Splendour in the Grass review – a distinctly pure kind of joy

North Byron Parklands, NSW
Kendrick Lamar embraces his Pulitzer, Vampire Weekend surprises and 30,000 festivalgoers get covered in glitter

Camping in a field for four days strips away the usual social boundaries around showering and hair-washing and outfit-repeating. Over the course of my festival-going years, that permissiveness has morphed from “Hey, gumboots are ugly but practical and they look kinda cute with knee socks!” to “I can wear everything and anything I want!”

The latest way this is manifesting at music festivals, apart from plenty of pantslessness, is glitter, and lots of it.

Environmental concerns aside, glitter is a genuinely beautiful thing, a performative expression of joy that says, “Look how much fun I am having, how much fun I am, how much I don’t care what this is going to do to my bedsheets.” Girls want to wear bras as tops and see-through pants and coat themselves in glitter and overpriced, Rihanna-endorsed mica, or wear stupendously hideous vintage overalls. Boys want to coat themselves in glitter too – and rub it through their beards, have their hair French-braided, dress up as sunflowers and wear ugly hats. Festivals let you make your outsides match your insides while you sing along as your favourite artist covers a 90s one-hit wonder or finally plays your favourite song.

Baker Boy performs at Splendour in the Grass
Furious energy: Baker Boy performs at Splendour in the Grass. Photograph: Dave Kan

Mel Campbell, in a wonderful essay parsing out the internet’s current obsession with things that are “pure”, defined the word’s current meaning as something like “delightful”, “warm fuzzies”, “moments of egalitarian camaraderie and joy … softness and care, cooperation and capability, play and intrinsic pleasure”.

Even with dust in your every pore, second- or first-hand smoke in your lungs and your feet aching, there is a specific kind of purity in a music festival, because there is an enormous amount of joy. The joy of anticipation as the crowds stream in at the beginning of the day, the joy as friends find one another in the crowd, of just hearing an excellent song played live. As overwhelming as Splendour in the Grass can be, being one of more than 30,000 fans swarming over the hilly sprawl of North Byron Parklands is a contact high all its own.

Seeing Australian festival first-time artists pack out the GW McLennan tent is also one of the unique pleasures of Splendour. There are artists starting to come through who have never known an Australian music industry for which Splendour wasn’t the biggest thing on the calendar; artists for whom the Big Day Out is ancient history.

Kendrick Lamar: commanding and compelling.
Kendrick Lamar: commanding and compelling. Photograph: Ian Laidlaw

The Brisbane pop brat Mallrat, for example, who drew a frantically happy congregation for her second appearance this year, was just three when the first festival was held. The Melbourne singer-songwriter-drummer G Flip, who inspired a frenzy of hype around her first single, About You, in January, played to a packed GW at the hangover-unfriendly hour of 12.30pm on Saturday. It’s a tough slot to draw a crowd to, but they were thrilled to be there – none more than G herself, who had never even been to the event as a punter. Her brand of pop – with a little hip-hop in its bones and the never-cloying sweetness of her startlingly clear, powerful voice – was made for the place, and she couldn’t help but choke up as she finished About You and surveyed us through several full minutes of joyous screaming.

It was not pure when the crowd sang every word to Stella Donnelly’s Boys Will Be Boys because the crowd absolutely vibrated with fury and dark exhilaration as they crooned the final line along with her: “You broke all the bonds she gave ya / time to pay the fucking rent.” It’s vengeful in the best way: a promise to a friend’s rapist and to all those who have ever enabled violation. Donnelly has wit and a stunning voice and and hooks for days, but this one song resonates in the current moment like nothing else, and to hear a crowd of a couple of thousand vow en masse that they will “never let you rest” gave me full-body goosebumps.

A festival goer wearing glitter
‘Glitter is a genuinely beautiful thing, a performative expression of joy.’ Photograph: Zak Kaczmarek/Getty Images

Transcendent moments were not in short supply: the sheeny, swooning dream-pop of Jack River in a full and early GW slot. A roiling crowd at Ball Park Music reminding one another It’s Nice To Be Alive. Soccer Mommy’s wistful cover of I’m on Fire. Cub Sport’s visible level-up from cute indie band to towering, emotional queer pop cult. The spooky, hymnal trip-hop of No Mono in front of a silent crowd. Baker Boy’s furious energy and the sheer goodness of a huge crowd packing in to watch a dude from north-east Arnhem Land rap in Yolngu. Gang of Youths’ ability to whip audiences into gorgeously cathartic frenzies with staggering consistency, and the visceral and complex rave journey that is a Presets set.

The Sunday night headliner, Kendrick Lamar, this year became the first pop musician, let alone rapper, to win the Pulitzer prize for music, and minutes into his set the visuals shifted from the kung fu theme he has made his own to a scrawled, stark backdrop reading “PULITZER KENNY”. Lamar’s gleeful embrace of his recent milestone, the way he has reshaped the staid prestige of the prize, its overdue acknowledgement of hip-hop and the cultural legitimacy it carries into something that gilds his already considerable swagger – the joy he takes in it, the joy of seeing him own it and own a crowd entirely, is pure. He’s utterly commanding and compelling. It’s impossible to tell how many in the screaming crowd genuinely appreciate that they are seeing one of the greatest artists of his generation – the history in songs like King Kunta and DNA that won him that Pulitzer – or if they’re just there for the incandescent bangers. (There might be a clue in looking around and seeing which punters have the respect not to say a certain word along with Lamar, though.) They all took joy in it nonetheless.

Vampire weekend playing Splendour
The highlight and yet arguably the least hyped: Vampire Weekend. Photograph: Ian Laidlaw

In an unexpected twist, the highlight of the three headliners was arguably the least hyped: Vampire Weekend. They were head and shoulders above the vaguely bewildering cohort of mid to late 00s indie club night favourites they found themselves among – Franz Ferdinand, MGMT, Girl Talk, the Wombats. MGMT put on a colourful, surprisingly accessible show considering most of the audience knew about three of their songs (although a sparkling cover of The NeverEnding Story dropped in the middle of hit Kids went down like a lead luckdragon with the crowd).

Franz Ferdinand slowed all their old hits down to a numbing plod, revealing how much they actually relied on their affectation and jerky energy rather than strong songwriting. But Vampire – the band who were often dismissed as a photocopy of a photocopy thanks to their Afropop-via-Paul Simon-via-New York private schools indie sound, or damned with polite faint praise adjectives like “sprightly” – appeared with a beefed-up lineup, fronted by the apparently ageless Ezra Koenig, and proceeded to politely set the main stage on fire. An unexpected appearance from Koenig’s song with producer SBTRKT, the spiky New Dorp, New York, was the dark and funky peak of a set full of sunny old favourites.


Caitlin Welsh

The GuardianTramp

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