Review: Fairgrounds’ proved exactly why small festivals are best

Fairgrounds festival took place in Berry last weekend, a two-ish hour drive south of Sydney. While I’m always tentative about inaugural festivals and their inevitable failures, the small, family-friendly event ran smoothly, with a wonderful atmosphere, great facilities, and of course, stellar music.

Arriving late on Friday night, we set ourselves up with the pre-booked, pre-built tents on site, which turned out to be about the most convenient thing ever – particularly when you compare it to camping arrangements at bigger events like Falls and Splendour. The festival capacity was small (less than 4000) and camping was within a three minute walk to the main area, with plenty of shower and toilet facilities within reach. From the moment we entered, staff and security were friendly, punters were considerate (our tent neighbour even introduced himself and apologised in advance for the noise he’ll be making later) and the vibe was already warm and inviting – much like the weather the following morning.

Berry is a small, quiet, uneventful town. The town’s population is less than that of Fairgrounds, so I’m sure it was quite a shock to the system for many of its residents. Luckily, the attendees weren’t exactly the typical festival-goer crowd that you might associate with the weekend’s other music events, Stereosonic and Subsonic. It’s remarkable how different this event felt to the bigger festivals. I saw two policemen the entire day, casually strolling around, making sure everyone was safe – as opposed to aggressively, suspiciously stopping and searching punters, as I’ve witnessed at bigger events.

A surprisingly chilly Friday night made for a decent night’s sleep in the tent, but as anyone who’s ever camped would know, with the crack of dawn comes sweat, sunshine, and stifling humidity. The day soon bloomed into a gorgeous, cloudless morning. The relentless heat was a bit problematic later on as there was little to no cover in the centre of the festival grounds, but there was shade in the distance, and it nevertheless created a stunning backdrop for the day.

A leisurely morning, coffee run and stroll through Berry later, we settled in to a bench near the bar and cracked open an unbelievably refreshing Young Henry’s cloudy cider. It was probably already thirty degrees as Methyl Ethel took to the stage, the Perth trio bringing their big bass lines and indie grooves to the balmy, soon-to-be-sweltering afternoon.

The festival grounds itself were excellent. There was tonnes of space, and at no point did we feel crowded or overrun. Families and children relaxed and enjoyed the music alongside the twentysomething latte-sippers, and I’m pretty certain I saw no fluro singlets the entire day; a warm and welcome solace from your typical festival annoyances.

Although I didn’t get into their album as much as many of my peers, Unknown Mortal Orchestra were a real treat to see live. We watched from afar in the merciful shade as they delivered an outstanding set, predominantly featuring tunes from 2015’s Multi-Love, with a couple of older highlights for good measure. Later on, I found myself really, really impressed by the great Royal Headache, led by wild-eyed madman Shogun, who braved technical issues and ridiculous heat to pull out the loudest, most energetic set of the day. Both artists were obviously aware that much of the crowd were watching from quite the distance, and nevertheless delivered a dynamic, unique sounds that wafted right through to the festival’s outer corners.

There was a lot more to Fairgrounds than the music. The limited but delicious food selections were on point; from crepes, to pizza to Asian-fusion and more. However, the food stalls were clearly under-prepared, and probably the biggest first-year-of-a-festival-fuck-up was that pretty much every single stall had completely sold out well before nightfall, and some (namely the crepe stand) warning customers of a ridiculous TWO HOUR wait for their glorified cheesy pancakes. Apparently some attendees were actually advised to leave the festival to get food (we’d eaten at the local Thai joint the night prior; it was delicious). A real highlight was the charming little market area, with colourful stalls selling clothing, trinkets, jewellery and more. There was also a beautiful little vinyl pop-up store, though admittedly I have no idea what they were actually selling, as I avoided the stall like the plague in order to save my wallet from heartache.

Every festival has its low points, and for me, that was Meg Mac. Every element was in place, sure – the back-up singers, the trendy goth-hipster look, the powerful vocals. But it was so…. one dimensional. She has a brilliant voice and her music is filled with really great soul and R&B melodies, but it felt like they were just going through the motions, which was a huge let down considering how much praise her live performances have received. Perhaps I’m a tough critic, the audience certainly loved it, but I took nothing from it. Meh.

Father John Misty, on the other hand, raised the proverbial roof with a killer sunset performance, drawing the biggest crowd of the day. It’s no surprise that he’s got such a cult following (and he looks the part, too); while his music on record hasn’t really grabbed me much, his live show was incredible, seducing the entire audience with his blues-tinted folk melodies and smooth, guitar-driven rhythms. While his performance seems a little at odds with itself – understated folk performed as if its stadium rock – it works, it works brilliantly.

Finally, the night ended with Ratatat, who I’d already caught earlier in the week. Their blistering set was the ultimate way to end what had been an eventful but relaxing day. While their set was near identical to their previous show, it felt as fresh and energetic as the first. There was a really lovely electric energy that shot throughout the crowd, basking in the long-awaited cool breeze as the sun had finally fallen asleep, making way for Ratatat’s onslaught of lights, lasers and psychedelic projections.

Fairgrounds delivered a wonderful maiden event; one I can only hope will return for 2016 and beyond. An atmosphere unlike any other in New South Wales, the quaint charm of the idyllic Berry setting, the retail goods on offer and of course, the musical curation itself came together for an event that’ll easily be remembered as one of the most enjoyable, and certainly the most stress-free festival on the Australian calendar.