10 things we learnt at Golden Plains 2014

Meredith Music Festival’s little sister is growing up quickly – and taking on some traditions of its own, writes EDWARD SHARP-PAUL. Photos by Cameron Stewart.

1. GP may be more chilled-out than Meredith, but only just

Meredith is Meredith, maaaaate. It has a longer history, an extra day of music and a larger capacity. It also heralds the start of summer for many, and is as much an epic bacchanal as a music festival, the self-fulfilling result of a collective will to depravity, expressed en masse. Golden Plains, on the other hand, is like a closing ceremony. It aspires to be just as much fun, and it gets damn close, but you can’t really get rid of the bittersweet edge that comes from knowing that the circus is leaving town.

That’s the narrative line, but try telling it to the robots, the superheroes, the furries, that roving golden contingent, and every punter that of getting messed up in the weirdest and most visually striking way possible over 48 hours. They might be headed straight to the back of the cupboard for the next nine months, but the costumes will be made to work for the duration of the festival. As always, the Supernatural Amphitheatre “The Sup’”) lived up to its name, festooned with fairy lights, lanterns and whichever other visions were held in the eye of the beholder. A lot of minds were misplaced there between midnight and dawn, as the ancient, ghostly pines passed silent judgement overhead.

Still, the freaky vibes were counterbalanced by the cowboy-hatted chill-bro contingent, as always occupying the thicket of rank-looking couches under the largest, oldest pine tree at the back of the Sup’. The balance always oscillates between the glitter-happy younger denizens and the less flamboyant, longer-standing attendees, and it seemed that the latter were more prevalent this year. Maybe the line-up led to the crowd skewing older and more mellow this year (there were more kids than I can recall ever seeing).

2. Stalwarts are stalwarts for a reason

Laneway has thrived with a “New! New! New!” approach to booking bands, and Harvest came a cropper in part due to its reliance on old stagers. The festival formula is simple, right? Not quite. Among festivals, Meredith and GP enjoy an unusual amount of goodwill and loyalty, and its attendees are unusually well-versed. This means that Aunty Meredith can follow her instincts to put together any sort of line-up she damn well pleases. In 2014 that meant, the customary 40/40 split between rock bands and beat merchants, with the remaining 20 filled out by alt-country (Neko Case) hillbilly folk (Perch Creek Family Jug Band), soul (Charles Bradley) Japanese soul (Osaka Monaurail), jazz-soul (Hiatus Kaiyote), Spanish surf-rock (Los Coronas), and of course hip-hop (the incomparable (Public Enemy). Of that eclectic batch, it was the old guard kicking many of the goals this year.

I’ve officially run out of superlatives for The Drones. Late on Saturday night (and sans drummer Mike Noga), their music descended into the Sup’ like a black fog of apocalyptic dread, and though it could have killed the party (and almost certainly did for some), what it created instead was transfixing. ‘Shark Fin Blues’ was an entirely expected highlight, but the real story was the ease with which material from I See Seaweed slotted into their set. They matter in a way that’s incredibly difficult to define, but I guess that’s kind of the point: their music speaks of unspeakable things, and it’s a privilege to live through their reign.

I came to the Cosmic Psychos with polite indifference, which quickly crumbled in the face of some serious playing from the unassuming, long-running rawk legends. Neko Case triggered a similar re-evaluation. The power of her voice, her songs and her spot-on band made for an incredible combination in the sun-dappled haze.

I came to You Am I as a casual admirer, which is the sort of thing that someone who hasn’t seen them live would say. Well, now I’ve seen them live, and goddamn. Their catalogue is stacked with first-rate rave-ups, and they have the chops and presence to do them justice. Tim Rogers’ voice is only just holding on – and the man himself seemed a little edgy – but he’s got a touch of the vaudevillian about his stagecraft: windmills, a white suit that offered copious torso, and a devastating turn of phrase, as always – he even brought down the curtain by smashing his guitar.

Like an old pro, though, he made sure that it was only his $40 Cash Converters back-up guitar. The only gripe? The shoegaze do-over of ‘Heavy Heart’ was a little saggy.

3. Up-and-comers continued to come up

That’s not to say that the young bucks didn’t do a bit of damage themselves, though. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard played a runaway train of a set that concluded with the mind-melting ‘Head On/Pill’.

This correspondent dug Chet Faker’s set, but many complained that Faker seemed sullen and disconnected throughout. I can see where they were coming from, but it seems that it’s just an operational hazard one accepts when playing sensual soultronica while leading a band from behind a bank of keyboards. Personally, I thought he sounded terrific, particularly on his more expansive new material, but yeah: James Brown, he ain’t.

4. Talk is cheap, unless it’s priceless

On the banter front, there were plenty of winners and some losers. Oscar Key Sung opted to run an extended bogan impersonation, which got a little out of hand. He didn’t offend anyone, though, because to be offended, you’d have to think that you were that guy. No one truly believes they’re that guy.

The Orbweavers played a beautiful, shimmering set at 10am on the Sunday, but they will be best remembered for lead singer Marita Dyson’s painful, long-winded, actually kinda awesome banter. Each song got an introduction and an explanation, with copious digressions. My personal favourite was the one about sewing, and how sewing is important, and if you’re sleeping in a tent, remember that someone sewed it, or a machine maybe, and that goes for your sleeping bags too, and your clothes, for that matter. When I sew, I like to use a double stitch, even though I’ve heard it’s a little unprofessional, but I just find it more reassuring.

You’ll be pleased to know that she got deserved ovation for that one.

As keynote speaker, Michael Leunig seemed to be on the verge of tears at the beauty of it all, and yet somehow he managed to get out his key contention: that sleeping under the stars is real nice. Cheers m8.

There’s something about rappers and Twitter. After Joey Bada$$ and CJ Fly’s Meredith masterclass in self-promotion, it was Public Enemy’s turn to completely disrupt the flow of their set with several awkward, carefully-spelt follow requests. Also, Flav’s confused, well-meaning stand against “separatism” would have offended a few Basques, Kosovars and Tamils, as well. On the plus side, Chuck informed us that we weren’t black or white, but rather “earthizens”.

5. Afternoon beats = awesome

Previous editions have generally involved a solid slab of afternoon rock, but this year’s programming bucked that trend, with Andras Fox featuring Oscar Key Sung and Gold Panda occupying key slots on Saturday, and Seekae doing likewise on Sunday. It did wonders for the atmosphere down by the stage, offering levity just as a day of solid imbibement started to take its toll. While all hit the mark, Fox’s beats remain a little vaporous for this reviewer’s tastes. Like PVT, Seekae sound more and more like Depeche Mode every time I catch them, which is obviously great news. Alex Cameron is settling into a de facto frontman role, and making a very decent fist of it. Some opined that while Gold Panda was great, he would have been even better at the witching hour. To that I say yes, Gold Panda was great: let’s not gild the lily.

6. Déjí  vu all over the line-up

Golden Plains 2014 had a bit of the warm hugs about it, with return visits from King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Chet Faker, Oscar Key Sung, The Drones, Charles Bradley, Adalita, You Am I and Cut Copy. For Adalita, it was her second solo appearance at the Sup’, after five appearances with Magic Dirt. Now I love warm hugs, but it’s the surprise packet, the thrill of the new and the unexpected, that makes for the most memorable festival moments. As mentioned previously, The Drones nailed it, and none of the returnees missed the mark per se, but some felt so familiar as to be a little mundane. Cut Copy, for instance, are a formidable live proposition, purpose-built to work a lathered-up midnight crowd into a state of rapture, but this was my third time seeing them in the same space, with a lot of crossover in the setlist, too. Not exactly box-fresh.

7. If all indie-pop ceased to exist except for Yo La Tengo, then indie-pop would still be fine

Yo La Tengo took a while to find their groove, and then they did their best to squander their momentum with a drumless mini-set, but then they rallied with a burst of the most sublime indie pop I’ve heard in a live context. They offered ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, ‘Sugarcube’ and ‘Ohm’, some of the sweetest melodies with those salty, fuzzed-out lead guitar freakouts. Sorry, I can’t be objective here: I just love them.

8. Flying Lotus forgot his festival set, brought his showreel instead

Flying Lotus is the pre-eminent hip-hop futurist in a world that is finally coming round to how great hip-hop futurism is, and much was expected. Visually, FlyLo delivered in spades, performing from a behind a semi-opaque screen. The whole thing looked like the wormhole from Sliders – and as we know, Sliders is incredible. Musically though, FlyLo was restless, seemingly eager to cover as much ground as possible in his allocated time. Before the crowd had really located the groove, he was cutting to the next song. He came out from behind his Jerry O’Connell-esque curtains to drop some solid, unremarkable rhymes, then ventured back for some of his beats, then some other people’s beats (‘Collard Greens’ was the pick), then back to his stuff. As an advertisement for FlyLo’s estimable skills, it was effective. As a festival set, it fell slightly short.

9. Public Enemy won Golden Plains

Put simply, they slayed. Though they did their best to undermine their righteous message (see list item 4), their music is undeniable. ‘911 Is A Joke’, ‘Fight The Power’, ‘He got Game’ – there’s a reason that they’ve bum-rushed the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. The camaraderie between Chuck and Flav, surely one the oddest odd couples in odd coupledom, was properly heartwarming. Chuck looked like a supportive older brother when Flav hopped on the bass and then the drums, and when he stepped up with that unmistakable bellow of his? Well, it was a moment.

10. The boot is losing its footing

The boot is a great tradition: a spontaneous expression of communal appreciation. It’s delivered at great inconvenience (a thong is not a boot), so you know that it’s real. However, it was borne of spontaneity, and there is now such a self-awareness around the act that it’s becoming a bit of a drag.

Throughout the weekend, I counted about 10 failed boot attempts. Perch Creek Family Jug Band received a respectable smattering, and Public Enemy’s ‘Hoover Street’/’Back In Black’ mash-up got a fair few as well, but there was nothing like the instinctive outpouring that Old Crow Medicine Show received in 2009, or the small-but-dogged show of support for Dick Diver last year.

One wag even offered his boot to the sunset, such was the state of anarchy that reigned – unsurprisingly, it didn’t catch on.