Meredith Music Festival
Dec 7–9, 2012
Review by Chris Harms
The Meredith Music Festival occupies a special place in the hearts of its regular patrons, many of them willing to trumpet its superiority to other Australian festivals at a moment’s notice and at surprising length. For outsiders and newcomers to Melbourne who profess to love music, attending at least one Meredith is an accepted right of passage.
Held over three days (and nights), Meredith is equal parts music festival, camping adventure and communal bonding session. The location of the site, in fact only about 90 kilometres west of Melbourne, feels remote enough that once you’ve arrived within its boundaries (something that takes time if you arrive during Friday’s peak hours of early morning and late afternoon) you feel like giving up the city and surrendering wholly to the countryside. Seeing as only Telstra phones get any real reception on site, that’s easier for many people than they might have expected.
With most of the pleasantly warm Friday devoted to arrivals and campsite set-ups, the music doesn’t really get underway until mid-afternoon. Arriving early means plenty of time to explore the five camping grounds and witness some of Meredith’s common sights, including The Meredith Eye (a Ferris wheel situated in prime position on a rise overlooking the main stage), magnificent lookout point Sunset Strip, and of course “The Sup’” itself – the Meredith Supernatural Amphitheatre. Soon to be covered in picnic blankets, eskies (thanks to the Festival’s convenient BYO booze policy) and fanned arrays of punter-provided sofas and couches, The Sup’ is peppered with trees that somehow, almost magically, don’t obscure the view of the surprisingly modest, one-and-only Meredith stage. In an era when music festivals seem to pride themselves on who can have the most number of stages and tents, Meredith is content to let its international headliners play on a single comfortably mid-sized platform. Given how happy the musicians are to play and the punters are to be there, it’s safe to say that no one minds the lack of arena-sized production. Thanks to the natural acoustics of the amphitheatre and the easy line of sight from most standpoints, as a performance proposition it’s hard to beat.
Friday’s warmth continues throughout the afternoon, providing a mild haze for Pond to kick off Meredith’s music schedule. The Tame Impala associates, and also recipients of NME albums-of-the-year kudos (#7 to Tame Impala’s astonishing #1) provide a pleasant backdrop of psych-rock for the crowds still carrying in their couches and cooler bags. Nothing they do today suggests they’ll be leaving the shadow of Kevin Parker’s main project soon, but there are certainly worse places for a band to be.
Meredith’s community vibe buzzes even louder during Snakadaktal, the young Melbourne act’s music providing a montage-friendly soundtrack to people strolling into The Sup’ and catching up with friends. The 2011 Unearthed High winners are cool and confident players, but some familiar Foals-lite guitar sounds and a number clearly influenced by The xx leave them open (at this admittedly still-early stage) to being accused of lacking an original voice. Winning a high profile radio prize can only sustain a band for a limited amount of time, so thankfully their playing talent suggests the best is yet to come.
Mid-afternoon brings the heavy instrumental psych of Californians Earthless. It’s time for intricate guitar freakouts and acid jams as Meredith punters really start settling in for the weekend. The sun is still high in the sky as the trio play a truly blistering set, with absolutely no quarter shown to the stragglers still spilling past the Pink Flamingo bar at the edge of The Sup’.
It’s psychedelia of a different kind as talented Melbourne songstress Brous appears on stage in a very impressive hat. Mining a vein of ‘60s sci-fi pop atmospherics and Ennio Morricone-influenced sounds similar to Alison Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain, Sophia Brous continues the Festival’s thus-far otherworldly vibe. While she spices things up with the occasional roller-coaster dip into Nina Hagen vocal territory, it’s the big diva-y chorus and girl pop la-la-las of single Streamers that really make an impression.
As the sun finally begins to set, The Sup’ is abruptly kicked into party mode by Grimes and her pair of Day Of The Dead dancers. Weaving around her synth/controller set-up and busting out the punk-naif dance moves for which she’s become known, Canada’s Claire Boucher sounds less childlike vocally than she does on record, although at times the reverb and delay effects are so heavy it’s hard to tell her voice from the music. The digitally mashed pop sounds of Visions singles Genesis and Oblivion get the biggest dance response from the crowd, while album highlight Circumambient retains its appealing glitchy coldness.
A trip around the apparently improved International Food Court (two sets of food trucks and stalls flanking The Sup’, this year including the justifiably famous Gumbo Kitchen alongside staples like the Taco Truck and Beatbox Kitchen) and a quickly downed Pink Flamingo – Meredith’s signature vodka and pink grapefruit cocktail – and it’s time to get in position for Spiritualized. Keeping in mind reports of the frontman’s diagnosis with liver disease around the release of Sweet Heart Sweet Light, Jason Pierce still commands a presence even though spending the entire set seated. Dark glasses in place, he leads his band through a blinding version of Electricity before alternating evenly between ballads and rockers from their most recent album and right back to the classic Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (including a lovely version of the title track). Equal parts surging and soothing, with a killer light show, Spiritualized could comfortably close the night – but there’s still plenty more to come.
Riding high on a wave of critical and popular success thanks to latest album Lonerism, Tame Impala play a crowd-pleasing selection of songs from that record and the preceding Innerspeaker. The countryside surrounding the site is bombarded with lights, guitar effects and the recognizably reedy vocals of Kev Parker. Why Won’t They Talk To Me, Elephant and Half Glass Full Of Wine stand out as highlights, but generally speaking, no fan is going away disappointed after this set.
For some, it’s time to head back to the campsite. For others, Syrian musician Omar Souleyman will be their guide into the wee hours. His Arabic dance pop easily crests the edges of The Sup’, almost as clear and loud at the far edges of the outmost Blue Gum campgrounds as it is in the amphitheatre. Kieren Hebden, aka Four Tet, follows up with an immaculate set of leftfield electronica, the throbbing beats and ethereal vocal samples of his music creating a surreal backdrop for a 4am, half-awake stagger through hundreds of tents to the nearest camp toilet.
With most Meredith campers forgoing any kind of sleep until around 6am, the following day gets off to a sluggish start. Saturday temperatures are meant to hit 38 degrees with possible galeforce winds, so people are clinging to the few hours of temperate rest they can get. Before too long clouds of dust are swirling between the campgrounds, and suddenly bathing seems like a good idea. Waiting in line 40 minutes only to have the powered showers cease working during an unexpected blackout isn’t a great start to the day, but exposure to the open air leaves the unwitting covered in a fine film of dirt anyway – meaning that we might as well all embrace our inner “Pig-Pen” (i.e. the dust-cloud covered kid from Peanuts).
Melbourne jangle-pop kids The Twerps open proceedings around midday with the kind of languid sonic grace that seems about as much as most people can handle at this point. All things C86 and Flying Nun are dutifully referenced in an excellent set, and one confirming, yet again, that The Twerps have become one of the country’s best bands.
An equipment failure means that Chet Faker’s last set of the year is more of a jam session than the culmination of 12 months of touring. They still retain a slickly modern R&B and soul sound, and reinforce how cleverly Meredith is programmed. (Soft tones are still needed to soothe sore heads this early in the afternoon.)
Royal Headache decide that it’s time to take things up a notch, playing a blinder of a set that singer Shogun seems convinced is sub-par. It sounds much better than that to the crowd, who embrace the authenticity of Shogun’s delivery and his band’s alt/punk and updated classic rock tunes. Honey Joy is a particular highlight, leaving plenty of dusty punters with smiles.
Much of the rest of the afternoon is lost in a haze of heat and dust, the wind speed slowly building during sets from sax legend Big Jay McNeeley, San Diego garage rockers Hot Snakes and beatbox original Rahzel. The Toot Toot Toots and Saskwatch bring some local flavour back to the stage as people begin reemerging from shady hideouts and collapsed gazebos, just in time for Regurgitator and an abrupt drop in temperature. (Within an hour it will have plummeted 18 degrees. When the Meredith organisers say “bring clothes for all seasons”, they really mean it).
The ‘Gurge have arrived at the “shut up and play the hits” stage of their career it seems, at least for this Meredith weekend. From Blubber Boy to Polyester Girl to Blood And Spunk, the boys are in party mode and enjoying themselves immensely. The only hint that they’re still looking to the future comes when they play a new song (albeit one debuted last year at Rave Magazine’s ThousandInTwenty gig).
The Ballarat Turbojugend (back-patches, flags and all) have staked out a key viewing position to the left of stage in preparation for the mighty Turbonegro. Despite possibly being the most incongruous act on the Meredith line-up, the Norwegian deathpunks do not disappoint, launching immediately into All My Friends Are Dead. Even with new Brit vocalist Tony Sylvester replacing Hank Von Helvete, the band are still adept at generating their unique mix of high camp, gut-level fun times. Tracks like Dude Without A Face rock hard, and Sylvester’s between song banter is archly dead-on. (“This is just like Altamont, except instead of Hell’s Angels, it’s full of web designers.”) Getting the crowd to chant the chorus to I Got Erection is definitely the most appropriate way to end the set.
For many punters, Primal Scream will share with Spiritualized the title of “Meredith Highlight”. Most recently here on their Screamadelica tour, the Primals are back with some new songs, some old songs, and a new bassist (Mani having been recruited back into The Stone Roses for the time being.) For a man of 50, Bobby Gillespie somehow looks at least 15 years younger, remaining whippet thin and completely comfortable pulling out his repertoire of rock star moves. The songs, as always, sound great, crossing Primal Scream’s various incarnations as acid travelers, ravers and blues rockers. Swastika Eyes is as punishing as it ever was, no doubt scaring livestock for miles, while Moving On Up’s gospel pop retains its ability to uplift under any circumstances. The freedom of this set allows them to play a variety of tracks like Trip Inside This House alongside Burning Wheel, Come Together, Country Girl and the inevitable Rocks, but it’s the blissful Damaged that really warms the now chilly Meredith audience from head to toe.
The Meredith Sky Show illuminates trees and passing clouds with lasers as hordes of Festival-goers head back to camp to refill their cooler bags or collapse into air mattresses. Itch-e & Scratch-e do their techno best to keep people in The Sup’ (although a heavily pitched up Sweetness And Light sounds more comic than danceable), while the following DJ set by Boredoms co-founder Yamantaka Eye ensures those still awake get their fair share of eclecticism.
After a couple of hours sleep it’s time to start pulling down the dustiest tents on the planet and fortify for the road with breakfast and coffee. The country-gospel tones of Fraser A. Gorman & Big Harvest provide a restful soundtrack for the long catering lines, and although the excellent Boomgates are dangling a big carrot in terms of reasons to stick around (not to mention The Gift, the annual nude footrace – this year hosted by a visiting JB Smoove), the idea of being stuck in a single-lane exit queue for hours with at least 6000 cars does not appeal to everyone. And so, with efficiency and haste, this year’s Meredith experience ends for at least some of its new converts.
Driving through the country lanes away from the site, covered in dust, sunburnt in unexpected places and barely awake after a combined four hours sleep over two nights, you might expect to think of Meredith as some kind of strange cultish ordeal. While it is in many ways a little strange, there is something unique about the vibe of the festival that leaves you thinking of it warmly. Much more than its quirks and traditions, Meredith is the kind of gathering that festivals like Splendour and Harvest want to be – something that fosters communal enjoyment and a sense of real escape. Meredith does it without barriers and security fencing, and minus the strident presence of alcohol marketing and other businesses looking for more insertion in the youth market. Unless it unexpectedly changes, that’s why Meredith will always have its chorus of supporters, and likely why once you’ve been, you’ll want to go again.
CHRIS HARMS is the former editor of Brisbane street press Rave Magazine. He’s now based in Melbourne where he drinks too much coffee and spends his days wondering what season it’s meant to be.