Ask anyone in Melbourne what they’ve missed the most over the past year, and one thing they’re likely to say is “live music”. Before COVID-19, you could take any night of the week in the ‘live music capital of the world’ and find best-in-class international acts alongside the buzziest up-and-comers in dive bars, pubs and iconic band rooms all over the city.
So when gigs were taken away from Melbourne by one of the world’s longest and most punishing lockdowns, it was an especially cruel blow to an already difficult situation. Melbourne’s live music industry has been hit particularly hard – even when they’ve been permitted to open, venues have been subject to strict density limits that have meant many haven’t been able to open at all. In Victoria, billed by its government as the Creative State, music venues have been, in their own words, on a road to nowhere.
Play On Victoria, then, is the state’s first major attempt at course correction. At this “COVIDSafe Test Event”, 4,000 people gathered at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in a celebration of what Melbourne has been longing for. Despite the limited audience capacity, the crowd was far from homogenous, uniting Brunswick hipsters, old-school pub rockers, adrenaline-fuelled teenagers and inner-city families going out together, possibly for the first time in months.
Play On Victoria’s line-up showcased the diversity of Melbourne music, treating punters to some of the best acts in the game right now, all raring to go after months deprived of a live audience. Opener Grace Cummings proved herself a star in the making, debuting songs from her forthcoming album ‘Storm Queen’ with precision and grace. The closing title track was a particularly memorable moment, a hush falling over the venue as her timeless voice worked wonders.
Vika and Linda demonstrated why they’re so revered, delivering a career-spanning set of their bluesy soul music. Baker Boy’s energetic, genre-hopping sound got the crowd dancing, his debut album ‘Gela’ finally blooming to life on stage, boosted with a tight rhythm section and dazzling choreography. He performed standout single ‘Cool As Hell’ just in time to see off the rain, its funk-rap bounce beckoning in some of the only sunshine of the day.
But the best was saved until last. Amyl and the Sniffers came out grinning from ear-to-ear, tearing through new album ‘Comfort to Me’. The single ‘Security’, a future anthem of sweaty pub gatherings, was a real highlight of the night, with frontwoman Amy Taylor taking her performance directly to the security guards at the front of the stage.
All day there was fervent chatter among the punters about what kind of set King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard would craft from their extensive musical universe. The throwback metal of ‘Infest the Rat’s Nest’? The soft synth pop of ‘Butterfly 3000’? The answer was a bit of everything. Frontman Stu Mackenzie proved a man of many personas as he led the band through a meticulously crafted psychedelic journey, including fan favourite ‘Gamma Ray’ which was met with rapturous applause as soon as the ‘Nonagon Infinity’ album artwork came on screen.
There’s still a ways to go before live music is truly back in Melbourne, a city that’s had its hopes dashed too many times in the past two years. Venue restrictions are expected to ease further once the state reaches 90 per cent double-dose vaccinations, a milestone it’s estimated it’ll reach in late November, and even then it will take time and much support for these hundreds of venues to get back on their feet. Nevertheless, for the thousands lucky enough to snag tickets, Play On Victoria was a much-needed reminder that hope is on the horizon.