Splendour in the Grass review: a Cure for all that ails you and an Avalanche of good feelings

There was an easy enjoyment of the familiar and the not-so-familiar, but perhaps the festival is getting just a little too big

There’s magic in being surprised and entranced by something you’ve never heard or seen before – and that feeling is arguably superior, in the hierarchy of live music experiences, to the satisfaction of hearing a familiar favourite played live.

The crowds at Spendour in the Grass (who were for the most part phenomenally well-behaved, even when their patience was stretched to the limit) were able to appreciate the less-anticipated and less-familiar, whether they were waiting out The Strokes’ half-baked latest output between Is This It singles, or being treated to James Blake’s moody loops while clearly primarily setting up camp for Flume.

But there’s also an easy joy in the familiar, whether it’s a classic you’ve waited years to hear live or just the gleeful surprise of a novelty cover or remix. From The Cure playing something for everybody, to Courtney Barnett inventing new ways to shred on crowd favourites, friends and family giving fans of the late Szymon a chance to hear his work live, Jack Garratt and Leon Bridges’s crowd-pleasing R&B covers, or wunderkind Just A Gent’s mixed bag of filthed-up school disco hits, the best moments were all about known quantities (while the worst were all about uncertainty).

The weight of expectation was heavy on The Avalanches’ return to the stage, and it has to be said that the live show feels under-rehearsed (this may well be due to Robbie Chater’s well-documented health issues which have forced the band to cancel several planned international festival appearances). 

Guest vocalist Eliza Wolfgramm is charismatic and technically very strong, guest MC Spank Rock brought a slightly manic energy to the stage as he and Wolfgramm ran loops of the walkway behind Tony di Blasio’s decks, and the set list was well constructed, opening and closing with SILY cuts (the motorik groove of Flight Tonight and the album’s swooning title track respectively). And not everyone was there for the old stuff. A guy no older than 20 squeezed into the front dance floor early on and leaned over to shout: “Have they played [triumphant return single] Frankie Sinatra yet?”

That said, the way the mood of the crowd ricocheted through Frontier Psychiatrist was telling: from explosive delight as the intro swaggered in, to confusion as the bellows of “that boy needs thera…” trailed off when it became clear that Wolfgramm and Spank Rock wouldn’t be performing the patchwork of vocal samples live as they had been doing so far. Instead Wolfgramm overlaid the familiar backing track with Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy which went down well. 

It felt like a bit of a strange choice to have Spank Rock reading other rappers’ guest verses off his phone for the new material and yet abandon the familiar novelty of their most famous single for a cover that was well and truly played out 10 years ago. 

The Avalanches’ songs are intricate machines with a thousand tiny, delicate moving parts, and they wear their grooves lightly. The lyric samples are what keep them tethered; they give people something to hold on to. But the joyful mood of the set as a whole was something special, and will likely get tighter and more energetic as they refine it for further performances.

After all, as flashy and fun as was The Strokes’ headline set on the same stage that night, it also proved that note-perfect replications of songs exactly as they appear on a 15-year-old record can be just as underwhelming as not hearing them at all.

The Cure’s headline set the next night didn’t reinvent the wheel, but there is no need to when your back catalogue has this much vivid, heartfelt variety. 

The Cure are an arena band in 2016 by virtue of the size of their following, not their performance style, but they filled the vast Splendour amphitheatre with washes of sound and warmth, with the dreamy double of Plainsong and Pictures of You an ideal starting point. There was an energy in even the biggest hits that belied the fact that Robert Smith and co have been playing them for nearly three decades. 

Even dotted as it was with deeper cuts, the impeccably structured set list kept a surprising number of punters from tapping out at the 90-minute mark for Santigold, and the fourth encore 20 minutes before the scheduled end of the set saw many breath a sigh of relief that they wouldn’t have to choose between Let’s Go To Bed and getting a bus before 2am.

Smaller, more intimate shows are a crucial element to balance out the sheer scale of headline sets in the amphitheatre. The collaborative, emotional tribute In Loving Memory of Szymon is the kind of set format such a massive festival could do with more of (and it hopefully introduced a few Little May and Gang of Youths fans to the late Szymon’s irreplaceable talent), and another under-attended highlight was Marlon Williams, the bone-lean country-noir Kiwi who peppered his smouldering set with bluegrass (including a cover of the Stanley Brothers, whose remaining member Ralph died last month).

But the fact was that Splendour might just be a little too big these days. The festival reportedly reduced the number of camping tickets available this year while adding a few more three-day tickets, and that was certainly felt by every one of the thousands who waited hours for buses on Friday and Saturday nights, or were stuck in queues for hours in cars each night and during Monday’s exodus, or found themselves deciding to skip the end of Flume’s impeccable closing blockbuster because of the (misleading) signs warning buses would finish at 1am, or holding their hands over their faces instead of singing at The Preatures’ raucous farewell show for guitarist Gideon Bensen because the stench from the toilets at the McLennan stage was so overwhelming. 

One woman lamented in the Friday bus queue that in all the chaos “I’ve forgotten all the good bands I saw”. 

Festivals like Splendour have their share of transcendent moments, but it still hits just as hard if you’re brought back down in a hurry by earthly concerns.


Caitlin Welsh

The GuardianTramp

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