Music festivals are back – I’m ready for the magic and mischief

We welcome the return of music festivals to Australia and all the marvelous, multifaceted memories they’ll help us make

One of the very last moments I vividly recall before the world shut down was standing in the Supernatural Amphitheatre at Golden Plains, pressed in with thousands of humans, my partner beside me, while the crowd howled: “This monkey’s gone to heaven!

We were watching Pixies headline the two-day festival in regional Victoria, one of the last to take place before the pandemic brought the live music industry to a crashing halt. It’s for that reason this moment is seared deeply in my mind – but also because I was six weeks pregnant and very sober. I had never experienced a festival like this before.

I remember staring around at the glinting lights and the swirl of faces and costumes and swaying boots, thinking just how different this was to my usual Golden Plains or Meredith Music Festival (both festivals which, full disclosure, I now do some writing for). Only a few years earlier, I would have been not-so-lucid and ready to spend the night dancing with strangers, drinking Pink Flamingos and watching the sun rise.This time round, when the Pixies were done, I returned to my campsite, packed up the car and drove home – stopping by Maccas, not to ease a hangover but rather to skoll a pick-me-up hot chocolate.

Music festivals have long been a rite of passage in Australia, perhaps more so here than anywhere else in the world. In part, I think this is because of the pioneering and enduring legacy of the Big Day Out, but also because there is something in our cultural sensibility that draws us to parties in the great outdoors. From small dusty bush doofs to 30,000-plus capacity gigs at a showground, the history and the well run deep.

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The recent news is that things are shifting dramatically for the touring music industry. That’s not just because of the grim post-lockdowns economic turn, but also due to the very real effects of climate change forcing the cancellation of so many festivals. It’s made me reflect on how imprinted these events are on our lives. While festivals are a young person’s rite of passage, there is something beautiful about the way we grow up, out of, and alongside them.

As a twentysomething attending Meredith for the first time I would never envisaged being there 15 years later. I’m not sure what would have surprised me more: the fact that I’d still be at festivals when pregnant or the fact that I’d be watching a reformed Pixies for about the fifth time.

Lana Del Rey
The author with Lana Del Rey at Splendour 2012. Courtesy Sarah Smith

In truth, music festivals have become markers of my adulthood. Soundtracks and parties to which I can attach all the important stuff: relationships, jobs, breakups, flings.

I had my first real-deal festival experience aged 18 at Falls Festival in Lorne. Most of my friends had already gone to at least one Big Day Out by then, but I could never seem to wrangle the ticket money or convince my parents to let me go. My memories of that first Falls in 2002 are vague at best. I do know that I didn’t shower for three days and that the Black Eyed Peas introduced a confused crowd of sunburnt kids to their new singer “Fergie” for the first time.

Every year of my life since that first big festival experience is littered with memories that have seeped into my bones – both professionally as a music writer, personally as a music lover, and a whole lot of stuff in-between.

There are those big, silly, starry-eyed moments. Like when I watched a 16 year-old Lorde – flown in to replace Frank Ocean – side-of-stage at Splendour 2013, pre-‘Pure Heroine’ in her first ever big festival performance, knowing full well we were in the presence of a future superstar. A year earlier Lana Del Rey, dressed like a bride, beamed for a selfie with me after playing an iconic set in a much smaller tent at the same event. While at the BDO 2006 Iggy Pop gently sat down and grabbed my shoulder with his leathery hand to help steady me after my brother had shoved me over the barrier to dance onstage with The Stooges.

“While festivals are a young person’s rite of passage, there is something beautiful about the way we grow up, out of, and alongside them”

Then there are the moments that are more ephemeral but deeply emotional. In 2011, having moved back to my hometown of Melbourne after years away and newly reunited with my best friend, I danced madly to a bug-eyed and ballistic Les Savy Fav at Laneway Festival, feeling in that second like life made sense again. Only months before, we’d stood watching Leonard Cohen sing under a moonlit sky at Hanging Rock. It was the first ever concert to be held at that site, not far from my family’s farm, and took place eight weeks after my Dad died. Nothing will ever compare to hearing Cohen’s voice that night.

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And that brings us back to the Supernatural Amphitheatre, where – long before being knocked up while watching the Pixies – I’ve had hundreds of these moments, tiny and large.

Golden Plains 2020
The author and her partner at Golden Plains 2020, one of the last festivals before the pandemic took hold. Courtesy Sarah Smith

The first time I stepped foot into the Nolan Farm was 2005. I was sunburnt before the event and wholly unprepared. It was a transformative weekend, over which I’d sip badly mixed gin drinks out of milk containers and dance wildly to an ascendant Eddy Current Suppression Ring and a pitch-perfect Blackalicious. Between Golden Plains and Meredith I’ve watched friends get married, engaged, break up, and make up. I cried with grieving mates watching Neil Finn sing ‘Better Be Home Soon’. I bumped into (and thanked) a beaming Nile Rodgers wandering the crowd after an era-defining set with Chic. And I’m pretty sure I saw God (or was it just a mirrorball?) watching Grinderman spit into the void on a dark and cloudy night.

In the two years since music festivals were shut down, all of this colour – the soundtracking to pashes, the mischief-making, the dancing, the late-night conversations and the pure joy – has been on hold. And it’s only now, as festivals return and we watch them face a whole new and very real threat, that I finally get that music festivals aren’t just a rite of passage. They’re the stuff that makes us.

Get all the latest Australia music festival news here at NME

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