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Harvest Festival Review

Over the weekend Harvest Festival solidified its place as the best single-day music festival in Australia, bar none. Take a phenomenal lineup with zero filler and consisting mostly of bands who haven’t toured Australia in the last five years, add an idyllic location and a chilled crowd, and take away the organisational issues that plagued last year, and you have basically the perfect day. While there were virtually no low points of the festival, Sigur Rós’ magical closing set in particular will surely live on long into the memories of everyone who witnessed it as one of the great Australian festival sets.

As a Harvest ‘Foundation Member’ I was given the choice of which day to attend the festival and I opted for Saturday, given that the weather would be cooler and the venue would be much less busy than Sunday’s sold out festival. I was looked for a bit of a relaxed day and that was exactly what I got: Saturday’s show must have been filled at most to a quarter of capacity, and I can’t remember ever being in such a chilled atmosphere for a music festival. Whilst I can understand that those looking for more of an energetic and upbeat day may have been slightly disappointed with the showing, for me it was absolutely perfect, and after being stuck trying to leave the carpark for over an hour last year I cannot tell you how amazing it was to just drive straight out when the day was finished.

We arrived at the festival in time to catch some of Winter People‘s opening set on the main stage, agreeing with the majority of people who decided that the best thing to do would be to just sit down a bit away from the stage and enjoy the brooding music from the Sydney outfit. I hadn’t heard much of the band’s music before, however they were quite impressive, putting on an accomplished and enjoyable show. Their single Gallons got a very positive reception from the decently-sized crowd, and deserved nothing less as it slowly built to a fantastic climax of roaring strings and galloping drums.

The real attraction of the morning for me however was Los Campesinos!. They’ve been one of my favourite bands for years now, and I honestly never thought that I’d get the chance to see them live. This was the first time in their (nearly) seven-year career that the Welsh band have toured Australia but, for their diehard fans that gathered at the barrier for their set, the wait had been well worth it. From the moment all seven bandmembers walked onto the main stage and opened with the lead single of their latest album, By Your Hand, it was clear that this was going to be a show to savour, and sure enough the crowd grew steadily as the band played.

It’s hard to pinpoint the appeal of Los Campesinos! to someone who hasn’t heard their music before. Is it their frantic and chaotic use of a wide variety of instruments that somehow ends up sounding perfectly cohesive? Is it their insightful yet blunt lyrics? Their myriad of literary and pop culture references splashed into every other track? Or is it the way that they can sing about the most depressing and honest things and still make you smile and dance? Seeing the band live, just what makes them so very special was immediately obvious: the energy that the band had on stage was unparalleled, feeding off the fans on the barrier and drawing those sitting down closer and closer to the front. It was one of those truly awesome festival sets that acts as a magnet for casual punters not really sure of which band to watch at the time.

Gareth of course was a completely charming frontman as he talked at length about how grateful the band were to be playing in Australia for the first time: “We want to thank you all for coming to see us and justifying Harvest picking us to play”. It came as a relief to everyone that he also noted how, given this was the band’s first ever Australian tour, they would be playing a lot of their older stuff. Because while I definitely enjoyed ‘Hellos Sadness’, I don’t think there’s anything quite like the band’s early material.

So it was that some of my favourite songs that I’ve been waiting to hear live for years made appearances, including We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed and You! Me! Dancing, both of which were simply phenomenal. I’ve said it many times before, but I really do believe that Los Campesinos! write some of the best lyrics of our generation, and there was something deeply cathartic about screaming the chorus of ‘Doomed along with the band, as a multitude of voices joined in the cry of “Oh we kid ourselves there’s future in the fucking, but there is no fucking future” and the ultimate release of “I hope my heart goes first!”.

The band were everything that I had imagined them to be live, and it really did feel like every single song was something special. I had been waiting a long time to see Los Campesinos! live, and while I definitely wish they had been given at later timeslot, everything about their set itself was pretty much perfect. Their music is powerful, moving, fun, energetic, poignant, and at times slightly depressing. There aren’t many other bands going around today that say as much with their music as Los Campesinos! do, and I’m incredibly glad that I had the opportunity to see them live and at their best.

As Gareth said, as the band discussed among themselves which song to play next: “We haven’t been to Australia in six years, but yet we’re playing like a band that have only been together for a year. That’s a money can’t buy experience”. It was with the freshness and the frantic energy of a band who had just formed that Los Campesinos! played their set, even if their music itself was obviously from an accomplished and mature outfit. And it’s that precise juxtaposition that makes them so special.

There was quite a break between Los Campesinos! and the next band I really cared about seeing, so it was a good chance to have a wander around the festival grounds and check out some bands from a distance. I thought The Dandy Warhols were decent, and We Used To Be Friends and Bohemian Like You provided a nice bit of nostalgia. However their set suffered from being a bit monotonous, with very little variance between songs and far, far too many new songs, a fact which even the band themselves seemed to be painfully aware of.

Both Silversun Pickups and Liars were a little uninspired, with the latter’s fairly heavy electro/dance set falling a bit flat to a smaller crowd and the former never really getting going over on the Windmill stage, which mercifully didn’t smell of manure this year. Both bands had their moments however, and the crowds responded to their big songs quite nicely. All in all however wandering between the two seemed like a solid choice, and actually in the end the timeslot was somewhat stolen by the beginning of Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane over on the main stage, who played very strange (Italiany opera screamo?) but yet very enjoyable music that was mostly pretty relaxing but yet prone to sudden bouts of violence.

The festival grounds were yet again absolutely fantastic, full of countless little things that added a heap of character to the festival. A free banana store became a quick crowd favourite, but when it came time to eat a proper meal there were plenty of options, unlike last year when finding a food store without an hour-long line had been a bit of a chore. In fact there were no waits anywhere, no crowds to push through, and even no need to wait at the barrier in order to get a decent spot for bands. It was wonderfully relaxed, in a way that felt very similar to the early mornings of camping festivals, where everyone is just content to wander around a bit, and no-one is in a rush to be anywhere.

We watched the beginning of Cake‘s set, and they seemed like they would have been quite fun, but after only a few songs it was time to head back to the main stage to catch another of the day’s big attractions for me, Beirut. I was surprised to see Zach Condon and co. returning to Australia so soon, having seen them in January, but any chance to see Beirut live is one to be welcomed with open arms. Their Harvest set was of course very enjoyable, even if it seemed that Zach was having a bit of an off day. He struggled quite a bit with his ukulele strumming, messed up the occasional lyric, and never quite seemed comfortable with his horn playing. He obviously noticed this as well, continually smiling ruefully, almost in disbelief, whenever he made a mistake, and even admitting to the crowd that he was still suffering from the long flight to Australia.

Mistakes aside however it was still a very strong set from what is a fantastic band, and in some ways it’s almost nice to know that Zach is human after all. The setlist was decent, although there were a few noticeable absences such as Scenic World and Postcards From ItalyElephant Gun is one of my favourite songs of all time and hearing it again was a joy, and My Night With The Prostitute From Marseille was also extremely enjoyable given that the band had not played it in January.

There were plenty of newer songs as well such as VagabondEast Harlem, and Goshen, and guiding the whole performance was of course Zach Condon’s sublime, unique voice and his effortless stage presence that had his countless fangirls in the front few rows positively swooning. Overall it was an undeniably good set, albeit one that never reached the lofty heights that Beirut are capable of.

Making the quick walk back to the Windmill Stage we managed to catch the second half of Ben Folds Five‘s set. I admit that I’ve never really listened to much of Ben Folds’ music before, however I was surprised at just how many songs I recognised, and the energy of the band on stage carried even their weaker numbers with ease. Underground was a whole heap of fun that got the sizable crowd bouncing around, but the definite highlight for me was Brick, which is one of those songs that I’ve been wanting to hear live for ages. It didn’t disappoint, and was a beautiful experience.

Back to the Main Stage yet again it was time to sit down for a bit and enjoy Beck. He’s an artist I’ve been meaning to listen to for a long time but yet for various reasons I never really have. Still, I recognised a decent proportion of his songs, and thoroughly enjoyed his set of vaguely folkish alterna-rock. He drew a comparatively large crowd, but there’s no doubt that a lot of people were a little put off by the clash with Grizzly Bear, and a heap of people left Beck halfway through his set in order to catch the American band.

Beck’s set was a little up and down, with some great moment interspersed with slower periods. The tracks that really stood out to me were Loser and Where’s It At, but really whenever Beck got out his harmonica for a song you knew it was going to be good. And besides, you don’t need to know a heap of a band’s music to recognise a fantastically constructed set when you see it, and that’s exactly what Beck provided.

But let’s be honest, it was all about Sigur Rós. The Icelandic band have been at the top of my ‘Must See Live’ list for a long time now, and as much as I was desperately looking forward to their set I also couldn’t shake the feeling that no matter how good they were there was no way they could ever live up to my expectations. As it turns out however, they somehow managed to surpass them. I had seen Jónsi live before, at Splendour a couple of years earlier, but still there was nothing that could really prepare me for seeing Sigur Rós live for the first time. The were out of this world; genuinely and unreservedly phenomenal.

The setting couldn’t have been much better either. They took to the stage just as the sun was setting, and a few songs into their set they were already playing under the stars, both actual and digital, given their use of a large screen at the back of the stage. It was an incredibly beautiful sight, with all the band members and their backing group silhouetted against the bright backdrop, with Jónsi in particular striking an iconic pose with his bowed guitar.

As for the music, I know it’s a copout, but it was indescribable. It was all the majesty, grandeur, and unspoken beauty of their recorded music only magnified a thousand times, to the point where the crescendos were blisteringly intense and the slow buildups even more restrained and piercing. Jónsi’s vocals were otherworldly, ethereal and gentle at one minute before exploding with sheer raw power the next. Sigur Ros’ music captures the essence of the world, even if you never understand a word they sing.

One song led into the next, each as beautiful and stunning as the last, and the crowd’s only indication of when to applaud was a shift in the graphics playing the screen. The setlist was itself magnificent, featuring a wide array of older classics and a couple of choice selections from the band’s latest album. It was the first time in a while that Sigur Rós have played in Australia, so the variety was very welcome indeed. Jónsi may have said ‘thank you’ at one point, I can’t be sure, but apart from that the band simply let their music do the talking for them. Any words they spoke would have paled in comparison anyway.

Two of my favourite Sigur Rós songs were played one after the other, Sæglópur and Hoppípolla. The latter in particular was one of the most euphoric live music experiences I’ve ever had. It was one of those moment where you just get swept away in a song, losing yourself completely and not worrying about anything else. The backdrop for the song was particularly fitting, as more and more stars were slowly added to the scene, crashing into one another and exploding with vibrant colours as the song reached its unforgettable climax.

The only problem with the set was some sound leakage from the other stages: surely if there was any time to implement Portishead’s infamous silence policy from last year it was for Sigur Ros this year. But the occasional dumph dumph of dance music echoing from the other stages did very little to detract from the experience. Jónsi managed to drown out every other sound anyway when he decided to test his voice, holding the one haunting note for what seemed like an impossibly long time.

When the band’s set finally drew to a close, far too soon, they returned to the stage not for an encore but rather simply to take a bow together. And that was that. Everyone departed the festival in something of a daze, simply incredulous at the beauty we had just witnessed. I don’t think music comes much closer to being something of a religious experience than a Sigur Rós live show. Music like theirs simply has no right to exist. And it was such a nice change being a part of a crowd that genuinely appreciated the music and didn’t feel the need to demonstrate this fact to the world by shouting and clapping in the middle of songs. Because for all the outward power of their music, ultimately listening to Sigur Rós is an intensely personal experience.

It had been another perfect Harvest. It’s difficult to compare it to last year, but one thing is for sure: this year’s Harvest was much better organised, and I really do think it’s beginning to set a new standard for single-day festivals in Australia, both in terms of lineup and atmosphere. Having a well under-capacity crowd suited me perfectly, and everything else about the day was as smooth and as enjoyable as you could possibly ask for. The highlights were definitely Sigur Rós and Los Campesinos!, but there was so much to enjoy and take in that I think back fondly to every single minute I spent in Werribee Park that day.

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One Response to “Harvest Festival Review”

  1. I liked all the other bands more! Cake, Santigold, Fuck Buttons. I-ve missed war on drugs and dandy warhols :/

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