Harvest Festival delivers yet again

Harvest 2012 had a lot to live up to. The 2011 festival was the best single-day festival I’ve ever been to, despite the organisational flaws. Flaming Lips, The National, TV on the Radio and several others played sets to ensure it would be a day to remember. The 2012 event fixed the flaws, overstocking food, alcohol and toilets, and whilst I preferred the 2011 line-up it was still a terrific day of music.

I made it just in time to see the hyper-indie Los Campesinos!, who played to a small crowd of a couple hundred on the main stage. Four albums and six years into their career they are one of the best indie bands going around and were terrific. Lead singer/emoter Gareth threw everything into it, belting out his vocals at full strength (even coming into the crowd during electric closer “Sweet Dreams Sweet Cheeks”. The entire set was great fun and hugely energetic but it was “You! Me! Dancing!” which most enlivened the crowd, setting off the first of many indie dancing showcases throughout the day. One of the best ways to win over a festival crowd when you’re largely unknown is to be affable, and Gareth’s charming banter allowed for that. He also offered the chance to meet the band just right of stage after the show, whereupon I had a lovely chat with Kim, who plays keyboards and sings.

Los Campesinos!

From there I saw snippets of sets by The Dandy Warhols, Silversun Pickups and Cake. Dandy Warhols’ Zia McCabe provided a highlight when she stepped away from the keyboards and played a rocking bass line in a particularly badass fashion. Singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor mumbled his way through the set, seeming a little disconnected. Silversun Pickups were serviceable but not to my taste, while a pseudo-political rant from Cake singer John McCrea turned me off so much that I left five minutes in.

Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane was the second big, but unexpected, highlight of the day. I only know one Faith No More song, “Epic”, which I cannot fucking stand, but the promise of “something different” convinced me to check out Mondo Cane, and what an inspired decision that proved to be. It’s a little hard to describe exactly what Mondo Cane is, but I’d say it’s mostly experimental orchestra set to Italian lyrics, sung expertly by Patton, mixed with death growls, unintelligible babble, spitting, and an almost comic array of musicians and back-up singers.

Beirut’s set didn’t have me racing out to get their albums, but in the slowly dying sun – I got my first bit of shade for the day under the shadow of the main stage during their set – and with a few beers under my belt, their blend of indie folk and world music seemed perfect. Ben Folds Five were the must-see act for many Harvesters, and the 20 or so minutes I saw of their set was fun, loose and entertaining. They appear to be one of those bands with a special connection to their fans, each of the songs performed with a knowing wink between band and audience.

Beck strolled out to the biggest crowd of the day so far and got stuck straight into it, playing two of his biggest hits, “Devil’s Haircut” and “Loser” early in the set. One of Beck’s strengths is his musical range, with the set ranging from funk to quasi-hip-hop to solemn acoustic throughout his 75 minutes. He regaled the crowd with a story of seeing “something shimmering” in the distance during a trip to the Werribee Zoo. It turned out to be an “80s guitar solo”, which he then played, before stopping, wanting to “leave some for Sigur Rós”. He tried closing out the set with “E-Pro” but was cut off, and walked off stage visibly annoyed. An entertaining set, though the complete lack of material from Midnite Vultures was a shame. One audience member screamed out for “Debra” to an enthusiastic response from those who heard him, but it was never played.

Then came the headliner. “Epic” is one of the most overused words when it comes to describing live music, probably second only to “amazing”, but if you’re talking about Sigur Rós, there really isn’t any other word that feels as apt.

Up until about a month ago, I’d never listened to anything by Sigur Rós, most probably because I didn’t know how to pronounce their name, and didn’t want to go around saying “yeah, I’m a huge fan of Sugar Ross”. But I remedied that by listening to Takk…, the band’s fourth album. And whilst I immediately fell in love with tracks like “Glósóli”, for some unknown reason I didn’t delve any further.

Leaving the Windmill Stage about 25 minutes into Grizzly Bear’s set – I’m a fan but they were boring me a little and the sound was weak – I raced over to the main stage to try and get a good spot for Sigur Rós. Thankfully 8:30pm had brought many punters to the ground, tired after hours of standing in some rather unexpected heat. And so in the beautiful, lush surrounds of Werribee Park, just 10 minutes from my house, I settled in left of stage, about 30 metres back, watching the Icelandic post-rock legends do their thing.

The band took to the stage in darkness and played “Glósóli” second, sending shivers down my spine. I recognised three other songs from Takk…, and though I didn’t know them by name – nor could I understand lead singer Jónsi – it couldn’t have mattered less. The band’s 90-minute set was captivating, and at times it felt majestic. Everything combined to make it one of the most special festival sets I’ve ever seen – the uniforms the band wore, the small light globes arranged on the stage that lit up intermittently, the power from the row of back-up singers and brass players, the masterful drumming that directed the songs, and of course Jónsi’s ethereal, other-worldly voice.

And the setting. This is why, after just two years, Harvest has to be considered one of the best festivals in the country. Seeing a band like Sigur Rós – a band one would think would be much more suited to an intimate indoor venue – perform in front of thousands, with the imposing Werribee Mansion behind the stage and a swathe of green trees all around, is one of those experiences not soon to be forgotten.

I also caught some of Santigold’s set briefly, and she was tearing up the Windmill Stage with an energetic mix of hip-hop and maniacal dancing. But wanting to beat some of the traffic on the one-way road out of Werribee South I left with 15 minutes to go in her set.

All in all, an outstanding day. Harvest is certainly unique, and a lot of credit must go to AJ Maddah and the crew for organising a festival with such a great vibe. There was not a single dickhead in sight, great music, easy access to food, drink, toilets (and sunscreen!) and no security racing around trying to sniff out who had the weed.

Bring on 2013.

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