Victoria’s beloved Meredith music festival’s 30th anniversary – delayed by the pandemic – opened with a Welcome to Country. A larger-than-usual, thousands-strong crowd paid respects to the Wadawurrung people; chatter subsided and birds could be heard chirping in the towering gums.
Connection to land and family have anchored the festival throughout the decades. A one-stage BYO camping festival with no commercial sponsorship, Meredith was co-founded in 1991 by Chris Nolan, Marcus Downie and Gregor Peele, with the blessing of Chris’s parents John “Jack” and Mary, whose family has farmed the Wadawurrung land since 1865. In 1992, 500 punters showed up, then doubled the next year.
In 1996, tragedy struck: Chris suffered multi-organ failure, waking from a six-month coma without the ability to move and speak. The festival almost didn’t go ahead that year, but friends and family rallied. Now Chris and Mary perch at the top of the amphitheatre to take in the show, overlooking about 12,000 people who gather every December for Meredith and in March for its smaller sibling festival, Golden Plains.
Tasman Keith was an early highlight on Friday evening, emerging in a black cowboy hat, white paint marking his face and muscular torso. He opened with the dizzying arpeggiators and metallic percussion of Watch Your Step, the first track from his essential new album, A Colour Undone, and showed off hard-hitting production on Sharks, a romantic streak in Heaven With You and crystalline R&B in Love Too Soon.
The Gumbaynggirr man reached into his back catalogue for My Pelopolees, dedicated to his father and departed uncle. To close the set, he clambered over the stage barrier, bringing the audience to their knees with him in the dirt, before launching everyone skyward with the drop to Billy Bad Again.
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The multigenerational Yothu Yindi and the Treaty Project offered another celebration of inherited wisdom and family ties. Led by Rrawun Maymuru, the band went from an ethereal opening into saltwater reggae, before finishing on Treaty, which slaps as hard as ever.
Friday co-headliner Courtney Barnett’s idiosyncratic, ragged playing reinforced her status as one of the country’s best guitarists. Barnett’s songwriting remains enduringly relevant, too: dreams of buying a house with a “spare half a million” in Depreston seem quaint by today’s prices – and after two years of lockdowns tested everyone, Avant Gardener’s frank discussion of mental health feels ahead of its time.
At midnight, the Comet is Coming rained down an apocalyptic barrage of wildin’ jazz, metal and 2000s-tinged electro, led by saxophonist King Shabaka’s jaw-dropping physical exertion.
Later, Big Wett prefaced her set with a warning: “I’ve got 30 minutes to fuck your brains out.” A round of explicit, deceptively political, sex-positive electro and booty bass followed as she talk-rapped about eating arse while waving around a double-ended dildo. Big Wett is the horny future we all deserve.
With a solitary stage at the bottom of a natural amphitheatre – meaning no set clashes – audiences are often exposed to bands they otherwise wouldn’t be, and underground artists play to vastly greater audiences than usual. For instance: Melbourne’s unofficial techno poet laureate, Our Carlson, who power-paced across the stage on a hilarious, excoriating tirade against ableism, the police and “capo dogs” (capitalists).
Carlson has epilepsy and directed much of his ire at Meredith itself and the musicians who used intense strobe lighting during their sets, which can trigger seizures for some people. “If any of you have got strobe lights in your sets you’re fuckin’ ableist … If you see someone using strobes later, normalise booing and just boo ‘em,” howled Carlson.
“Then we can all have fun together safely. Catch the fuck up Meredith.” (The festival did provide pre-set warnings.)
On Saturday, the festival’s rock roots came to the fore with muscular sets from Sharon Van Etten and Private Function. But it was Caribou’s headline set that stole the show, the band’s first Australian performance in seven years.
Essentially the solo project of the Canadian musician Dan Snaith, Caribou’s live configuration sports two drum kits and live electronics, which conjure waves of pure bliss approaching the sublime. Sun, from the band’s 2010 album Swim, remains one of the great festival anthems, and played live, Do Without You transcended its schmaltzy sentimentality as Snaith brought the title’s refrain from a quiet whisper until the whole crowd was singing, the instrumentation building in density until everyone was reaching for their loved ones.
Returning to the stage soon after for a DJ set under his club-oriented Daphni moniker, Snaith ran rampant over genres. As well as playing tracks from this year’s Daphni album, Cherry, Snaith dropped 90s drum’n’bass care of Circles by Adam F; Saat Samunder Paar from the 1992 Bollywood film Vishwatma; and Rumble ft Flowdan, an unreleased Skrillex, Four Tet and Fred Again collaboration that made the crowd lose the plot.
For 30 years the Nolans have welcomed allcomers into the big, weird Meredith family – but it would be nothing without the goodwill of its audience, some of whom are family too. Dean and Daniel Manning, 49 and 28 respectively, are a father and son who’ve been coming together since Dean bought a 17-year-old Daniel and a friend tickets to join him.
“The first Meredith was monumental for me … I fell in love [with the festival],” says Daniel. “Dad always gets emotional – anything he’s scared to say in real life he says here. It feels like we’ve got a huge family, a lot of them you don’t know very well and you only see them here once a year.”
“You can’t manufacture Meredith,” continues Dean. “On our first trip I told Daniel ‘I’m not your dad, I’m Dean’ and he knew exactly what I meant. I think that has developed a mateship as much as a fatherhood. You don’t get that anywhere else.”