24 - 25 Feb, Downes Family Farm
There are three main criteria to organising a good music festival.
1) Choose a picturesque, but accessible setting that allows for an immersive experience.
2) Hand-pick an artist line-up that gives the audience a little bit of everything.
3) Provide the audience easy access to food, drink and (reasonably clean) sanitary services.
Let’s start at the first. The private property that is Downes Family Farm on the South-West outskirts of Sydney is a fantastic place for a camping festival. It’s not too far out of the city as to make it a trek to get to, and there’s lots of room to park, camp and set up your crew.
The best part, however, is what you experience once walk through the gates. Following the myriad of paths under the official entrance, you are immediately given diverse options. Head to the ‘Back Room Heat’ of the Mesomiasmic stage? Take in the good vibes and chill at The Cosmoteque stage and (very awesome) treehouse or head to any number of installations nestled off the forest path? There is always something going on in any numbers of places around the property.
Next, the line-up. The festival, in it’s 10th year, only releases the line-up after the event is sold-out. It’s a unique way of doing it, but therein lies part of the ‘secret’. Perusing this year’s very strong line-up proves that there is truly something for everyone. You get a mixture of genres and genders on every stage, which gives those people that choose to stay at one stage all day something different every hour.
Lastly, the site is sprinkled with a substantial number of bars, food, toilets and places to sit and relax. But more about that later.
The Friday starts with a quick wander around the site before the crowds converge. There are hidden away art installations within the trees. An adult store, complete with shelves of VHS porn, an office, a children’s room, a cinema, a desolate little shack set up with karaoke, suitably named Ghost-E-Oke and ‘Bec’s House Party’, stocked with fruit, furniture and an AUX cord to create your own vibes.
The theme of this year’s festival is ‘Year 10 Formal’ and the layout of the ‘Gymnasium’ (aka the main stage) is hugely impressive; it’s obvious that a lot of work has gone into the design. Bleachers face the stage which itself is adorned with a giant lit-up basketball ring and disco ball hanging in the middle. There are places to take formal photos home as a memento, blackboards to graffiti and even a kissing booth for the adventurous.
The first musical act we catch, as people trickle into the site through the long queues and somewhat over-the-top car searches, is a muʻumuʻu wearing improv jazz act called Doris at The Cosmoteque stage. The skilled saxophonist layers over the quirky drums and keys in songs that last a quarter of an hour. It’s a nice way to ease into the weekend and immediately proves that this is no normal festival.
Following a swift Welcome To Country on the Gymnasium stage – “Be more Indigenous and we’ll all be ok!” – we get the pure energy and passion of Brisbanites, WAAX. Lead singer Maz De Vita is in fine form, stalking the stage, throwing her hair around and getting on her knees to scream her lungs out over a range of old and new tracks. A great cover of Courtney Barnett’s Pedestrian At Best is a surprise treat as is the first playing of a new song, temporarily named Karen 2: “We can’t call it Karen, because that’s a Go-Betweens song,” declares De Vita. The smallish early crowd bounce excitedly as they wrap up with Same Same.
Next up, Bris 182 take to the main stage and the (oblivious to their schtick) crowd reacts excitedly as the singer announces “We’re from Brisbane and we play Blink 182 covers!” The ten-piece band (eight guitars!) dive into a mix of songs from Blink’s catalogue, although definitely not enough of the old material. We do get Dammit, Adam’s Song, The Rock Show and Aliens Exist. Despite the mess of guitars and hard to hear harmonies, the crowd bounce happily and scream out the lyrics as All The Small Things finishes the set.
Staying at the main stage for another set, we get to see the always-energetic and talented Ecca Vandal. In maintaining the Friday costume theme of ‘Year 10 Formal’, she announces that it’s the first time she’s worn a dress in three years! The costumed crowd are appreciative and she belts through a set which feels like it is hit after hit from her catalogue of the last three and half years. As bands at festivals are want to do, she throws in a cover, a belting version of Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money. Unfortunately, Ecca’s voice appeared to be struggling at times; either that or she’s saving it for her support shows with Incubus in March.
By now, the sun had set and the site takes on a new persona. Lights surround the walkways and illuminate objects in the trees. This is where Secret Garden really comes to life as everyone emerges in their often well-organised, elaborate and well-lit costumes, although the theme seems to be taken rather loosely judging by the extreme number of cheerleaders, basketballers and kings and queens (wasn’t that last year?)
We venture to the smaller ‘T.G.I Secret Garden’ stage, where Dinosaur City Records have taken over and added Newtown faves, Big White. They are playing songs from their upcoming second album, Street Talk, as well as some old favourites. Their songs are reminiscent of a younger Go-Betweens, with a great combo of stories and musicianship. Sunscreen steps up next and we catch a couple of their ‘dream-garage’ songs before returning to the main stage to see drawcard Holy Holy and tuck into some Tsuru. Oscar Dawson exclaims, “You guys are the most munted crowd ever. I guess the police have failed!” The crowd roars in apparent agreeance as the group play a selection of recognisable hits from their old and new album.
Miss Blanks changes the gears in The Gymnasium, performing her brand of acerbic and provocative rap. She paces the stage back and forth providing what would probably be a first live ‘Blanks’ experience to a lot of the crowd. As the sole hip hop act on the line-up, she drew a great crowd. Tonight, she didn’t seem to quite be in the groove. The DJ track was quite loud and seemed to cause her to stumble over lyrics at times, even reverting to the recorded backing instead of her voice occasionally.
Back at the TGISG stage, in keeping with the idea of a themed cover band, a group called Tarantino were doing just that: songs from Tarantino films. An ingenious idea considering the amazing songs that have been included in his works. It’s also a great shout-out to his regular music supervisor, Mary Ramos, who goes about sourcing the music. Pulp Fiction’s Miserlou wrapped up a fun and quirky set.
DJs rounded out the first night till 3AM with a particularly entertaining set from Dom Alessio and Friends.
Any thought of a sleep-in on the second day of the festival was kyboshed by the searing sun that, by 9:30AM, had turned any tent into some sort of torture chamber. Luckily the Inner West Reggae Disco Machine were on duty to soundtrack our fuzzy brains and bleary eyes. The morning was also a great opportunity to check out Price (Johnson) at The Cosmoteque stage. Despite a poor vocal mix, we could hear how outstanding her voice was as she sang a range of soul, R&B and hip hop while we downed our coffee and breakfast. Not a bad way to start a Saturday.
Before the main acts started, it gave us a chance to check out the action in the ‘(In A) State Theatre’. This octagonal temporary theatre featured tiered seating and a mini stage hosting a variety of different acts, including avant-garde artists, improvisation troupes and Disney Karaoke. An improv trio by the name of Quad Bike was very clever, creating on the spot skits from audience suggestions. We did not participate in the Nude For Jesus Dance Party, but it sounded like a jolly good time.
Time for a festival gripe. For some reason, the whole site is broken up into separate licenced areas. Not only does each area have a different drinks menu (including only light beer in the main stage area. What?), but you can’t carry a drink from one section to another. This appeared to cause many issues as the weekend progressed with security constantly having to monitor what people were carrying and then instructing them to finish – sometimes just-bought drinks – to the punters’ chagrin. It seemed to be an unnecessary but also potentially dangerous process.
Trekking out from Fremantle, the punk-rock group, BOAT SHOW, open up the main stage. Vocalist, Ali Flintoff, is a constant ball of bristling energy on the stage, dancing, bouncing and screaming excitedly. Despite an almost complete line-up change since last year’s BIGSOUND, the group are sounding tighter than ever. Flintoff’s half-shouting, half-talking delivery might not have been for everyone, but a small mob gathered at the front of the stage to throw themselves around wildly.
The main stage offered a delicious cross-section of Australian non-male talent across the festival. Angie McMahon’s set was raw and beautiful, despite the massive trojan horse and mock Roman battle that was ensuing in the middle of the arena. Her tender voice cut through on her brand-new track, Missing Me before singing Pasta and her hit of last year, Slow Mover.
By this stage, the heat was giving way to wind and storm clouds. Lanks’ set was best enjoyed from afar, as people took shelter where they could. The rain subsided just as quick as it came and the crowd returned before Odette arrived to perform a perfect set of mixed spoken word and soaring vocal. A solo heartbreaking version of The Cranberries’ Zombie was simply exquisite. Unfortunately, the subwoofers felt like they were going to explode as she was re-joined by her band for Watch Me Read You.
Newcomer and festival debutante, JEFFE, barefoot with just a Nord keyboard on the TGISG stage was breathtaking. Her voice and dream-like production was a perfect late afternoon tonic. She had the small crowd entranced for her whole set. Definitely someone to look out for and worthy of your time.
Continuing a sublime afternoon of solo female artists was Wallace. This Sydney singer’s voice is something you have to hear live to truly appreciate. With pinpoint control her voice dances and flutters over the rhythms from a live drummer and bassist/keyboardist. Anyone walking past who hears just a little, comes in and stays for the rest of the set. A beautiful setting and performance from an exciting and talented artist that ended up being one of the major highlights of the whole festival.
The TGISG stage was overflowing when Stella Donnelly took to the stage. With just a guitar and her pristine, yet fragile, voice, Donnelly manages to transfix the audience. With all of the festival sounds around us, we are focused on her songs alone. We get all of the songs from the Thrush Metal EP, a little cover of Basement Jaxx’s Good Luck and a cheeky little ditty about sports betting. Overheard in the audience, “Damn, I wish I was half as talented as her.” Don’t we all?
The forest was buzzing again as the sun set on the second day of the festival. With an emphasis on maintaining a friendly, community feel to the festival, the organisers have done well in spreading it out, but there does seem to be a lot of punters only coming out at night for the DJs, leaving some of the music stages with space to spare. This wasn’t the case for DZ Deathrays however, as they smashed through a huge set of songs, including a bunch from their new album, Bloody Lovely. There’s slam dancing aplenty near the front with security inexplicably trying to stop people from running into each other. The giant trojan horse makes another appearance and things are starting to get real loose leading into the tail end of the festival.
Speaking of loose, there are none more-so than Totally Unicorn. The metalcore band, infamous for their live shows, are always a bloody good spectacle, especially when frontman, Drew Gardner, warms up. The crowd are treated to him slam dancing amongst them, stretching the mic cord as far as it will go and getting generally tangled up in everything and everyone. He climbs the speaker stacks, he lies on the bar, he throws cans of soft drink into the audience, he gives someone a beer bong and whilst he’s doing this, the band are thrashing their hearts out. It’s hard not to unleash your inner metal head and dance like a dickhead, so we do.
Finishing the main stage of a festival is something that Paces has always wanted to do and he gets his chance at Secret Garden. The festival favourite, and all-round top bloke, dances, smiles, shoots confetti into the crowd and brings the good vibes to an audience that scream at every song. Frequent collaborator and excellent producer and vocalist, Woodes, joins Paces on stage for a couple of songs as well as Clypso, who has jumped on board Paces’ latest track, Going Mad. Finishing with Savage, the crowd sing every word and the mood is joyous, no matter how tired we all are.
People disperse to the DJ stages for the last few hours of the festival. There’s plenty to choose from if you are deadest on squeezing every last drop out of the event.
Not only should the organisers, bookers, crew, volunteers and land-owners be commended, but the festival crowd deserves to be congratulated for being well-behaved, appreciative, (mostly) respectful, with only a couple of Indian headdresses between them (there are still people that think this is ok?). Good nature, kindness and inclusivity still rule at this festival.