Honey, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Looking around the grounds of Splendour in the Grass, there was no denying where you were. There was the Miss Saigon karaoke, the Moroccan bar, a tipi forest, a German sausage stand, a taco bar, and a Thai massage place, symbols of the influences and inspirations that have fed into the melange of Australian culture.
Granted, the country takes quite some time to get to from most of the world, but the indomitable spirit of the people brought all these various cultural touchstones under their umbrella. That extended to the lineup as Australian artists received the devoted reaction of returning heroes.
Rather than the massive waving flags from the various nations in attendance (the kind of thing you’d see at any European festival), there were scores of fit, healthy, and attractive Aussies. The beachside town of Byron Bay bred a particular hippie strain as well, complete with tanned surfers, drum circles, hula hoopers, and many a bare-naked body.
There was an undeniable glow to the entire weekend, evident from the surprisingly boiling winter weather during the afternoon all the way through to the beaming smiles of the fans. Even for a few days, it was nice to stomp down yellow dust roads and drench my curiosity in a hefty dose of Australian spirit.
There was plenty of buzz in the air for Melbourne’s own Martha Brown, aka Banoffee, and sure enough, she felt all the local love, too. “I’m sure you’ve all come here with your best friend,” she said, mid-nod. “My best friend is in the audience, so go say hi if you can.” While I never made it to say hello to her BFF, Banoffee started to feel like a close friend by the set’s end. Her indie R&B pop thrills were the perfect complement to a cool Saturday afternoon, Brown tweaking her electronics and wringing her mercurial stage presence through the entire emotional gamut.
19. Michael Kiwanuka
A little thing like not having any instruments couldn’t keep British soul singer Michael Kiwanuka down. “Heathrow Airport is a mess at the moment,” he shrugged, more bemused by the situation than frustrated. “All of our equipment didn’t make it, so we had to borrow. Just bear with us.” However, once he and his band broke into powerful songs like “Black Man in a White World” and others from July’s Love & Hate, it was hard to consider any equipment being involved at all, the songs instead pouring straight out of his heart.
18. In Loving Memory of Szymon
Tragically, Australian singer-songwriter Szymon took his own life in 2012 at the young age of 23, after a few years struggling with depression. Only three years after his death did the beautiful Tigersapp find international release, bringing the world closer to the songs that leapt from his soul. A tribute band was formed to further celebrate his life and art, and while festival sets usually jump to the big and bombastic, their performance at Splendour in the Grass was one of the most heartfelt I’ve seen. Featuring guest appearances from members of Gang of Youths, Ball Park Music, Little May, and more, the crowd huddled together, swaying in harmony as if all minds, hearts, and bodies desired to be connected — both those in the crowd and on the stage. A moment unlike any I’d seen at a festival, and a touching tribute to a musician lost too soon.
17. The Strokes
The Strokes are one of the only headliners in this godforsaken world that crowds will allow for a late start. They’re also the kind of rare animal that can get away with awkward banter and a lack of connection. (“So, festivals eh?” Julian Casablancas offered at one point.) But when you’ve got the catalog that the classic New York garage rockers have, the ability to run through “12:51”, “Reptilia”, and “Is This It” with barely a split second to take a breath, any extra-personable banter or timeliness comes as icing on a very soggy, possibly undercooked cake. The massive crowd heaved and screamed through every song, even keeping the energy up for “Drag Queen” and “Threat of Joy” off this year’s new EP, Future Present Past. It all ended as it needed to, with a massive party along to “Last Nite”, the crowd bursting before they had to suffer their way home in the long cold night.
16. Band of Horses
“Thanks so much y’all! Shit!” smiled Ben Bridwell, proving that you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. The Band of Horses vocalist brought his South Carolina charm in equal dose with the doughty indie rock. Those two factors coalesced most sweetly on tunes like “Laredo” and “The Great Salt Lake”, the band climbing massive heights with unbridled energy. Ever the celebratory type, Bridwell made sure to congratulate Splendour on its 16th birthday and continue to keep the party atmosphere going, even when the heartfelt songs demanded tears splashing all over the show.