Report: Big Day Out 2013

DOUG WALLEN* and **DARREN LEVIN** report on the Big Day Out’s subtle rebuild at Melbourne’s Flemington Racecourse on Australia Day. Photos by **CAMERON STEWART**, Evan Dando photo by *DARREN LEVIN.

An early hitch

Doug Wallen: A broken-down truck not only waylays all the gear for Melbourne post-hardcore band House Vs. Hurricane* – prompting a rescheduling of their morning set on the orange stage for a more visible headlining slot around 8pm on the red stage – but keeps all the media passes in limbo for the first couple hours of the festival. That means all writers and photographers are stuck waiting outside the gates while the early bands go on without a lick of coverage. That includes rising Aussie acts like **Toucan**, **Apes**, **Split Seconds**, **For Our Hero**, **Me** and *Jackson Firebird. It’s nearly 1pm before the passes finally arrive.

The more things change?

DL: ?A ground-up rebuild on the total Big Day Out experience.? This was Ken West’s rather ambitious plan in the lead-up to the festival, and while the differences this year were not nearly as stark – a few extra amenities, some additional ?distractions? – it still feels very much like an event in transition. What organisers are attempting is nothing short of a cultural shift, away from the jingoism, the boganism and flag-waving of the past towards something perhaps a bit more civilised and – dare I say it – adult.

This is still a rite-of-passage experience, however, as evinced by the hordes of teens stuffing hip-flasks down their jocks at the gate. But the presence of Animal Collective, Gary Clark Jr, Sleigh Bells, Vampire Weekend, Band Of Horses, Foals, Childish Gambino and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs at least attracts a different demographic. As does Chow Town, a row of six stalls between the Green and Red stages, selling everything from lobster rolls to salt-cod croquettes, garlic chive dumplings and corn fritters with chilli jam and haloumi. Curated by Sydney chefs Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz (Porteno, Bodega) and based on a similar concept at sister festival Lollapalooza in Chicago, Chow Town is more than just an update on the dagwood dog (which they still sell in droves by the way). It epitomises the Big Day Out’s need to establish itself as that great all-rounder festival – one that appeals to a wide demographic – in a market that’s becoming increasingly nuanced and niche.

Dance like it’s 1995

DW: Despite the ?no crowd surfing? signs in the D-barrier, moshing reigns supreme – whether for Bodyjar*?s tightly melodic yesteryear punk or **Against Me!**?s more rock-crossover rallying. Early in the day, *Every Time I Die demand a circle pit for ?Bored Stiff?, which ends up as a whole bunch of dudes running laps in a massive circle for most of the song, very much like cattle herding. Even without that goofy highlight, theirs is one of the most fun sets of the day, screamed vocals colliding with repurposed fragments of disparate guitar music – everything from math metal to Southern rock.

The pit is more stop-and-start for supergroup OFF!, as vocalist Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks) keeps dragging out his between-song banter into longer and more rambling stretches. For most bands it wouldn’t be such a bugbear, but with old-school punk blasts lasting only about a minute, it kills the momentum to talk for even twice that long in between. Still, it’s worth hearing him pay tribute to Gun Club’s late Jeffrey Lee Pierce before playing the song named after him. And ?King Kong Brigade? gets dedicated to its own inspiration, Robert De Niro.

Jeff the Brotherhood don’t inspire bodily animation so much as staying firmly planted and absorbing the more jammed-out, marathon quality of their two-piece garage-metal live. It’s more of a brooding rock set than the fist-pumping party anthems that their records so easily provide. At one point a song has to end early and singer-guitarist Jake Orrall explains that he has a pedal that makes a cool sound sometimes but other times simply ?turns everything off.?

US invasion on Australia Day

DW: Australia Day or not, American bands again dominate the line-up. No surprise there, and at least it’s US bands of all stripes, from traditional-leaning Gary Clark Jr and Alabama Shakes to genre-scrambling Crystal Castles and Sleigh Bells. If Childish Gambino and B.O.B. are happy to pursue hip-hop in the Kanye mould, Death Grips tear the whole rap structure down and rebuild it as a hard-hitting, punked-up release, with a hypnotic grind that makes up for the often unintelligible details of MC Ride’s gruff sloganeering. Bolstered by electronic beats, iconoclastic drummer Zach Hill (Hella) contributes slamming, stripped-down rhythms while mirroring the sweaty, shirtless leanness of his sparring partner.

The big acts don’t hesitate to play their biggest songs, whether it’s ?Mr Brightside? for The Killers* or a set-closing ?The Funeral? for **Band of Horses**. And obviously *Red Hot Chili Peppers arrive lardered with hits. There’s no mistaking their hour-and-a-half set (complete with encore) for anything but the headline slot, heralded through the day by teenagers parading RHCP shirts.

That said, Vampire Weekend and Yeah Yeah Yeahs both have upcoming albums to preview. A blonde Karen O relishes the freaky expressiveness possible in her voice, veering into manic upheaval on songs like the rap-damaged ?Mosquito? (title track of their new one). Likewise, Nick Zinner seems to have rediscovered the crotchety rawness of electric guitar after the band’s synth-y overhaul on 2010?s It’s Blitz!. Slint legend Dave Pajo switches between bass, keyboards and more to match the song-to-song stylistic shifts, and Brian Chase remains one of the more interesting – and nonchalant – drummers in rock.

Lilypad: More than just a ?distraction?

DL: Conceived in 1994 ?to give punters the impression there was acid in the beer?, The Lilypad is still living up to that brief, and then some. The format was reduced to a bunch of roaming performers last year, but made its welcome return, promising low-level abuse, mystery cocktail sculling, taco throwing, strippers, confetti bombs and a talent show comprised of nobodies. In other words, a whole bunch of random shit. At a festival where looseness is actively discouraged (and probably for good reason), Lilipayd provides not only a ?distraction?, but a reprieve from the crowds and the crowd control.

Searching around for a Mexican wrestling bar, I’m drawn into Lilypad by the promise of an ?Australia rock legend? being boomed over the loudspeaker. Enter: Spencer P Jones*, who plays two songs (TWO!) to a handful of bemused onlookers. Wearing a white cowboy hat and standing next to a sign that reads, ?Witness the human cigarette”, Jones cuts a tragically cool figure. He dedicates ?(She Walks) Between The Raindrops? from last year’s excellent *[Spencer P Jones and The Nothing Butts](/releases/2001141) to pimps and prostitutes (?We all are in a way, but there’s morality among us all?), leaving the stage before all five of us could comprehend what the fuck just happened. A very real and surreal moment, but just the kind of experience – like punk poet John Cooper Clarke six years ago – that makes Lilypad worth its salt.

But just when I’m about to head off for a pre-mix margarita, another surprise: The Lemonheads? Evan Dando, whose pre-Xmas tour with Juliana Hatfield concluded over a month ago. Looking decidedly shabby in a Western shirt, he plugs in and busts out two songs on a black Epiphone including ?Outdoor Type? – the Tom Morgan song he made a hit – under a sign that reads, ?Faded hacks trying to remain relevant?. The irony isn’t lost on anyone.

Brief as it is, Dando’s set is really the only reminder of the festival’s early years, where the bill was stacked top to tail with the likes of Smudge, Ratcat, The Falling Joys, The Clouds, Snog and You Am I. Believe it or not, this is Dando’s first appearance at the Big Day Out – 20 years ago he would’ve played the mainstage off the back of It’s A Shame About Ray.

Animal Collective: ?A struggling cult affair?

DW: Seemingly zapped of their Pitchfork-y superpowers – but really just outgunned by Chili Peppers, Sleigh Bells and the end of Crystal Castles – Animal Collective seem less like one of the world’s biggest and most influential indie bands and more like a struggling cult affair. Their crowd is sparse and their music is too subtle and ephemeral to connect in a summer-festival environment that favours hugeness and immediacy. Back down to a three-piece without Deakin, Animal Collective are left to noodle with electronics while Geologist’s trademark mining headlamp is probably the most exciting thing about their stage presence.

Aussie Pryde

DW: Big Day Out and Australia Day always means flag-draped teenagers and other knee-jerk patriotic gestures. But it’s fitting that on this symbolic day my favourite set belongs to Melbourne’s The Smith Street Band, scheduled against heavyweight international draw Vampire Weekend. In a tent away from the sun and the biggest crowds, Wil Wagner and band draw an audience ranging from curious passers-by to zealous fans shouting out every chorus. By the end, a lot of us wind up closer to the latter, thanks to stubbornly catchy highlights like ?I Can’t Feel My Face?. There’s a more communal tightness to the moshing and crowd surfing than in other sets today, and Wagner bonds with us all the more when he executes the brave ritual of a ?shoe in?: pouring his beer into a punter’s shoe and drinking it. Between robust singalongs he beams at the turnout and admits: ?I never thought we’d get to do this.? As they finish and we stream back out into the sun to the strains of Vampire Weekend’s closing ?Walcott? – ?Out of Cape Cod tonight? – there’s a well-earned feeling of fulfilment.

A corrective to the day’s flag-mad chest-beating comes in the unforgettable form of Zanzibar Chanel?s ?Big Zack?, who trash-talks the internationals and screams over and over about the glory of Australia for most of the half-hour Lilypad slot, only getting around to performing a couple actual songs towards the end. The first 20 minutes or so is devoted to getting people close to the stage and crowding onto it with him, dancing to Baba-X’s kitschy and super-smooth house motifs while laughing at/with Big Zach’s over-the-top persona, from torn-bottomed jeans to erratic commands barked at the mostly game crowd. This is more entertaining than anything else on offer, and a welcome relief from the requisite name-brand acts and the youthful mobs shoving their way to see them.

Despite being on early, regional Victoria’s Hunting Grounds command a sizable following and keep them there with a solid emphasis on showmanship. Singer Michael Belsar climbs a tower and goes into the crowd early on, leaving a roadie scrambling after him to unknot the long mic cord, but the real trick comes when Lachlan Morrish gives Belsar his guitar and switches to lead vocals. His hunched, lurching, Igor-esque stage presence befits his meaner and more ragged vocals, and he works hard to appear unpredictable. All of this makes their dreamy-minded alt-rock songs considerably more interesting, as do Johnathan Crawford’s unabashedly melodic bass lines. Energising the audience most is the band’s standard live cover of The Beastie Boys? ?Sabotage?, Belsar and Morrish trading verses with keyboardist Galen Strachan. Between the choice and delivery of that cover and the way they come back to it after a long pause, they create a rabid moshpit that wouldn’t have materialised for most of their own songs.

Seeming a lot like a throwback, Money for Rope run through pub-rock with alternately a punk and soul edge. Taking it out of the pub and stranding it in the early afternoon makes it less effective, but there’s no mistaking their promise – especially apparent in confident-beyond-his-years frontman Julio McKenzie. These guys could wind up rivalling The Drones in the course of a few records.

The rumours of its demise are greatly exaggerated

DL: Organisers would surely be buoyed by the 50,000-plus punters through the turnstiles, which represents a significant increase on last year’s reported 42,000. It sure feels like it too, with huge queues at the entrance to start the day and lots of crowd congestion. While passage through the dreaded ?D? is a breeze for Against Me at 2pm on the Blue Stage, by the time the Chili Peppers hit the stage at 8.30pm you’d have more chance getting into an exclusive A-list nightclub in LA. On the side stages, Foals, Childish Gambino (the hip-hop alter-ego of Donald Glover from Community), Alabama Shakes and 360 draw huge crowds, while Animal Collective, Sleigh Bells and Crystal Castles aren’t really the drawcards organisers expected.