over intricate, delicately layered instrumentals. Gorgeous.
As ominous storm clouds brewed in anticipated of the elemental duo Willow Beats, the night began to pick up. You can always tell a set is going well when people begin to strip down to their birthday suits – but that’s the kind of reaction induced by the other-worldly, extraterrestrial sounds of humble uncle-niece duo Narayana Johnson and Kalyani Ellis. Their recent rise to triple j stardom and slots on the biggest festivals Australia has to offer meant the pair were one of the bigger names on the bill, and inarguably one of the most loved. Combining fragments of dubstep, ambience, and an overarching pop sensibility, it was kind of hard not to lose your shirt when the intro of ‘Grom The Betrayer’ started ticking down.
Andras Fox is now a certified cult figure of Australian festivals. Successfully scaring off the rain and welcoming in an Instagram-worthy sunset, Fox delivered with an ecstatic live set of 90s house and psychedelic, tie-died disco beats. It was impossible not to smile like an idiot when Fox was throwing it down.
From there, the final two nights got a little international with Michigan producer Shigeto’s glowing sounds and British house forerunner Phaeleh soundtracking the festival’s tribal-like atmosphere. At the risk of sounding like a Southern Cross tattoo’d patriot, their sets almost seemed a little dim compared to what the likes of Leaks, Alta, and Willow Beats had pulled out before them.
The bookending day of Strawberry Fields was highlighted by DJ sets from Moodymann and co-headliner Canadian DJ-producer Tiga, but was decidedly mellower than the two before it, allowing for the perfect opportunity to sprawl out on the grass and reminisce on the weekend antics.
Ultimately, as you drove out of the swampy banks of Strawberry Fields wearing a three-day coat of dirt with glitter-stained clothes, you couldn’t really ask for anything more.
Delivering a lineup that highlighted the scarily deep pool of homegrown talent in our music scene, with all its colourful festival-goers in an equally colourful location, it was everything the organisers hyped it up to be – a departure from reality, and a complete escape into the world of Strawberry Fields.
One of the best niche festival experiences Australia has to offer, Strawberry Fields is a young festival that will hopefully develop into a permanent occasion. What’s that line – Strawberry Fields forever? Yeah, something like that.