Big Day Out @ Sydney Showground (26/01/2011)

Oh, Big Day Out. The grand heavyweight champion of a festival-laden summer, a teenage rite of passage that’s left memories musical and otherwise etched in the minds of punters for nearly two decades. And none more so than the arguable centerpiece of the tour, the Australia Day Sydney show. The sold-out confines of Olympic Park didn’t take long to swell with bare flesh, beer cans and the inevitable parade of tacky Australian flag paraphernalia, with the placement of former superstars The Vines as openers probably helping proceedings.

You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for Craig Nicholls and co. Once a bona-fide sensation, they’re regulated to the earliest possible main stage slot, providing the soundtrack to the influx of the festival’s true believers. They seem to know it too, with Nicholls doing his best to still sound excited while repeatedly thanking the crowd for coming, as if they’re the last thread remaining before The Vines plummet into obscurity. Performance wise they aren’t too bad, and early hits Get Free and Highly Evolved get a good reaction. But the excitement of their heyday is gone, and when Nicholls ends the set by smashing his guitar and dismantling the drum kit – barely past midday – it’s hard to feel anything but second-hand embarrassment.

Around the corner, Parades fill the Hot Produce stage with ethereal guitars and electronic flourishes, charming the somewhat small crowd gathered. It sounds gorgeous on the stage’s hefty PA, and the set comes to a tremendous climax with a rendition of Marigold that proves Jonathan Boulet can drum as well as he can write pop songs.

Airbourne write derivative, shallow music that mimics yesterday’s hard rock to near-parody. So why are they so goddamn fun? In front of a Spinal Tap-esque stage setup of 12 neatly lined-up Marshall stacks, frontman Joel O’Keefe method-acts rockstar excess with such enthusiasm that it’s hard to not get swept up in it. It’s a blizzard of scissor kicks, sculled beer and more hair whipping than a schoolyard full of Willow Smiths. And when he scales the stage’s monstrous scaffolding – all in the name of the most stupidly dangerous guitar solo I’ve ever seen – it leaves little choice but to be impressed. Sure, there’s plenty to dislike if you stop to think about it, but thought isn’t a currency that Airbourne trade in.

Lupe Fiasco, on the other hand, struggles to generate excitement. Perhaps ill-fitted to the mainstage, his set often finds itself in a no-mans land between hip-hop and a half-hearted attempt at the kind of rock n’ roll stage show that Jay-Z is touring of late. Mix that with a heavy dose of new, unreleased material and you’ve got a well-meaning set that falls flat.

Over in the laid-back Lillyworld, The UV Race play to a small fraction of Lupe’s crowd, but charm them with their simple, somewhat shambolic garage pop. With little separation between the psychedelically-painted stage and audience, the set ends with frontman Marcus riding one punter’s shoulder while another enthusiastically shreds at a guitar handed over by a band member.

The Boiler Room offers some respite from the sun’s onslaught, but not from the heat – especially with such a huge crowd gathered for South African oddities Die Antwoord. They immediately put their reputation as a YouTube meme to rest with a commanding live performance. Between Hi-Tek’s massive beats, Ninja’s powerful stage presence and Yo-Landi’s overt sexuality, their sound was crisp and focused. And so was their stage show, combining subversive eroticism and menace into a truly unsettling, yet incredibly engaging performance. Add to that an penchant for bizarro theatre (complete with a huge rubber penis microphone) and you’ve got one of the oddest and best sets of the day.

There’s no such menace in *Catcall’s8 set, but there’s certainly a seductive quality to her music. Backed by some huge 80s/italidisco-influenced beats, she saunters along the stage performing unashamedly catchy pop gems. It’s terrific, and a welcome respite from the guitar-driven masculinity that traditionally dominates the festival.

The succeeding band on the Annandale stage are the opposite – loud, muscular and abrasive. It’s The Hard-Ons, Sydney punk veterans, and they absolutely tear the smaller stage apart. Combined with Catcall, it’s a mid-festival reminder that Sydney’s own can run laps around many of the much-hyped touring bands.

Despite being festival mainstays, John Butler Trio seem oddly placed. Playing a late-afternoon set on the otherwise hard rock-dominated main stage, they play a set of overbearingly earnest pop folk, punctuated by longwinded solos – one particular point in the set finds Butler performing a solo acoustic instrumental that overstays its welcome by a good five minutes. They’re technically proficient, but hard to stomach.

With the possible exception of Nick Cave, Iggy Pop is the festival’s only bona-fide rock star. The godfather of punk with the group responsible for his best work, The Stooges were for many the most exciting part of this year’s lineup. With an ecstatic stage presence that’s bewildering for a man of 63 years (especially considering his colourful history), Pop leads the reformed Raw Power -era Stooges through almost the entirety of that album, as well as other tracks from the era and older faves like No Fun and 1970. Pop is a born entertainer, and still manages to find himself running around both on and off-stage, clad in his signature black jeans, boots and long blond hair. It’s an exhilarating, riff-heavy trip down memory lane with a band who have no right to be as exciting at their age as they are.

The first sign that Rammstein are going to be a sight to behold isn’t a subtle one. During setup they drape the entire orange stage in a massive German flag. And when it drops amid heavy riffs and fireworks, revealing a stage with multiple platforms, industrial furnishings and the most theatrically-dressed band of the day, you can’t help but be curious. What ensued was one of the most thrillingly, amusingly camp sets in Big Day Out history and one of the day’s clear highlights. Every song featured pyrotechnic displays, acted interludes and heavy, chugging metal riffs – a hedonistic metal theatre that would give Alice Cooper stage envy. It’s a riot too – a crowd mostly made up of “Aussie blokes” chanting along to German lyrics would be hilarious on its own, without band members spitting fire into the air, a (quite convincing) stage invader being set on fire, and the explosive death and sequin-covered resurrection of the group’s keyboardist. All to the soundtrack of industrial German metal. It was unashamedly ridiculous, and undeniably entertaining.

Back in the boiler room, LCD Soundsystem were getting off to a rather subdued start with Dance Yrself Clean. Back in the country on the tail-end of their final tour, they treated the crowd to a brief but exciting trip through their catalog, with All My Friends and early hit Yeah standout highlights. With rather long songs their hour-long set didn’t quite satisfy, but it was a great last hurrah from one of the better dance acts of late.

After the excitement of the last few acts, headliners Tool were a bit of a comedown. One of the more divisive headliners that the festival has had, they probably thrilled the rather large army of fans that packed the front of the stage, but their longwinded, prog-influenced metal combined with their reluctance to perform to the crowd (vocalist Maynard performed in darkness at the back of the stage, while the rest of the band remained relatively static) didn’t seem to garner much enthusiasm elsewhere. Sure, there were plenty of punters in the showground, but by headliner standards there didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm, and their stage setup (consisting of massive video screens, a laughably naff heptagram and not much else) didn’t do much to convince otherwise.

To their credit, the group are incredibly tight, and the set had some highlights – an extended Lateralus in particular. But that’s not enough, and it was mostly long, drawn out, self-indulgent and ultimately dull. Of course, Tool are a band with dedicated fans, and there’s an entire Tool Army out there who will disagree entirely. But the best headliners are universal, bringing together punters who have spent the day bouncing between the festival’s nine stages, and ending it all with a great big celebratory set. Tool, by their very nature, fail dismally at achieving that.

It’s lucky, then, that the side stages run later, allowing the day to end with Grinderman. Fronted by the incomparable Nick Cave, they ended the festival with a rugged, testosterone-driven performance. Like Maynard, Cave deals mostly in darkness, and yet the two couldn’t be more dissimilar – where Maynard hid in the shadows, Cave commands the audience like a southern preacher, with a swagger that’s both foreboding and overtly sexual. Guitarist Warren Ellis is a great wingman for Cave, and their natural chemistry only heightens the power of the set. The smaller stage allows Cave to interact more with the audience, with him pleading with members of the audience during No Pussy Blues and commanding everyone to Get It On with the song of the same name.

A supergroup of Australian music’s gritty underbelly, fronted by one of the most electrifying frontmen we’ve produced, tearing through odes to aging and frustrated sexuality. Could there be a better end to an Australia Day Big Day Out filled with bombast, subversion, musical icons and straight-up great music?