Sydney Parklife: bands, bats, bums

It didn’t bode well. The free bus between the train station and the venue was packed with overly muscular, tattooed young men in singlets and shorts, the smell of goon falling from their mouths and their pupils big as beach balls within their glazed eyes. One such youth was hanging upside down from the handrail, another was doing one-handed push-ups in the aisle. It was 1.30pm. If this were to be a microcosm of Sydney’s Parklife festival 2012, it was going to be a long day.

Thankfully, we were in for a pleasant surprise. Of course, there were countless more of these flatpack males on site – a predominantly dance-orientated festival attracts them like moths to a flame – but there was none of the shirtless aggression we have seen in previous years at the likes of Big Day Out. Perhaps this was down to the setting. Parklife Sydney’s new festival site deep within the Centennial Gardens was incredibly green, picturesque and, importantly, absolutely huge. While tickets came close to selling out, so vast was the arena in which the event took place, that it had a really chilled out, pleasant vibe to it. There were no bottleneck situations, because crowds could comfortably saunter from stage-to-stage and there was enough room to avoid being unwittingly pressed up against a sweaty munter at any time.

The weather, too, was a godsend. Forecast rain never arrived and the sky remained as blue as Walter White’s finest all day, which gave the perfect backdrop for Brighton’s Rizzle Kicks to get set the mood with fun vibes aplenty. We first saw them playing to about 50 people in their home city a couple of years back, and thought then that their bouncy, commercial pop/hip-hop with hints of ska had real potential, but we never dreamed they would – in the not too distant future – be killing it in front of a festival crowd on the other side of the world. While they didn’t really offer any songs that stood out individually, their charisma and the amount of audience participation they encouraged was the perfect way to get this party started. Indeed, even the hundreds of fruitbats – resident in the local trees – flew around to have a look at what all the noise was about. This offered a bizarre festival sight, their distinctive shapes silhouetted against an early afternoon sky.

After London’s Citizens! showed melodic pop promise, it was time for another Englishman. Arriving once his warm up act, Faith SFX, had bamboozled the crowd with his frankly incredible human beatboxing skills, was Plan B. When we saw him play at Sydney’s Basement about five years ago, it was just him, an acoustic guitar and a DJ. A lot has happened in the life of Ben Drew since then. He has starred in and directed films and released two more albums, so it was no surprise that his stage setup was much more ambitious this time round. Surrounded by a full band and backing singers, he opened with the soul/rap of She Said. While we are fans of the man, the longer he ignored anything from his fantastic, uncompromising debut album, the itchier our feet got to head over to the stage where Chairlift were due to perform.

Starting with the brilliant Sidewalk Safari, Chairlift – playing to a smallish crowd – were the day’s highlight. Impossibly cool frontwoman Caroline (left) took to the stage in a cute crop top and some sort of sporting equipment tied around her waist as a belt, and spent most of the set spiralling and whimsically failing around. Their performance was a nice mix of dancier numbers – which had the beefy shirtless men bang-ganging – and more atmospheric moments like Frigid Spring, which suited the picturesque environment well. Crowd favourite, Bruises, provoked a rowdy sing/bop-along, while I Belong In Your Arms was another standout track.

In stark contrast to the highlight of the event, a trip to the urinals after Chairlift brought the lowlight. As a handful of men relieved their bladders, two girls entered the portacabin. One proceeded to pull down her denim shorts, sit in the trough and do a massive wee. As the males in the room looked on in disbelief, the female in question slurred, “When you gotta go, you gotta fuckin go, hey?” before finishing the job, pulling up her shorts and staggering back out into the field. Remarkable stuff.

As the sun was setting and the dislocated bats once again flew overhead, Perth’s Tame Impala (pictured, top) delivered a really awesome set. They are definietly a festival band and offered a welcome interlude for all the psych fans that needed a break from the heavy dance acts. With only a limited repertoir, they pulled out the best tracks from their previous release, including Glass Half Full of Wine. Elephant, from 2012 release, Lonersiam, was well recieved, but the best was the “slow jam” of the set, Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.

By now, there were some seriously cold-looking punters walking around the grounds, dishevelled and shivering. Girls in ridiculously short shorts (see picture) were starting to regret their lack of foresight, yet could still find warmth at the festival’s only covered stage, where English singer/songwriter/producer Labrinth was working a packed tent into a frenzy. ‘If you came here to stand still,” he said as he prepared to conclude his winning display, “then you can fuck off home.” Cue carnage as he ripped through Earthquake. Later, DJ Fresh would produce similar results with a ridiculously high-octane show.

Meanwhile, lasers shot from the main stage to compliment Nero‘s impressive, bone-shaking fuzzy beats before Justice played a DJ set which felt a little flat (but perhaps this is because we saw the bells-and-whistles of their live show earlier in the year). Across the field, Passion Pit were also a little weak but, by now, all most people cared about was the emergence of the headliners, The Presets. Most people, that is, except us. While we thoroughly enjoyed the first few tracks of the Sydney duo’s comeback set, there was only one headliner we really wanted to see, and she took the form of a what’s-cooler-than-being-cool-ice-cold Swede on the second stage. Robyn cut a massively engaging figure as she dorkily danced and then froze mid-song in front of her lab-coated male backing-band. Her energetic display included the magnificent and heartbreaking, Dancing On My Own.

And that was it, as The Presets and Robyn wound up and the Parklife circus prepared to roll out of town to Perth, the bedraggled punters headed home satisfied, a bit sunburnt, a little the worse-for-wear and – pretty much without exception – fucking freezing and secretly wishing they’d have listened to their Dad’s advice about taking a jumper.

Words and pictures by Bobby Townsend and Carol Bowditch