With Meredith Music Festival’s 30th anniversary in December having already released the pandemic-induced pressure valve, the 15th Golden Plains was somewhat unburdened of expectation. But if anyone was taking the festival for granted, it wasn’t its co-founder Chris Nolan, who opened the proceedings from his wheelchair with his customary “long blink” and a beaming, complacency-banishing smile.
Saturday kicked off with the festival’s common move of programming a local punk band, in this case Stiff Richards, who let rip some sufficiently functional riffs. Early technical issues unfortunately dampened the start of Mo’Ju’s following set, but nonetheless drew big cheers with their potent 2018 single ‘Native Tongue’ – a song commenting on the erasure of indigenous cultures at the hands of colonialism.
This is where we need to mention the one failing of this year’s festival. The First Nations artists on the first announcement of this year’s line-up were the Yolŋu funk, blues and reggae act Andrew Gurruwiwi band and the Yuin ambient experimental musician E Fishpool. Follow-up announcements added Mo’Ju, a performer of Filipino, European and Wiradjuri descent; DJ Kiti; Kalyani, one of the artists providing an interstitial soundtrack; and Uncle Barry Gilson, a Wadawurrung singer, poet and actor who led the festival’s opening smoking ceremony and a short 10-minute storytelling session on Saturday. It was a shame not to see more First Peoples-led acts in ‘peak’ slots this year.
Elsewhere though, Golden Plains’ booking was excellent. NYC hip hop duo Armand Hammer (Billy Woods and Elucid) delivered a fully blunted set of weirdness. At one point, after sips of tea, Woods pointed into the distance at the Meredith Eye carnival ride to proclaim: “I feel like the ferris wheel is tripping me out.” Dank, esoteric beat production was in abundance, with a brief sunny section ending with an impish warning from Woods: “That was the end of the good times, unfortunately. We only have so many happy songs.”
The day’s first crowd-favourite moment came with Mdou Moctar. Born in a small village in Niger, the self-taught Tuareg guitarist came to prominence through a West African network of cellphone-to-cellphone Bluetooth file sharing. Playing in the “assouf” blues rock style, the band’s rhythm section went fast and loose. Flanked by stacks of Marshall and Orange amps, Moctar deployed dexterous finger placements in aid of Zeppelin-like shredding. Moctar’s energy inadvertently pulled the rug out from under the excellent young London jazz band, Kokoroko.
As Angel Olsen soared, a vivid strip of crimson cut a blaze between a thick bank of clouds and the craggy horizon. Bikini Kill then took the stage, the reformed ’90s feminist punk icons in their element in the ‘Sup’s political arena. Bandleader Kathleen Hanna directed her classic “women to the front” rallying cry at men in the crowd, demanding they consider the space they take up at the festival and give up armrests on the plane. Hanna is hilarious, furious, righteous and brilliant.
Party mode hit as a silhouetted Rochelle Jordan left mouths agape with her blend of future R&B, drum’n’bass, and UK garage – influences absorbed from an Atlantic-crossing upbringing in London and Toronto to British-Jamaican parents. Sometimes all you need is a DJ, stage presence and killer voice to leave a crowd heaving and speechless.
Jordan was part of a double whammy with the Korean-Australian Sydney rap crew, 1300. At Meredith Music Festival 2018 Genesis Owusu played the same time slot to just a few hundred punters, but the amphitheatre was packed for 1300 – a testament to Australian hip-hop’s current golden moment. ‘CARDIO!’ went off, the band audibly stoked to play to such a huge crowd.
A slow start for NME on Sunday meant the day didn’t fully come alive until ’70s soul-jazz pioneer Brian Jackson, on his first Australian tour, took the stage. Jackson’s keyboard was rich, warm and melodious, and he even whipped out the flute for a round of instrumental call and response with the crowd. He won the award for best stage banter, with an extended explanation of why we all need to be more like peaceful, berry-eating gorillas.
Next, the crowd was left with full hearts and teary eyes after the almost impossibly endearing Soichi Terada led the audience on group jumping sessions and introduced them to origami “guest vocalists”. When Terada dropped his remix of Yasushi Fujimoto’s rework of Kiss’ ‘I Was Made for Loving You’, it was hard to tell if he was directing his affections at the crowd or the Kaoss Pad he cradled with reverence throughout the set. Probably both.
We’re going to abandon chronology now and jump forward to the festival’s headliner Carly Rae Jepsen, who could have simply walked on stage and emitted a small fart to make this NME reviewer’s night, such is their fandom. Jepsen’s surely the most capital-P pop act to ever grace the festival’s lone stage and her impeccably rehearsed, confetti cannon-armed set could have perhaps benefitted from a little more spontaneity. But that didn’t stop the crowd shredding their vocal cords to ‘Run Away With Me’, ‘Call Me Maybe’, ‘Now That I Found You’ and set-closer ‘Cut to the Feeling’.
On his third outing at the twin festivals, Four Tet returned for an extended three-hour slot – a privilege when just a few weeks earlier he’d been packing Madison Square Garden with Skrillex and Fred Again.. on the back of the trio’s track ‘Rumble’. Kieran Hebden mercifully left the done-to-death track out of his setlist, opting instead for heavy doses of pop remixes, from Selena Gomez’s ‘Hands to Myself’ to an a cappella of Ariana Grande’s ‘Into You’; or changing tack completely to drop hardcore band Minor Threat’s ‘Salad Days’; and of course ample waves of stomach-churning bass.
The festival’s most special moment, though, was Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s rapturous and long-overdue debut at Golden Plains. Lead singer Fran Keaney opened the set with a simple statement of truth: “This is a dream.” Every second was charged with unbridled pride, vigour and commitment. ‘Talking Straight’ got a huge singalong, the band’s friends were crying and nearby, a fan in their 60s couldn’t stop telling everyone how beautiful it was.
Rolling Blackouts’ set embodies something no international can understand about Golden Plains and Meredith: a set here is the highest honour for many Victorian musicians, the chance to play on the hallowed ground where they once peered out over a sea of thousands hoping they, too, would be up there on stage one day. Twice a year we get to share that moment with people like Keaney when their dreams are made real.
Editor’s Note: the third paragraph of this review has been edited to take into account First Nations artists booked on the Golden Plains 2023 line-up.
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