Live Review: Falls Festival Sidney Myer Music Bowl 29-31 December |

It has been a precarious time for music festivals in Australia, particularly camping festivals. In 2022, Splendour In The Grass finally returned post-COVID-19, only to be derailed by inclement weather and flooding. The historic Falls Music & Arts Festival, too, has had its setbacks. The last edition at Lorne was cancelled due to bushfire risk in The Otways. Then, Falls was suspended for two years because of the pandemic.

Thwarted in securing a new location in Birregurra for summer, Secret Sounds were determined to promote a one-off urban edition of Falls at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl (“+ surrounds”) – capitalising on the New Year’s Eve fireworks. They faced a significant challenge in recreating the Falls magic at an otherwise familiar (read: humdrum) destination, especially over three days – although the Bowl’s surrounds are more scenic and atmospheric than Melbourne Showgrounds. But organisers succeeded in staging a boutique fest, intriguingly extending the perimeters of the site into parkland, recalling the initial years of St Jerome’s Laneway Festival on the banks of the Maribyrnong River in Footscray. Indeed, while the amphitheatre served as the main stage (‘El Capitan’), the second (‘Sugarloaf’) was positioned in a glade – with primarily DJs. It’s way more environmentally sustainable.

Of course, it helped that Falls 2022 had a curated bill of both international and domestic acts, spanning old favourites and hot newcomers alike – the headliners over the three days being Lil Nas X, Jamie xx and Arctic Monkeys. In later years Falls has booked novelty throwback names, beginning with Daryl Braithwaite in 2017. For 2022’s Falls, the Aussie kids group The OG Wiggles were special guests – the public response proving that pandemic nostalgia isn’t fading.

Day One

Though the first day of Falls was the quietest, it had the most eclectic line-up. Many punters were there for either The Wiggles or Lil Nas X – cowboy costumes ubiquitous.

The Adelaide rapper/singer Elsy Wameyo – widely praised for her 2022 EP Nilotic – was regrettably scheduled too early on the El Capitan stage, at noon. Equally buzz, Yuggera DJ/producer dameeeela leaned into UK garage with her Sugarloaf set. A technical mixer and well-established on the Brisbane/Meanjin circuit, dameeeela’s presence seemed lowkey in contrast to her jumpy and sped-up beats, even as she slipped in Spiller’s recently revived 2000s anthem Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love) with Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

Again surprisingly soon in the day, Rico Nasty was rostered mid-afternoon (she could conceivably have been switched with her pal Aminé mid-evening). The renegade Maryland MC, who premiered here at 2020’s FOMO, was the fest’s first international star. Supported by a DJ-cum-hypeman, the charismatic Rico rocked the arena with her energetic punk trap. She was fun, too, joking with the audience about “breaking character” by smiling when supposed to be “scary”. Fans chanted along to Rico’s rousing STFU off her debut album, Nightmare Vacation.

Led by Anthony Field, The OG Wiggles were as popular as they were silly – the crowd singing (and bopping) along unself-consciously to Hot Potato. Inevitably, the group revisited their infamous cover of Tame Impala’s Elephant (mashed up with Fruit Salad) for Like A Version – which topped 2021’s Hottest 100. The Wiggles were possibly the sole act at Falls with a keytar. Sadly, they weren’t joined by super-fan Lil Nas X.

More cred, Genesis Owusu demonstrated his flair as an entertainer, rivalling a bratty young Prince – only garbed in royal red over purple. The Ghanaian-Australian rapper, singer and musician has been on a roll since airing 2021’s punk-funk debut, Smiling With No Teeth, which won the ARIA for Album Of The Year and the Australian Music Prize. And his repertoire largely drew from that project. While Genesis wasn’t accompanied by his all-star Black Dog Band, he did bring the Goon Squad – their choreography slick AF (during Gold Chains, an emotional apex, they held a sign with the words “Don’t forget to smile”). Still, the unwavering Genesis can hold his own. Plus, he welcomingly included his folk ballad, A Song About Fishing.

The 2022 Falls showcased some of Australia’s key contemporary bands, but Sydney’s DMA’s eclipsed them all. The pandemic meant several billed acts were touring outside album cycles – DMA’s last release, The Glow, in 2020, and the follow-up is expected this year. Yet, even material from 2016’s Hills End was unjaded at Falls. The trio’s Anglomania guitar-pop exquisitely soundtracked twilight, frontman Tommy O’Dell’s voice impressively resonant.

In the interim, Anna Lunoe took to the Sugarloaf platform – the Australian house super-DJ returning to Sydney from her adopted Los Angeles base amid COVID. But it was the Tasmanian Luude, best known for his implausible jungle remix of Men At Work’s Down Under, who throttled the crowd – drum ‘n’ bass notably missing from local (dance) festivals.

There was a 40-minute interval between Aminé and Lil Nas X at El Capitan, but the wait was worthwhile, especially given it was for the Atlantan’s inaugural Australian appearance. Less a rapper than pop phenom, Lil Nas X exhibited the same camp theatricality as his idol, Nicki Minaj. In fact, he presented what could have been a standalone concert inspired by musicals and Disney films, complete with three “acts” – not to mention video, costumes and a dance troupe. Ironically, Lil Nas X admitted to worrying about performing his “first show in months” (actually, since November in Mexico).

Curiously, the gay icon staged 2018’s landmark hit Old Town Road early – out-Orville Pecking Orville Peck by lavishly incorporating Morricone flourishes, a cover of Ginuwine’s Pony, and his other trap-country bop Rodeo. At points, Lil Nas X’s set felt incongruous for a festival (aside from Glastonbury or Coachella), and it had too many dramatic interludes (the lead-up to MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) was OTT), but he delivered a spectacle. Lil Nas X also declared, “I’m excited to bring you some new music soon.”

Day Two

The second day of Falls was humid. Appropriately, while the program boasted rock bands like Beddy Rays, King Stingray and Spacey Jane, sweat-inducing dance and electronic acts dominated.

These days G Flip is a relatable pop star to match Tones And I – and, hitting El Capitan late arvo, the Melburnian readily interacted with the audience. G Flip played Falls in 2019 on the back of their debut, About Us. Despite having no sequel, they kept things fresh – covering The ZutonsValerie, made famous by Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse. 

The Swedish DJ Seinfeld is now a regular visitor to these shores – his profile booming following 2021’s album Mirrors on Ninja Tune. At Falls, he DJed sweltering nu-disco, with a little acid wobble, on the Sugarloaf stage as revellers sought shade under the trees. Seinfeld even dropped a remix of Nelly Furtado‘s All Good Things (Come To An End).

Scotland’s CHVRCHES have long been Australian faves, performing an early Melbourne gig at The Corner Hotel in 2013 – industry tastemakers out in force. Falls represents the trio’s first Antipodean run since the release of their fourth album, Screen Violence, in 2021. CHVRCHES are invariably described as “electro-pop”, but Screen Violence found Iain Cook rediscovering guitar. And the Glaswegians’ set felt rockier. The highlights were new songs: How Not To Drown (minus The Cure’s Robert Smith) and Asking For A Friend. Lauren Mayberry remains a playfully subversive frontwoman, wearing a sparkly gold dress before changing into a white T-shirt with the feminist slogan “I’m a girl” and denim cut-offs.

The South Korean Peggy Gou is a game-changer – emerging as the first Asian female superstar DJ, albeit one firmly committed to championing underground house and techno. Alas, like Siberia’s Nina Kraviz, Gou is a polarising figure in some dance circles. She’s the subject of “business techno” discourse, in which the “heads” monitor DJs for “selling out” – their targets coincidentally often women from non-Western backgrounds. Luckily, Gou pays the haters no heed – and her devotees are legion. As at Piknic Électronik in April, Gou brought her unique dynamic to Falls, prompting chants of “Peggy” from the crowd and pleas for an encore.

Returning to the central arena, Jamie xx brilliantly bewildered those attendees counting on more of a traditional ‘show’ as he transformed Falls into a dark rave. The xx producer was visible as a mere silhouette, with the Bowl’s screens conspicuously blacked-out – his set about the music, smoke machines and lasers. However, the Brit did drop tunes recognisable to xx listeners, such as his remix of On Hold plus the festive solo hits LET’S DO IT AGAIN and, off 2015’s In Colour, I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) featuring Young Thug and Popcann.

Day Three

The third day of Falls attracted the biggest turn-out – and the music sequencing was again mainstream, the focus on bands, Melbourne trip-hoppers Telenova defining the mood.

Issuing their debut album First Contact via RÜFÜS DU SOL’s Rose Avenue Records in late 2020, the Gold Coast’s Lastlings could be the Aussie CHVRCHES – conjuring synthwave that transcends temporality (very Deja Vu). At Falls, vocalist Amy Dowdle lamented how “tough” the pandemic has been for the music industry. The sibling duo performed October’s single Get What You Want as well as a new song – auspicious.

Among the year’s break-out artists, PinkPantheress charmed Falls with her banter – and signature pink handbag, revealing deodorant inside. Blowing up on TikTok, the Brit won the BBC Music Sound Of 2022 poll on the basis of her mixtape to hell with it – and later shared the jam Boy’s a liar. PinkPantheress’ style is redolent of the forgotten night bus genre, as she sings whimsically confessional Zoomer lyrics over UK garage and drum ‘n’ bass beats – typically sampled. PinkPantheress was bolstered by a DJ and energetic hypeman, though she might easily carry the show as a sole vocalist if amplified.

Ocean Alley reclaimed El Capitan as a rock hub. Nevertheless, the Sydneysiders nearly didn’t play – frontman Baden Donegal divulging that their gear didn’t arrive, necessitating they borrow instruments. The triple j staples, who just resurfaced with Low Altitude Living, may not be original but they’re solid live – their output chill. Besides, Ocean Alley’s slot was enhanced by the evening’s first fireworks display.

On the final day of Falls, the Sugarloaf programming obviously came second. Yet Germany’s Ben Böhmer, who belongs to Above & Beyond’s Anjunadeep fold, defied that with his extended live sesh. Melodically transportive and with trippy visuals, Böhmer scaled the heights of Jon Hopkins’ ambitronica while evoking BT’s ’90s epic house and the progressive breaks era. In a rare move for an electronic act, he releases live albums – and his Falls set exemplified the potential demand.

The beloved UK group Arctic Monkeys enjoyed a massive year in 2022, furnishing a critically-acclaimed comeback in The Car. But, after opening with The Car‘s lead single, There’d Better Be A Mirrorball, the Sheffielders’ capacity show at Falls was predominantly a “greatest hits”. The quartet stomped through rock anthems like 2013’s Snap Out Of It and their breakthrough I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor, the audience elevating the choruses. Alex Turner didn’t chat, but his rock posing was on form. The Monkeys halted for the NYE countdown at midnight, and more fireworks, returning to pull off a defacto encore. The band finished abruptly with another track from The Car in Body Paint, leaving the crowd to drift off to UK housers (and fellow Northerners) CamelPhat on the Sugarloaf stage. Still, it was all very arch and theatrical and left everyone craving more – always a feat.

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