Splendour in the Grass 2019: Tame Impala is transcendent while Chance the Rapper bails

Neither Santigold’s swagger nor Wolfmother’s roar could plug the gap left by the rapper’s last-minute cancellation

• Fans, fashion and bands – the festival in pictures

Byron Bay treated Splendour in the Grass punters to three days of immaculate sunshine, but the storms came nevertheless.

Wolfmother performed an early afternoon amphitheatre set with a comfortable energy that suggested they simply left their amps on stage in 2008 and just plugged right back in, saying, “Yup, this is us.” They knew what people were there to see, blasting through a hit-filled set with grins affixed to their faces throughout. Thankfully, Andrew Stockdale has kept faithful to the afro of his youth; I feel Splendour audiences weren’t quite ready for the short-back-and-sides look from a guy who sings about white unicorns and implores them to “see the mind’s eye”.

Fidlar were youthful and punkish, clearing the moshpit of dudes for a “girls to the front” moment that was only slightly cheapened by the fact they chose the shortest, most toothless song in their set to apply this rule to.

Santigold’s amphitheatre set unwittingly showcased the shortcomings of the following act: her light-filled swagger, dance-infused tunes and boundless joy were at complete odds with Foals’ sexless funk, delivered by a bunch of guys who clearly bought a Franz Ferdinand album to soundtrack their Fantasy Football gatherings back in the day and dragged the whole enterprise 10 years too far. We don’t do the same drums anymore.

Boundless joy: Santigold performs on the opening night of Splendour in the Grass.
Boundless joy ... Santigold performs on the opening night of Splendour in the Grass. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Tame Impala’s closing set the first night showed why they are currently one of the biggest bands in the world, and why they headline every festival from Coachella to Glastonbury. Theirs is transcendent music and Kevin Parker’s stilted frontman banter is either charming or misplaced, depending on your mental state at that point of the night.

Most of the same players gathered to perform as Pond the following afternoon, and the effect was no less epic, relying less on stage production, prerecorded loops and lighting techniques, with a vocal pitch-shifter the only real bow to freaky technology. Vocalist Nick Allbrook has come a long way from the over-crammed stages of Pond’s earlier shows. He seems aware of his band’s stadium status and plays to it perfectly, flailing, thrusting and contorting his vocals when the moment calls for it. A psychotropic cover of Madonna’s Ray of Light acts as a spiritual twin to Pond’s past dalliance with Kylie’s Confide in Me, setting off a day-two theme of unlikely covers that saw Dean Lewis belt through the Killers’ When We Were Young a few hours later.

Kevin Parker of Tame Impala performs on Friday.
Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Tropical Fuck Storm were a face-punch in the McLennan tent, a more abrasive serving of the Drones, with shards of guitar shooting off as military drums pounded the audience into submission. Gareth Liddiard upped the intensity, picking fights with audience members, storming off for a spell after his guitar failed to withstand his abuse, and railing against Triple J for failing to play his music any more. It was wonderful stuff.

Day two also revealed the heartbreaking news that Chance the Rapper had pulled out of the festival. A cheery update from organisers failed to convince anyone they were “beyond stoked” that Hilltop Hoods were to play instead. As word spread around the grounds, the disappointment was palpable, shooting through the amphitheatre like a particularly morose Mexican wave.

Luckily, we still had Childish Gambino. And he certainly didn’t disappoint; it’s not in his MO. Opening with a handful of gospel-infused tracks that suggest a midpoint between his last soul-drenched excursion, Awaken, My Love and the conceptual scope of Because the Internet might be soon coming down the chute, he danced like a bastardisation of Michael Jackson and Beyoncé, belted with the vocal weight of Stevie Wonder, and sermonised in a way that Kanye’s confused ramblings could only hope to achieve. He reminded us a few times throughout the night that this was church – and we believed.

Childish Gambino belted out his hits with the vocal weight of Stevie Wonder.
Childish Gambino belted out his hits with the vocal weight of Stevie Wonder. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Day three, still no Chance, reportedly due to illness. Conspiracy theorists in the crowd may be pointing out that he has an album coming out on Friday, so jetting across the Earth, losing 56 hours in transit along the way, might not be ideal on the week of release. But never mind that for now, because the Rubens are performing Chance’s Same Drugs to a singalong crowd, and it’s the most mournful moment of the entire festival, with singer Sam Margin dressed in white like he is leading Chance’s own funeral procession.

In the McLennan tent, Psychedelic Porn Crumpets took the wah-wah pedals that Ocean Alley used the day before and ripped the ghost of Hendrix from them, with an effect that was part party-starter, part acid trip. But by the third day, with no promise of a sublime closing act, the air was escaping from the life raft and scores of punters were clogging the bus lines back to Byron Bay, opting for an early exit over a slow-release realisation that Splendour had peaked. Even Tina Arena jumping on stage with Matt Corby – who still wields one of the best voices our country has produced – to sing Chains couldn’t lift the mood.

The Splendour organisers did what they could in an impossible position, and Hilltop Hoods should be applauded for stepping up at the 11th hour. But short of flying Drake or Kanye out to fill the void, day three of Splendour was drowned before the ship even sank.

This article was amended on 23 July to correct the name of Pond’s lead singer


Nathan Jolly

The GuardianTramp

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