There was a great deal of scrutiny in the lead up to the 20th anniversary of the Big Day Out with regards to the festivals relevance. Poor ticket sales and the announcement of the last ever Auckland leg, sans headliner Kanye West, did nothing to help the ailing publicity.
So how did it all stack up in the wash? Well as most agree, the BDO is far and away the most ‘mainstream’ festival on the circuit, with smaller competitors such as Laneway and Meredith, as well as Splendour in the Grass, cornering the ‘hipster’, cool kid market. BDO’s reputation as a scorching display of bogan national pride was not diminished by the flagging numbers. 20k short of capacity, the Gold Coast Parklands started out as hot and dusty as ever, however, unlike in previous years, the smaller numbers made it much easier to get from stage to stage.
First up for me was Frenzal Rhomb, a long time staple of the festival. The boys pumped through their hits, many of which were about the people making up the majority of the crowd – middle-class, white, suburban males. Looking down on the violent circle pit, you could see Jay Whalley was more than a bit disgusted with his “fans”.
Next up were Boy and Bear and judging from the pitch of the screaming when they made their way on stage, the crowd was around 80% female. It was a good timetabling decision to put some folk on at this point as the crowd was getting well liquored up on over priced mid-strength and any more hardcore may have incited violence. The Crowded House cover ‘Fall at Your Feet’ was a sure crowd favourite as a mass of girls in denim underwear and bikini tops clambered their way onto the shoulders of the nearest shirtless male.
After getting incredibly lost for a while, I managed to locate the ‘Hot Produce’ stage which was tucked in a forgotten corner of the festival. King Cannons had already begun when I finally found them but boy they were good. There is a very liberal dose of The Clash in their sound and the anthemic tracks were well received by the small crowd.
Despite her incredible success throughout 2011, Kimbra was overlooked for the mainstage, however the crowd at the Converse tent was predictably strong. Almost as well known for her crazy outfits as she is for her music, Kimbra stepped out in a wild tutu-like number that suited her showbiz persona to a tee. It was hard to tell which of her tracks were the singles and which weren’t as her fans sung every word of her set loud and proud.
The stand out set of the day was next up. The Living End has always been a fantastic festival act, however for this set they gave the people something extra special. As the set progressed the heat of the day began to finally back off, and a mass of rolling bruised clouds blacked out the sun during ‘State of Emergency’. This added so much to the drama of 360’s cameo free-style in the middle of the track, which abruptly ended when he launched himself into the crowd and wasn’t seen again. After this stunt, a cake was brought on stage and Chris Cheney asked the crowd to sing Happy Birthday to the BDO. In honour of the festivals 20th year, the band then launched into Nirvana’s ‘Breed’, which was epic! The grunge fans in the crowd had a lot to cheer about and the set rounded off with ‘West End Riot’.
Now it was time to brace ourselves for a long haul in the D-barrier with Kasabian, Soundgarden and Kanye West all playing back to back on the two main stages. As Kasabian began their onslaught of savage hits, the clouds finally stopped threatening and really opened up. With no choice but to embrace it, the crowd were still really vocal throughout the set, even responding to the bands requests to sit down in the middle of ‘Fire’. It was my first Kasabian experience and I can’t wait for next time.
After many years out of the spotlight, I was interested to see what the crowd’s response would be to Soundgarden. The heavy rain began again during ‘Spoonman’ and there was something so grunge about jumping around with complete abandon in the driving rain. However, there was a clear division in the audience between the Soundgarden fans and the crew who were just there to get a good spot for Kanye, but the band didn’t let this (or the audible Kanye soundchecks) deter them for putting on a great set. Cornell mentioned the upcoming release of a new Soundgarden album and encouraged the crowd to steal it online when it comes out.
With around 80% of the entire crowd now focused on the Orange Stage, the wait began for Kanye West. Roadies and stage managers ran left and right clearly flustered by something and the crowd quickly grew tired of waiting, chanting ‘bullshit’ and throwing anything they could get their hands on at the stage. After a 45minute wait, the stage manager grabbed a mic and explained that West’s equipment had ‘been fucked up’ in the rain and they were doing all they could to get him on stage. When the lights finally went down it was 9:15 and much of the crowd had left to find shelter and entertainment in one of the tents.
But he did start and what a start it was. Within seconds, all was forgotten as a team of dancers swarmed the stage and we all spun around to see Kanye 20metres in the air in a scissor lift singing ‘Dark Fantasy’. Once he made his way to the stage he launched into ‘Power’ and the remaining crowd were rewarded or their patience. Apologising for the late start in the middle of ‘Monster’, Kanye was clearly enjoying himself and the crowd responded in kind. The unavoidable delay did mean that in order to get the last train back to Brisbane I was walking out of the festival during ‘Gold Digger’ though and this was really disappointing.
As to the relevance of the Big Day Out to today's audiences, I would say that so long as there are patriotic bogans in this country the Big Day Out will always have a large audience, and maybe we should view the diminishing crowd numbers optimistically as a sign that Australia is finally growing up.