Harvest Festival Review

To say the shit hit the fan in the leadup to the Melbourne Harvest Festival would be an understatement. We witnessed timetabling problems, the promoter pissing off his headline act, transport dilemmas, sideshow inconsistencies, you name it. However the beauty of a great music festival is that, come the day itself, all the periphery stuff seems to just fade away and all that matters is the music. That’s not to say that the festival was run flawlessly, far from it, but rather that the important stuff was done right, and that it was a fantastic day.

Indeed all complaints about the obscurity of Werribee Park as a venue were forgotten the moment that we arrived. It truly was beautiful; an idyllic surrounds for a music festival. The space was utilised fantastically as well, with plenty of space between stages, various art installations, and your typical assortment of hipster-pandering festival stores. Thankfully there were no problems with getting into the festival itself, and parking was a breeze. The gathering was off to a very civilised start indeed.

Immediately upon arriving we dashed over to the tiny ‘Le Boudoir’ stage, which was actually just a tent, in the hopes of catching some of The Bedroom Philosopher‘s last minute set. We managed to, however unfortunately the extent of what we saw was about ten seconds worth of him parodying The Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize??. While hilarious (“Do you realise that everyone you know… someday… will diet?”), ten seconds isn’t nearly enough Bedroom Philosopher, and I definitely wish that we had arrived a bit earlier to catch all of his set.

The Holidays were an undeniably odd selection on the Harvest Festival lineup given that the festival’s mission statement included getting rid of the bands who everyone has already seen ten times at festivals, but the Aussies played a predictably tight set of upbeat indie pop numbers to a sizable crowd at the medium-sized ‘Big Red Tractor’ stage. If you’ve see one Holidays live set you’ve seen them all though, at least until they release some new material, and we were more than content to relax in the shade and enjoy the music from a distance while indulging in one sandwich each that we had brought into the festival, just like the ridiculously specific guidelines indicated.

The first band that I made a conscious effort to see was Sydney outfit Dappled Cities. While their set was enjoyable, it really wasn’t anything that special. That being said, the band served as a good warmup for the rest of the day. Unfortunately we had to leave to secure a decent spot for the next band we wanted to see before I heard the one track that I was really waiting on, Holy Chord. 

Now seems as good a time as any for the obligatory mention of the lines for alcohol at the festival. Harvest employed the redundant and frustrating token system that we have seen at a lot of other festivals, and the lines for said tokens were absurd for the first half of the festival- it really did look as if it would be an hour-long wait for a while there. Thankfully these lines died down as the day wore on, but predictably the long waits transferred to the bars themselves, to the point where a lot of people were left with the undesirable choice of either wasting their tokens or waiting in line forever for a drink and missing music. Not to mention the fact that apparently beer ran out very early in the evening.

While a lot of people have been complaining about this very loudly, I don’t really get the big deal. I mean it was definitely incompetent organisation, but if you reach the point where the consumption of over-priced alcohol is integral to your music festival experience, then I think you might be doing it wrong. The lines should really be of most concern to the festival organisers themselves, who must have missed out on a lot of money from people put off by the wait for tokens.

Like a lot of people I ended up with unspent drink tokens, but it was hard to get myself too worked up about it. Just enjoy the music, for fuck’s sake.

The Walkmen was the first international band that I was very keen on seeing, and the New York outfit did not disappoint. They just oozed class, from the attire of the band to the style of their music to their banter. While the crowd were clearly patiently waiting for a little number called The Rat, the highlight of the set for me was the opener from their latest album ‘Lisbon’, Juveniles. But then all of the band’s music was thoroughly enjoyable, carried both by their charisma and enthusiasm. The only thing missing was a bit more differentiation between tracks, but I guess when you’ve found a style that works for you as a band there’s no reason to mess with it too much.

The stage smelled like manure though.

The second lineup announcement had brought with it an enormous name in the form of TV On The Radio, and predictably the band were one of the highlights of the day. They have a tangible sense of energy about them on stage, with enough talent and showmanship between them for at least six frontmen. Opening number Halfway Home, with that immediately recognisable chorus, got the crowd moving about nicely, and it was good to see that so many people had turned out to the main ‘Great Lawn’ stage to see American band.

Their music shifts seamlessly from jazz to blues to rock to soul, and they really did tick all the boxes for a festival act. Their set started as a whirlwind of passion and energy, and while there was the smallest of lulls towards the middle, Wolf Like Me brought things home with an insanely energetic and passionate singalong that became the first real anthem of Harvest. The natural skill of every single musician on stage was obvious for everyone to see, and the unspoken chemistry between the band really was something to behold.

TV On The Radio are a truly great band, and it was fantastic to see them live for the first time.

Up next was one of the major drawcards of the festival for me, Bright Eyes. I’ve never really imagined them as much of a festival band, but that was almost the ethos of Harvest: bands you wouldn’t normally associate with playing Australian music festivals doing just that. From the moment Conor Oberst and co. walked onto the main stage all other thoughts and concerns were forgotten anyway: they were absolutely mesmerising, and even though none of my favourite Bright Eyes tracks made appearances it was an impeccable set.

Opening number Old Soul Song (For The New World Order) was really just a warmup for the magnificent Four Winds, a rollicking country-esque jam that had the crowd in a rapture. The sound that the band managed to create really was spectacular, and seemed like it should be coming from twice as many musicians. Arc Of Time was very cool, even if its more electro vibe seems a bit foreign given newer Bright Eyes music. There was no mistaking Lover I Don’t Have To Love as a Bright Eyes track however, and the song was resoundingly emotional and very powerful.

My only real complaint about the set has nothing whatsoever to do with the band. As the above photo illustrates, the sun was a nightmare for the entirety of Bright Eyes’ set, positioned just above the stage and making it very uncomfortable to look directly at the stage, even with sunglasses. The band’s name could not have been more fitting. Ha. But really this didn’t do much to detract from the beauty of the music that we were witnessing.

I was impressed that Conor opted to play Lua given that it is about as far from a ‘festival song’ as you can possibly get. Accompanied by just his own guitar and a horn, Conor’s rendition of the sublime track was just magical. He dedicated a song to the scientists in the crowd, so he was clearly unaware of the type of crowd that the festival would inevitably draw, but overall Conor Oberst was completely charming, and balanced out banter with actually playing music perfectly. Like most musicians performing at the festival, he seemed genuinely complimentary of the lineup at the inaugural Harvest festival, saying that he was playing “between two of my favourite bands”.

Closing number Road To Joy was one of the highlights of the festival, bar none. It was a euphoric, somehow cathartic jam of a song that had every single person in the crowd moving and singing. We fucked it up and made some noise alright. Do I wish that the band played any of At The Bottom Of Everything, Landlocked Blues, First Day Of My Life, Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh, and Bowl Of Oranges? Of course. But given that it was a festival set what we got was still fantastic.  I hope the rumours aren’t true and that this isn’t Bright Eyes’ last Australian tour, because once simply isn’t enough to see a band of this caliber live.

The National are my favourite band in the world, and this was my third time seeing them live within a year. So it should come as no surprise that I simply adored their set, and that they were far and away the highlight of Harvest for me. They are a truly special act, and I cannot think of another band capable of sparking such a broad range of emotions within a one hour set. The power of their music can be overwhelming, and it was a priviledge to witness it once again, this time in the beautiful surrounds of Werribee Park.

We managed to secure a pretty great spot a few rows from the front of the stage and a bit to the left. The video playing in the background of the stage made the wait go very quickly indeed- it was live footage of the band chilling backstage, and it was really interesting to see what goes down immediately before the band takes to the stage. The anticipation was at a fever pitch by the time the video finally showed The National walking up towards the stage, and the crowd stretched out as far as the eye could see. It was time.

Opening with Anyone’s Ghost, the band launched into a perfect set consisting mostly of material from their latest two studio albums. Matt Berninger’s vocals were, as always, completely show-stealing, it really does feel as if he’s holding the crowd captive when he’s singing. It’s simply impossible to look away from him, and I’m pretty sure I just stood in the crowd with a huge stupid smile on my face for the entirety of the set. Afraid Of Everyone, Sorrow, and Conversation 16 made welcome appearances, with the latter in particular being utterly mesmerising, especially when that crisp drumbeat kicks in and Berninger sings “I was afraid, I’d eat your brains”.

The band were completely charming of course, but then they would charm me without speaking a single word. Berninger seemed genuinely pleased to be playing at Harvest, and spoke very highly of both the venue and the lineup. Slow Show was as always one of the many highlights of the set, in all its brooding, subtle glory. The whole crowd chanted “You know I dreamed about you, for twenty-nine years before I saw you” loudly, creating what was a very special moment.

While the band stuck mostly to new material they did play a couple of older songs, including the always incredible Abel, which really let Berninger’s vocals loose. The National were so good that I couldn’t help but glance occasionally to the clock on the side of the stage, thinking desperately that there must surely be longer than that left.

The last four song of The National’s set was the best 15 minutes that I have ever witnessed at a music festival. England is still probably the most incredible song that I have ever heard live; a slow-growing, goosebumps-inducing powerhouse of a track. And when it’s followed by the one and only Fake Empire you get the most memorable double-hit you could possible imagine. The songs play off each other perfectly, at once very similar and completely different, and I am very glad that the band still choose to play them back-to-back, even at festivals.

Hearing Mr. November in November was a surprisingly moving experience, and Berninger’s singing/screaming was just spellbinding. No one does it quite like Matt Berninger. With their time rapidly running out, The National launched into the only track that was ever going to close their set, Terrible Love. The live rendition of the song is always somehow very delicate at the same time as it is powerful, and this paradox was only further accentuated when Matt left the stage and jumped into the crowd, getting an impressive way into our midst while screaming “It takes an ocean not to break!” along with thousands of voices.

While I was positioned nowhere near his path, and while I would have obviously loved to be closer, it was enough that the song brought back wonderful memories of standing directly next to him for the same track earlier in the year, screaming along to the lyrics while holding him up as he stood atop my chair. It was also amazing to listen to him laugh in between singing, as he was obviously struggling a bit to make it back to the stage. The National may play sets like this every other day, but there is just something so very special about every single time I see them live.

Truthfully though, I hate reviewing The National live shows, because I know that no matter how highly I praise them, I cannot do them justice. Suffice to say that one of my friends  at the festival hadn’t really listened to the band much beforehand and still left saying that they were his favourite act of the day. Music like this is just so incredible and so powerful, it takes hold of everyone without discrimination. I would have loved to hear Exile Vilify, but it feels like heresy to complain about a single thing when a set was this incredible.

Harvest was a day of great bands but, for me at least, The National stood out head and shoulders above anything else. But then, to me, they stand out head and shoulders above every other band in the world anyway.

We returned from a brief and unsuccessful attempt to buy food without waiting for six hours to find that the imminent arrival of Portishead had the ‘Great Lawn’ stage packed to capacity, creating a stunning sight. The sun was just setting, and it was hard to imagine a much more fitting backdrop for Portishead’s music. The band did the setting, and their billing as the headline act of Harvest, justice with what was a utterly mesmering and other-worldly set.

I feel like focusing on any individual track would be doing the set a disservice, and I’m not going to pretend that I have anything approaching an encyclopedic knowledge of the band’s backcatalogue. But the overall atmosphere and the sense of escapism in the set was virtually second-to-none. Beth’s ethereal voice is surely not from planet Earth, and the way she lost herself in every single song that the band played was spellbinding. It’s very rare that you see so many people be so quiet for so long, but that was the respect that Portishead’s music demanded.

There wasn’t a single word of banter throughout the set, and indeed it was less as if the band were performing for the crowd and more as if they were performing for each other and there just happened to be ten thousand people nearby. Portishead let their music do the talking, and it was pretty damn persuasive. It was also such a relief to see a festival crowd who appreciated music of this nature at a festival; a crowd that didn’t need to scream and cheer in the middle of songs to demonstrate that they were enjoying the music. Harvest was probably the best festival crowd that I have ever been a part of, with not a bogan in sight.

The videos that played behind the band perfectly complimented their music, in particular a rather stunning cartoon animation that lasted for the duration of one track. I also very much enjoyed the video of Tony Abbott shooting lasers from his eyes.

We made the tough call of leaving a few minutes early to avoid the stampede and get a decent spot for The Flaming Lips, and in hindsight I definitely wish that we had stayed, but that is really the only decision from the entire festival that I regret, which isn’t bad. Apparently the band did play an encore, and I’m sure that it was equally incredible as their main set. Portishead really were just quite something else, the likes of which I have never really seen live before.

This was music to lose yourself in. It was more magic than it was music.

It was strange going from a band so set on having absolutely no gimmicks in their live show to a band whose gimmicks are their live show. While I’m not a massive Flaming Lips fan, I can definitely see the appeal of their set at Harvest for those looking to let off that final bit of energy before departing the festival. I just wish that they struck the balance between actually playing music and doing all the other crazy stuff that they always do at live shows.

They were admittedly in the shit position of having only about 45 minutes to play given Portishead’s strict demand of absolute silence while they played and what seemed like an equally strict curfew judging by an announcement made by Wayne Coyne himself, but why not compensate by taking less time than 15 minutes to introduce each band member one by one through a pulsing vagina shooting lasers on the screen backdrop and then walking onto the crowd in a ‘space ball’? It was cool and fun and all that, but I really did want some more music, and ultimately the band only played a handful of actual songs.

That said, the songs that the band did play were very enjoyable, none moreso than Yeah Yeah Yeah Song, which was just about as close to a religious experience as music can get. Giant cannons launched confetti and streamers into the crowd, a group of competition-winning dancers joined the band on stage, and everyone just let loose in what was an incredible rendition of an incredible song. To call it euphoric would be a huge understatement. It was they type of moment that just couldn’t help but put a smile on your face. After a day of non-festival bands at Harvest, it was obvious that the Flaming Lips were born to play festivals.

Wayne Coyne was of course a great frontman, but he seemed a little paranoid about losing the support of the crowd, constantly telling the crowd to “Come on, motherfuckers” in between songs in somewhat of an unnecessary attempt to keep the energy levels up. Personally I think the best way to do that is to play music. Far too soon, Do You Realize?? closed The Flaming Lips’ set, and it was yet another beautiful and touching moment. It was incredibly uplifting and life-affirming, and it’s hard to think of a better way to end a music festival than with fifteen thousand people singing “Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face?” at the top of their collective voices, with little or no direction from the stage.

The Flaming Lips’ music had been great, I just wish there had been more of it.

So that was it for my Harvest festival. I won’t bother mentioning the fact that it took us half an hour to get out of the festival grounds and a further hour to escape the traffic jam in the carpark, because by that point I can honestly say that it didn’t matter. Nothing else except the music mattered at Harvest, and the music was just phenomenal. It really was the best lineup that I have ever seen for a one-day festival in Australia, and at this early point I have to say that it’s right up there with the most fun I have ever had at a one-day festival as well.

A lot of stuff was organised incompetently at Harvest. But ultimately what really matters, no, all that really matters, was organised flawlessly. The music on display here was world class, and moreover it was world class for pretty much the entire day. It was such a very, very, very good music festival, and I had the time of my life with great company, a great venue, and some pretty cool tunes.

Please, oh please, bring on next year.


2 Responses to “Harvest Festival Review”

  1. Great review. The day played like a wishlist of bands ive always wanted to see and I avoided all the lines and just watched bands all day. Awesome, bring on Harvest 2012.

  2. Ha, good review! I felt the same….some things to iron out, but FRIGGEN AMAZING MUSIC is the real outcome of the day!
    And I am so glad someone else agreed the Windmill Stage smelled like cow poo! Ha! Wasn’t just me!

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