Review: Harvest Festival 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve really looked forward to a music festival. Sure, there are some good lineups kicking around (as well as some less-than-stellar ones), but facing the hoards of drunken, fake-tanned bogans coupled with ridiculous drink prices and excruciating lines for basic amenities makes the soaring ticket prices hardly enticing. Harvest, on the other hand, billed itself as the ‘thinking man’s festival’ and promised a decidedly more civilised affair. If your pretentiousness alarm bells are ringing, you wouldn’t be too wrong – the first line of the free program handed out congratulated punters for having ‘good music taste’- but Harvest certainly lived up to its promise, delivering a stellar-lineup of bands with one of the best atmospheres of any festival I’ve been to.

From the moment we arrived at the entry gates it was obvious Harvest was going to be a different beast to Parklife, the last festival I’d attended at the Botanic Gardens (I always feel obliged to couple that statement with the fact that I didn’t pay for the ticket). There were no entry queues, and I even had to ask the security guard if he would like to check my manbag (although reports of security confiscating sunscreen bottles later in the day suggested my ease of entry was perhaps an anomaly). Within five minutes of entering the grounds we’d already witnessed a cabaret tent and crawled through an Arctic Wonder Tunnel; it was obvious the organisers had gone to lengths to make this more than your average one-day festival.

At the recommendation of a friend we’d arrived early to check out Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a band consisting of 8 brothers promising an eclectic mix of brass and hip-hop. I don’t know what their parents fed them, but there is some serious talent in this family. It was as if your high school stage band ditched the awkward braces and asthmatics and replaced them with funky black dudes. And man, did they have style. Despite the blazing midday heat the small crowd at the Riverstage lapped up every horn-filled note and boogied down.

Next up were the Walkmen, who eschewed any of their more up-beat hits for a decidedly mellow mid-afternoon set. While frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s voice was delicious as ever, the set was lacking the frenetic energy the band is known for. When most of the conversation in the crowd turned to the minute size of the drummer, it was clear that they’d lost everyone. Opting not to play their two biggest songs didn’t exactly help either.

Fortunately it was all uphill from there, and by all accounts the rest of the day did not dish up a single disappointment. We caught the end of the Family Stone, or what we thought was the end – after declaring it their second-last song they played for no less than 25 more minutes – and secured a prime spot for TV on the Radio. The Brooklyn band are up there with my all time faves, and even after a tough year (longtime bassist Gerard Smith passed away in April) they managed to blow away the now-packed Riverstage. The decision to give all bands at least an hour to play proved fruitful, with a mix of new tracks and selections from their much-loved back catalogue. Caffeinated Consciousness proved that event art-rockers can suit arena crowds, while Blues From Down Here proved the trombonist’s mettle. But it was the re-worked Staring at the Sun and perennial favourite Wolf Like Me that really got the crowd going. While sometimes the volume did seem to be unnecessarily turned up to eleven, the band did not disappoint.

After working up enough sweat to fill a small lake we decided to take it a bit easier and secure a prime-viewing spot on the hill for Bright Eyes. While I’ve never been a huge fan (apparently I wasn’t angsty enough in high school to warrant repeat listens), the crowd was obviously lapping up Conor Oberst’s emo-tinged indie rock. Opening with Lover I Don’t Have to Love, Oberst worked his way through the band’s considerable back-catalogue, but it wasn’t until he stripped it back to himself and a trumpet for Lua that he really shone. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Riverstage crowd so silent.

Having been in Europe for the best part of this year I’ve seen my fair share of excellent bands, but few have topped the surreal experience of the National at Sunset Sounds in January. Nothing could beat the moment during England where the flood-worthy rains started pouring down on the crowd, and while there were no similar otherworldly weather patterns during this set the Ohio quintet were still a festival highlight. Playing songs from both the critically acclaimed High Violet and my personal favourite of theirs, Boxer, the National kept it pretty similar to their January performance – but why mess with such a good thing?

Much has been said about the Flaming Lips’ live set, to the point where the entrance-via-vagina and enough confetti for 1000 weddings have become expected. There’s a reason for that though – because the psychedelic freak-show that the Lips put on is like nothing else you’ll ever see. All the hallmarks were there – Wayne Coyne having a ball in the ball (sorry), the balloons over the crowd and the on-stage dancers. It was most impressive though when Coyne produced giant-sized hands, from which lasers shot out onto a disco ball, bathing the audience. While it was all very impressive, I can’t help wonder what the show would be like without the gimmicks – and the couple of songs in the middle that were stripped back to the basics suggested perhaps they were in danger of becoming boring. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and Do you Realise? have both stood the test of time though, and made for an impressive set.

But in the end it was the inclusion of 90s trip-hop legends Portishead that capped off an incredible day. After the fanfare of the Flaming Lips, Beth Gibbons and co proved that nothing but music and some impressive visuals were more than enough leave the crowd entranced. Set highlights included The Rip, Threads and Machine Gun, which really was made to be played in a setting like the Riverstage. While the inclusion of Glory Box mid-set ensured casual fans left early, it was to their detriment; first encore Roads silenced the audience for a second time that day, and closer We Carry On was a fitting end to a 15-month tour, and to a wonderful day.

Any worries of logistical problems plaguing the southern legs of the festival were soon quelled, and in all Harvest was an excellent festival with consistently impressive performances from some stellar bands. It’s hard to think of a single thing to fault – even the crowd was the most well-behaved (and most appropriately clothed!) of any I’ve ever seen. I’m already planning my dream lineup for next year.


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