+ a cast of thousands
Big Day Out
Sydney Showgrounds
January 26 and 27, 2011

Words and photos by THE BARMAN

Share Let's talk about expectations. You almost always expect big festivals to be a drag. Too few bands of interest spaced too far apart. Too many people, Expensive drinks. Hit or miss sound. The Great Truth is here: People don't know what they like but only like what they know. It rings especially true when bills are crammed with safe commercial acts and someone's idea of The Next Big Thing. So it is with the Big Day Out, the multi-city machine that lurches around Australia and New Zealand every Southern Hemisphere summer.

I reckon I'm the only Sydneysider over 40 who admits they didn't go to the first BDO when a then ascendent Nirvana played the softer, more genteel surrounds of the old Sydney Showground. It was sold out in quick time (capacity was sorely limited back in 1991) and I saw 'em at Coogee Bay anyway that same tour.

I've probably been to one-in-three of these events since, including the January '97 one in far away Perth where Radio Birdman played. The BDO boxes ticked now include the Ramones, Iggy (solo mode and with the Fun House Stooges), Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Nick Cave and this Bad Seeds and Neil (not so) Young. It's fair to say the BDO and me are more than nodding acquaintances. I've seen it go from a left-field, truly adventurous event to a moderately commercial, all-things-to-all people happening of near mechanical smoothness.

The expectations run higher when one of the banner acts is the re-constituted Iggy & the Stooges but, hey, it's still a BDO. Be prepared for the occasional gem, the mundane and the downright dire. Bring a hat. Drink plenty of fluids. Thanks to a kind benefactor, I'm going twice.

Especially when it's the hottest day in Sydney BDO history. It's touching 34 degrees Celsius (91 in Fahrenheit) west of the central city area. It feels even more oppressive at the concrete jungle that passes for the Sydney Showground, venue for the BDO. Day One is an early start, for the good reason that Jim Jones revue are on a sidestage in the early afternoon.

There's a buzz around these Poms who mix Little Richard style piano thumping with good old garage rock raunch. Word is they played a sideshow the night before at Sydney's Metro Theatre and Stooges sax-man Steve Mackay stepped up and blew. The boys look washed, well-groomed and awake - considering it's barely afternoon when they're billed to play today. It takes a little while to carry it off but they manage to convince me they're the real deal about a third of the way through the set.

Airborne don't really have a lot of songs but put on one of the funniest (and most fun) sets of the day on one of the two main stages. The diminutive guitarist Joel shares more than a resemblance to Angus Young and scales the stage superstructure to make the most of his radio-mic'ed guitar. There's nothing mind boggling except for the amount of energy they put out. And the fact they used 12 Marshall stacks. Hire companies must love them.

There was something playing on a main stage called Lupe Fiasco. The name was half appropriate.

The Hard-Ons are on the curiously-named Annandale stage. Odd because it's flooring doesn't have sticky carpet. Which is to say they're playing a steeply-inclined, concrete bowl with plastic seats and a roof. The crowd seems very old, which makes their choice of their newer, hardcore material pretty curious. I love the Hard-Ons' contemporary stuff but surely this was the time and place for a setlist stacked with more familiar pop-punk classics. They were still good. The sound, on the other hand, was appalling and you can blame the venue for that. The most skilled mixer couldn't have coped with that sort of aural slap-back.

Stoogetime looms but there's the small matter of having to sit through John Butler Trio. They're on the adjoining main stage, next-door to the Stooges. If the Lizard Lounge bar in the grandstand wasn't so far away I'd have pitched some empty beer cans the way of the John Buttplug Trio. John is an abomination who plays superannuated hippy tripe. Drum solos and banjos are odd partners. So are John and good material. Why this crap sells by the truckload is one of life's biggest mysteries. Butler's indulgent twaddle deserves to be forgotten the minute his set finishes. And it is.

Iggy & The Stooges hit the stage dead on 7pm. The vamping chords of "Raw Power" announce their arrival, Iggy exploding like a short-fuse firecracker. Of course it's insane to watch this stuff from the safety of the stand so I rush down to the fence-line of the moshpit to be wilfully hit by the sound of James Williamson's guitar.

It's sunset and the stinging rays are beaming down hard on the Stooges' stage. Everyone is in black or something approximating (save for Iggy's blue jeans). Straight James is in shades and a singlet. Mike Watt's movements are limited by a knee brace (the legacy of an operation last year) but he locks into the grooves with a massive intensity. Steve Mackay looks like a hip granddad with hair halfway down his back. Rock Action is in a white T-shirt with a Beatle-esque logo that reads "Beat". That's what he trades in so that's entirely appropriate.

The sound is elemental (as Kim Jones would say) and lean. I'm still of the opinion that a second guitar wouldn't go astray on a few tunes. What extra instrumentation there is (percussion, single note keyboards, harmonica and of course sax) comes from Steve Mackay. He seems to be not playing behind every riff these days, which was a criticism levelled at this line-up when it first convened.

Physically, Iggy's exploding in fits and starts these days, which is entirely understandable at age 63. There's no less energy in evidence, even when the guy stands still, and he gives nothing less than his total self. There are a couple of flying mic stands in response to a minor musical mis-step.

Experiencing Iggy & the Stooges is different to the earlier Stooges line-up. Last time out, the mere fact of their presence was surreal. It was like watching a movie. The late Ron Asheton had a bluesier style with a signature reliance on wah-wah, and what you got overall was very structured. There was no departure from the nightly setlist.

Williamson's stuttering playing was and still is one of the most violent things to move air on a stage, and his tone is quite distinctive. The band is still underpinned by Scott Asheton's tremendous drumming and Iggy's vocals is a common thread, but there's a sense that this incarnation is a little looser (as in leaving more gaps) and more spontaneous. Which of course is what the staged crowd invasion for "Shake Appeal" is not but you have to allow some indulgences.

"Gimme Danger" gets that semi-acoustic intro treatment and rules. "Search and Destroy" is a lesson object for other bands. Iggy & the Stooges play 45 minutes before encoring. "Open Up And Bleed" is the closing number and is insanely great.

It would have been sacrilege to hang around for Rammstein whose elevated volume and pyrotechnics can't match what we've just seen. That newish and frankly shitty Grinderman album ensures I don't stick around for their late set on a sidestage.

Day Two dawns cooler and less humid but a late arrival is in order. I just couldn't face more Lupe Fiasco.

For my sins, I do endure Triple Jay darlings Birds (Turds?) From Tokyo, whose anaemic rock (term used loosely) has shades of INXS without the faux funk. The singer's in better health than whoever fronts those guys these days but he carries himself like Steady Eddie.

Jon Buttplug Trio are worse than the night before. It's all I can do to throw down a couple of quick $7 beers and take up the usual position near the edge of the moshpit fence, waiting for him and his band to wither and dry like dogshit in the sun.

"Raw Power" summons the Stooges and it's a different set to the previous evening with a greater reliance on "Kill City" material. Performance-wise, it seems a notch up from the previous show. "Johanna" is worth bottling. Truly, the song that would have topped any other, at this juncture.

"La Blues" swirls into the "Skull Ring" riff and then into "Night Theme". The instrumental break is a strategic point for Iggy to get his fluids up and take in some oxygen.

"No Sense of Crime", "Kill City" and "Beyond The Law" are played. "1970" has extreme vitality.

Iggy seems more relaxed and up-beat. He fucks around with the crowd. He's down in the photographers' pit for "Dog" and tells a girl in a TOOL shirt that he's going to milk this one for so long that she's going to be waiting all night to see them. The same girl is later told that she's very beautiful but, you know, Her Pretty Face Is Going To Hell. Which is the encore, this time.

Expectations met on all fronts.



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