Big Day Out @ Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne (26/01/2013)

It may’ve been Australia’s day at the Big Day Out at Melbourne’s Flemington Racecourse on Saturday, but it was the overseas acts that took centre stage, writes LIAM TRACEY.

Melbourne’s Big Day Out has a big thank you for mother nature – the temperature was radically nicer than last year and actually half that of this year’s Sydney event (46 degrees). It may have been overcast, but there wasn’t a drop of rain. It was obvious it was Australia Day with the number of temporary tattoos, flags and once-a-year shirts on show, as many thousands of Melbournians gave up their yearly Hottest 100 countdown to head to Flemington. Strangely, it wasn’t really Australian music being celebrated, with a predominantly international lineup appearing over the course of the day. From Seattle to LA to Vegas and right across to New York, the Americans largely co-opted Australia Day in Melbourne.

A bit of a frustrating start for those drifting in early. A truck breaking down en route to the festival meant House Vs Hurricane were shifted from opening the main Orange Stage to closing the Red Stage, while ongoing sets from “metal band” Compressorhead were also adopted by the Red Stage.

Wandering around the festival, it’s clear why Big Day Out – despite its reputation for horrid crowds and the crush – keeps bringing back such good numbers. You’re spoilt for choice with eight stages going strong (or strange or silent) the whole day. Those who’d come for the opening were met with the enthusiastically charged Toucan opening the Green stage; Helena DJing in the Boiler Room and raising her own early bird mosh pit; and Jackson Firebird bashing their instruments as hard as they possibly could on the Red.

An early question for the day: Had anyone else seen a missed opportunity to have Against Me! play against ME? Given how relatively unknown they still are, it seemed a keen choice to have Melbourne’s ME open the main stage. When they began to play it was pretty obvious why. The Big Day Out faithful are very fond of the sound they make – it was almost as though a “U” and an “S” had fallen out from the middle of their name emblazoned across the stage. The quartet brought a strong set, albeit with a bit too much rock guitar jamming, making a good case for a mainstage return.

Delta Spirit were on the Green Stage soon after. Following a low-key start, they eventually hit their stride, with singer Matthew Vasquez climbing the scaffold to growl at the crowd from up high. Cool percussion tricks and lively guitar breaks made their early afternoon slot a reward to those venturing across, as did Gary Clark Jr who followed on the same stage. Clark Jr attracted a sizeable audience indeed, and quickly made sure all those recommendations to see him didn’t go unwarranted. The epitome of cool, he jammed with his band and brought many in the crowd to enact their own blissed-out dance parties.

The final five minutes of Bogan Karaoke at The Lilypad was enough for a lifetime, although the pain subsided somewhat for Lucha Vavooom’s Mexican wrestling, which pitted “The Fruit Bat” and “Tequila” against a pair of chickens. Nearby, the all-new Chow Town, which provided high-end food options like lobster rolls and corn fritters, was clearly winning the popular vote, and the range of added facilities/amenities meant a more comfortable experience over all.

Usually you see horses racing in circles at Flemington, not playing country-rock music on a massive stage. Bigger with every visit they make to Australia, Seattle five-piece Band of Horses were in high spirits as they made the most of their hour slot, pulling out the finest tracks from their four albums. ‘The Great Salt Lake’, ‘No One’s Gonna Love You’ and new track ‘Knock Knock’ were stand-outs, but none were as grand as ‘The Funeral’, which brought the crowd together for a genuine festival moment.

Getting the crowd’s attention was no issue for Vampire Weekend who followed over on the Orange Stage. This year, the two screens either side of the Blue and Orange stages had been replaced by one central screen. Frustratingly for anyone outside of the D, the giant feed for the main stages cut out, so for the entirety of Vampire Weekend’s set, all that could be viewed was a kind of ode to Burgo’s Catch Phrase as the techs tried their best to get visuals back up and running. This wasn’t a great loss, however. While Vampire Weekend clearly have an arsenal of festival favourite tunes, they’re not the most riveting band. Ezra Koenig was at least separating himself from the microphone – a step up from the band’s early days – but it was the songs themselves that kept the crowd going: the huge “Ey! Ey! Ey! Ey!” calls during ‘A-Punk’ and the crowd’s awful, albeit joyful falsetto sing-along during ‘One (Blake’s Got A New Face)’.

As Yeah Yeah Yeahs got underway, the crowd wasn’t exactly sure how to take the new material, which included the title track from their forthcoming album, ‘Mosquito’. But what YYYs lacked in anthems (early on, at least), they one-upped the New Yorkers preceding them in showmanship. Decked in red tasselled sleeves and heavy eye makeup, stalking the stage, spraying water and screaming as only she can, Karen O put the frontmen of the day to shame. A giant eyeball tried to pick things up on ‘Zero’, but the wind made sure that stage prop was short lived. Eventually, better known numbers appeared and the crowd began to warm to the band – although the extended intro of ‘Gold Lion’ somehow saw them singing ‘We Will Rock You’ back to the band, much to Karen O’s amusement. It was a gutsy set for both diehard and new fans alike, and while it took the Big Day Out long enough to book these guys, it was well worth the wait.

There was a big push into the D-barrier for The Killers, who were returning to the main stage six years after their Big Day Out debut. They’ve since headlined V Festival and Good Vibrations, in addition to arena dates in Aus, so it was little surprise that the band were packing some stadium-sized features for their headline slot. They had a stage-height screen backing them (that’s damn big FYI), along with all sorts of light riggings and even the odd spurt of fireworks.

Their “greatest hits” set lead off with their trademark single ‘Mr Brightside’, and the big ones kept coming from there. Only two tracks made an appearance off their new record Battle Born, including ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ (which included a firework blast that filled the roof of the stage with smoke) and the single ‘Runaways’. Debut album Hot Fuss was the main contender, with ‘Jenny Was A Friend of Mine’ and ‘Somebody Told Me’ the stand-outs, while other additions included a corny rendition of ‘Waltzing Matilda’. For the whole set, Brandon Flowers did indeed smile like he meant it in contrast to guitarist Dave Keuning who couldn’t have looked less interested if he tried. The set was right for the Big Day Out though, and the closing combination of ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ and ‘When You Were Young’ really threw the anthem punches festival-goers were after.

It was then the Blue Stage’s turn to finish up with one of the Big Day Out’s more classic headliners, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’m With You opener ‘Monarchy of Roses’ led things off for the Chilis, with Anthony Kiedis’ voice featuring a warped Auto-Tune effect on the verses to mess with anyone expecting a straight-up classic. Flea was immediately ferocious and remained so for the next 90 minutes. His performance was something to behold. He hopped, leapt, and crept all over the stage, all while giving a virtuoso-like performance on the bass. And his banter was great too, including this shout-out to his hometown crowd. “I was born here,” he said. “I had placenta all over my face in this town.”

The hits were interspersed throughout the set – ‘Otherside’, ‘Can’t Stop’, ‘Under the Bridge’ – but the set was also marred by some poor choices including ‘Throw Away Your Television’, which featured a pointless extended noise jam and Kiedis dancing around like a 20-something again (an impressive sight for a 50-year-old).

Heading out of the “D” and to the other side of Flemington to finish up the night, a final assault was in order with Sleigh Bells blasting out of the Essential Stage. Their crowd was but a drop compared to the Chilis Peppers’, but their volume demolished the main stage headliners. Along with this came a wall of strobe lighting that wouldn’t relent. The display of light and sound could almost push you out of the tent, as Alexis Krauss completed the frightening equation with uninterpretable vocals and winning silhouetted dance moves. It was a harsh way to end things, but one that left a parting souvenir: vision blotches and ringing ears.

It was a shame more Aussies weren’t in the limelight on our national holiday, but the overseas bands certainly did the festival justice. Organisers certainly took a lot of hits to keep the festival alive and at the end of the 2013 event (more on that here), and most in attendance would’ve been pretty happy with their delivery. While there were no radical differences – either in the demographic or the crowd’s behaviour – a strong lineup and some much needed additions meant that this year’s Big Day Out came out on top.