Live Review: Falls Festival, Marion Bay
Musical mayhem tangled paths with a stretch of unsuspecting countryside as over ten thousand punters converged upon the picturesque Marion Bay for the Tasmanian leg of the Falls Music and Arts Festival. It would be accurate to say that the Falls has become somewhat of an New Years institution here in Tasmania since its inception a decade ago – if only for the fact that it’s one of the few times that bands take the leap across the Bass Strait to play for us, but also due to its magnificent location. Nestled in the nook of the Tasman Peninsula, it takes your breath away as you approach from the summit of the surrounding hills. There’s a natural ampitheatre in the centre, conservation forest on all sides – and the campsites even have ocean views, from which a few Sydney to Hobart yachts could be seen gliding past in the distance. The lack of anything else to do on New Years’ Eve draws an interesting yet oddly complementary mix of festival-goers, from dreadlocked world-traveller types to hyperactive highschool kids, rednecks in trucks through to funky campervan families.
The 29th of December was an optional entrée called ‘Boogie Nights’. Pumped with the adrenalin of successfully sneaking one’s alcohol, weed and what-have-you past the scrupulous security guards of the entrance gates, many proceeded to get over-excited and promptly consume it all. The result was a lung-shredding singalong to a range of DJs, with hits by The Proclaimers, Guns N Roses and Vanilla Ice soaring up from the valley like a drunken bushfire. The party officially wrapped up at a meagre midnight, to the bemusement of the punters who, finding themselves hit by silence like a bucket of cold water to the face, retreated to cars and tents in small and bedraggled clusters. My miserable excuse for a tent, earnestly tethered to the ground by a grand total of four pegs, had somehow survived the gale force winds and I curled up gratefully inside it.
Johnny Marr kicked off my afternoon on New Years’ Eve-Eve, looking suave in a velvet blazer and with a swagger and pout to boot. I don’t think many were aware of his musical credentials as a groundbreaking guitarist and founding member of The Smiths, judging by the disappointingly small group that gathered at his feet. However, once “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” began to waft across the fields, the campers seized the scent and came streaming in from all directions. Hold your tongue, because it was more than a simple nostalgia trip – his solo stuff sounded great, too. By the time he finished up with a rendition of “How Soon Is Now?”, the crowd were rampant. “Who was the guy playing Smiths covers?” I was asked later in the afternoon – I’m sure it still remains a mystery to a large number of those that were present, but I’m happy to say that Johnny was right up there with my festival highlights.
Bonobo made the very earth tremble, surprising us with bass so intense that you could feel it ricocheting between your temples like an air drone – I don’t think Animal Magic will be the same bedtime album for me again, though it will still be just as magical. He was joined by a number of live musicians, including the incredibly powerful (and beautiful) vocalist Szjerdene. The rest of the evening was a natural descent into chaos – the reformed Violent Femmes belted out all of the old favourites, Brian Ritchie in his element playing to an adopted home crowd, donning an overwhelmingly large pair of sunglasses.
The Cat Empire, a longstanding Australian staple, were as good as I was expecting them to be and yes, I did still know all of the words despite not having listened to them since highschool. I felt a just a tiny bit underwhelmed by Vampire Weekend – they were tight and polished, but perhaps lacked that slightly more organic flare that one hopes for in a live show. Perhaps that was because I haven’t given their new album enough rotations to appreciate it (yet). The Roots lured us into the next morning armed with a blindingly bright tuba, and played a steady set of intelligent hip-hop that didn’t fall short of expectation.
The next day, New Years’ Eve, was eased into by a pair of the festival Foster Bands, The Middle Names and Asta, who were polled into their position with the support of local magazines in the months leading up to the event. By the afternoon Bombino had us kicking up the dust over on the Field Stage and provided what was, at least for me, the best dance session of the three days. The sun was hot, feet were bare and we grinned lovingly at Omara Moctar as he spoke to us in foreign tongues, closing up his performance with the blues-drenched “Amidinine” and delivering us gently back from our sixty-minute vacation in the Nigerian desert.
Back over on the main stage, psychedelic glam-poppers Pond blasted out a mindblowing set of guitar, more guitar, and copious amounts of hair. Ex Tame-Impala bassist Nick Allbrook, a small and delicate-looking guy, let loose a voice that defied his stature, roaring and writhing on the speakers in shredded clothes, eyes just a little glazed and off-kilter. Opening with a double punch of “Whatever Happened To The Million Head Collide?” and “Xanman”, they produced a solid wall of delicious fuzz. People passed out blissfully in the grass, dripping sweat and sunscreen from their noses – it was a consistently true summer’s day in Tasmania, a rare and beautiful thing.
Despite the big-name bands getting much of the Falls press, the real heart of the festival is contained within a circle of tents between the two stages known as The Village. Subtly titled, it’s a wacky and wonderful ring of fancies that conceals a great many jewels. By day, it’s a humble patch of grass boasting yoga, homemade pies, a barber shop and a menagerie of impromptu performance art pieces. This included, at one point, the coaxing of fifty unsuspecting teenagers to an innocent-looking Hills Hoist clothesline, underneath which they were forced to brush their teeth and holler John Farnham together under the command of the fabulous and outrageous Georgia Lucy, who then proceeded to drench them all with a hose. They emerged confused and disoriented, party-popper string caught in their hair and toothpaste foam stuck to their lips, but significantly savvier regarding oral hygiene.
As twilight descended, the Village pulled us in beneath the folds of its iridescent cloak, becoming a carnival of oddities – silver spacewomen rubbed shoulders with lycra-clad acrobats, a shipping container became the site of a series of ten minute dance parties, and there was glitter. Lots of glitter. It was a collaborative pool of imagination – unbeknownst to many, a dedicated tribe of arts-and-crafters had spent the past week camping out there, painting and cutting and stitching and sparklifying. It all climaxed with the Falls Fiesta on New Years’ Eve when, like a minute’s silence in a school assembly (but better), the festival came to a halt and a convoy of extravagant hoodlums in costumes weaved their way from the main stage all the way back to their Village home. There were drums, feathers, body paint and interpretive dance moves. One marcher came running at me with a white arrow and pressed it to my chest, introducing himself as Cupid and alerting me that somebody in my close surroundings loved me. Naw, shucks.
After the Fiesta, the crowd was surprisingly thin for indie crooners Grizzly Bear, who were making their second appearance at the festival in a handful of years – they had only just released Veckatimest last time they were here, and I had expected a whole swarm of fans to have jumped on board since then. Perhaps The Village had abducted everybody, or perhaps they were all banging heads to electronic outfit Rufus, who, as rumour had it, were superb.
I don’t know whether this was objectively true or simply due to my overexcited New Years’ Eve state, but MGMT were actually great. For some reason my expectations were low, after listening to “Electric Feel” and “Kids” too many times and then snootily discarding them. They had some impressive visuals behind them, and pulled off their notoriously production-laden tunes well. Despite the forecast of love prescribed me by Cupid earlier in the evening, I avoided the main-stage countdown/kiss-off into 2014, which was done over a sad PA system rather than by The Wombats, who had originally been entrusted the honour. Apparently MGMT were at fault for playing overtime, but I didn’t notice or mind. Instead, I sprinted across to The Village for a night of debauchery ushered in by local pop darlings Tiger Choir and gypsy/metal/folk outfit The Lawless Quartet (I didn’t realise that this was a genre either, until I heard it. It exists). It was sweaty, wild and wonderful.
The morning unravelled from a seething mess of dance into a storytelling open mic, during which crowd members hurtled through the stage as though it were a roulette wheel, telling jokes that lacked punchlines and falling into drunken cahoots. As The Village pulled its tent flaps closed for the final time, I piled into the back of an anonymous ute tray with a tangle of friends, strangers and sleeping bags, serenaded to sleep by the guitar strums of the wonderful and famously bearded Emlyn Johnson, the sun rising steadily over the trees. I awoke, predictably dishevelled, with a tarpaulin sheet covering my face (thank you, whoever was responsible for that thoughtful act) and the sound of rain beating down on the outside world. Sunburn, and rainstorms: the erratic Tasmanian weather had clearly made no resolution to steady its shaky legs. The fields of Marion Bay were sufficiently trampled, the green squeezed out of the grass like a wet towel; tin foil, tent pegs and pieces of confetti lay strewn across the ground. Another year had been successfully stampeded into existence.