It’s just past 4pm on New Year’s Eve and Sydney-based neo-post reggae revival band Sticky Fingers has taken to the Valley Stage in picturesque Marion Bay, in sweltering ozone layerless heat, to perform the customary 45-minute festival set. In the mosh, a rare construction is being erected: perhaps fuelled by a conflation of alcohol, marijuana and heatstroke, four revellers are taking the classic girlfriend-on-the-boyfriend’s-shoulder routine to dangerous new heights. While Gold Snafu blares from the stage, one man of questionable judgment but undeniable strength is shouldering a topless mate, who in turn is bearing a singleted youth, on top of whom sits the luckiest boy in all Tasmania. Drink in hand – and not spilling a drop – this curly haired lad rests upon this 3-metre tall testament to exuberance, towering above his now lilliputian comrades, like a Native American Totem Pole. Its rise and fall only lasts several seconds but it sticks in the memory as a potent metaphor for the wider Falls Festival experience, an intercourse of friendship, adventure, wilderness and enthusiasm, all played out to an outstanding soundtrack.
The 2014-15 Falls Festival in Marion Bay was held Monday 29 December 2014 through Thursday 1 January 2015, in undulating cattle grazing pastures around an hour east of Hobart. Tickets cost $270 for all three days for BYO camping and from $349 for three days with camping equipment supplied. Concurrent Falls were held in Lorne, Victoria, and Byron Bay, New South Wales, with more voluminous artists line-ups and pricier tickets. Jetstar, Qantas, Virgin and Tiger all operate services hfrom the Mainland (or ‘Australia’ as Tasmanians call it). Book as early as you can to secure the cheapest flights; return from Sydney to Hobart on Jetstar purchased in late November cost just shy of $600.
In Hobart, youngsters in impossibly tight jeans and band shirts could be spotted loading up cars with myriad potato chips, Pizza Shapes, trail mix and other healthy staples of festival living, while the risk unaverse were also lining their vehicles with contraband grog. Cases of beer are far too bulky but spirits and goon retain popularity, for those looking to tempt fate.
BYO Alcohol is strictly forbidden at Falls and as you approach the setting, you pass multiple signs warning you of this zero tolerance. There is an amnesty zone that didn’t seem to be getting much love and then one final notice reading “Don’t Ruin Your New Year’s Eve: Declare Alcohol Now or Be Refused Entry with No Refunds” before cars are searched by a team of ultra-sincere volunteers under the watchful eye of TasPol, who seem to know all the hiding spots. Plenty of bottles, bags and cans were found and seized but no-one was actually being refused entry, perhaps a tacit encouragement to try again next year.
Of course, once into the campgrounds, an impromptu favela of low rise tents of all different shapes and sizes, not unlike the one Harry visits for the Quidditch World Cup, it was easy to spot the bottles of Scotch, vodka, bourbon and rum – discretion was clearly unnecessary once inside – and it was hard not to feel a tinge of jealousy at those more successful at obfuscation, especially while paying the exorbitant prices for a drink inside Falls, which are laughably described as “affordable” in the official Event Guide. The earlier one arrives at Falls the better their camping location will be. My four companions for Falls (and, incidentally, their first initials spell ‘SPAM’) car camped in a single tent, while I completely absented myself from this rigamarole by purchasing a Gimme Shelter ticket, which includes a prebuilt 2-man tent and a 5-centimetre thick camping ‘mattress’. One of the big advantages of Gimme Shelter was its propinquity to the main festival arena, where the stages are, making trips to and from the site proper much shorter than if camping in a farflung paddock. In the same vicinity as Gimme Shelter was a teepee farm, for larger groups looking to glamp in style. Compared to the spartan nature of car camping and Gimme Shelter, these looked like a Emirati palace from behind the barbed wire separator.
Shortly before the entrance to the main arena, tickets are exchanged for wristbands – “Don’t lose them,” staff says, “as a replacement costs $300” – yellow for over 18s and blue for minors and they come inscribed with the festival motto: “REAL MATES DON’T LET MATES DRINK DRIVE”, self-styled in upper case. The police presence throughout the festival was refreshingly lighthanded and it may serve as a reason why other festivals, like Big Day Out with its armies of fuzz, have fallen out of favour.
Opening night festivities at Falls started in the late afternoon on the secondary Field Stage. Called Boogie Nights, this miniprogram of upbeat dance acts was kicked off by DJ Fletch, who provided some very fine tunes for those queueing up to buy those horrendous tokens exclusively used as tender in the on-site bars. Next up was Canadian jazz troupe BADBADNOTGOOD who were quite GOODGOODNOTBAD. As a light rain began to fall, the baton was passed to zeitgeist-capturing interpretive dance trio Twerkshop. Described as “a dance ex-ASS-cise cl-ASS with an emph-ASS-ise on the ASS”, these three self-aware big-bootied young ladies from Melbourne produced much mirth from the growing crowd with their heads-down, bums-up posturing to Beyonce and Nicki Minaj cl-ASS-ics. While very amusing in the short-to-medium term, Twerkshop struggled to maintain interest for its full 30-minute set, and one wonders if this is not a synecdoche for twerking’s overall popularity.
With the sun setting and a light rain falling on this hill of trampled grass fenced by ancient eucalyptuses, retro two-hander Client Liaison sashayed on stage in white slacks and 1980s style lavender sports coats to drop some incredibly cool synthpop melodies – like a paired back, camper Ou Est Le Swimming Pool – replete with innuendo-laden lyrics about the end of the Earth, hotel stays and grooving the physical, whatever that means. Client Liaison’s logo is an ye olde brick mobile phone and you can expect to see a lot of this icon through 2015 as these Melbournites receive the mainstream attention they deserve.
Night comes to Tasmania slowly in summer and the dusk was still winning when Burnley’s DJ Woody, a real veteran of the northwest England party scene came on stage to present his ‘Hip Hop is 40’ audio visual show. The title is a bit naff and some thought the 90-minute set time meant this was an actual documentary – some even sat down on a picnic rug like they were at a moonlight cinema – but rather it was a medley of seminal rap and hip hop songs stretching back to the mid-1970s. The 1990s is my vintage and it was thoroughly thrilling to singalong to first verses and chori from Biggie Smalls, Fugees, old Snoop and the incredibly effective mixing of Jump by Kriss Kross into House of Pain’s Jump Around. This retrospective anthology was the perfect warm up for Salt-N-Pepa, who definitely still have it despite their combined ages now totalling 136.
Boogie Nights was closed by Sydney DJ Alison Wonderland, who always sounds better playing other people’s songs than her own. Over in The Village, a niche circus-theme menagerie of poetry, yoga, magic, interpretive dance and “a hot new type of music” called – and I’m being serious here – “BBQ Punk”, an otherwise unknown Tasmanian cover band named 4 Letter FISH played Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here in full and it was amazing.
Retiring to my tent at around 2am I discovered that an opportunistic fellow camper, one not comfortable with low-to-the-ground discomfiture, and gone around to all the unoccupied tents in the Gimme Shelter village to appropriate the aforementioned included mattresses, presumably to lay them 10 deep in order to generate 1 per cent more luxury. Sleeping on the ground is ill-advised at the best of times, let alone after having travelled interstate on a 6:15am flight and then spent a night jumping up and down while on the lash.
Volunteers at Falls Festival must complete at least 12 hours of unpaid work across various tasks – recycling, checking tickets and wristbands, directing traffic, manning information booths – and in return they receive entry to the festival, camping accommodation, meals and access to a blowout party at the end of the show. The first volunteer I had dealings with was very sympathetic to my mattresslessness and was able to fetch a replacement almost immediately on the morning of the second day.
There are six hot showers at Falls Marion Bay, costing $2 per two minutes, and 10 free cold showers. Arrive at 6am and you will be waiting around 20 minutes for a warm shower. Arrive at 8am and you will be waiting around 20 minutes for a cold shower, and six times that for a warm one. There are many more toilets located through the campground but these are even less low tech. The ‘sewerage system’ is essentially the manual layering of compost post-movement and a subsequent attempt to separate one’s being from the memory of what they have just done. The biggest suggestions prised from conversations with fellow Fallers was that there should be more hot showers and a freemium option for toilets.
The opening act on the Tuesday – the first day proper of the festival – on the primary Valley Stage was local Triple J Unearthed winners Violet Swells, who unfortunately had to compete with violent swells of rain, as did the excellent Kim Churchill, who competed manfully with the wind and rain to belt out his radio hits Window To The Sky and Single Spark, among other melodies. Just as it looked like Londoners Wolf Alice would be playing in familiar conditions, the rain cleared and the sun came out, bathing the dancefloor area in gold for a fantastic set by this very hip band. I had seen Wolf Alice in October at an underground venue by the Thames and was very impressed by their raw energy, especially that of the tomboyish lead singer Ellie Rowsell, who amusingly explained that current single Moaning Lisa Smile is a song about Lisa Simpson. One gets the feeling Wolf Alice is edging closer and closer to that infectious hook that will deliver them a major chart hit.
Through 2014, German duo Milky Chance were without doubt the oddest and most surprising act to achieve mainstream success. Armed with only an acoustic guitar and some outstanding production values, frontman Clemens Rehbein and DJ Philipp Dausch have created some toe-tapping beats, sexed up with some low-fi electronica and then complemented with English lyrics that are mostly gibberish to deliver the breakthrough LP Sadneccessary, which includes the Australian #2 hit Stolen Dance. There’s no doubt Milky Chance were one of the standout hits at Falls, filling the dancefloor with so many singing-along teens that at one point Rehbein appeared stunned by just how many of the moshers knew all the words to Stunner. So popular was Milky Chance in the smallish rubber-carpeted mosh pit area that complaints of manspreading soon became vociferous, leading to many young ladies propositioning male patrons to shoulder them, resulting in an incredible sea of fans on shoulders screaming “I want you by my side so that I never feel alone again” at each other. It was splendiferous.
Over on the secondary Field Stage, Oxford mathrockers Glass Animals were winning over a lot of new fans with a spirited playing of bongo-drum inspired tunes that somehow seem to embody the colonial spirit of their English forebears. In addition to playing nearly all of Zaba, one of the best albums of 2014, Glass Animals filled out the traditional 45-minute festival set allocation with a cover of Kanye West’s Love Lockdown, beginning a mini-trend of artists performing their past Like A Version renditions live, which would also include Bluejuice playing Lana Del Rey’s Video Games, and Asgeir covering Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box.
The conclusion of Glass Animals’ set set off a feverish stampede up the Field Stage hill, across the ridge, past stalls selling sunglasses, fresh fruit, tie-dyed shirts and left wing ideology, a refreshing downhill run into a small valley before an agonisingly steep climb up to the apex of the Valley Stage; to then plunge forward in a scene not unlike the collapsing of a particularly fierce tsunami, just in time to hear Vance Joy sing the last 75 seconds of Riptide and then, despite being resolutely short of breath, dance along to all of the wonderfully understated Mess Is Mine.
Cold War Kids is a band perfectly constructed for the festival scene. Although hardcore fans will continue to purchase all their LPs – and CWK seems to knock one out every year these days – the band’s string of radio hits make for excellent early evening fodder for the casual Triple J listener that’s either waiting for Spiderbait or can’t be bothered changing stages. It’s a testament to Cold War Kids’ consummate professionalism that it can raise crowds to deep throated choralling and bouncing histrionics with a very self-aware setlist of its most well-known numbers, including Hang Me Up To Dry and a cracking finale of Hospital Beds.
Bluejuice offered up a typically vigorous concert of hits for their last ever Tasmanian gig. The Temper Trap seemed to be going through the motions a bit, though Sweet Disposition is a time-proven festival favourite.
Unlike most bands with four or more members, alt-J does not make drummer Thom Green hide behind the guitarists at the back of the stage. The four members place themselves across the front of the stage: (left to right from the crowd’s perspective) Gus Unger-Hamilton on keys, Joe Newman on guitar, Gwil Sainsbury on bass and Green. Blue-green lights in a strobe effect to accompany the rising stars of indie’s very distinctive brand of high concept musicianship. Listening to the Leeds quartet play hit after hit from their two albums, An Awesome Wave and This Is All Yours, it’s hard to think of any other extant band with such a unique sense of purpose as alt-J. From Tessellate to Every Other Freckle to Left Hand Free and the inevitable Breezeblocks swansong, alt-J was outstanding. The group is touring Australia again in May 2015: attendance is strongly encouraged.
The Presets did an amiable job following on from alt-J though these Australian dance icons are in desperate need of a fresh hit. Todd Terje rounded out the night and he maintained a sanguine energy right through until the 2:40am close.
After a solid 13-plus hours of partying, a nice greasy breakfast is a panacea for all sore heads, throats and joints. The bacon and egg rolls were impossibly scrumptious and the espressos were magnificent. There is a total fire ban for Falls at Marion Bay so there isn’t the tent cooking culture that you find at other multiday festivals. Food options included the beloved milkbar fare, premium hamburgers and pizzas, Mexican, chips-on-a-stick, chips-in-a-cone, fish and chips and potato chips. All of its was horrendously overpriced. If you’re like me and have a strict one Dagwood Dog per calendar year policy, then save it up for Falls as these were on sale everywhere. The show straddling the changing of the years means you can enjoy guilt-free Dagwood Dogs on consecutive days.
To New Year’s Eve! Falls operates a token currency for alcohol purchasing. Each token costs $2.50, with (full strength) beer and wine worth 3 tokens and pre-mixed spirit drinks 4 tokens. Red Bulls and vodka were originally priced at $12 but the organisers soon realised that you can’t tender that amount with $2.50 tokens, so it was raised to $12.50. You drink everywhere (unlike Soundwave, which has drinking cages set away from stages) but smoking was permitted only in designated areas, both in close proximity and view to the main stages. Much to the chagrin of some festival goers, there was absolutely no way to purchase cigarettes inside the festival, although the general store did sell filters, papers, lighters and ashtrays.
Melbourne indie up-and-comer Jim Lawrie had the breakfast shift on 31 December, followed by Brisbane electronica darling The Kite String Tangle, and then Icelandic superstar Asgeir, who sounded like a soporific version of Bon Iver.
While Dan Sultan played in front of a huge crowd on the main stage, DMAs played in front of a smallish audience on the secondary stage. There is a point in artistic endeavour when paying homage to a major influence transcends mere allusions and nears a state of hagiographic plagiarism. Poison did it to Guns ‘N’ Roses, Coldplay to U2, Oasis to The Beatles and now DMAs, both in style and in substance to Oasis. Lead by frontman Tommy O’Dell, who remains static at his microphone throughout the performance, save for the occasional rattle of his Liamesque tambourine, DMAs produces the most beautiful, emotive songs – the classic verse/chorus/verse/bridge/chorus arrangement. O’Dell is supported by the charismatic guitarist Matt Mason, who wears a garish 90s-style Camel-branded yellow fitness jacket, and the more subdued bassist Johnny Took. DMAs sounds like a band that spent so much time listening to Oasis during the band’s Definitely Maybe/Morning Glory vintage that the sounds actually transcended into their very being. Radio earworm Delete is a passionate reflection on a collapsing relationship; Laced has a nasally Wonderwall quality to it that just makes you want to hit replay; and So We Know, the band’s standout track so far, is breathtaking in its simplicity. Towards the end of DMAs’ set, Mason takes off his yellow jacket to showoff his inked torso, while smoking a cigarette from an Adidas bumbag he wears inverted. A supercilious affectation, yes, but when you’ve just stolen the whole festival with a cracking display of bravado, commensurate to the quality of your musical output, you have a right to enjoy yourself.
Sticky Fingers was next – the scene of the aforementioned four-man stand – and while these good time guys have wowed fans with a series of catchy riffs through 2014, the band sounds too distorted live. The Falls volunteers did a splendid job keeping everyone lubricated with free sunscreen, lest we become rubricated, and I’m prepared to forgive the Fingers a somewhat lacklustre performance since they were playing in the most intense heat of the festival.
Julian Casablancas didn’t so much bring his Voidz to Falls but actually create a void by withdrawing from the tour for personal reasons. Cloud Control was a last minute replacement and these Blue Mountainers did a manful job filling in. Michael Cera look-alike and baby-faced boy with a voice to die for, George Ezra, was the most mainstream name on the Falls ticket – I’m not certain Triple J has ever played his chart-friendly pop ballads – but he certainly was popular, providing an eerie crepuscular rendition of Budapest to warm the crowd’s vocals.
The soundtrack to New Year’s night was provided by John Butler Trio, La Roux and Empire Of The Sun. The JBT was in fine form, strumming out a 10-minute version of Ocean, along with many of its popular classics. La Roux was typically impressive; lead singer Elly Jackson performed in a Parisian nightsuit and while all their songs sound the same, fans of New Romantics inspired synthpop tend to forgive the facsimile nature of this output.
Finally it was time for Empire Of The Sun to ring in 2015. A true performance rather than simply a set, bandmates Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore appeared in elaborate costumes that seem to muddle imperial Japan, Native Americans and wide-eyed futurism. There is something very special about embarking on a new calendar to the lyric, ‘Don’t know what you’re doing but you make me feel so alive’ and so it was that this replaced Auld Lang Syne as the leitmotif for all our resolutions: to quit smoking, lose weight, get a better job, be more present in conversations and to definitely do Falls all again in 12 months time.