Festival Review: River Sessions – Mackay Showgrounds (29.06.14)

When I first heard of River Sessions a couple of months ago, I was positive it must have been a new festival. Even in the regional festival circuits I feel I have a pretty good idea of what’s happening around the country. But lo and behold, River Sessions has not only been running since 2008, but has become one of the most successful regional festivals in the country, attracting thousands of punters every year, drawn by an impressive array of local and international talent. Well, humbled as I was by this news, I knew I had to make my way north to the QLD town to find out what all the fuss was about for myself.

The three stage event was well underway when I arrived just before 1pm. Sydney’s Papa vs Pretty were giving the crowd one hell of a show, with their acclaimed new album White Deer Park taking focus. “Whatever Works” was a favourite from the record (though lead vocalist Thomas Rawle claimed it was called “Jump Up and Down” to entice the crowd to do the same), while things ended with the wonderfully epic album closer “Dementia Praecox”. A perfect way to finish out the set.

Melbourne producer Jan Skubiszewski’s collaborative project Way of the Eagle took the stage over on the 4eva Young Stage (essentially the dance room) next, though like all sets we’d see there that day, it was just a DJ set. With Dan Sultan around we were hoping to see the man himself emerge for “Rattlesnake”, though it was not to be. Still, Jan had the crowd moving and gave us plenty of his better known material.

Moving back to the festival’s main stage, the reggae infused beats of Newtown heroes Sticky Fingers had crowds moving early, with tracks like “Headlock”, while “These Girls” had the crowd cheering, showing off Dylan Frost’s impressive vocals. Their high energy set (no surprises there) hit a climax with the excellent “Gold Snafu”, which saw the crowd throw their arms in the air, waving them around like they just didn’t care, while the band dedicated the popular tune to the “late, great Bobby Womack. One of the best.” We couldn’t agree more – the news of his passing had taken us all by surprise earlier that morning.

Following stellar turns from Horrorshow and Thundamentals, during which the festival started filling up as the locals moved on from their pre-drinks in the hot sun (what beautiful weather we were gifted!), Dan Sultan (pictured) was the Man in Black as the temperature finally started going down. The set focused on tracks off his latest record Blackbird, with “Under Your Skin” getting an early listen and recent single “Kimberley Calling” proving a crowd favourite. An excellent guitarist and singer – not to mention a superb showman – a Sultan set has it all, and this festival turn was no exception. The energy was high throughout, though tracks like “Old Fitzroy” off Get Out While You Can slowed things down, ensuring an eclectic set from one of Australia’s finest talents.

Back under the scaffolding of the dance stage, triple j’s Lewi McKirdy mixed together dance and hip hop to keep the crowd moving. Anyone who plays “Forgot About Dre” is a winner in my books. Meanwhile “Stage 3”, which often was overpowered by the loud bass emerging from the dance room nearby, had no problems when local metal group Saints Alight took to the stage, their high energy music ensuring a crazy circle pit was moving as the lead singer roared.

Megan Washington was next on the main stage, helping introduce audiences to her upcoming record – out 12th September – while throwing in a few older favourites and her celebrated Future Islands cover “Seasons (Waiting On You)”. “Marry Me”, a song about Washo getting engaged an un-engaged seems to point the record in quite the personal direction, as does “Begin Again” with its festival friendly dance beat behind it. Performing with a four piece, it was an enjoyable set, though one difficult to engage with at a festival due to its newer material. Testament to her talent however, the crowd stayed put from start to finish and gave the singer a world of support. We can’t wait for the new record.

Meanwhile, those who did want a dance were enjoying suited up duo Indian Summer ripping things up on the 4eva Young Stage. They dropped their high energy beats as they kicked balls into the crowd and kept the party atmosphere flowing. Speaking of, it was time for Art vs Science up next – a perfect festival act if there ever was one.

Recent track “Create/Destroy” opened things up, off their EP of the same name. They played the majority of that release, alongside favourites like “A.I.M Fire!”, “Magic Fountain” and, of course, “Parlez Vous Francais?”, which saw the crowd – in no uncertain terms – lose their shit. They also snuck in two songs being performed for the first time. One of which was self-described as “Daft Punk meets Beach Boys”, and felt more like what we’d come to know from the band’s earlier material than off their latest EP.

Rising EDM star out of Sydney, Hayden James, was next on the dance stage, with the popular “Permission to Love” being a natural stand out of the set. James exists in a Future Classic world occupied by the likes of Flume and Chet Faker – that down tempo, groove filled, electronica that is all the rage – and he certainly sits comfortably amongst them.

One of the most anticipated sets followed, with Rüfüs performing after Art vs Science in a position that shows just how popular the Sydney-based trio have become in the last year. It just so happened that this set brought their massive, sold out tour to an end with an energetic set, featuring tonnes of wood blocks and the biggest crowd of the day. “Tonight” had a huge response, as did “Take Me” – which has become well known for its Qantas sync. Though they didn’t bring the full show with them to Mackay, such as the impressive lighting set piece that the tour has been praised for, their high energy and great light show more than did its part in making it the stand out performance of the day.

Closing out the festival’s main stage were the rather contrasting acts of Aussie hip hop superstar Illy (who also played the event last year) and Queensland’s hardcore success story The Amity Affliction. With Illy delivering tracks like “On and On” and Amity pumping out plenty of their own fan favourites, both impressed the crowd who at the end of the night seemed to be up for just about anything.

And it does have to be said that the crowd was a solid one at the 2014 River Sessions. Though I don’t believe it was a sell out as it was last year when Bliss n Eso headlined a massive bill with Grinspoon, Boy & Bear, Karnivool and an as yet relatively unknown Lorde, the massive audience in Mackay proved that there is a vibrant community of music fans in the area, ready for a dance, a mosh and a great day out. River Sessions served to tick the box in all categories, with perfect weather to boot. Queensland didn’t seem to get the memo about Winter… if only New South Wales could follow suit!

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.