Funk n Grooves festival @ Hunter Valley (11/09/10)

It may be because I live near by, but I had always wondered why there hadn’t been a festival in the vineyards. Tyrrell’s Long Flat is amongst at least five beautiful settings in the region that would lend themselves to a festival format. With a slight natural amphitheatre and wide-open space that just lends itself to live music, the Long Flat is one of the most criminally underused venues in the hunter.

There was no queue to enter the show, which was an extremely welcome change. The venue was obviously undersold and the underwhelming turnout meant that facilities designed to work at a full strength 5000, were now working at half pace, allowing for a comfortable and easy going festival.

Opening the day were Sydney four piece, Boston Shaker. Despite holding the opening slot to a mostly seated and sparse crowd, the band turned it on from the word go and were fairly well received. Their Black Crowes-esque sound lent itself well to the festival stage, and there was plenty of “Yeab!” and “C’mon” to go around. Drummer Ange Blackshaw put in a good word for female drummers everywhere, pushing the band along with the solid beats that really make Boston Shaker.

Opening the South Stage was Novocastrians Samba Frog. The troop had apparently cut down their lineup today to a mere 15 and were armed with everything that rattled, shook or could be hit with stick or hands. The group was well loved by the early crowd, not in small part due to the scantily dressed samba dancers they brought with them. Its not common at a festival anywhere to see a crowd divide itself so uniformly but there was a crowd in front of the stage interested in the band, and a crowd of almost equal size to the side which allowed a rear view of the samba dancers in the wings. Their set was a showcase of the rhythms of Brazil with each of the generally instrumental songs introduced simply by the region it came from.

Red Ink are a solid live act. They sit somewhere between Temper Trap and an edgier U2 by my ears and they would probably be my pick of the Melbourne indie acts. They interacted well with what little crowd had arrived by their set and I don’t think that the whole front line stopped moving the entire set. Other than a slight bass malfunction midset, the band played with surgical precision. The set list was all killer no filler with no ballads and no slow points throughout keeping the energy up. Highlights included opener Kleptomaniac and the powerful How to Catch a Killer.

You knew you were in for something a little different with Skipping Girl Vinegar. The music playing between sets was ambient night sounds; they set their stage across the front with vines draped over mic stand that gave the whole setting a sort of midsummer-nights-dream vibe to it. Musically they are Melbourne’s answer to The Devoted Few. Something like to Okkervil River with Tim Rodgers on vocals. Despite the lack of electric guitars, these guys could hold their own with any electric band, not in small part due to drummer Chris Helm ability to really give it some at times. The band made good use of light and shade in their set list and despite an early set held interest for the duration. Probably the highlight was the driving atmosphere of One Long Week.

Calling All Cars exploded out of the blocks and all over the stage. They were the first band to bring the crowd to the barrier. Reminiscent of early Foo Fighters or Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American album, Calling All Cars are bands that have found a formula that works are making good use of it. The downside is that their set could get a bit samey at times but the bands faultless live performance was their saving grace. Good responses to singles Hold Hold Fire, Not Like Anybody and closer Disconnect. A band worthy of the price of admission.

The Bamboos are Australia’s answer to Sharon King and the Daptones, and are hardened festival veterans. Even though their entrance was let down a little when after a short build up front woman* Kylie Auldist* had to plug in her own mic, these guys started and rarely stopped cranking out solid soul grooves for the duration of the set. Looking the part in matching suits these guys made it look really easy, adding in soul stage move stables of the choreographed horn section and the singer calling for horn shots. Despite the bands obvious musical ability, they showed well-judged restraint in solo sections and avoided long term commits to outside trumpet excursions, this keep the fairly young crowd interested. In terms of material The Bamboos keep it pretty straight down the line which did divided the crowd, those who keen to dance were more than happy to keep dancing, those who were after sometime became bored and left. The band were a strange choice to have following Calling All Cars but were a great addition to the festival and were all in all were an excellent way to spend an hour of your Saturday afternoon.

With Muph and Plutonics Pluto on the drums, and live bass lines and selective synths provided on top of the usual DJ this was the live performance the Brisbane based act Resin Dogs. The live aspect was never more obvious than when the drums and DJ Katch slid out of time, which personally I actually found kind of refreshing. Today was not the Resin Dogs day it seemed, the band took a while to wind up into the set which was probably as a result of their awkward start, and with the help of a guest appearance by Koolism’s Hau by mid set these guys were starting to build some momentum. Explaining it had been a while between drinks for the band, there set was to be a bit of showcase of the bands back catalogue and that’s exactly what it was with tracks from all the Resin Dogs releases in what a wide and varied set, highlights included the well received all but instrumental Gunshot Dub and set closer crowd favorite Coming with the Sound. In what was a real shame Resin Dogs set were cut short just as the band really hit their straps. I’ve seen the Resin Dogs before and they are always a great live act, it was a real shame to see them get cut short and have the difficulties they had but the band showed what an hardened live act they are by struggling through.

It what was a common problem for the day, Urthboy’s entrance was hampered when he walked on to his mic buried almost inaudibly in the mix, the band continued on regardless to a crowd quickly flocking to the stage. Right from the start the band were up and about. DJ Elgusto repeatedly joined Urthboy and Jane Tyrell in the front line for some syncronised dance moves during opening Spitshine. It was obvious that this was a well-rehearsed set and there was not an out of tune, out of time or out of place note for the duration, in what was an extremely well received set featuring crowd participation from the opening words. Lots of banter and a short scat interlude between Urthboy and Elgusto making fun of the entrance sign warning the crowd of the jazz festival they were entering helped to build a solid bridge over the crowd barrier. But stealing the show was Elgusto going solo, armed with shoulder strap mounted MPC doing a remix of Eurhythmics classic Sweet Dreams. The only thing that pulled that crowd away from the south stage was the opening notes of Washington’s set on the other stage towards to the end of the set

For many Washington was the headliner. Firstly I would like to that in the Washington show, there was no huge light show. No one did a back flip off a drum riser; in fact I’m fairly sure that the bassist feet didn’t move for the duration the set. And the crowd absolutely loved it. Megan Washington had them eating out of her hand. She announced shortly into the set that she had not written a set list and started to take requests. It was a very intimate set that built over time. Early favourites included Clementine and new material Plastic Bag dedicated to her year 9 English teacher who was “just that”.

Washington herself seemed to move uncontrollably when ever she played with a kind of energy that just flowed out of her and gave her an increadible stage presence. In the end she was so lost in her performance that she lost track of time and without a set list tried to end the show early, before a quick consultation with production showed that she was only mid set. Rousing responses to Sunday Best and an unexpected cover of the Diviynls classic I Touch Myself were highlight of a perfectly executed and beautiful set.

In what I must say were two sets I was really pleased to see side-by-side, Bertie Blackman followed Washington. I had always thought of Megan Washington and Bertie Blackman’s heir apparent, and with the twilight bracket I thought this would be a good opportunity to see Bertie at her finest. The band came on to a somewhat cold crowd response and after a long but almost inaudible introduction Bertie lead into a 4-minute A Capella poem to much crowd confusion. Now entering the second song and with crowd chatter still rivaling the bands volume, Bertie led the band through a slow building and atmospheric first half of the set. This felt like a great artist who was playing album tracks, and things didn’t warm up until crowd pleaser C’mon mid set.

Between songs Blackman explained that she is happy to be home after a few months in London. I’ve seen Bertie Blackman three times now and this is the first time that she has been anything less than amazing and even that was primarily due to her choice of material. To a packed out Oxford Arts or Gaelic Club this would have been a set for the ages but it just wasn’t for the festival stages. That said the set was musically brilliant and I am always impressed with the huge voice that comes out of such a small woman.

British India come onto stage with a fit of energy and proceeded to explode out into their opener. It was a strange look for the band with frontman Declan Melia wearing a hoodie with hood up and bassist Will Drummond’s jacket done up to his neck. The beauty of a British India set is the rough and raw quality they have as a live act. It’s not precise or delicate. It’s more bucket chemistry than rocket science which works well for the band as Melia explains that the act is all still quite hung over from his house cooling party the night before. And then things proceeded to go downhill for the act from there. Early into the set an obvious uncomfortable Drummond asked lighting operator to stop using any strobes to avoid him having an epileptic fit on stage.

Crowd favorites She Tied Up My Hands and Guillotine (much of which frontman played with a drum stick) kept the crowd warm as the temperature plummeted during the set. Melia explains how it strange it seems to him that he talks to the crowd like it’s a conversation “but you can’t talk to me, I can just talk to you.” angrily continuing the set into what would be there second last song the band were just not happy on stage. Upon being the informed this would be there last track Melia protested, “It feels like we have only been playing for 15 minutes but apparently this is our last song.”

In what was presumably an attempt for more playing time the band then turned what would have surely been the rest of their set into a medley featuring a well received cover of Beastie Boys track Fight for Your Right before in probably the strangest production move I have ever seen at any show in the dying minutes of the British India set, production actually walked on stage and removed Declan’s amp leaving him effectively playing air guitar as his amp was quickly whisked across to what I could presume was the South Stage for Gyroscope. Production malfunctions, unexpected medleys and strobe less light shows included this set did show why British India is a festival regular.

Gyroscope stole the show for me. They had the kind of set that makes people wanna learn guitar and go to shows. There was already a good size crowd when the Perth four piece took the stage and for good reason. The band casually walked out on to stage and proceeded to promptly go mental. By the conclusion of opener Doctor Doctor frontman Daniel Sanders had gone from fully clothed with a hoodie to topless with no shoes and was climbing over the punter barrier to rapturous applause, aided by security and a more than welcoming crowd Sanders then flat on his back as he became first and only crowd surfer of the day playing and singing as though he was bolt upright onstage and this was a normal day at the office. Then the first song ended.

These guys are hardened performers and this set showed that off. There wasn’t a beat missed for the course of the set and the set list was perfect for the festival featuring tracks for all the bands releases and even the incorporation of a verse and chorus of Midnight Oil classic Beds are Burning into crowd favourite Fast Girl. Their was a slower moment with Sanders taking an acoustic for Australia but not before going back to the crowd barrier while bassist Brad Campbell not to be outdone, played the majority of Safe Forever on his back with his legs high in the air. This was probably the high point of the set actually, when Sanders now standing atop the crowd barrier made a frantic grab for his mic for the solo vocal in the bridge before simply stopping and smiling when the crowd loudly took over, much to his appreciation. The band rounded out the set with Don’t Look Now But I’m Sweating Blood and jumped down to the barrier to meet their fans. The pick of the day, good to see Gyroscope are still on form after four albums and 13 years.

Spiderbait are long time festival veterans and as such carry a bit of clout. Evidentally enough clout to be able to get away with delaying their set by half an hour, until the conclusion of Gyroscope before taking the stage. They opened with Take Me Back to the City and I must say didn’t really seem to be able to get comfortable, Janet’s mic would intermittently cut out leaving the band awkwardly without vocal at times, and Kram was obviously never happy the with monitors as the majority of his banter between songs was directed at monitor operator who seemed to be able to do little to help him.

All this aside, Spiderbait delivered a solid if somewhat unexceptional set that did exactly what it was meant to do an made people drink and dance with their friends. I’ve seen Spiderbait at three different festivals of around this size and they always play a pretty similar set. Its dirty, nasty, rock’n’roll that has the kind of feeling that you are watching in on the bands jam room. There’s a lot of obvious communication between the band and songs often get extended out to great lengths. Probably the most unexpected part of the set was when guitarist Daniel “Whitt” Whitty seemingly worked out the intro to Pink Floyd’s Shine On Your Crazy Diamond during one of their jams. The set featured all the Spiderbait classics with particular warm responses from by now very cold people for Buy Me a Pony, Calypso and of course closer Black Betty.

I think it would actually be really remiss of me not to mention this but Funk’n’Grooves was hands down without a doubt the nicest, most polite and cleanest festival I have ever been to. Thanks by and large to the organizers can deposit scheme the field was so clean after this festival that you could barely tell that there had ever been a festival there to start with. Everyone who bumped into you was polite enough to apologize before they moved on and I think you could count the people ejected from the venue on one hand.

This is the kind of festival that you could bring you anyone and know that you would not have any trouble with them. Everyone kept their shirt on, and despite copious amounts of rum drank, barely a fight was seen throughout the day. This was the kind of festival that you could bring anyone and they would have a good time. Not to mention that the surroundings of picturesque mountains and vineyards made the day look like it was set inside a postcard. The festival was plagued somewhat by minor production problems, but that shouldn’t detract from the organizers who have created what should be a regular edition to any festival schedule. It may be a little out of the way but with a cheap admission price and high quality lineup Funk’n’Grooves is a festival that is well worth the price of admission.

Check out the photos from the festival