Golden Plains 2016: Eddy Current And Spontaneous Renewal

Photo: Ty Johnson/Golden Plains

Was the 10th instalment of Golden Plains the best yet? DOUG WALLEN weighs up the negatives and compares them to the positives.

Day One

For those unable (or unwilling) to nap after setting up camp, it felt like a long wait for Gold Class to kick off Golden Plains’ 10th year. But when it did finally come, the weekend slammed past after that, through a consistently overcast Saturday and Sunday’s begrudging allowance of direct sun. Between then and The Black Madonna wrapping up at 7am on Monday morning, the weekend was a feel-good blur of forward momentum, whether I was scrambling for the best vantage point or getting lost in campsite conversation.

Photo: Ty Johnson/Golden Plains

It being Golden Plains, every act to occupy that single stage afforded a chance for spontaneous renewal. If one performance was too intense, or too mellow, there was soon a reset button that triggered the opposite, either genre- or energy-wise. The contrasts between performers younger and older, quieter and louder, slower and faster, local and international – they all marched along for a constant changing of gears, allowing punters to feel out which music to embrace and which to simply breeze on past.

The running wisdom was that Saturday was the quieter day, musically, with many of the biggest names co-occupying Sunday night. But Gold Class were essential viewing, with a clanging, mechanical repetition easily as hypnotic as Adam Curley’s deep, swelling vocals. For all the Melbourne quartet’s surface seriousness, their songs were punctuated with sidelong melodicism as Curley’s stoic front gave way to vulnerability after a mid-set song performed entirely a cappella. He later finished the set standing atop the audience barricade below the stage, supported by a bouncer as he serenaded the spellbound crowd.

Gold Class
Photo: Theresa Harrison/Golden Plains

After the socially conscious psychedelic soul of Emma Donovan and The Putbacks, which proved more slow and low than punchy and party-starting, U.S. Girls were all slow-burn intensity. Backed chiefly by programmed production and a second singer, Meg Remy delivered experimental pop with hip-hop swagger. Even without knowing the songs, my attention didn’t waver. Natalie Prass’s honeyed full-band country was more comfortable – exemplified by a closing cover of the Motown staple ‘You Just Keep Me Hangin’ On’. In a beanie and what looked like pyjama pants, John Grant appeared to be an anti-showman, but his acid-tongued electro-pop and piano ballads (cue ‘GMF’ and ‘Queen of Denmark’) benefited from a robust backing band, a loyal audience and strong Bowie vibes.

Buzzcocks didn’t gel for me at first, despite having loved them the last time I saw them play Melbourne, and there were sound issues early on for guitarist Steve Diggle. But by mid-set they were tight and relentless, bashing out a urgent range of songs from ‘Sick City Sometimes’ to the earlier mini-masterpieces (‘Harmony in My Head’, ‘Orgasm Addict’, et al). Apart from the distraction of flying beer cans, and an unavoidable similarity between songs, there was a giddy satisfaction in seeing tunes up to 40 years old rendered with such lasting snideness.

Graduating to a night slot since the last time they graced this stage, Royal Headache continued their well-deserved second-album victory lap, with Shogun bounding and striding back and forth with his usual anxious drive. The rough-cut pop nuggets from High sounded perfect live – radiant without feeling polished – and ‘Another World’ couldn’t help but continue Buzzcocks’ poppy persistence. Even when damning the song’s subject to belonging “down in Melbourne” on ‘Garbage’, the resurgent Sydney band played one of my favourite sets of the weekend, with Shogun’s heart-on-sleeve immediacy a ready cure for cynicism.

Photo: Ty Johnson/Golden Plains

Later on, No Zu stretched their patented dance-party-with-borders vibe like taffy, turning to a sustained night-time freakout instead of passing hits of midday exhilaration. Complete with swanky costumes and dancers, the genre-jumbled Melbourne ensemble tapped the most fevered potential of their self-described “heat beat.” The long-running Black Cab followed that fever with something cooler but no less heady, laying down deep Kraftwerkian epics of electronic brooding. Some of it drifted closer to full-tilt synth-pop, with echoes of New Order’s widescreen gleam, and the vocals remained key despite just how electronic (and expansive) the set was.

Black Cab’s midnight placement helped segue into the dance music that defines the wee hours at the Supernatural Amphitheatre, of which I only caught Friendships. With guest MCs and their trademark incorporation of mind-bending video, the mesh-clothed duo brought a body-moving intensity amid sprinklings of rain – and even sampled Kirin J Callinan’s unruly ‘Embracism’.

Photos: Theresa Harrison/Golden Plains

Day Two

After a damp Sunday morning, the sun broke through with some welcome heat. But first came HTRK’s healing wake-up call, opening with their late mentor and producer Rowland S Howard’s ‘Dead Radio’. Hearing Jonnine Standish sing those ageless lyrics (“You’re bad for me like cigarettes…”) at that time and place was just perfect, but the duo’s own smoulder and flicker was just as potent on ‘Poison’ and against the mocking corporate mantras of ‘Synthetik’. Nigel Yang’s lurking guitar lines mingled with glacial beats against some appropriate smoke machine, helping to ground songs that tend towards the vaporous. I finished the set sitting in the distance but still listening, absorbing the unhurried offerings.

Photo: Ty Johnson/Golden Plains

Also dealing in amorphous meditations that reveal a cumulative majesty, The Necks were fluid and intuitive, rife with subtle shifts that are only clear after the fact. Tony Buck ranged from mellow, shaken hand-percussion to ticking drumming and seesawing between either end of each stick – all while chewing away at some gum. Lloyd Swanton’s load-bearing bass was plucked and occasionally clawed at and later bowed, while Chris Abrahams’s focused flutters of piano sat up front, the clustered repetition guiding the unbroken performance.

Sampa the Great was ideal programming after that: familiar and fun, uniting the crowd with a jazzy snap and the Sydney MC’s weaving delivery. She and her band triggered memories for me of the Fugees, early Roots, and Erykah Badu, although her laidback hip-hop incorporates more diverse (and current influences) as well. Threaded with hooks, the rock-derived Malian four-piece Songhoy Blues drew a huge crowd response in the early-arvo sun. Singer Aliou Touré danced and grinned ecstatically, donning a second guitar for the explosive last song. Without any English-language lyrics, they were absolutely universal.

Tyrannamen were more power-pop than I’d expected, with whiffs of Redd Kross and Cheap Trick, though still plenty scrappy. Nic Imfeld’s lead vocals and lyrics have the plucky resilience and everyman plainness, respectively, to launch a thousand Royal Headache comparisons, but the two guitars and generous drumming on standouts like ‘I Don’t Wanna Go to Jail’ and the unabashedly romantic ‘Diamond Ring’ take it to a different patch of beery, un-ironic revelry.

Photos: Dane Tucker/Golden Plains

Unflappable Freddie Gibbs was an easy win for the late afternoon. Crowdsourcing an extra hype man by tapping a fan to dance on stage through multiple songs (“Go white boy, go white boy go”), he balanced the stock refrain of low-slung recent single ‘Money, Cash, Hoes’ with his outsized, hard-bitten charisma, maintaining that gravity amid gratuitous gunshot samples. I missed the Kevin Parker-produced WA collective Koi Child, unfortunately, but got a happy eyeful (and earful) of Seun Kuti & Egypt 80’s celebratory, colour-saturated Afrobeat. Said colour extended to their bright costumes and high-energy dancing, which was mesmerising even seen from midway up the hill.

Opening to a somewhat thin audience, Built to Spill initially seemed like more of a loud, shaggy cult concern than a well-oiled crowd-pleaser. But their droning, three-guitar grandeur and Doug Martsch’s sleepy drawl on classics like ‘Randy Described Eternity’ established strength and traction even during epic running times – especially when upping the urgency on the no-less-protracted highlight ‘Goin’ Against Your Mind’. More and more people gathered in the Sup’ over the course of the set, and when the band finished with a surprise cover of The Smiths’ ‘How Soon Is Now?’, they ended up as crowd-pleasers after all.

Photo: Ty Johnson/Golden Plains

Violent Femmes knew to lean heavily on their early songs, like ‘Blister in the Sun’ and the xylophone-peppered ‘Gone Daddy Gone’, as they marked the 32nd anniversary of their debut Australian tour (circa Hallowed Ground). But they also included the winsome ‘I Can Do Anything’ from this month’s comeback album and the Jonathan Richman-esque early-’90s single ‘American Music’. With a sparse yet changeable setup that involved hand drums, acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and more, they could have passed for some cheerful jug band.

The muddled sound mix for Sleater-Kinney didn’t do them justice, and the monster-sized crowd was nearly impenetrable, but the songs carried through. Opening with the newer ‘Price Tag’ and closing with the crucial ‘Dig Me Out’, the reconvened trio added multi-instrumentalist Kate Harkin as they powered through arty punk anthems. Highlights included the dance-slanted ‘No Cities to Love’, slogan-like ‘All Hands on the Bad One’ and stripped-down heartbreaker ‘Modern Girl’, after which Carrie Brownstein thanked the fans who sang along. Brownstein’s vocal and guitar exchanges with Corin Tucker were as exciting as ever, as was Janet Weiss’s bruising drumming. But (re)absorbing entries from across the band’s distinct albums and eras was most rewarding of all.

Photo: Theresa Harrison/Golden Plains

Eddy Current Suppression Ring couldn’t help but overshadow everyone who came before and after. Drawn back together for Golden Plains’ big one-oh, the Melbourne quartet easily ticked off everything that always made their live show so great – only this time the crowd singing along was much more massive. It’s funny to imagine someone unfamiliar with the band witnessing thousands of people flipping out over a song about dessert, but that’s the power of ‘Cool Ice Cream’. Back in his beloved black gloves, Brendan Huntley walked not through but on top of the crowd and loved it as much as we did. The rest of the band looked just as thrilled; even the often poker-faced Mikey Young, who switched from guitar to keyboard for ‘Insufficient Funds’. The whole set list was a dream: ‘Precious Rose’, ‘Which Way to Go’, ‘Tuning Out’, ‘Rush to Relax’ and the clearly apt ‘Memory Lane’. In a weekend that passed way too quickly, this set seemed to last forever – in the best way. The band even scored a rare encore in the Sup’.

Photos: Ty Johnson/Golden Plains