Review: Falls Festival Byron Bay, The Kickoff To 2017 We All Needed

Without sounding like every git on social media leading up to New Year’s Eve, 2016 was a motherfucker of a year. For myself personally and obviously (and more importantly) within a wider societal context, the hits kept coming and they didn’t stop coming, only if every one of those hits was the emotional equivalent of a punch to the groin soundtracked by Smashmouth‘s All StarIt was therefore with more than a little weary trepidation that I found myself making the trip from Brisbane to Byron Bay and this year’s Falls Festival in my shitty, low income single dad-worthy car by myself.

“If 2016 were a person”

I didn’t know why I was going and, to be frank, I didn’t particularly want to go at all. That’s not a reflection on Falls Festival itself, simply the fact that I was about as done with everything as your average 16-year-old when presented with a minor inconvenience and I’d spent the last week on holiday doing a lot of depressed solo drinking and eating that I still hadn’t recovered from fully.

Like this, only with 60% more crying

Check out our photo gallery of Falls Festival Day 1: Gambino, Client Liaison, Grandmaster Flash & more!

Duty calls though, so with my windows down (because my air-conditioner gave up on life about two years before I did), The Most Of Dr. Hook at full volume (because it was one of the three CDs in my car not scratched to within an inch of its life and if you can find me a better road trip song than Sylvia’s Mother then you’re a terrible liar) and feeling like I had nothing to look forward to but three days of misery and sweat and feeling like an elderly man in a sea of youth because I’m turning the bleak old age of 27 in a few days, I rolled into the picturesque campgrounds at North Byron Parklands and set about setting up my tent on my own in the middle of happy couples and groups of friends in the cars and vans around me.

Literally the one time I felt any kind of substantial breeze whistle through those campgrounds was when I was trying to set that tent up and getting it upright while it was blowing absolutely everywhere was going about as well as Mariah Carey’s Times Square performance.

Honest to God, the stillness that settled in almost straight after was to the point where if they had some kind of a deal where you paid $50 for them to walk a cow to your tent and have it fart in your general direction once every five minutes, I’d have parted with my pineapple in about two seconds flat just to have some form of wind in my vicinity.

Thankfully, having already set his up in the space of about two minutes while I chased tent poles around muttering my apparent New Year mantra of ‘for the love of fuck’ every ten seconds, the absolute saint camping in front of me came to lend a hand.

Where he could have sat in his Taj Mahal of a tent and shade tarp set-up, knocking back his first beer of the day and laughing at me as I would have tried and failed to set my own up, a complete stranger instead stood sweating bullets for an additional 15 minutes in that blazing sun and helped me set my tent up to save me from my own ineptitude as an outdoorsman and make sure I had something substantial to sleep in for the next three nights.

That’s when I had an inkling that Falls might actually be alright.

Day One

I traipsed into the festival on that sweltering New Year’s Eve and the first act I saw was young Brisbane upstart Mallrat, for whom Falls was a coming out party of sorts. For the brave souls who danced in that unshaded amphitheatre moshpit in the heat of the day, you’re all insane in the most delightful way possible. It was comical almost to be walking up what looked like a largely empty hillside on first glance, only to see the scant patches of shade up the top of the hill and underneath the big tree at the bottom of it sardine-tinned with fans to the point that fistfights over a square metre of dirt not being cooked by UV rays seemed likely.

Mallrat and friends took over that stage and were nothing short of infectiously energetic, a vibe that washed over the whole hillside as they went about singing breezy odes to going out in Fortitude Valley and throwing in a Drake cover for good measure.

Throwback dance-pop wizards Client Liaison were onstage shortly after and I absolutely had to brave the sun for this. Highlights (of a set rammed full of them) included Tom Tilley and Monte Morgan opening a carton of Fosters and tossing them into the crowd, two legends crowdsurfing in a homemade off white limousine constructed of a pair of cardboard boxes during the song of the same name as well as some of the best 80s new wave-inspired stage dancing of all time, replete with water coolers, ferns and Macintosh computers circa 1987.

This is to say nothing of the slew of exuberantly fun hits the band ran through, curtain-raiser Canberra Won’t Be Calling Tonight, Wild Life, Feed The Rhythm, Queen and Pretty Lovers going off like the frogs in socks that they are (when that saxophone hits in the latter it’s like Monte and co are lifting you into the heavens). Their cover of Savage Garden’s I Want You couldn’t have been any more perfect and set-closer World Of Our Love was pure joy.

Retiring to the backstage bar feeling spent already, I enjoyed the sounds of Trans-Tasman sibling duo Broods electrifying the crowd behind me, a mammoth rendition of Bridges giving me the absolute tingles while I pumped myself full of water. It was then back out to the hill as the sun mercifully went down to catch one of hip-hop’s elder statesman in the truly mythic Grandmaster Flash.

The man reached so very deep into his gigantic bag of tricks for a set that encompassed every mile on the hip-hop trail, a path he has traversed and seen from almost its inception. Hits from every decade and a multitude of artists were dished out to the crowd, Snoop, 50, Biggie, Kendrick, Dre and Eminem among countless others interspersed with his own tales and insights from throughout his storied career as well as a rapturously received serve of the late George Michael’s Faith. By the time his set was drawing to a close and the shimmering synths of The Message wavered over a crowd going bonkers, he had you feeling like you were in hip-hop heaven.

Hot Dub Time Machine took us on a journey through the decades of popular music leading up to midnight and then, with so much anticipation surrounding his return to Australia, superstar Childish Gambino hit the stage as soon as the midnight countdown was done, captivating the crowd with favourites from Because The Internet like Telegraph Ave (Oakland), Worldstar and The Worst Guys, a rendition of Sober just oozing soul and some funkified early standouts from new album Awaken, My Love! including a boogie-inducing California and a Redbone that threatened to bring about the rapture as Gambino’s falsetto soared to impossible heights.

The girl next to me wearing some kind of beaded headdress thing looking like Xerxes from 300 (this wasn’t even the weirdest shit I saw people wearing in the name of festival fashion either) kept accidentally grinding it against my very, very sunburnt right arm but the agony of that was outweighed about ten times over by the ecstasy of Donald Glover’s continually improving voice and throat-grabbing stage presence.

It might have been that Gambino and co forgot about their 1am cut-off unfortunately, he mentioned the finish time with an air of surprise and the final few songs feltslightly rushed through. It seems like there were some omissions (not even one of certified thumpers Sunrise, Freaks And Geeks or Bonfire is a slight bummer, but he’s an artist and not a jukebox at the end of the day).

Nonetheless, his thunderous walk-off to 3005 has the bass reverberating all the way into the Earth’s very crust and the crowd hollering along to every word of the chorus. It may not have been what you were expecting, but if you were one of the many people I heard complaining on the walk back that his set wasn’t up to scratch then God help you for all the disappointment your life is going to hold.

As everyone skulked off into the night to either rage on or get a shred of shut eye and I’m trying to sleep in my car because I of course forgot to bring a sleeping bag and my sunburn was unbearably sticking to the tent floor, I realise that for the first time in I don’t know how long, I didn’t find myself feeling down or negative even once after I got to Falls and I didn’t have a leg-up from any illicit substances in that regard. There’s little more that I can ask from a music festival than that.

Day Two

Best believe the first wake up of 2017 was nightmarish to say the least. My sunburn now a lustrous shade of purple, I hooked it to the shower around 6 in the morning and got straight in, putting myself through sustained agony for the sake of not having dirt and dust in every orifice even just for fifteen minutes. It would be only a few hours later that I would, still clean as a whistle and fresh as a daisy, walk past shower queues stretching well into the tent fields they lay adjacent to with scores of pretty D.U.N. looking people (laughing spitefully under my breath at them the whole way of course).

The crowd for Melbourne post-punkers City Calm Down is woefully tiny given their history of amazing live performances off the back of 2015’s breakthrough album In A Restless House but it feels even hotter today than it did yesterday (although this may be in part due to my new resemblance to Dr. Zoidberg) so I can certainly empathise with those who preferred to stick at their camp.

For those who did brave the sun though, City Calm Down once again delivered in spades, pulling out their historically jaunty cover of This Charming Man by The Smiths as well as singalong belters like Border On Control, Rabbit Run and the always monolithic synth rock anthem of Your Fix. They gifted us all with a brand new song that gives no indication the quality of their work has diminished since their last album either, so here’s to even more City Calm Down in our lives in 2017.

Tell you what we need less of in our lives though, are the continuous “Nice Gary” calls that echoed ceaselessly around the grounds from probably the same people who flogged “Taxi!” to within an inch of its sad life in drinking establishments everywhere in the halcyon days of 2011.

From there, The Jezabels are on and there’s just, you know, so much dust in my eyes as they run through first ballot hall of fame feels-jerkers like The Look Of Love, Endless Summer and Hurt Me. New album Synthia has proven to be a huge hit and a welcome return from the Sydneysiders, their new hits, including a rollicking Pleasure Drive standing tall alongside their old.

A quick sprint back to the Forest Stage finds another Sydney band adeptly mellowing out a crowd feeling the heat in Middle Kids. It’s a nice relaxing breather for a little bit, Edge Of Town and Your Love wafting over us all like a welcome breeze as frontlady Hannah does her absolute darndest to sing me into a beautiful coma.

There’s little chance to enjoy the peace though, everyone’s favourite rock and roll vagabond Jamie T is on immediately after at the amphitheatre, but any thoughts of not having enough energy to dance to stompers like Zombie, Sticks And Stones and a gleefully raucous If You Got The Money are quickly thrown out the window as the beers start to kick in good and hard.

Thankfully it’s Matt Corby coming in to serenade the hillside, the smoky blues of tracks from his debut album Telluric melding gorgeously with older hits like an upliftingly fitting Resolution (seriously, this fucking dust hey), his beautifully honest cover of Tina Arena‘s Chains from Like A Version earlier in the year, a song Corby’s Olympic gymnast vocal cords are more than a match for and a roaring crescendo for breakout single Brother that has the amphitheatre surging.

Pond are up next and Nick Allbrook and co do not disappoint. I’d only seen the Perth psych-rockers once at this year’s edition of Gizzfest in Brisbane in November and I’ll regretfully admit I was absolutely buckled for it and don’t remember a single note, so I’m glad Falls provided me an opportunity to experience them again properly because they are phenomenally good. Allbrook is one of the most underrated and entertaining showmen in the country and pairs with a mind-bending band of musicians to captivate the crowd at sunset.

The new song they debuted (Allbrook kind of mumbled the title but it sounded like something about silver linings something-something) might have been my absolute favourite and I don’t even care how late in the game it is, I’m hitching a ride on the Pond bandwagon after this.

From there it’s Violent Soho, this probably the fifteenth time (approximately) I’ve seen them in the space of the last six months but there’s really not a lot of shits to be given, because they’re always outstanding. I’m casually sitting on the hill knocking back a beer for this one because I don’t think my sunburn would last 30 seconds into the moshpit, but all around me people are losing their ever-loving shit to face-melters like Blanket, Love Is A Heavy Word, Dope Calypso, Viceroy, Like Soda and their always earth-shattering signature tune Covered In Chrome, which elicits the traditional choruses of ‘hell fuck yeah’ that could probably be heard from space.

Then it’s time for Australian royalty The Avalanches are onstage for their six-month follow-up to an absolute barnstorming comeback set at 2016’s Splendour In The Grass. Like Soho, they have swathes of people going apeshit, but I’m content to continue to sit back on that hill and people watch, reminiscing back to one of the best nights of my entire year at Splendour and losing myself to the gorgeous sounds of Since I Left You, Because I’m Me and trying to find the loosest human being around me during Frontier Psychiatrist. I may not have had as much dance-induced fun with the people I care about as their Splendour set but it’s pleasant nonetheless.

The best part? An old housemate I met up with at the festival has parents living in Bangalow and says I can stay the night back there, where there’s a real bathroom and an actual bed. Heading back to my campsite to get clothes and finding my tent suffering from a collapse that would make Australia’s middle order flush with pride, I’ve scarcely been more thankful to be (temporarily) leaving a festival, Milhouse levels of wuss-ery or not, and I flip my sorry looking tent the bird on the walk past scenes of debauchery, the cries of ‘Nice Gary!’ slowly fading into the distance.

Day Three

Shit is heaven. There’s coffee brewing in a spacious house, I’m showered and I slept on a thing that didn’t have seatbelt buckles jamming themselves into my back. Also my sunburn isn’t quite as fucked and I’m being told we’re stopping in for a swim and a few mid-morning beers at Brunswick Heads on the way back to the parklands. If you do get the chance to tap out of a festival for a few hours and head somewhere for a swim I recommend the heck out of it, I’ve hardly felt so refreshed in my entire life and leaving Brunswick Heads seems like something I’d rather not do.

But there’s still an entire day of Falls left to plough through, starting with Tired Lion, whose second-to-none riffage on tunes like Not My Friends and I Don’t Think You Like Me among plenty of other noise-heavy rockers wakes me up even better than that first coffee this morning did. Frontwoman Sophie Hopes is a modern day Joan Jett with sharper edges who is here to chew gum and kick ass and never had any gum to begin with, it’s a joy to see them doing so well.

Coming second only to Andrew W.K. in terms of party vibes might be radio favourites Ball Park Music, who always put on nothing short of a live spectacle. Of note is perhaps the biggest can-can line in festival history snaking its way around the hill. I get time for a quick lunch break after their set and it’s here I’d like to thank the Japanese place in the main food tent for dishing out $10 karaage chicken hot dogs that were as life-saving as they were delicious.

Falls Festival

“I came close to madness trying to find it here in Brisbane but they just can’t get the spices right…”

Following that it’s stellar London songstress AlunaGeorge and Canberra dance duo Vallis Alps back to back at the Forest Stage, the former an absolute snakecharmer of a performer, holding me in hypnosis for her run-through of confirmed banger I’m In Control, the latter providing an immeasurably welcome level of chill-out with a set full of hazy synths and the honey-sweet vocals of singer Parissa Tosif.

It’s Sydney trio DMA’s gracing the Forest Stage next and the storm clouds are starting to roll in ominously. On my walk to get water (I’m driving home tonight because work has made it clear that my presence is mandatory tomorrow) a fellow festival-goer shows me a BOM storm radar on his phone, where there’s more red than my bank statement on its way toward us right now and is threatening to make Helm’s Deep look like an English countryside drizzle. “We’re farked aren’t we?” he mutters to me. “Maybe it’ll pass us without hitting too hard” I offer back with nothing but foolish naivete.

DMA’s quickly drive any pre-storm apprehension from mind though, a very humid Forest tent lighting up as they rip through new favourites from debut album Hills End. Timeless stands as tall next to breakout hit Feels Like 37, In The Moment and it’s signature bendy guitar riff seeing the masses swaying as one with frontman Tommy O’Dell never failing to have a tamborine in one hand and the crowd in the palm of his other.

A huge shout out to the king amongst men who climbed up onto the roof of the portaloo behind the sound deck and did a shoey mid-set, he’ll be telling his grandchildren about the deafening cheers his act of defiance received in future years. Step Up The Morphine is positively breezy despite its heartbreaking undertones and goddamn it again with this fucking dust while they run through an agonisingly good rendition of Delete.

I dearly want to stick around for what sounds like an absolutely romping Lay Down but HRH Bernard Fanning is almost through his set over at the Valley stage and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to do my civic duty as a euphoric Queenslander and at least catch some of the Bern’s set.

What timing as we’re walking over that the jangly opening strains to Wish You Well blast out over the crowd. Everywhere you look people are dancing and skipping and shrieking the words. That they don’t sell Milton Mangoes, Castlemaine Cranberries or Sugarcane Champagne at any of the bars here to be shotgunned in celebration of a moment like this is a pain only fellow Queenslanders will know. Fearing a downpour, we trudge up to the bar at the top of the hill to watch the last of the set, a stunning These Days adeptly melded into a cover of Purple Rain (on God, this fucking dust again). It’s a beautiful tribute from Fanning, who leaves the crowd feeling nothing short of warm and fuzzy.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Sir Bernard is some kind of sacred, prophetic deity because, not even ten minutes after waving goodbye with Purple Rain, the heavens appropriately opened up and unleashed a torrent of it that not even Noah would have been ready for, let alone Falls Festival. We’d preemptively bought $5 ponchos (I later heard of people selling theirs for upwards of $30) but they did two-thirds of three eighths of sweet Fanny Adams standing in the moshpit waiting for Catfish And The Bottlemen, whose soundcheck was interfered with by rain coming in sideways.

There was a whole lot of grumbling going on about how bullshit it is that they’re delayed (I mean, I’m not sure how they’re supposed to control the weather but anyway). I was ready to push on and wait because I’ve never seen Catfish before but some comedian (probably the first twat to yell ‘Nice Gary’ on the hill) is running through the moshpit stomping puddles on everyone like a four-year-old so we make the executive decision to get the fuck out of dodge. Enjoying the sight of the first of what would probably be many mudsliders on the hill on the way out back to camp.

And with that my Falls Festival came to an abrupt end. It was more than a little disheartening to miss Catfish’s abridged set as well as what, by all accounts, were stunning sets from artists like Tkay Maidza, Booka Shade, London Grammar, Remi and Alison Wonderland to end proceedings, but the flood of ‘we’ve been stuck trying to get out of Falls for several hours’ posts on their event page the next morning made me feel slightly better. Plus the fact that I’m not going to get fired is also a plus.

Cut short or not, this year’s Falls Festival was one of my favourite Aussie festivals to date. I walked in feeling bitter, depressed and like I wasn’t going to have any fun at all and I walked out feeling like a brand new person and full of hope and energy again (I can attest, as can many others, that the reverse is usually more accurate). A real sense of community with minimal dickhead-ery and coupled with outstanding performances from a whole host of amazing artists?

I laughed like a maniac hanging out with friends old and new, shed tears listening to songs that have played such important roles in my life and attached themselves to the memories of people and events and so often paused with wonder and marvelled at the nature of people.

It was, in short, exactly what I needed to start the year.

See ya in 12 months, Falls Festival.

Image: Danielle Hansen for Howl & Echoes