Given my too short stay in Australia, it was deemed necessary I check out Melbourne’s festival scene as Canada’s state of affairs has led to attending headlining tours-only. With the geographical isolation of Oz, a rarity of international acts coming through leads to excessive admission charges to make up for visa and travel costs. Next month Welsh band Future of the Left is $47AUS at The Corner. I paid $15CDN in Toronto at ElMo. $10US at Austin’s Beauty Bar in 2009. So dropping $150 for Harvest Festival of more than a handful of desirable bands hooks into my opportunity cost appreciation. And the lineup for this festival was a doozy for overseas acts Down Under.

My prospective schedule for the day:

  • Kevin Devine 12:30 – 1:15PM
  • The Walkmen 3:00 – 4:00PM
  • TV on the Radio 4:00 – 5:00PM
  • Mercury Rev 5:00PM – 5:30PM
  • Death in Vegas 6:15 – 7:00PM
  • The National 7:00 – 7:45PM
  • Mogwai 7:45 – 8:15PM
  • Portishead 8:30 – 9:45PM
  • The Flaming Lips 9:45 – 10:45PM

Actual happenings:

  • The Walkmen 3:40 – 4:00PM
  • TV on the Radio 4:00 – 5:00PM
  • Mercury Rev 5:00PM – 5:20PM
  • stand in line for Brazilian Barbecue 5:20 – 7:00PM
  • The National 7:00 – 7:20PM
  • Mogwai 7:30 – 8:15PM
  • Portishead 8:30 – 10:00PM
  • Holy Fuck 10:00 – 10:30PM

On Friday, the festival’s eve, I ended up at The Brunswick Hotel to watch my new housemate’s band play which transitioned into a rager that snaked into The Retreat by night’s end. Needless to say a hungover morning left my distraught-self dragging ass just to make the 90min trip to festival grounds at Werribee Park, which ended up a spectacular setting for such an event (aside from the manure smell at the secondary Windmill Stage.)

After the train to Werribee station followed by a shuttle bus, I arrived at the gate to The Walkmen’s “The Rat” blaring beyond the trees. Best case? They followed with “Canadian Girl” and closed with an unfamiliar song that I’m assuming was a cover. From my investigation into their Sydney performance the next day, it looks like I missed two or three tracks from their forthcoming album. Disappointing to only catch a snippet (along with midday Kevin Devine whom impressed me opening for Thrice last year) but there were plenty of other tunes to make up for it.

I was moving onto the day’s heart for TV on the Radio at the main Green Lawn stage fronting the Werribee Park mansion. In Toronto terms, they’ve reached the Sound Academy level so I don’t even bother to get tickets when they visit town (as the Phoenix or Lee’s are my venue size limit.) I’ll admit to being initially underwhelmed by Nine Types of Light midtempo selections to open their set which had me aching to see “Wolf Like Me” so I kick off to Mercury Rev. Yes, I became that Play The Single Guy but at least this obnoxious viewpoint wasn’t voiced. However some “Second Song” horns and going old school for “Young Liars” brought me around. And I was completely on board when their reconfigured lineup got away from the programmed arrangement of “Staring at the Sun” for amped up live instrumentation. Throwing in “Repetition” and a “Wolf Like Me” closer were icing on the cake. Overall, I think the wall-of-sound depth from their studio efforts wasn’t as thick as expected live, even though the mix was top-notch (as it would be for every set on the day.)

A quick jaunt back to Windmill Stage for Mercury Rev found them at their most theatrical, with exaggerated gestures and whimsical vocals from lead singer Grasshopper. During daytime with dry ice mist flying past, I admit the drama was a bit awk but this performance was genuine. The tail-end I caught focused on less recent cuts like “The Dark is Rising” and a straight take of Peter Gabriel’s “Salisbury Hill”. Snowflake Midnight‘s “Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower” would be my request but eight minute guitar-less tracks with few vocals don’t tend to make one hour festival timeslots!

Now came the main pain in the arse for festival-goers on the day: I decided to buy food. Taking a survey of all the vendors, I observed significant queues at each. Still in hurt city from the previous night’s drinkathon, I needed heavy grub for my ailing stomach. Brazilian barbecue would do the trick. My state had me avoiding alcohol lines altogether which ended up a blessing as I heard the all-day festival food and beverage people ran out of beer at 5PM. WTF? I also didn’t require bothering with the massive bathroom lineups either. But just over 30 minutes until Death in Vegas at the dance tent’s stage, I thought seeing at least half that performance would be gravy. Wrong, wrong, wrong. After 80 minutes, I was standing in line so long that I began to believe I’d get a sunburn on only one side of my face. (Also, Australian sunblock only goes up to SPF30? You don’t even have an ozone layer down here!) Barely made it to The National as I chowed down on sausage roll and spicy beef. With mustard all over my hands, I got on with it.

On this day, The National simply didn’t do it for me. Having already seen them at Toronto’s Kool Haus a few years back (where shit was definitely lost during “Mr. November”), I knew if my mood didn’t fit their oeuvre on this day, I would be moving on. Even with “Mistaken For Strangers” “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, and “Squalor Victoria” in the early mix, this existential malaise didn’t fit festival vibe leading up to this point. Maybe Matt Berninger’s Ian Curtis baritone just grates me when hungover? Either way, get that cathartic release outta here.

I shortened them for an act I was prepared to pass on simply due to logistics. I’ve witnessed Mogwai twice headline Toronto’s Phoenix where each show ended in washes of ear-splitting feedback but I was told that volume wasn’t even close to their 90s tours that gained notoriety throughout Europe. Without indoor noise restrictions at an open-air festival, I’ve never heard a band aurally blow out in such an over-the-top fashion. The Scottish lads’ quiet-to-loud dynamics became less transitions and more strikes of lightning that caused physiological states rarely confronted. After the quiet bridge of “Mogwai Fear Satan”, I knew a massive crescendo was imminently about to crash but its sudden crack still hit me to the core. Definitely would have been highlight of the day if to wasn’t for their follow-up. I left during closer “Mexican Grand Prix” (along with most of their spectators) to claim a quality vantage point for Portishead at the main stage.

Of course, immediately before the band came on, some stragglers tried to squirm their way into the front only to end up in my space. Luckily they were shorties. I have never seen Portishead live and they not having toured in over a decade, then I missed their October show in Toronto (even if it was Sound Academy, yurgh.) Feeling like I lucked out with them arriving Down Under, they were the main reason I purchased a ticket for this event.

Personally I think Third is their best record with cinematic triphop transforming into clinical psychadelic krautrock, but still exhibiting warmth. Nobody sounds like the present state of Portishead. However the crowd’s reaction made them out to be a nostalgia act with the big applauses held for the opening notes of any song from Dummy. Aside from those obvious (and very well-executed) obligatory singles, the real meat was in the deep cuts. A beatless minimal take on “Wandering Star” was fraught with tension that had spectators enraptured. I thought I was on the verge of an anxiety attack from the stuttering thumping industrial-strength bass shaking my chest throughout “Machine Gun”. One song I vaguely recognized as inspired by The Normal I later relearned was the “Chase the Tear” single released in December 2009. Their encore closed with Third‘s finale “We Carry On” that had singer Beth Gibbons absolutely shredding her howling voice over crashing instruments that led into an extended instrumental with her interacting with the crowd along the barricade. After the nature of a performance that feels merely detached at the best of times, it was a nice love-in to bring the show full circle. It must also be said the lighting and live-edited video screens had the best visual experience I’ve taken in since Tool’s 10,000 Days tour in 2007. LASER-eyed Tony Abbott included.

Left beside myself in the darkness, I felt the day was already done even with one more timeslot remaining. Despite proclamations of The Flaming Lips’ performance nearing euphoric religious experiences, I recognized I’m actually not a massive fan. That and rumblings the transportation situation after 10:45PM may result in no public transport back into the city had me questioning why I’d even bother with the Lips. Given I kept missing Holy Fuck in Toronto (opening for Bloc Party at Kool Haus didn’t count), I decided it was about time to see them in a proper party setting under a tent. And they delivered. Even with a tiny loose-limbed spastic twice nailing me in the junk, the psychadelic funk/dance-your-face-off approach had the Red Tractor Stage going off. And ending at 10:30PM, beating Flaming Lips’ supporters to that shuttle buses was a blessing as I easily got aboard a city-bound train and sat down for the first point all damned day.