The D4's Dion goes crowd surfing with guitar in hand.
(Radio Birdman/You Am I/Rocket Science/D4/Bluebottle Kiss)
Saturday, December 7, 2002
@ The Domain, Sydney
WORDS AND PICTURES: JOHN McPHARLIN
I've got one or two prejudices about all day, open air festivals, which is why I don't go to them too often. In fact, aside from the annual Newtown Festival (which is really just a stroll from my mate Frank's place through the park to the pub and then another stroll from the pub back through the park to his favourite Vietnamese restaurant on King Street, with the occasional musical act being encountered along the way), the last time I went to an all day, open air rock event was... shit, Pink Floyd playing at Knebworth in 1975.
Technically I guess that wasn't really a festival, since there was only one stage and one line up (Linda Lewis, Roy Harper, Captain Beefheart, John Cleese and Graham Chapman doing a few Monty Python sketches - which surprisingly did not do down well with a small but extremely vocal section of the crowd - and of course the Floyd; bugger, I'm sure there was another band on the bill, but I just can't bring them to mind), so it should have been possible to see everyone on the bill and come away well satisfied; at least that's if the transport arrangements hadn't been such a shambles and the organisers such a pack of useless arseholes.
I'm referring in particular to the jumped up little Hitler who apparently thought he could get 40,000 people to line up in an orderly queue for the buses to take the punters back to the train station after the show was over - Knebworth being in the middle of fucking nowhere - and sent the buses back to the station empty when it didn't occur to his satisfaction; not that it made that much difference when the supposedly chartered British Rail trains were two hours late and by the time I got back to London the tube had stopped running for the night and the choice was between four to five hours on a very cold platform at Kings Cross station or a fucking long walk in the dark to Bayswater where I was staying, which is not to say that I still harbour any anger or bitterness about the whole debacle after what is now more than a quarter of a century...
I was hoping that things would be better at Homebake and the initial signs were extremely promising. To start with, Homebake is held right in the middle of Sydney, which takes all of the discomfort and inconvenience out of getting there. Secondly, the organisers have been doing this for a few years now, so they've had lots of opportunity to iron the bugs out of the whole process. I believe that the Floyd show at Knebworth was the very first time anyone had tried to use it as a rock venue - if it wasn't, then the organisers certainly had failed to learn a few important lessons from previous occasions. In comparison to that experience I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and easily I got in to Homebake, despite everyone's bags having to be searched, but then Homebake had been going for nearly four hours by the time I arrived so most of the other punters were already there.
Originally I had hoped to see Melbourne band Jet at midday, but catching even the end of their set was always going to be tight, as my plane back from Canberra (after the previous night's Birdman show) wasn't scheduled to arrive until a mere ten minutes before they were due on stage. As it turned out, delays in Canberra meant that I had barely taken off when they went on stage and their set would have been over long before the first sign of Sydney's suburban sprawl out of the cabin window, let alone any need to place my tray in the upright position.
One complaint that you often hear about festivals is that all the acts you really want to see are always scheduled at the exact same time. I know Frank had a few "issues" with this, but for my money the dreaded overlaps were minimal. The Hopetoun Stage had Gersey mid afternoon, but that clashed with D4/Rocket Science over at the Dome, while the Dome had Paul Kelly from 6:20 to 7:10 which exactly coincided with Radio Birdman (so that choice was a no brainer, although I would have liked to see Paul Kelly). Other than that, it was clear sailing: starting at the Dome with Bluebottle Kiss at 3:00pm, followed by the D4 and Rocket Science, then over to the main stage for Radio Birdman followed by You Am I.
There were a couple of acts on after You Am I, but since the Intercontinental Playboys were playing three sets at the Sly Fox in Enmore, to farewell drummer and founding member Richard Weinman, my path from the Domain to Enmore seemed pretty much pre-ordained, as did the timing of my exit. Afterwards I realised that if I'd made the effort to get there by 2:00pm I could have seen Eskimo Joe (yeah, yeah Frank, I know you mentioned them the week before, but then you wanted to see Jebediah as well so I stopped paying attention after that), but it was too late by then and anyway, five and a half hours is more than enough for someone with my limited attention span. There was also a huge techo "mix" tent on the other side of the grounds, but that need not concern us any further.
Frank and I arrived in good time for Bluebottle Kiss and I picked up our passes without incident at the special booth beside the main gate (green V.I.P. pass for him, laminated orange photographer's pass for me). Unfortunately when we got to the Dome it turned out that his pass didn't get him backstage, while mine did. This brought home to me that you can only take friendship up to a certain point and apparently the artistes entrance behind the Dome is it, so that's the last I saw of Frank for the day.
Things backstage were very quiet and orderly. The artistes were being accommodated in a row of small, white tents, looking very much like nineteenth century two- or three-man army tents, one per act with their names and playing times printed in large letters on signs attached to the front of the tent. A few of the artistes who had already performed were still holding court before small groups of assembled fans, friends and hangers on (some of whom seemed to have only the same type of pass as Frank, so how the fuck did they get backstage???), while the members of Bluebottle Kiss were loitering restlessly near the steps to the stage, waiting for the roadies to finish setting up their gear.
While I waited in turn for them to swing into action, I stopped by the D4 tent and said g'day to the band, all of whom were sitting quietly in their tent, checking their strings and limbering up in preparation for their own forthcoming assault on the Homebake multitudes. Except for the signs with the band names and playing times on the fronts of the tents, this could have been a scene of a troop encampment straight out of a Boer War or American civil war doco. The band certainly had the dour, determined look of soldiers preparing for serious combat and I half expected general Ulysses S. Grant to come bursting out of the next tent with the day's battle orders, but it was only Roman Tucker from Rocket Science looking for a pen to write out a setlist.
It has taken a while (okay, a long while), but I think that finally the penny has dropped for me as far as Bluebottle Kiss is concerned. As usual, I'm almost too late. Original bassist Ben Fletcher, still with the band but now moved to guitar, has formed his own band (the Devoted Few) and apparently BBK drummer Richard Coneliano has officially left BBK to devote himself to the Devoted Few, although he's still drumming for BBK until a replacement can be found.
Meanwhile frontman Jamie Hutchings has already recorded a solo album, so BBK's days are probably numbered, which is a pity because this is a band that really knows its way around a "crescendo". However no one in the band believes that a set should only have one, or that it/any of them have to be at the end of the set. In their hands, the set becomes an on going tug-o-war between melody and discord, between clean pop optimism and raw, emotional despair, constantly threatening to descend into complete chaos, but never quite doing so.
In their quieter moments there is also a strong sense of melancholy reminiscent of Peter Fenton's work (Fletcher and Coneliano have both backed Fenton on occasion), though usually much more aggressive in its expression. Not for them the resignation and indifference of defeat, but a screaming defiance in the face of hostile critics, a largely unresponsive music establishment and punters (friend and fan and foe) alike. Heady stuff indeed, even if they did run over time - and this despite the set times being printed in large print on notices all over the stage, plus not one but two clocks with large faces affixed to the sides of the speaker banks where the band could not avoid seeing either or both.
Despite BBK's overrun Homebake does run on a firm schedule, so the D4 were cut off at their allotted time, notwithstanding that they hadn't been able to start on time through no fault of their own. In the end it didn't matter, as they'd done it all by then anyway - simply packed everything they had to offer into the shorter time. Talking to the head security guy for the Dome area before the D4 went on, he said that the first band of the day (that would have been Antiskeptic I'm guessing) had got crowd going wild - moshing and crowd surfing dangerously on top of each other's heads - and he had thought that it was going to be "one of those days", but after that initial outburst everything had been calm and relaxed and he was more than pleased with that state of affairs. I didn't see him again after D4 finished, but I'll bet he wasn't as calm or relaxed then, because they not only whipped the crowd up into a frenzy, they (or at least Dion) did a little crowd surfing of his own.
In all honesty, I'd had a niggling doubt about whether the D4 could really do the business on such a big stage or whether their honest and infectious showmanship relied on the confined intimacy of small venues (where I'd only been seeing them perform so far) to envelop and overpower the audience. Of course this parochial attitude of mine did completely ignore the fact that over the last couple of years their performances at overseas festivals have been highly praised by those who have seen them.
Needless to say my misgivings were proved utterly unfounded. The D4 had no trouble taking command of the large stage and the audience area in front of it, knocking the crowd back on its heels with the irresistible impact of their presence (and this was even before Dion went crowd surfing). Just like at the smaller venues they happily got down off the stage (to the teeth grinding chagrin of security) and mixed it face to face with the audience (or at least these closest to the barrier), all the while keeping the music flowing. And it was as much their music as their high spirited hijinks which got the crowd going. Unlike m'learned friend Frank, I think that the D4 do have some good songs, swags of them in fact, and the audience seemed to be of largely of the same opinion, even going to the extent of singing along to some of them.
The arrangements for the gentry of the press at Homebake are that the photographers are allowed inside the crash barrier to take photographs, but only for the first three songs, after which they are expected to piss off out of the way of the security guys. This makes having a photographer's pass somewhat less of an attractive proposition if you are actually a fan of the band and want to see the whole performance (since the crowd is packed up tight in front of the other side of the barrier by the time your three songs are up); it also means that most professional photographs would be of bands that were still warming up, while each big finale goes undocumented (except by all the roadies with stage passes, instamatics and apparently a lot of spare time on their hands, plus the odd ligger like me hanging around the side of the stage where they aren't technically still supposed to be, at least until they get the hard word from security to move on).
In the case of the D4, the big finale involved not only the aforementioned crowd surfing from Dion and a crescendo big enough to leave the members of Bluebottle Kiss open mouthed in appreciation, but also Jimmy throwing his guitar into the crowd during the final moments, leaving the punter at the front who caught it with a bemused look on his face and some obviously conflicting emotions ("Beauty, I got myself a free guitar" struggling with "Shit, now I gotta lug this around for the rest of the day"), which were resolved to his relief when one of the bouncers finally came and retrieved it from him.
The crowd dynamics between bands were puzzling. I legged it the moment the D4 finished, because I was starving and I wanted to get something from the food stalls (which were abundant, but also exactly the same as at the Newtown Festival the month before - I guess if you've gone to the trouble of building yourself a stall you want to get as much use out of it as you can so you drag it to wherever a decent size crowd can be found). When I got back to the Dome, the roadies were still setting up for Rocket Science and there was virtually no one in front of the stage. Five minutes before the band started you could have walked right up to barrier and got a great spot towards the centre. As the start time drew nigh, the crowd began to swell noticeably and by the time the band started you would have been eight or ten punters back from the barrier at best; by the time the band's first song ended you'd have been pushing to get much closer than half way between the barrier and the back fence, unless you were prepared to stand right on the side.
Unfortunately Rocket Science failed to really achieve liftoff this time. I've seen these guys on numerous occasions and more often than not been blown away by the intensity and obsessive urgency of their performances, but this afternoon they came across as strangely distant and dilatory (and this was despite playing all the big numbers from both their albums). Perhaps they were having an off day or perhaps the cheerful, outdoor picnic vibe of Homebake just doesn't lend itself to the band's darkly driven visions, like Dr Strangelove meets the Phantom of the Opera inside the Cabinet of Dr Caligari (all of which left me a little disappointed, not to mention embarrassed since I knew there were several others in the audience to whom I'd sung the band's praises in the past and who must now be scratching their heads and asking themselves "What the f#$% is he on about...?").
I left the Dome a little before Rocket Science's set was due to finish and slowly fought my way over to the main stage, where Machine Gun Fellatio were winding up. With time to kill, I thought I'd hit the V.I.P. area, but unfortunately it turned out that it was on the other side of the main stage and no, according to the bouncer I couldn't just walk around via the walk way - that was only for artistes, roadies and other such exulted personages who had full access passes. So it took a long and arduous fight to make my way over to the other side of the stage (and this was even after going back a good fifty metres from the stage where the crowd wasn't pressed in so dense, though if I'd waited another five minutes I simply could have walked across in front of the crash barrier, as the crowd evaporated almost the instant MGF left the stage).
There didn't seem to be many actual V.I.P.s in the V.I.P. enclosure, at least not that I recognized; mainly just friends of friends of somebody half famous, liggers like me and lost souls looking for the toilet (though both Frank and the Barman later regaled me with details of the rock royalty they'd observed during their forays into the same area). On top of that, you still had to pay for your own beer and you couldn't see any part of the stage from anywhere in the V.I.P. corral, so I didn't see any point in hanging around. I girded my loins for the rough trek back to the other side of the stage, which is where the entrance to crash barrier was, but as already noted the crowd had dispersed by then.
Once again it was get three songs and then get the fuck outta here but, unlike the Dome, there was positively no loitering around the side of the stage area afterward. By this time, needless to say, the crowd was huge. I couldn't help thinking that if I'd forgone the photographer's access and just grabbed a spot on the crash barrier, on the crowd side that is, when I'd had the chance then I would have been better off, since then I wouldn't have had to move somewhere else at the end of the third song. However it didn't take long for me to recall how my kidneys had felt after the show in Canberra, where I'd done exactly that, so reality dawned on me and I was happier with the choice I'd made.
Also, if I'd stayed down the front I would have been too close to the stage to see Birdman on the big screen like some stadium act, even if that did provoke a minor reality crisis for me. I mean, Birdman on the big screen, are they turning into a hair metal stadium band now? No, of course not; I'm just running off at the mouth, but there really was a big video screen at one side of the stage, with Ron Keeley looming large instead of being half hidden at the back of the stage behind his drum kit (in most film you see of festivals, there's a screen either side of the stage, but the layout of the grounds didn't provide enough space to put a screen on both sides of the stage, which spoiled the symmetry). Since what was showing on the screen was being shot by video cameras (whose operators, needless to say, weren't subject to the three song rule), this leaves me wondering whether any of this was also being recorded and if so, who's got the tape and when and where are we going to see it - on TV? DVD? Coming to a theatre near you? Because this was one performance that was definitely worth a second look (shit, I'd even buy a DVD player if it came out on DVD!).
Unlike the Metro or the Prince of Wales, you can't get "intimate" with a crowd this size, so the band didn't try and it was all business from the moment they stepped onto the stage. If you can't have intimacy, then the next best thing is no holds barred rock'n'roll action and that's what they gave the audience - in spades. Since they were only allowed fifty minutes (compared to their normal two hours) the slower, softer, tenderer (isn't that a real word - my spell checker doesn't seem to think so?) songs had been culled from the set and what was left was all bone, muscle and sinew. Okay, and maybe a bit of unidentified gristle that would have required a lot of chewing as well.
They started off with "Smith & Wesson Blues" and while you're never alone with a Smith and Wesson (baby), in this crowd on this afternoon clearly you weren't alone either if you were knocked flat on your arse by Radio Birdman. Having established their beachhead, they then proceeded to consolidate their position with a cavalcade of high energy performances of high energy classics that got the audience progressively more and more excited, over excited in some cases, leading ultimately to "What Gives?", "Aloha Steve 'n' Danno" and finally to "New Race", giving everyone an excuse to work off plenty of pent up aggression with a succession of fist raising, air punching, lung shuddering Yeh Hups, like an accidental collision between a demented southern Baptist revival meeting and a drought stricken synchronized swimming demonstration on steroids in a confusion of ear rings, ear plugs, nose plugs and nose rings.
Radio Birdman might have been the archetypal "hard act to follow", but it didn't seem to faze Tim Rogers one bit. Frankly I think the bloke just loves to be performing, irrespective of the venue or crowd size and I suspect that if you dragged him down to your local pub and stuck a guitar in his hands he'd probably put just as much effort into playing there for the half a dozen regulars propping up the bar as he did this evening for the assembled multitude of Homebake, many of whom clearly were there especially for the whole You Am I experience.
Unfortunately my enjoyment of You Am I's set was cut short when someone discovered how to activate the underground sprinklers. Sure it had been a hot day, but by then darkness had well and truly fallen - and the temperature right along with it. On top of that, the sprinkler nozzle thingie that spreads the flow of water out widely was not working, so the water came out in forceful, focused stream. It was like the riot police hosing down hippies at a love in, only combined with an impromptu revival of "Attack of the Mole People".
At first I didn't know what was happening, but as one by one the people between me and the closest sprinkler got drenched to the skin (to their obvious displeasure), I beat a quick retreat before I suffered the same fate, almost throwing myself right into the torrent from the next sprinkler. Oops, time to vacate the area altogether! As I left, I noticed numerous security guards heading in the direction of the main sprinkler eruption zone, so presumably someone was going to get their head kicked in (or at least their nozzle twisted shut), but it didn't seem worth hanging around for and besides, by then the Intercontinental Playboys were calling.
Oh, that band I couldn't remember from the Pink Floyd extravaganza? It was the Steve Miller Band. I used to think some of their songs were pretty rockin' and, you know, cool once; now I realise they were pretty staid (so it's not surprising they're one of the lesser staples of nostalgia FM) and hey, what have they done in the last couple of decades anyway? The Birdmen, on the other hand, were never staid and can still do the business, large scale and big time. As outdoor extravaganzas go, Homebake's not too foul either (the free showers notwithstanding).
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