The Great Festival Gambles

To celebrate the inaugural Festival Awards, FL looks back at the hits and misses that transpire when an Aussie festival takes a gamble.

Big Day Out puts faith in Rage Against The Machine

When Coachella heralded the return of Rage Against The Machine, few genuinely believed we’d see the reunited radicals down under. And anyway, people wondered, could they really still – Å“have it’? How badly do they need that new villa in the French Alps? Defying expectation, Big Day Out secured Rage for the 2008 Big Day Out and – to put it lightly – the gamble was worth taking. Wave upon wave of people jumping along to Killing In The Name is certainly a sight for the BDO history books. Perhaps the real gamble was scheduling Björk right before the rabble-rousing headline act. But that’s another story.

Introducing Golden Plains

Many a Meredith faithful raised an eyebrow when the organisers of Melbourne’s most treasured festival announced they would – for the first time ever – be opening up the gates of the Nolan farm for a new event to be held in March, The Golden Plains Festival. However, we all dutifully bought tickets and put our trust in the festival Gods that we hadn’t all been sold down the corporate river after so many years of devotion. It was with great relief that the sold-out crowd discovered Aunty Meredith had stuck to a winning formula – amazingly unique line-up, BYO booze, not a Coke Zero sign in sight and the best Hare Krishna food this side of the equator. Golden Plains was such a success that it has stuck around on the festival calendar and is gradually becoming a must-have ticket of the season.

Homebake books the Rogue Traders

In 2005, the Homebake Big Top was graced by much-loved regulars Pnau, Cut Copy, The Presets and The Herd…but no one could’ve predicted the delirious response to debutants The Rogue Traders. Even the band itself admitted in interviews to being pleasantly surprised at the booking on this most sought-after of line-ups. After all, they were just a pop-dance act targeted at teens and fronted by a former Neighbours star. But did the Homebake faithful recoil in horror and seek out the Happy Highs tent instead? Nope – the Big Top was spilling out the sides, a sea of hands in the air, screaming along to Voodoo Child. A guilty pleasure has never looked so guilt-free.

Chemical Brothers headline Big Day Out

Come 9:30pm, the Big Day Out crowd is usually split a few ways: mega-rock-band at the mainstage, mega-dance-act in the Boiler Room and assorted worthy headliners at the smaller stages. In 2005, though, the formula got a re-jiggle – with the double-punch of Beastie Boys and Chemical Brothers on the mainstages. Despite the promise of System Of A Down earlier in the day, it was a bold move that potentially left the human-pyramid massive in the lurch. Upping the stakes, the Boiler Room’s closing set was a video feed of the Chemical Brothers. So, did it work? Well, it’s not often you can stroll into the D-barrier while the headline act is playing…but variety’s the spice of life, right?

Cockatoo Island Festival makes its grand debut

It’s not often that a festival site can steal the show. Usually we’re confined to sporting venues or all-purpose fields, but in 2005 the first (and only!) Cockatoo Island Festival raised the bar considerably. The island in Sydney Harbour is a former imperial prison, industrial school, reformatory, gaol and 20th Century shipyard, with many of its heritage buildings still standing. Needless to say, staging a three-day music festival in such surrounds is a gamble that requires dedication. The organisers pulled it off consummately – making fine use of the cavernous Turbine Hall, disused workshops, crisscrossing tunnels and rusting machines. For all those devastated that it only happened once, the Great Escape filled the void in 2007, located up-river at its heritage neighbour Newington Armory.

The Vines fall apart at BDO 2003

2002 was unequivocally The Year of The Vines. Within twelve months the small band from Sydney “who could barely fill a room” had drawn comparisons to Nirvana, played on Letterman and been declared the – Å“Saviours of Rock N Roll’. However, all the media attention surrounding the band also revealed a highly unstable lead-singer. Craig Nicholls’ behaviour at gigs was gradually becoming more famous than the band’s music. He smashed guitars, abused audience members and was banned from doing media interviews. So when the BDO booked The Vines to play in – Å“03 they rolled the dice with the king of unpredictability and what resulted was an epic fail. Their performances were a disaster, with Nicholls seemingly forgetting that he was playing with other musicians; he belted along in his own time, playing out of key and often just screeching through lyrics.

Feist at St Jerome’s Laneway

Every so often a promoter stumbles onto a band before they hit the big time, securing them for an affordable price and then sitting back and enjoying the ride as a that performer shoots into the public eye (or ear). When St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival booked Leslie Feist, member of indie band Broken Social Scene, in 2008 to play their festival, the young Canadian songstress was building quite a name for herself as sassy solo artist, Feist. However, by the time the festival rolled around (and with a little bit of help from an iPod ad) she had become the must see indie-darling of – Å“08. Her performances as part of a stellar line-up went on to make it the most successful year for the Laneway promoters thus far.

Big Day Out blends bogan with At The Drive-In

The notoriously unhinged At The Drive-In was a major drawcard of Big Day Out 2001, but all did not go to plan on the Sydney leg. It was already a charged year for the travelling festival. Nu-metal was at its peak, with headliners Limp Bizkit upping the testosterone + bourbon equation. On a line-up that also included Mudvayne and Rammstein, it’s fair to say dropping At The Drive-In amongst it all was quite a gamble. Playing at a tightly packed-in side stage, the band repeatedly told the punters to settle down and look after each other – but to no avail. Frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala then bleated at the crowd and called them sheep, before the set was abandoned altogether after 15 minutes. Later that year, At The Drive-In disbanded, breaking off into two new bands – Sparta and The Mars Volta. Those 15 minutes really weren’t enough…


Neil Young headlining Big Day Out 09

The rumours that Neil Young was going to be headlining the BDO 2009 started flying as early as March this year to many a hopeful yelp. When it was confirmed by promoters in August we all cheered with joy and then paused to consider what this meant. Will the same shirtless, Australian-flag brandishing bogans who shook the earth for Rage Against The Machine in 08 light up a joint, hold hands and sing along to Harvest Moon? Only time will tell.


Amy Winehouse to play any Australian festival

It would seem that the biggest gamble any festival promoter can take in the world at the moment is to put Amy Winhouse on the line-up. Most recently her festival performances have included a complete cancellation with two hours notice at Rock En Seine in France and showing up forty minutes late for her headline set at Bestival, only to be booed off the stage when she finally arrived. Although this final schmozzle was declared her “last performance for 2008”, we want a festival promoter to take a gamble on Wino and bring her down under. What I would give to see that crack-hive on stage. I promise I won’t boo, Winey…

Words by Sarah Smith and Jack Tregoning

Don’t forget to head on over and vote in Australia’s first ever Festival Awards.