Splendour in the Grass 2017 review – legacy acts delight but up-and-comers shine brightest

From the legends to the L-platers Splendour delivers in spades, even if you missed the Powderfinger reunion

You could plot almost every artist on the 2017 Splendour in the Grass lineup across a matrix with the following axes: new artists inching their way into radio rotation, Triple J mainstays, internationals with top 40 crossover appeal and legends.

While the latter promise recognition, mass singalongs and nostalgia, they also offer plenty of potential for disappointment; when you know an artist so well, sometimes the reality can never hope to live up to the fantasy.

Queens of the Stone Age at Splendour.
Queens of the Stone Age at Splendour. Photograph: Stills In Time

This wasn’t the case with Splendour’s beloved headliners: American rockers Queens of the Stone Age, who closed out the amphitheatre with a raucous set on night one; Paul Kelly, who managed to turn Australiana anthems like How to Make Gravy, When I First Met Your Ma and To Her Door into a surprising party soundtrack at the GW McLennan tent on night two (before appearing alongside AB Original for Dumb Things, during a set paying tribute to Elijah Doughty and protesting the jury’s verdict for the man responsible); and LCD Soundsystem, who capped off the three-day festival on Sunday night with a two-hour long retrospective that reminded us just how much we’d missed them.

There’s a moment in Shut Up and Play the Hits, the 2012 documentary capturing the band’s “final” sellout show at Madison Square Garden in 2011, where frontman James Murphy said he never wanted to start a band; he was 32, “And thought, ‘I want to make a record!’” To translate that first, self-titled album to the stage was, he said, like being in a cover band, figuring out how to perform something that already existed. Watching him at the Splendour amphitheatre, the central planet around which a cluster of geniuses orbit, I wonder what brought him back after such a definitive farewell, one so loaded with certainty and ceremony: The money? The monotony of life away from this project? You want the answer to be “the music”, the kind of pure reason befitting the holistic approach Murphy has had to LCD Soundsystem since the beginning, but you can never be certain. What we do know is that their new record is looming near on the horizon, and this set proved, even after years away, they’re doing more than just covering their tracks.

The dance acts emerging in their stead were a reliable highlight on the festival lineup. Watching them play a packed Mix-Up stage on Saturday afternoon it’s hard to believe Unearthed favourites Confidence Man first performed live just last year at the Big Sound music conference in their hometown of Brisbane. If only they were programmed about six hours later, though; their twisted techno pop would’ve set the perfect mood for Saturday night.

Later on that night, everyone is talking about the surprise reunion of Powderfinger, who reformed for the first time in seven years for a few tracks during Bernard Fanning’s solo set in the amphitheatre. I didn’t make it though, because I was too busy trying to come up with enough adjectives to describe Harvey Sutherland and Bermuda, whose thrilling set makes me wonder how any festival recap can ever do justice to what it’s like to be in the tent, eating a famous Byron Bay organic donut, as the sound of an electric violin whips everyone around you into a synchronised frenzy.

Client Liaison and Tina Arena.
Client Liaison and Tina Arena. Photograph: Splendour in the Grass

But by the time Sunday night rolled around, all anyone could talk about was Client Liaison’s kitsch extravaganza that culminated with a guest appearance from Tina Arena, proof positive that the only thing the kids love more than something new is something they’ve always known. She performed the Client Liaison track A Foreign Affair before shooing them off the stage to belt out Sorrento Moon. Her cameo culminated in a mass singalong of Womack & Womack’s Teardrops that could be heard for miles.

But the real joy at Splendour came from seeing young Australian acts find their footing on massive stages in front of massive crowds that will become the norm for them soon enough. On Friday, Melbourne band Jarrow earned their festival stripes with an impressive set that cut through the mist of irony that frontman Dan Oke cheekily perpetuates with songs like James Impala and Danoke69@hotmail.com. Underneath tracks inspired by The Emoji Movie are confident songwriting and catchy guitars guaranteed to lodge themselves in your brain for days.

On Sunday it was Good Boy, the three-piece from Brisbane whose earnest songwriting and authentic accents would’ve been slapped with the dolewave label a few years ago. But there’s nothing droll or apathetic about a track like Green Dress, a highlight on their midday set that has echoes of beloved Melbourne punk outfit Ceres.

Already on the cusp of something bigger, 18-year-old Brisbane artist Mallrat has recently relocated to LA and will inevitably upgrade to a larger stage the next time she features on the lineup. Her set featured a guest appearance by Sydney producer Oh Boy, and the addition of the track Suicide Blonde to her set. Her first song, released when she was just 16, navigates the complexities of fame, youth and beauty, and was inspired by a model who appeared in the video for the INXS song of the same name.

Mallrat performs on Saturday.
Mallrat performs on Saturday. Photograph: Miranda Stokkel

The next night she was in Melbourne supporting Maggie Rogers, whose career began in earnest just a year ago when a video of her sharing a song called Alaska with a stunned Pharrell Williams went viral. She destroyed any idea that she’d coasted in on his co-sign with her set on Friday and seems made for a stage like this.

As do scrappy Melbourne punks the Smith Street Band, who get a little less scrappy and a little more sophisticated with every passing record (and subsequent touring cycle), but never at the risk of the spirit that got them there. Frontman Wil Wagner’s booming voice and infectious energy seem designed for the massive natural amphitheatre, and he directs the thousands in the crowd to “shake your little butts” to what he describes as “a dancing song” that turns out to be I Don’t Want to Die Anymore from 2014’s Throw Me in the River. Even as the subject matter of their lyrics tread serious ground – like depression, suicidal ideation, relationship breakdowns and dickheads in the music industry – the songs never feel like they’re designed for anything less than maximum impact, and that’s what we get in this environment.

Meg Mac performs on Sunday.
Catchy soul hooks: Meg Mac performs at Splendour on Sunday. Photograph: Ian Laidlaw

After seeing Meg Mac perform on Sunday night, I could almost imagine her, years down the track, stepping into the role of pop matriarch that Tina Arena assumed with Client Liaison. Her catchy soul hooks draw obvious parallels to the likes of Adele and Amy Winehouse, and I’m kicking myself for not digging deep into her new record, Low Blows, sooner. Rather than feeling like I was out of the loop though, witnessing a packed crowd echoing every line of every song exemplified the gaping difference between going in knowing what to expect from an artist and the joy of going in blind and coming away a believer. I crowed about her set to anyone who’d listen and fast learned that everyone is already evangelical about her. Now I’ve been converted too.

Brodie Lancaster

The GuardianTramp

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