Six things we learnt from Golden Plains festival 2016

MARCUS TEAGUE ventured back to the famous Supernatural Ampitheatre to celebrate the tenth birthday of Golden Plains with Aunty Meredith and a few thousand of his best mates. No dickheads allowed. Photos by KATIE FAIRSERVICE.

Beyond a lineup so stacked it was hard to pick the headliner, the tenth birthday of Golden Plains unspooled like a wondrous lazy occasion worthy of celebration. Still the far more relaxed sister to the all-out Meredith, nods to the tenth birthday were subtle. Blown-up photos from the event’s previous decade adorned the walkway past the bar, and when night fell two giant spotlights crossed the sky above the stage, creating a giant ‘X’. The crowd played their own part with costumes, cakes, and typical bonhomie. As the final chord of Eddy Current’s set died away, a clutch of goons behind us broke into a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ and the DJ played The Avalanches. Everything in it’s right place.

#1. Eddy Current Suppression Ring were triumphant

Brendan Huntley stood at the lip of the stage after Eddy Current Suppression Ring’s last song, looking out at the packed festival grounds convulsing in rapture. The band had already walked off, but the singer seemed stuck, hands by his sides, staring at the scene. When he’d talked between songs during their blistering set he sounded emotional – after one of the biggest pits I’d seen at the Amphitheatre, during ‘Colour Television’, he croaked into the mic, “Thanks Golden Plains for having us, all you coming along… you human beings.” It sounded a bit like he might cry.

He turned his head left, then right, then left again, back again, seemingly trying to absorb enough imagery to make a memory of the overwhelming moment. Eddy Current never did encores prior to going on hiatus in 2010, but the backstage crew must have had a word. Unseen by the singer, the band reemerged from the onstage fog, guitarist Mikey Young tapping Huntley on the arm to indicate they were back on for another one. It was like seeing a little kid being told the tickets for Disneyland have come through. The singer punched the air with unbridled glee and charged back out across the stage. Beaming. A pure public expression of elation.

Huntley has a bizarre effect on people. He unites them. People project their happiness on him and his band. He’s not a great singer, more a monotone shouter than melodicist. He sings about ice cream and ATMs and friends and the small things in a small life. He dances like he’s trying to push himself up out of quicksand, all jerky movements from the hips up and elastic wiggling on the spot. Or he’s marching across the stage like an ostrich, his torso tipped out over his feet. Eddy Current are simple to the point of elementary, which means there’s no barriers to engaging with them. Their mere presence is an electrifying conduit for joy.

It’s always been like this. At least before they went on hiatus. Throw in 10,000 friends, a gorgeously mild night on the outskirts of the band’s hometown, the folkloric occasion of the band not having played in six years and no indication of whether they ever will again, and their return to a festival they themselves helped launch in 2007, and you’ve enough collective goodwill and clarity to understand you’re part of something historic as it’s happening. It doesn’t really matter what they played. Watching Eddy Current made us feel like everything was good and OK. What a gift! No wonder it sent them into hibernation.

And then there was everything else.


#2. The local acts were gold class – sometimes literally 

The standouts both before and after the event looked like locals. That premonition held true. Everyone’s current favourite post-punks Gold Class kicked off proceedings with a set that built in stature. Although early on it seemed a little tamed by the amphitheatre sound system, which this year generally didn’t seem to pack the punch the Amphitheatre is accustomed to. Easing in with slow-burner ‘Michael’, frontman Adam Curley centered the clanging trio behind him, bent like a bracket behind his mic stand, armed with naught but his deep voice. By the time the band mowed through the ‘Life As A Gun’, ‘Bite Down’, and ‘Furlong’ trio, the festival felt properly underway. Feels like they’ll be back in a couple of years as a headliner and/or similar.

Royal Headache are one of the few rock bands that makes you dance not up and down but side to side. They swing. It helps that singer Shogun never rests. ‘High’, ‘Really In Love’, ‘Strange Old Man’, a belting ‘Electric Shock’, ‘Garbage’, ‘Stand And Stare’ – the kind of infallible jukebox that would work any time on any day here. Black Cab have mutated through different styles across the years, but their current incarnation as post-punk-turned-electro-club now puts them on after dark. Their big beats and moody gurning arpeggios seemed custom built for the fog and saturated lights of the midnight slot on Saturday, and a beautiful long hypnotic closer that slowly examined a simple groove from all sides won my night.


#3. Weird = Good

Someone in my camp complained there wasn’t enough on the lineup to blast you in the chest, but there was in the head if tuned in. U.S Girls is the project of Meg Remy, who along with co-vocalist buddy Amanda Crist and the odd-appearance from guitarist Slim Twig, briefly installed an unstable spell on the Saturday afternoon Amphitheatre with her blown out ghostly pop. Remy’s piercing tremulous voice ghosted through detuned doo wop, bleak electro, and creepy hip-hop, the shuffling ‘New Age Thriller’ and closer ‘Woman’s Work’ unsettling highlights.

John Grant’s set was muted by a mix that somehow dampened his baritone vocals, though snatches of his hilariously dark one-liners still cut through. “I hope you know that all I want from you is sex, to be with someone that looks smashing in athletic wear” from ‘Queen of Denmark’ and “I am greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet” from ‘GMF’ among the choice highlights to tickle the hill. It helped that he likes a little sexy jig in some of his electro-moments, as on the ludicrous ‘Snug Slacks’. Happy songs about people being arseholes are always going to go down well in the ‘Sup.

On Saturday ever after Royal Headache I got stuck in the kind of time-blip that challenges the best laid plans and missed getting in the crowd for No Zu, but from afar their psychedelic sex-funk was pleasingly sleazy, if – as can be the case with the Zu gang – lacking a singular focal point to elevate it above party soundtrack. I was thinking Talking Heads’ without a David Byrne, then as they walked off the DJ played ‘Naive Melody’. Aunty is instinctual.


#4. Set planning is vital

Local electronic duo Friendships started strong with a humble intro – “Thanks for seeing a girl from Footscray and a small man from WA” – and then blasted into stride with some whacked-out cut-up beats that… I was all set to embrace. But a quick dart to camp to grab a drink led into a reality that said Friendships and Darcy Baylis had already finished. Nuts. Fortunately Japanese DJ Kenji Takimi was there waiting with a masterfully curated set that began with small structures of soulful beats being slowly woven together, finishing with psychedelic guitar blowouts and the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sunday Morning’ ringing out through the misty morning outside my tent.

I would have loved to have seen how HTRK’s perverse melancholy worked on stage at 10am Sunday morning, but my camp situation was generating enough of it’s own. Sydney improv heroes The Necks were like slipping into a warm pool, the perfect soundtrack for staring down at the flattened grass and raking over last night’s transgressions. The trio teased us awake with movements unnoticed, opening on a sparkling piano loop from Chris Abrahams, shifting through melancholy waves into a throbbing rhythm from Tony Buck belting his floor tom with a shaker. They finished on chimes and Abrahams piano once again receding like lapping waves. Convinced those with foresight could have booked a nearby massage for the same hour and achieved true enlightenment.


#5. Freddie Gibbs and “White Boy Will” are hip-hop heroes

“Wonder what Freddie would think of Golden Plains as he’s driving in?” our camp wondered of the hardcore rapper from Indiana. The answer didn’t take long. “When I was driving in and saw all these white people and tents,” said Gibbs from stage, “I thought, ‘They gotta be takin’ a lot of drugs.’” One of those guys might’ve been Will, who after trying to get over the fence to share his bottle of homemade “lean”, was ejected by security but then brought to stage by Gibbs. For a tense moment it wasn’t clear if “White Boy Will” was going to rise to the occasion or be manhandled by one of Gibbs’ beefy hype men. But Gibbs’ played to it perfectly.

After freestyling about a “corny white boy” he asked Will to make up a dance for Gibbs’ newly dropped ‘Money, Cash, Hoes’. Will’s attempt to “dance like you’re stirring up a big pot of cocaine” soon reverted to “drunk Australian at a BBQ” and all was well. ‘Harold’s’, ‘Fuckin’ Up The Count’, and a huge ‘BFK’ to close and ‘lo – the afternoon hip-hop slot again proves its own reliable draw. After Gibb’s set we returned to camp to downloaded the Rap Air Horn app and smashed it for the rest of the weekend.


#6. Classics are classics for a reason

Anyone not sold on the kind of guitar rock that peaked around the late ‘90s would have looked at the near six hour stretch of such music on Sunday evening with dread. But the swelling masses who paid attention, beginning with Built to Spill, through Sleater-Kinney, Violent Femmes, and then Eddy Current, would have ample reason to be thankful.

Built To Spill began slow by tinkering with their on-stage sound, the importance of which was only made evident by the time they closed with a face-melting cover of The Smith’s ‘How Soon Is Now?’. They present as middle-aged dags, but it’s a front for their guitar sorcery – meticulously weaving incidental sounds into complex arrangements around Doug Martsch’s childlike voice, until the five on stage are chained in creating this vast sound from no single source. It’s weird. From the slow-moving colossus of ‘Randy Described Eternity’, through the galloping ‘Goin’ Against Your Mind’, to the falling staircase of riffs in ‘Carry The Zero’ that finally inspired a field of boots, Built To Spill seemed to virtually wrest control of the elements. Not sure if the sun naturally swapped places with the moon at the end of their set or if it was a particular setting on their pedals.

Sleater-Kinney draw power in a similarly communicative, though much looser, way, and they too revolve around a singular voice. Carrie Brownstein might have the rock star presence and moves to match, and yeah she’s a great singer, but her freedom comes from being alongside the powerhouse voice of Corin Tucker. From the opening No Cities To Love trio of ‘Price Tag’, ‘Bury Our Friends’, and the pogo-worthy ‘Surface Envy’, Tucker’s voice was the siren around which Sleater-Kinney pivots. The Zeppelin-esque stomp of ‘Far Away’ from One Beat, felt like ramp up of energy, matched by ‘Entertain” and the clang of ‘Jumpers’ from The Woods’, that had drummer Janet Weiss freaking out behind the kit. Any other year Sleater-Kinney would have been the boot-shooting headliner, but at GPX we were only just past sundown.


People sang loudly to the Violent Femmes songs they knew and waited through the one’s they didn’t. Sandwiched between a collection of long-running bands who have gained strength over their years, I couldn’t help feel the Femmes are stuck in purgatory – dudes who don’t really get along recreating songs made when they were kids, about being kids, for people who remember how much they liked those songs when they were kids. There’s nothing innately wrong with that, and the Amphitheatre never resists the opportunity for a singalong. But the drop-off in quality between the the song’s people wanted to sing and didn’t, was vast.

Eddy Current opened with ‘Cool Ice Cream’ and the joint detonated. The band’s simple wiry sound carried immaculately from the first chord, Brendan unable to stop pacing for a moment. He calmly stood directly on the crowd’s shoulders during ‘Precious Rose’. In ‘Tuning Out’ he walked around the stage holding his mic to Mikey’s head, Rob Solid’s bass. Before the last chorus in ‘Which Way To Go’ he stood at the lip of the stage and geed up the crowd, arms raised, they kicked back in and… well. ‘Get Up Morning’. A band on fire. The stars were aligned, as they say. Best moment of the festival, maybe in all its years so far; in the way that people chatting about it will say, “Were you there that year when… ?” And the horrible thing: with a show like that behind you, why would you need to play again? What’s gone unsatisfied?

Both band and festival organisers alike must be thinking: how do you top that?