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MUSIC REVIEW: The Falls Music & Arts Festival 2014, Lorne

Friday, 2 January, 2015

This is the second part of a two-part series. Click here to read part one.

The Falls Music & Arts Festival – Lorne
Tuesday 30 December – Wednesday 31 December

I’ve always believed that a live music set is only as good as where you’re standing. From the cheap seats, even Led Zeppelin could sound dull. From the front row, even Rebecca Black could be an epiphany. It’s easy for audiences—myself included—to confuse starstruck emotions with aural pleasure, or stagnant movement with crowd boredom. Similarly, one negative comment from a nearby bystander can shift your perceptions on a performance; a profound sentiment becomes inane stage banter, an improvised guitar solo becomes a wanky filibuster. It’s worth keeping these things in mind when reading any review. But for what it’s worth, here were my highlights from the final two days’ worth of performances at The Falls Music & Arts Festival in Lorne.

The first musician to shine on Tuesday was rising rapper Remi, whose catchy rhymes, cocksure attitude, and bendy dance moves made him look at home on the Grand Theatre stage. In an interview with Farrago’s Zoe Efron earlier this year, the Mt Eliza local distanced himself from the Australian hip hop typecast, citing that his music doesn’t fit neatly into that genre and that he doesn’t “know shit” about the scene. Punters might not necessarily get that impression from his recordings, but such a distinction was made more evident by his dance-friendly live performance.

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Performing 500 metres down the hill from Remi was Sydney group Sticky Fingers, who similarly got the crowd (a generous one, too) moving to a hybrid brand of music. Their summery rock/funk fusion was a pleasant distraction from the winter conditions, so much so that hairy keyboardist Freddy Crabbs felt comfortable performing the entire set sans upper-body clothing.

Only a couple of months ago, few Australians had heard of George Ezra, who only joined the setlist after tickets had sold out. But when the 21-year-old blonde from England appeared for his first set in Australia, the Grand Theatre was abuzz with his name. The stunned expression on Ezra’s face suggested he’s still getting used to such receptions, but his nervousness had no effect on his voice. Likewise, his age and boyish looks failed to correlate with his mature natural tone, white man’s best response to Barry White. After breakthrough hit “Budapest” had the crowd producing cringeworthy falsettos, Ezra closed his set with overlooked first single “Did You Hear the Rain?”, a darker companion to his poppier numbers. With Ezra already playing on high rotation on Triple M, it wouldn’t surprise if this single is resurrected for the station’s 2015 playlist.

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As the cloudy sky gave way to night, John Butler Trio made their token festival appearance on the Valley Stage. With 16 years and six albums to their name, it’s easy to take John Butler and his anonymous two friends for granted. But the trio used their 70-minute set, the longest allocated to any band, to remind the crowd of their reverence. John Butler in particular was keen to prove himself again, setting aside 10 minutes for an epic guitar solo. A fair few punters may well have yawned when the frontman kicked his mates off the stage and called for his special guitar. But Butler’s guitar-led epic had the crowd in raptures, and was the key talking point as the masses scattered for festival fast food.

It was a hard to follow for La Roux, who hadn’t been to Australia for six years, nor given us any particular reason to demand her return. On the back of new album Trouble In Paradise, though, the English hair model and her troupe of musicians (hand-picked directly from the ‘80s) had enough catchy numbers to win the crowd’s favour. “Bulletproof” may forever be her biggest claim to fame, but it’d be cruel to dismiss her as a one-hit wonder.

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With La Roux creating a party atmosphere, the whiff of marijuana came and went more frequently, as did the rain. Two heavyset men beside me retrieved a suspicious bag of pills from their wallet and suddenly seemed extra jolly. But for everybody in the audience that wasn’t on drugs, there was Empire of The Sun.

While I can’t say I’m usually a fan of Empire of The Sun (The Sleepy Jackson will always be my medication of choice), their set was an unforgettable display of performance art. Challenging the very nature of live music, Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore choreographed a spectacle more suited to Broadway than the country fields of Lorne, complete with a sound-and-light prologue and a closing scene ripped straight out of a superhero movie. Inflatable costumes, flashing strobes, trippy videos, and the world’s fittest backup dancers surrounded the duo throughout their set, giving the appearance of a Kylie concert on LCD. By midnight, Luke Steele departed the stage with a smashed guitar and one of the festival’s only encores, earmarking himself as the Falls hero for 2014.

The music was alright too, I guess.

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The special effects of Empire of the Sun set a benchmark for the rest of the artists, one that few were able to emulate. The following morning, electronic duo Fishing—whose DJ/vocal set was the margarine alternative to Empire of the Sun’s rainbow spread—could only dream of competing. Tucked away on the Grand Theatre stage at midday, before most punters had recovered from the previous night, Fishing seemed more focused on concocting chilled-out walls of sound than confetti showers. With that said, those nursing hangovers may have found more enjoyment in the act’s accompanying low-budget animated video, which followed the exploits of a ghoulishly green running man.

The first act to really get going on Wednesday was multi-tasking storyteller Kim Churchill. If there’s a Falls trophy awarded for Most Instruments Used In A Single Song, Churchill is a shoe-in. His guitar and vocals would have been enough to secure himself a placing, but he complemented those with a snare and a base drum for his left foot (separate pedals), a tambourine for his right foot (playing a different beat, mind you), a harmonica draped around his neck, and a keyboard spread out in front of him. Churchill proved himself to be more a novelty one-man band, regularly giving the audience the context behind each of his songs. At times, it came across a little preachy, but only because artists before and after him were too focused on fitting their set into an hour than connecting with their audience. When Churchill concluded his set by plugging his next gig, you almost felt an obligation to book tickets, as if your best mate was asking for a favour.

With the Triple J crowd flocking to and from Thelma Plum and Kingswood respectively, Megan Washington played to fewer than she probably expected. However, those lucky enough to be basking in the sunshine at the Valley Stage would have been pleased with what they heard. I can’t say with any confidence that Washington and her band take inspiration from Robert Smith, but there was more than a hint of The Cure in their set. But perhaps I just being distracted by Washington’s Smith-esque dark eye shadow and red lipstick makeup. While Washington still doesn’t have a “Budapest” or “Bulletproof” to her name, she rewarded her loyal followers with a healthy mix of songs from both of her albums. The crowd favourite, though, was her impassioned rendition of Kanye West’s “Runaway”, a thereupatic epilogue for the frontwoman, who confessed 2014 had been a personally tough year.

Read Phoebe St John’s interview with Megan Washington here

While those on the grass demanded Vance Joy get to “Riptide” already, the hipper kids packed the Grand Theatre to see Oxford trendsetters Glass Animals. Lead singer Dave Bayley, with his Liam Neeson face and red hair, doesn’t look like your archetype rocker, but nor are Glass Animals your archetype rock band. Performing numbers more suited to swaying than headbanging, Bayley and his quartet had the crowd rocking like a pendulum with every carefully whispered lyric. When he got up and personal with the audience during his Like A Version rendition of “Love Lockdown”, those repeating back the words “I’m in love with you” sang it like they really meant it.

Fellow international visitors Cold War Kids don’t have quite the cult status of Glass Animals anymore, but had enough new material to suggest they were still worthy of an invite. Unfortunately lead singer Nathan Willett’s voice couldn’t survive the whole set, and was struggling to hit the high notes by the time he arrived at crowdpleaser “Something Is Not Right With Me”.

Speaking of bands past their prime, Spiderbait was a curious selection for the festival, given their recent inactivity. While the Aussie rockers released a self-titled record in 2013, it’s been ten years since Kram got us headbanging to “Black Betty” and almost 20 years since “Buy Me A Pony” topped the Hottest 100. The trio hit the stage with ageing faces, weary voices, and complaints of body pain, giving the impression that Lorne threw them out of bed and demanded an hour-long set. But whenever drummer Kram gave the signal—four quick stick claps—the trio snapped into action, cohesively creating rock’n’roll carnage. The crowd responded appropriately, forming a moshpit that would have even impressed Soundwave.

Arguably the greatest value-add Spiderbait brought to the festival was Kram, the forgotten cult hero of Australian music. Noticing the gender imbalance of the mosh, Kram demanded that it become a ‘girls only’ zone. Later on, recognising his popularity with the crowd, he jumped off stage to join them. A mob chased the Spiderbait frontman up the hill, unofficially granting Kram an one-year extension on his cult status. By the time he finally got around to playing “Calypso” and “Black Betty” with his patient colleagues, Spiderbait’s set had run overtime. Nobody seemed to mind.

Bluejuice's Stavros carries a George Costanza placard after singing their tribute, "George Costanza"

Bluejuice’s Stavros carries a George Costanza placard after singing their tribute, “George Costanza”

Spiderbait was a fitting crowd-warmer for the retiring Bluejuice, although the Sydneysiders didn’t really need it. Just as they’ve done since bursting onto the scene with “Vitriol” in 2007, Bluejuice filled their set with non-stop energy, crowd sing-a-longs, and requests for drugs. Singing duo Jake and Stavros predictably wound up in nothing but their underpants, but not before scaling the railings, jumping into the crowd, throwing water bottles, and playing the crash cymbal with a microphone. The Falls stage staff weren’t overly impressed by the duo’s antics, but everybody else was enjoying the party.

Bluejuice have made a big deal of their finale, releasing a (perhaps premature) greatest hits album and recently jetsetting on an Australian tour. But anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing the band live will understand the hype, and be anxious about which Aussie act can take their place. The mammoth size of the crowd by the end of their set is testament to that.

Read Danielle Bagnato’s interview with Bluejuice here

It was near impossible to move by the time headline act alt-j arrived on stage. Yet the English indie rockers gave Lorne a vastly different experience to their predecessors, letting their music do almost all the talking. Aside from drummer Thom Green’s motion behind the kit, alt-j stood virtually frozen for the duration of their set, perfect silhouettes overlooking a party-hard audience. It was a suitable visual accompaniment to singer Joe Newman’s reserved vocals, which guided the band through the best bits of An Awesome Wave and This Is All Yours. Not even “Breezeblocks” could get the band moving, despite the flashing lights and the chorus emanating from the Falls faithful.

Before midnight, Kram returned to the stage to count down to the new year. Much like his set, he seemed to wing the whole thing, leading the crowd in a round of drunken screams and a singalong of DJ Otzi’s “Hey Baby” to round out the year. After Blur’s Song 2 pumped out from the speakers—a fitting choice from the festival’s omnipresent and ever-reliable DJ—The Presets took over to give everybody a sweaty introduction to 2015. Those with more refined tastes in music opted instead to celebrate the New Year with Brookyn import Joey Bada$$ and New South Wales DJ Yahtzel.

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As good as all the music was on the main two stages, it is worth acknowledging the other performers who made Falls what it was. Behind the Valley stage and hidden between campsites sat two lower-key festival areas: Rancho Relaxo and The Village. Both offcuts were home to a diverse range of artists, including magicians, comedians, and ageing rockers. The lack of lines for the toilets here indicated it wasn’t populated nearly enough as it should have been, but it was a tranquil alternative for those who bothered to find it.

Upon entering the circus-like Village midway through Tuesday, a spruiker enticed me and a few dozen other loiterers into a tent. Sporting a YOLO attitude, we all soon found ourselves entertained for 20 minutes by illusionist Dane Certificate. In the adjacent tent, Dr Professor Neal Portenza surprised those curious enough to visit him and publicly scorned those sneaky enough to leave early. Elsewhere in the mini precinct, hipsters were invited to board bicycle-based rides or fight with one another at Battle Island. The whole set-up brought a carnival vibe to the festival, even if it was only attended by a handful at a time.