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Splendour in the Grass Review - Friday July 29th

The second installation of Splendour In The Grass at Woodfordia marks Australia's largest annual music event's 10th anniversary. For these festival troopers, it's the second end-of-July trip out of town in a row – we were lucky to catch the excitement at the Woodford Folk's site the year before. It has been strongly implied that SITG is going to return to its Byron Bay home at the new Belongil fields, so we decide to absorb as much vibe as we can from the unique surroundings.


Already acclimatised to Woodfordia after setting up camp and wandering around the festival the day before, we make the first of Day 1's many south-to-north walks, dodging hordes of colourful (and less so) punters/munters on the way.


Brief observations: last year's omnipresent hipsters, check shirts and morph suits are largely gone, respectively replaced by dudebros, animal hats and faux-Native American helmets (one could easily start a debate about modern-day moral bankruptcy here); there are more food tents, but the “festival-strength” (ie weak) beer selection is abysmal.

Melbourne's World's End Press may be on too early and their effervescent, pneumatic electro-pop isn't exactly cutting-edge, yet they sound rather great when we pause at the Mix Up, drawing numerous passers-by inside the tent as the minutes tick away.

“Alright, we're going to play you a couple of tunes,” a visibly sleep-deprived Yan from British Sea Power grumbles in his rich Cumbrian accent as the UK indie heroes take to the Amphitheatre's huge stage and strap on their instruments for their first-ever – and undeservedly early-slotted – Australian gig. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's a slightly patchy, unshaven affair; utilising three identically-distorted Gibson SGs is probably not the most original sonic idea and the violin doesn't appear to add much diversity to the largely muddy sound, but the sextet still give it their best shot. Soaring mini-epics like Carrion, The Flaming Lips-redolent Waving Flags and Remember Me are done just right.

The far-flung GW McLennan tent also sees the best of the British as Kendal, Cumbria's Wild Beasts put on an impressive display. We count an impressive six keyboards onstage, however it's frontman/bassist Hayden Thorpe's elastic vocals that are ultimately more striking. This Is Our Lot, We Still Got The Taste Dancing On Our Tongues, Bed Of Nails and recent single Albatross all come across as nicely atmospheric and eminently danceable indie-pop ditties.

Back at the Amphi, black-clad The Kills heroically brave the blazing sun, Alison Mosshart looking uber-cool and singing in her signature super-sexy manner and Jamie Hince churning out one gnarly downtuned riff after another. Predictably, Hince's paramour Kate Moss appears on the screen, yet she's definitely not the star of the show. Out of the older tracks, U.R.A. Fever's sleazy crunch and Kissy Kissy's primal blues moan are highly delectable, while Blood Pressures corkers Future Starts Slow, Heart Is A Beating Drum, DNA and Satellite have us enthusiastically shaking our hips.

The logistical issues of trying to squeeze three acts into 90 minutes mean we only catch the first three songs of James Blake – who makes for an intriguing proposition with his mix of baleful piano-man schtick and earth-rattling sub-bass – at the Mix Up before scooting over to GW. Later reports point to Limit To Your Love and Wilhelm Scream being jaw-dropping standouts, but we're already busy taking in Warpaint's siren-like vocals, spidery guitars and tribal-tinged rhythms by the time UK's incorrectly-tagged “dubstep prince” drops his big numbers. The glittering highlight of the all-girl combo's enchanting performance, an extended Undertow alone makes up for what we miss.

As the sun sets, Wellington's The Black Seeds start the party at the Mix Up like true  festival entertainers. Stylistically similar to hometown mates Fat Freddy's Drop – who delivered a spectacular performance at the same tent at SITG2010 – the eight-piece’s funky NZ-groove melange provides a welcome jolt of energy.

Longtime live favourites in this part of the world, veteran indie-folk-rock kooks Modest Mouse have the already-packed Amphitheatre eating from the palms of their hands. All the signature elements – Isaac Brock's sandpaper-y vocals, banjo, double bass, biting lyrics, needling guitars – are firmly in check and 2004's breakout hit Float On and fan-fave Bukowski generate an enormous roar.

A lengthy walk to GW McLennan for Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears proves totally worth it as the Austin, Texas combo virtually breathe fiery, feisty rock & soul. “This lot would have easily killed at Bluesfest” is the thought going through many heads – including ours – as many, many more feet keep dancing to the horn-drenched stompers.

The Hives simply cannot put on a bad show – in fact, their Amphitheatre set shapes up as Friday's number-one highlight. Dwarfed by the madly-grinning “puppeteer” backdrop, the Swedish five-piece blast through a visceral, hour-long showcase; Main Offender, Die, All Right!, Walk Idiot Walk and the big-explosion finale Tick, Tick, Tick, Boom! all cut like razors.

Rock & roll ringmaster par excellence, firebrand Howlin' Pelle mouths off one tongue-in-cheek quip after another (best: “we played here 50 million years ago, but we didn't like the crowd, so we blew the f***er up and you were all left with this beautiful amphitheatre to watch us here tonight!”) and orders us to raise our hands, yell and at one point, sit down. “Youse are obedient motherf***ers, thank you!" he crows after observing the Amphitheatre gathering comply with his directives. Hate to say I told you so, alright!

Having already skipped the moment-riding nice lad Gotye, I sacrifice the ever-amazing Glasgewians Mogwai (who are due back in November) and turntable king DJ Shadow to watch the modern pop phenomenon Kanye West – who fittingly emerges atop a 25-metre tower to the chorus of “can we get much higher?”

Kicking off the three-act, 16 ballerinas-utilising extravaganza with Dark Fantasy, the rapper/producer balances his not-inconsiderable ego and vulnerability as he spits the verses through the King Crimson-sampling POWER (“...21st century schizoid man!”). Diamonds From Sierra Leone and the Jay-Z/Nicki Minaj-less Monster are both abruptly cut in half, but Touch The Sky (milking the Curtis Mayfield tune with gusto), Gold Digger, the mighty All Of The Lights/Stronger sequence, Lost In The World and Runaway all slay the enthralled crowd. On the downside, the heavily-AutoTuned 808s & Heartbreak tracks don't seem entirely necessary given the production's sheer grandeur. Still, the tear-jerking Hey Mama finale compensates for the show's more cheesy aspects.

Thus ends Day 1. The strongly-circulating Jay-Z rumour may have failed to come true, but Kanye's imperious set nonetheless provides ample material for campsite discussion the next morning.

Stay tuned as we post our review of day 2 tomorrow!!!

Denis Semchenko - AAA Backstage

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