On arrival at the Harvest Festival, certain gig goers will find their surroundings oddly familar. About one hour from a major city you park your car in a field and wander through pathways into the manor house grounds as the summer sun dapples through the ribbon strewn trees. On the way you pass art installations to enlighten your path as performance artists vie for your attention in the field. The main stage is in front of the house, while other gig tents are spread around the spacious field along with a comedy tent and DJs knock out tunes from within the cover of a shady spot. It’s Stradbally Estate, right? Not this time, as the Aussies have taken our finest festival as a model, transported it to the southern hemisphere and in this case relocated it to Werribee Park south west of Melbourne.
The only real difference between the Electric Picnic and the Harvest Festival is that here the gig is a one day affair which travels to three different sites over two weekends. This format brings pros and cons. On the down side you obviously don’t get the depth of line up, while on the positive you can go for it full tilt happy in the knowledge that you won’t be getting all tired and emotional by the time the Sunday evening comes around.
Thus, State throws itself into proceedings. If you’re a music lover who likes their grooves flavoured with psychotropic substances then The Black Angels are right your street. They are like the bastard offspring of BRMC and Spacemen 3 with vocalist Alex channelling the spirit of Jim Morrison. This gang are about as deeply influenced by the mid-late ’60s as it’s humanly possible to be, named after a Velvets track and sporting a shot of Nico as their logo. They even have bass player Rishi knocking out tunes on the sitar for goodness sake, whilst Christine invokes Mo Tucker by beating her tom toms like they’re an errant boyfriend. We can’t claim much prior knowledge of the band but they played a blinder and obviously have a small perfectly formed fan club around these parts, judging by the amount of singing along and tranced out dancing going down.
Next up it’s a bit of a polite battle between Beirut and Ben Folds Five. The former have the edge with their Mariachi type brass embellishments perfectly suiting the early evening sun on the main stage while Folds & co are received politely, playing new material which seems to be leave the crowd faintly underwhelmed before launching into ‘Erase Me’ and ‘Underground’ to appease the masses.
Beck has a healthy and expectant crowd awaiting his first Melbourne performance for 10 years but, while second song ‘Devil’s Haircut’ suggests that we are going to be in for a festival friendly greatest hits set alas the momentum slips a little until he gives us a rapturously received ‘Loser’, which shakes the lethargy from the audience. However the next segment brings acoustic guitars and the momentum to a juddering halt as ‘Black Tambourine’, ‘Que Ondo Guero’, ‘Think I’m In Love’, ‘Modern Guilt’, ‘Girl’ and ‘Lost Cause’ are ignored to such a degree that we have to move forward to escape the bored chatter of the festival goers around us. Thankfully he ends in fine style with boisterous versions of ‘Where It’s At’ and ‘E Pro’ but this is not a masterclass in performance on this scale.
Headliners Sigur Ros, ably supplemented by Amiina as usual, start off with a brutally coruscating version of ‘I Gaer’, Jonsi hunched over his guitar whilst savagely bowing against a stark backdrop of black and white images of snow and trees. With the stage barely lit at all save a few sparse lights the band cut a silhouetted image as guitars, cymbals and even a glockenspiel are thrashed within an inch of their lives.
Songs are culled from all parts of their back catalogue, although only ‘Varud’ makes it on from latest offering Valtari. As the first strains ‘Hoppipolla’ come forth a young couple in front of us embrace as she gently dabs away tears of joy from her face, meanwhile beside us what we can only describe as three fellas closely resembling the Tongan front row stand with arms around each others shoulders belting out their version of the lyrics at the height of their voices. Something about Sigur Ros connects with the listener on an emotional level and the lack of understandable lyrical content makes no difference. A thing of beauty indeed.
So off we trail into the Melbourne night in search of the free (yes, please note Irish festival organisers, free) buses back to town and looked forward to next year’s version of the picnic down under.