AU ABROAD

Festival Review: The Falls Music and Arts Festival, Day Three - Marion Bay, Tasmania (31.12.13)

New Years Eve is a time for celebration and, unless you’re headed to some exotic overseas location, there are few better ways to celebrate than with your closest friends, 12 000 neighbours and some of the biggest artists the world over. True, The Wombats may have missed the official countdown in Marion Bay, but then there’s nothing like a bit of confusion and chaos to kick off the new year with a bang.

First act of the day to hit the Valley stage was Sydney multi-instrumentalist Oliver Tank. Tank takes the term ‘solo artist’ to a whole new level using only a small deck to record various instrumental loops live on stage and then adding vocals and guitar solos to finish his ‘band’. Meanwhile, Tasmania’s The Middle Names woke up the Field Stage, using the set to play material from their relatively new album, including crowd favourite, "Full Friends". Violent Soho followed up this set with a marked change of pace and a whole lot of crowd surfing. The Brisbane band were loud, fast and lively with plenty appeal to the hard-rocking early crowd that had turned up to see them. The noise was so intense that the bass could be vaguely heard from the Valley Stage, where the next act had begun.

It was fairly obvious that no one really knew who Hanni El Khatib was – he had an incredibly small crowd and there didn’t appear to be anyone singing along. Even more obvious than this was that a) Khatib took the whole thing in his stride, just happy to be on the stage, and; b) everyone absent seriously missed out. In the last few years, the L.A-based artist has played SXSW, Bonaroo, supported Florence and the Machine and recently was invited to play on The Late Show With David Letterman. Khatib seemed to be channelling a hint of Joe Strummer, with a dash of Jack White and some west coast R&B for good measure.

Tassie’s most recent claim to musical fame, Hobart-based Triple J Unearthed High winner Asta drew a comparatively large crowd that was really only surpassed in size much later in the day by Chet Faker. Having only recently put together a band to accompany her live performances, for many fans it was their first opportunity to experience her live show to its fullest potential. Dressed in an exuberantly swishy outfit, Asta belted out crowd favourites like "My Heart Is On Fire" and "Escape" with a vocal maturity well beyond her teenage years.

The John Steel Singers well and truly brought Summer to the festival with a fun set filled with tropical jangly guitar solos and happy-go-lucky vocal harmonies. The band didn’t quite reach the heights of Hungry Kids of Hungary (replaced after their sudden break-up announcement), but entertained the small crowd gathered before them nonetheless. With an album less than six months old, it was clear the band were itching to get into their new material smashing out a string of tracks from the album including "Common Thread", "Happy Before", "Everything’s A Thread" and "MJ’s On Fire Again". It wasn’t until they played "Overpass" that more punters appeared to join in with some particularly outstanding over-the-top dancing.

The hype around Perth’s psychedelic-rockers Pond appears to have them largely on track for a career that may one day rival that of closely associated act, Tame Impala. No longer some kind of derivative ‘younger cousin’ to the latter, Pond have well and truly taken 2013 head on and emerged as a band in their own right. This transition may be linked with front man Nick Allbrook’s decision to depart Tame in favour of Pond but either way the guys were absolutely on fire. They took the warm and lazy afternoon up about ten notches, both in volume and pure, unbridled energy. Allbrook belted out "Xanman", while the committed fans standing in front of the stage went completely mental. The noise prompted many of the more mellow punters to retreat back up the hill however for every person shrinking away from the all out psychedelic fuzz about half a dozen more migrated down to join in the front. By the time they played "Giant Tortoise", punters were basically running at the stage.

Crystal Fighters were larger than life, although didn’t appear to quite know whether they were coming or going. They managed to get most of the crowd up and dancing, but didn’t have any substantially lasting impact. After a bit of an awkward wait, they managed to coerce Pond to re-join them on the stage temporarily for a “jam”, although if the desired effect was to hype up the crowd it was never really achieved. Recovering from the bizarre situation, Crystal Fighters powered on with hit single "Love Is All I Got" and finished the set on a high.

The annual Falls Fiesta takes place in the last of the bright daylight on New Years Eve and involves many visual artists, performers and creative and/or theatrically minded punters. The fiesta is a celebration of the year’s end and this time was centred on the theme of 'love'. As always the costumes and puppets were colourful and larger than life encompassing a broad interpretation of the theme. The procession made its way from The Village across the festival site and down the hill to the Valley Stage entertaining punters while the stage was set up for the next band.

The sun was just beginning to sink below the distant hills surrounding the Valley Stage when US indie act Grizzly Bear began their set. A string of jellyfish-like lanterns created an impressive backdrop as they flashed eerily in the background, although the effect would have been even better if it had been a little darker. In a disturbing trend that yesterday’s Johnny Marr and Violent Femmes crowds had alluded to, many of the punters at the festival seemed disinterested in any music that didn’t enable head-bopping or jumping up and down, a category that Grizzly Bear certainly fall outside of. The small crowd did not do the set justice, although whether genre was really a factor here is unclear, as reports from the Field Stage where electro-sensation Rüfüs were simultaneously playing suggested that the turnout was not particularly strong there either.

Grizzly Bear’s Chris Bear is a phenomenal live drummer and he really added to the set in a way that doesn’t quite translate on their records. Similarly the band’s collective vocal abilities were on full display with tight harmonies and impeccable interchanging lead vocalists. "Cheerleader" and "While You Wait For The Others" were standouts from the band’s second album Veckatimest, although the crowd seemed more acquainted with tracks like "Sleeping Ute" and "Yet Again" from their latest record, Shields. As the familiar keyboard intro to "Two Weeks" started, the standing crowd swelled in size as punters came down the hill to sing along to the band’s most popular song. Sadly, Grizzly Bear’s earliest indie-hit "Knife" was omitted from the set, which made for a deflated ending with the set petering out, lacking any kind of ‘finale’.

Meanwhile aforementioned Australian electronic act, Rüfüs blazed through their closing set on the Field Stage in their usual energetic style. Opening with "Modest Life", front man Tyrone Lindqvist led the crowd through what became 50 minutes of frenetic dancing and other on stage antics. The arrival of Tassie songstress Asta to sing on stage with the guys only added to the set’s vitality and the crowd slowly grew in size. The band threw all that they had into the final song, "Desert Night" and the punters rose to the occasion with crowd surfers and girls waving about on shoulders a plenty.

Australia habitually semi-adopts anything good that comes from New Zealand, a pastime that is particularly true of the Finns and their various chart-topping exploits. When Neil Finn walked onto the stage he was greeted by a wave of noise that had barely subsided before he began to play "History Never Repeats", marking the beginning of an hour long sing-a-long. With a band that included his wife, Sharon and son, Liam, Finn was entertaining to the last. His set included Split Enz and Crowded House favourites including, "I Got You", "Fall At Your Feet" and "Don’t Dream It’s Over". Closing with "Better Be Home Soon", Finn attempted the ‘make the crowd sing every second line’ method with rather mixed results, as punters were particularly awful at keeping time.

MGMT are perpetually criticised in reviews for supposedly being a boring live act, with words like ‘pretentious’ and ‘conceited’ liberally thrown about by unforgiving music journalists. Quite frankly, this ‘fashionable’ opinion of the band rarely stacks up with the views of punters and fans and it is with this in mind that I have no qualms in calling their set one of the best of the festival. When you write great music the necessity for call and response type stage banter, overzealous guitar scissor kicks or other similar antics are really quite minimal. First and foremostly, the punters wanted to hear the hits from Oracular Spectacular, a desire MGMT more than catered for with "Time To Pretend", "The Youth", "Electric Feel" and the seminal pop song of 2007 "Kids" all part of the set. Fans of the band were also treated to a selection from Congratulations and singles such as set opener, "Alien Days" and then later on, "Your Life Is A Lie", from the band’s latest self titled album. During the latter song two lucky punters (winners of a costume competition the night before) were ushered on stage to play the cowbell with the band.

Set closer "Kids" ultimately became the last live song of 2013 for punters as the sliding schedule did cause MGMT to run over time. No one seemed to particularly mind however, as toward the end of the song the stage was invaded by members of Pond (with the surprising addition of Tame Impala’s frontman Kevin Parker) and someone in a Gumby suit for a psychedelic jam session before a final chorus that could probably have been heard from Hobart. Marion Bay may not have had The Wombats to do the countdown, but they certainly sent out 2013 with a bang.

Historically the New Years Eve countdown at Falls inevitably encounters some kind of problem; past years have seen the headline act losing track of time, equipment failure, inability to find the champagne or failing to get on stage altogether. 2013/14 became a year of the latter, be it the overtime set from MGMT or the unusual scheduling decision to start the headline act at midnight (previously the band has been scheduled for around 11:45pm allowing them to play a few songs and then pause for the countdown), The Wombats were nowhere to be seen as the final seconds of 2013 slipped away. The moment wasn’t completely without celebration as an unidentified woman appeared on the stage with the microphone to lead the crowd in the last ten seconds of the countdown. All the usual cheering, hugging, kissing and drinking ensued and a mere 15 minutes later everyone’s favourite Liverpudlian marsupials walked out onto the stage. “Happy New Year!” shouted The Wombat’s frontman, Murph before launching into one of the band’s earliest tracks, "Moving To New York".

Love or hate the band, there’s no denying their ability to hype up a crowd and write bulletproof pop songs. As they smash out single after single from old songs like "Kill The Director" and "Party In A Forest", to newer material such as "Techno Fan" and "1996", it also strikes you how personable and engaging they are as individuals. This was perfectly illustrated when Murph’s guitar suffered from technical failure and the guys were left to ‘chat’ to the crowd for a good five minutes while they waited for it to be repaired. They laughed and shared jokes as if talking to only a couple of people rather than 12,000. Once the guitar was mended, they rounded out their set with new single, "Your Body Is A Weapon" and crowd favourites "Tokyo (Vampires and Wolves)" and "Let’s Dance To Joy Division".

!!! (Chk Chk Chk) were the final band on the 2013/14 bill, taking to the stage to perform for a rather depleted crowd as many punters had migrated back to their tents, probably due to exhaustion but it was also incredibly cold by this point. The set was everything an early morning New Year's Day celebration should be; dancing, cheering and more dancing. Newer tracks such as "One Girl/One Boy", "Slyd" and "AM/FM" had punters going particularly wild.

Overall, the eleventh Marion Bay edition of The Falls Festival was a resounding success. Tasmania is so oft forgotten by international and national bands alike when they book their tour dates, it’s important that the state’s music lovers have an opportunity to experience just a fraction of what other major city centres take for granted. I sincerely hope that this year’s low ticket sales are not the precursor for the festival’s end as it is truly one of the most relaxed, diverse, environmentally and family friendly festivals in the world.