It was a wet and grey morning in Olympic Park as the hordes descended for the 20th Big Day Out in Sydney. Indeed, the forecast seemed as bleak as the predictions for the future of the event, fuelled mainly by criticism that the bill was weak and almost a copy of last year’s Splendour in the Grass. Yet as the gates opened there didn’t seem to be any lack of enthusiasm nor a significant drop in the number of punters pouring in as the festival celebrated twenty years since the first event almost caused the Hordern Pavilion to burst at the seams back in 1992.
Just inside the gates, The Green Stage was playing host to Stonefield, a quartet of sisters from southern Victoria ranging in age from 13 to 21. They delivered a psychedelic rock sound like Led Zeppelin, Wolfmother and The Sword. Thanks to exposure from Triple J’s Unearthed, they got a decent crowd at the front of the stage despite the intermittent rain, showing off tracks like “Black Water Rising” and getting proceedings off to quite a positive start.
As the elements shifted from rain to heat, the main stage was the place to be as punk-meisters Frenzal Rhomb enlightened the burgeoning crowd with some of their fine, spitfire ditties: “Bird Attack” “Russell Crowe’s Band”, “Ship of Beers” and perennial crowd favourites “Never Had So Much Fun” and “Punch in the Face”, among others. Love them or hate them, there is little denying they have a great sense of humour and the witty stage banter between singer Jay Whalley and guitarist Lindsay “The Doctor” McDougall is always good for a laugh, especially a discussion about the uses of a very phallic-looking bubble machine and a shot at Kanye West’s demands for a floral arrangement in his dressing room. They also know how to deliver some hard and fast punk that entertains in more ways than one.
On the other side of the main stage, the D area packed rapidly as Parkway Drive hit the stage, ready to fire up any kids not already pushed beyond apeshit levels by Frenzal. As the band slammed right into “Unrest”, all hell broke loose as the pit turned into a sea of madness. Deciding it was time to be unleashed, those at the front threw every limb and piece of their body into others, some willing to reciprocate and others either got dragged into the mayhem without any choice or tried to escape. One idiot went so far as to light a flare, as if that wasn’t the stupidest thing to do in a huge crush of people outside of lobbing a grenade. Amongst it all, Parkway hammered out a fire-breathing forty-five minute set of old and new that never failed to please: “Boneyards”, “Dead Man’s Chest”, Sleepwalker” and “Deliver Me” among those fired off at the crowd, Ben Gordon’s relentless drumming booming over the pit. Frontman Winston McCall fed off the energy of the crowd, encouraging them to crowd surf and into a vast circle pit that stretched across the front of both stages. This is a band fully versed in the art of playing enormous music festivals, and the suicidally berserk mob was putty in McCall’s hands. Like them or not, when you see them at work the reason for their popularity is palpable.
The Amity Affliction (or as one wag quite inaccurately called them, “Parkway Jr.”) didn’t have the crowd of their Byron compadres – which would have been terrifying in a space 1/8 the size – but were working the audience they did have expertly. Plenty of hard touring including the gruelling American circuit has turned them into a tight and fearsome live unit. Frontman Joel Birch politely thanks the fans for their support, then becomes a coiled spring again as the band rips into another track. They totally aren’t my thing but it’s great to see a young, original band owning a crowd with nothing more than the strength of their own music. I did wonder where the rest of Amity’s crowd may have been, noticed that Hilltop Hoods were on in the main arena, sighed inwardly and went off to see Battles.
Being familiar with Battles more by reputation than experience, the New York trio’s mind-blowing performance was a revelation. Battles is the kind of band Ken West is referring to when he talks about the Big Day Out showcasing “bands you should be going to see”. They create sound from an avant-garde palette of heavy rock and electronic beats that are driven by the angular and gnarly guitars of Ian Williams and Dave Konopka and fuelled by John Stanier’s time-signature free, clock-stopping drumming. Vocals were provided by “virtual” guests projected from screens behind the band, giving the small but transfixed crowd a chorus to sing along with now and then, but the real entertainment came from watching these three musicians weave their way through a set of highly experimental music free from any form of generic boundaries.
It was now the perfect summer’s day and who better to take the Big Day Out to the next level on the main stage than one of Australia’s finest live bands – The Living End. Firing on all eight cylinders from the get-go, the band didn’t let the pace drop for the entire set. Chris Cheney and Scott Owen simply could not keep still as they tore out a hit-packed set of their metal-edged punk guitar and rockabilly rhythms that had the fans genuinely dancing and fist-pumping. The addition of second guitarist Adrian Lombardi for live shows has really allowed Cheney to throw himself even more into both the frontman role and lead guitar playing. As the band who has appeared at the festival more often than any other act on the day’s bill, it fell to The Living End to lead the crowd into a chorus of “Happy Birthday” for the event, complete with a sparkler-adorned cake that Owen momentarily threatened to hurl into the pit. Celebrations continued as Cheney then led the band into a killer version of Nirvana’s “Breed”, commemorating the first BDO back in 92. “White Noise” kicked off the tail-end of the set with more energy than expected for a band 2/3rds of the way into their show and they still had fuel left in the tank for a scorching run through “West End Riot” to finish off, climaxing with Cheney balancing on the shoulder of Owen’s double bass as it teetered on the brink of the stage. The Living End totally nailed it today and for this writer were the absolute highlight.
The audience at the small Hot Produce ampitheatre was flowing over the brim for the bizarre spectacle of Mariachi el Bronx – a New York hardcore band masquerading as a Mariachi ensemble, complete with acoustic guitars, fiddle and brass section, floor tom and matching costumes. On paper it sounds as absurd as Cannibal Corpse moonlighting as a lounge act, but it works, and curiosity alone had drawn a pretty impressive crowd who then stuck around for one of the more interesting and entertaining artists of the afternoon. This is not some mere parody act either; it is an authentic tribute to the style with Latin rhythms, big brassy songs and an emphasis on fun, a perfect for the party atmosphere of a summer festival in Sydney.
Kasabian were last here at BDO with Muse a few years back, and their star has only risen since, guaranteeing them a prime spot on the main stage for the business end of the event. Opening with “Days are Forgotten“ from their lastest (and awesomely-named) Velociraptor! album, the Leicester lads led the crowd into a fine set of bright, pop-laced indie rock, the kind that can get almost anyone onside. Kasabian tick all the right boxes: strong songs, soaring melodies, serious live energy and a charismatic frontman in Tom Meighan, ensuring their popularity with the masses. With only enough time for eleven songs, Kasabian played a sprinkling from their most recent releases, doing so with far more genuine atmosphere than My Chemical Romance’s affected posturing and more vivacity than what Soundgarden would display. As their set came to a close, Meighan affably encompassed the entire crowd, even “the Soundgarden fans over there”, as they offered up a rousing version of “Fire” to finish off.
Anticipation slowly mounted through the long fade-in of “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” until Soundgarden appeared, and as the first sludgy chord descended on the field a massive roar went up to meet it. The opener was really just a way to ease into the set. Chris Cornell was still finding his range even as they reached the end, but the rest of the band was locked in tight. When “Spoonman” kicked in, the place went nuts as Kim Thayil coolly fired off the riff and Cornell led the crowd into the hook. “Jesus Christ Pose” was an early highlight, twin guitars screeching and Matt Cameron deftly steering through the complicated time-signature as if it was a straight-up 4/4 beat. Mid-set did seem to drag a little, especially “Fell on Black Days” – probably way too gloomy a song for a festival audience – but when Cornell shed his guitar and embraced the crowd for “Outshined” both the band and the fans fired up once more, a solid vibe that carried through “Rusty Cage”. “My Wave” was met with a healthy cheer across the arena but that was nothing compared to the reception for the opening strains of “Black Hole Sun”. The menacing single eye that gradually engulfed the screen behind the band during the song being the only real concession to a stage set Soundgarden employed. Cornell’s voice is no longer the ethereal force it once was and it was clear he was compensating on a lot of the higher-register stuff – there was simply no way he was going to even attempt that excruciating A in “Jesus Christ Pose” – but it didn’t have a drastic effect. They may not have been quite as electric or as highly intense as they once were – the younger bands showed them up in that respect – but their moody rock held the crowd with nothing more than the power of the music itself.
After such a consummate, if not quite perfect, display of stripped, sledgehammer rock, Kanye West came on – late. Almost fifteen minutes went by before his blindingly white stage filled with dancers writhing below an enormous, ridiculous faux-Renaissance backdrop as he rose up on a scissor lift in the middle of the crowd, billowing more smoke than a chemical factory fire. The irony of a stridently anti-star rock act coming on immediately before such a self-indulgent, self-aggrandising display was probably lost on the masses who were sucked in to the beats and horrible auto-tuned vocals, but not on this reviewer. West plays the superstar card to the hilt, but I was left with the impression – even though I quit his performance after just one song – that underneath the window-dressing there was little more than an empty, soulless arrogance. Showmanship is one thing – being a show pony is something else entirely.
Over at the Green Stage, Regurgitator were slaying their crowd. It’s been many, many years since I’ve seen this band, but they haven’t lost it. Back in the fold after several years with the Hard Ons, drummer Pete Kostic somehow kept it all on track as they effortlessly tore out their metal-edged punk rock attack, bursts of tongue-in-cheek rap and electronica filtering through in a way that few other bands can pull off successfully. Entertaining and irreverent in a way that self-important freaks like Kanye West simply don’t understand, Regurgitator is a dynamic live force that effectively transcend whatever genre they choose to inhabit from one song to the next.
On the way to see the ‘Gurge I’d passed the Essential Stage and it was in darkness without a soul in sight, but as Cavalera Conspiracy burst on, a respectable crowd for the time of night had gathered. If nothing else, they were loud, undoubtedly the loudest act of the whole day. They were also heavy and raw, exactly what Max and Iggor have promised in interviews. “Inflikted” tore strips off the late-night crowd that slowly built as the set went on, and there were still enough people who wanted a last-minute mosh to get a circle pit happening at the foot of the stage. Marc Rizzo’s piercing guitar tone shredded the air as Iggor pummelled the kit in a furious release of hardcore-flavoured metal rage. If Max’ voice showed the occasional sign of weakness, it was set to rights when his son Ritchie came out for “Black Ark”, adding a new dimension as he prowled the stage delivering a rabid bark that actually threatened to put his old man to shame. Max’s constant cries of “jump tha fuck up!” and “motherfucker” did get rather tiresome though, but that’s his schtick. “Roots Bloody Roots” sent the crowd into a vast circle as the band pushed the song almost to the point of a totally unrecognisable wall of noise, a feverish and passionate end to a remarkable set of punishing heavy metal.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds were left to provide the day’s swansong. Plagarist, genius or simply a cock, there’s no denying Gallagher’s a songsmith with a powerful gift for hook-ridden melody and a pop sensitivity the envy of thousands. Whereas many of the other acts at the Big Day Out bludgeoned the crowd with bombast or volume, Gallagher’s arsenal was the power of song itself, gorgeous guitar pop lush with easy melodies, gigantic hooks and featuring that familiar Manchester warble. With such a master craftsman at the helm, it wasn’t just a fluke that Oasis once got to be one of the biggest bands in the world. Considering his reputation for major arseholery, Gallagher’s was a gregarious and convivial performance, the perfect send off for the festival’s twentieth anniversary event – the ideal close to a day many had unfairly completely written off. In some ways the Big Day Out isn’t what it used to be, but that’s only because the music scene that spawned it no longer exists. It may be a festival in flux, but there’s still life in the old thing yet, as today undoubtedly proved.