Playground Weekender @ Del Rio Resort (06/02/09-08/02/09)


There’s nothing like a spot of sunstroke to bring out the party spirit. Undeterred by stern warnings of record temperatures, the crowds gather early on the first day of Playground Weekender. Even the interminable wait for ferries to Del Rio Resort can’t dampen (or in this case, incinerate) the buoyant mood. From the wharf at Wiseman’s Ferry, the Hawkesbury stretches wide and flat in both directions. One of the weekend’s highlights is undoubtedly the slow crawl of the ferry along the river.

As for Del Rio itself, it’s heartening to see not much has changed since last year. The site is hemmed by a sheer ridge, with the campsite spread across a lush nine-hole golf course. The mainstage still occupies the prime patch of grass, while the Sounds Big Top returns to its familiar stomping ground. Taking the place of the Drunken Duck is the SoCo Carnivale stage. Red-and-white striped umbrellas are festooned on wires overhead, offering precious circles of shade. Stepping off the ferry through an arch knitted with flowers, it’s impossible not to feel a tingle of excitement.

It’s immediately clear that this is Playground Weekender: The UK Edition. From the mainstage headliners to the Big Top drawcards to the people in the tent next door, our Commonwealth cousins are out in force. After all, they’re no strangers to freak weather at festivals. Instead of wading through mud though, we’re sheltering from 40íƒâ€ší‚°C heat. The easy pace of Friday is complimented by languid sets from Alice Russell and Salmonella Dub, the sun finally slinking away to widespread relief.

Come Saturday morning, the festival proper is in full swing. Each arrival of the ferry brings a new battalion of revellers, lathered in 30+ and ready to get amongst it. While the first priority of many is to find a shady spot, Simon Caldwell has brought the Big Top to its feet. The stage is looking slicker this year, with a slanted picture frame suspended in front of the DJ booth and a curtain of reflective tiles behind. It helps, too, that there’s a Funktion 1 sound system in full effect. Print-outs taped to the marquee announce a re-shuffle of set times, but Todd Terje is still the first international to step up. Reminiscent of Will Saul’s early slot last year, it’s the job of the Norwegian gun to set the tone for the day. He does so in consummate style, although with a more straight-ahead deep house feel than some might’ve hoped. Dispensing a few signature re-edits along the way (disco-fied Paul Simon anyone?), Terje rallies a merry dancefloor. The numbers then thin for Ashley Beedle, who launches into a set of vocal house that could be straight outta 2003. Inner City’s Good Love typifies the bouncy, feel-good selections, but there’s not much vibe to speak of.

A Tiger beer and chorizo roll should be the perfect accompaniment to Mark Pritchard and Steve Spacek, but they seem to have been Houdini-ed off the day’s schedule. No matter though – it’s time to people-watch while honorary Australian Lyrics Born dishes out some good-time hip hop. The unsympathetic conditions haven’t got in the way of fancy dress Saturday. Togas and Flintstones bikinis are weather-appropriate, but for true commitment in the face of dehydration you can’t go past the guy in full-body gold-lame Lycra. Back in the Big Top, Nic Fanciulli has chosen to keep the mood upbeat. While he’s a solid DJ in a late-night setting, it’s refreshing to see him loosen up. The likes of Hercules and Love Affair’s Blind and Inner City’s Good Life (a recurring theme here) are interspersed amongst plenty of body-jacking groove.

Reclining on a hill as the evening cools and the sky turns a deep orange is one of Saturday’s true joys. Over at the mainstage, a sizeable throng has gathered for Crystal Castles. It’s an incredible setting in which to be awed by a band, but this ain’t the act to do it. While the sound rig packs considerable punch, what’s coming off the stage is a mess. The glitchy electro backing created by Ethan Kath and the ring-in drummer is passable enough, but Alice Glass’s indecipherable screeching is completely alienating. Songs end abruptly and with little discernible reason, before we get enough ear-puncturing onslaught. The highlight is undoubtedly the Mr G doppelganger standing near the back of the crowd, playing along on a fake keyboard. “Welcome to Mr G’s room, G’s room, G’s room, Welcome to Mr G’s room, come inside...”

At the Big Top, Brazilian baile funk guy Edu K has been crow-barred into the four-four heavy line-up. While variation is welcome, this is a trainwreck made worse by two abrasive MCs. At Playground Weekender, though, there’s always somewhere else to roam. The moon is out, the costumed freaks are everywhere and there’s never a long wait at the bar. It’s up to Freerange Records boss Jimpster to clear the air after Edu K, and he sets about it with gently-building selections. It’s a perfectly pitched session – a little Nu Deep House 101 at times but never lacking soul or direction. By now the dry conditions have turned the dancefloor into a minor dust-storm, ensuring days of black snot.

It’s Little Britain over at the mainstage as Primal Scream saunter on to rousing cheers. This is the band to capitalise on the dramatic locale and they (mostly) pull it off. The sound is crisp and forceful throughout, although at times Primal Scream more resemble a middle-of-the-road guitar band than cult heroes. However, Bobby Gillespie’s brooding presence and a green laser dancing overhead accentuate the rush of songs like Swastika Eyes. It’d be near impossible to please everyone, especially given divisive recent album Beautiful Future, but the set-list is well constructed and the appreciation from the crowd genuine. Fatigue has got the better of the Big Top, with the last remaining dancers getting down to Optimo. Tomorrow, they say, will be even hotter.

Mobilising on Sunday is hard work. The mission for most is to fetch a breakfast beer and make for the nearest tree. As expected the pool at Club Tropicana is now decidedly soupy, but at least it’s wet. If yesterday was fancy dress day, today is wear-as-little-as-possible day. A small crowd gathers in the sliver of shade cast by the mainstage to welcome Who Made Who. This is the band’s second appearance at Playground, and they sure know how to enjoy it. Peeling off their black-and-white jumpsuits as the set heats up, Tomas Hoefding and Jeppe Kjellberg trade quips while touring drummer Kalle hammers the kit. The simple pleasures of songs like Hello Empty Room and Out The Door draw in more onlookers, making for a mini-party down front.

Any curiosity that Kid Kenobi might be taking the dub path in his Big Top showing is dashed by the first thump of electro-house. The headache that sets in is only exacerbated by the banging follow-on from King Unique. No breezy disco or smoked-out sounds to ease us into Sunday, it seems. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Jose Gonzalez, who has the mainstage in quiet reverie. A delicate version of Massive Attack’s Teardrop is a particular highlight in an understated performance. Last year saw a steady exodus from the site on Sunday but this time round the majority are in it for the long haul. What makes the Weekender special is the chance to settle in – to take an hour to doze by the river or visit the outdoor cinema. In other words, a proper festival experience.

A power failure in the Big Top delays the flow, with Ewan Pearson finally getting underway at 7pm. The last-minute cancellation of Norman Jay turns out to be a blessing in disguise, as Pearson is handed two hours to settle in. He delivers one of the highlights of the festival: building through bumpy tech-house to more driving gear. Outside, the sun sets vividly behind the campsite and a full moon grows brighter. Pearson’s final half hour is particularly special, tempered by housier selections and warm vocals. The man is in such good stead it’s a shame he has to hand over the reins.

Again it’s Poms Away at the mainstage, led by archetypal Pom Mike Skinner. The man’s laconic charm never lets things stray into too-serious territory, with offsider Kevin Mark Trail smoothing out the musical edges. The grand finale in the dust-filled Big Top comes from Tom Middleton, repeating his winning –  “rave classics’ formula from last year. Well, well, don’t the English-folk love this one. The tent is jammed with whooping and screaming to the likes of Pump Up The Jam and Big Love, but the euphoria is undone at times by so-so selections.

And just like that, the whole beautiful affair is over for another year. Of course there’s trouble in paradise come Monday morning. Getting off the site is a nightmare and the line for the car ferry is enough to make a serotonin-sapped festival-goer weep. But these are the things you forgive after the sunburn has faded, right? We’ll all be there again in 2010, feeling smug about our favourite little festival.