Monday, 27 February 2012

Soundwave Sydney 2012

Unusually for a Sunday, I was up at 9am this week for my first big Australian festival. As opposed to English festivals, which tend to be over long weekends in one place, with people camping over, the Aussie festival norm is a one-dayer that tours around the country. This doesn't mean the bill is a light one though: 97 bands were spread over 7/13 stages (depending how you count - most "stages" are actually paired up to enable rapid switchovers between bands, a definite plus point).

Getting into the festival had a few downsides; the queue was vast and I'm sorry to say that we had to cheekily jump it or we would have missed Royal Republic, who were the whole reason we'd arrived so early! More gates guys, come on! This is especially important on a one-day festival, where everybody is arriving on that day rather than already being there camping. Then to make matters worse, it seems the security protocol extends beyond the usual glass bottles, booze and weapons rules: I had to surrender the 3 sausage sandwiches I'd brought with me, and my friend's toilet paper was also confiscated. No time to grieve though, we grabbed a map and headed for Royal Republic's stage.

The map was another slight issue - it neglected to point out the several buildings that housed or blocked several stages. We managed to find our way into the deserted warehouse hosting Stage 5 just a minute before the Royal boys came on. They rocked as hard as ever, although we did worry about singer Adam's increasing skinniness... the boy needs to learn as I did about Dagwood Dogs, the ultimate in Australian festival cuisine: essentially a battered sausage on a stick. I had 2.

After Royal Republic we popped over to see London's Smoking Hearts, who were up against it with only 4 people in the audience ever having heard of them before, but they won the crowd over and topped the set off by the whole band bar drummer clearing the barrier and playing in the audience. Then it was time to check out the main stages, which were inside a stadium. Here's where Soundwave chalks another point up against the UK festivals: seats, both comfortable and enabling a better view of proceedings.

The first band we saw on the main stage was Steel Panther. I was dubious about these guys for some time as they appeared to be mocking the sort of music I love, but I've seen them a few times now and think they're one of the most talented bands out there. Kind of wish they'd ditch the "comedy" aspect though as it still undermines the rockingness of the tunes and the sweet playing a little. Next up was Lostprophets, the Welsh soundtrack to many a Nottingham Rock City club night. Unfortunately the singer was struggling to keep his voice as the set wore on, and they win my prize for "worst onstage moment of the day" with the grating "lalalala" singalong... I've still got a bit of a headache left from that.

I caught Alter Bridge in London a couple of months ago (filming their DVD actually) and their performance in Sydney was strong but Mark Tremonti is still suffering from the inclination to cover all of his [probably impressive] guitar playing with such a ludicrous amount of wah-wah that he might as well be a terrible guitarist. Since I'd seen Alter Bridge recently, and in a better venue, I agreed to miss the end of their set to go and watch You Me At Six, who apparently are big news with the kidz these days. I thought they were pretty weak - like if you were 14 and hadn't heard bands before and these guys were in the year above you at school you'd be impressed. But I'm 28 and grumpy. I became grumpier still when word hit that Slash had joined Alter Bridge onstage. Despite my most valiant efforts to run back to see him, the band had finished before I got there. NNNNNOOOOOOOOOO!!!! At least I've seen him before.

When I was 12 and just starting to learn guitar, the first song I learned to play in a band was Machinehead by Bush (I can still remember my friend talking me through how to play the opening riff: up 2 frets, up 1 fret, up 2 frets). I even had one of their UK tour t-shirts that a friend got me as I was too young to go along. Fast forward a decade and a half and I was finally seeing them live, and better yet: they opened with Machinehead! Overall the band seemed to be lacking a little magic, but Gavin Rossdale pulled out all the stops, heading down to the barriers, rocking out on his knees, and - obviously been hitting the gym in recent years - looking quite like Steven Seagal.

Following Bush and sounding great were Bad Religion. I didn't bother braving the crowds to get too close as I had tickets to see them later in the week headling their own show, or "Sidewave". Another interesting byproduct of the Australian touring festival is that the festival dates typically occur on weekend days, giving bands the week off in between to do press and play their own smaller gigs. This is a great way of giving more to the fans, and presumably easing the financial strain of travelling thousands of miles to play a gig.

Another teenage favourite whose live appearances have until now eluded me are Limp Bizkit. When they played Sydney 11 years ago a girl named Jessica was tragically killed in the crowd, and Fred Durst took the opportunity to honour her this year with a touching speech and giant banner, pitched just right. Fred's juice diet didn't come up. Reflecting on Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland's infamous affection for costumes, it occurred to me that he is now essentially expendable - you could just put someone else a similar size in a costume and face paint and nobody would know. Like Kevin Kline in Dave.

Escaping from the main stadium, the next band I saw was Strung Out. Their set started with such appalling sound that the crowd started throwing missiles at the sound desk, who seemed completely oblivious to the fact that neither guitar was audible at all (amongst a myriad of other sound issues). It was the worst sound I've heard since... well, since Soundgarden at the Sydney Entertainment Centre last month - the southern hemisphere needs better sound engineers! When eventually the sound was sorted, I enjoyed Strung Out, as I did I Am The Avalanche afterwards. I'd checked out IATA online a few weeks back and found their recordings to be generic and uninspiring, but clearly they need a better producer as the live show better portrayed their grunt and character.

With the sun now sunk, it was headliner time. My first ever "proper" gig was System Of A Down at Rock City touring their first album, and over the years I've seen them a few times, growing into a bonafide festival headliner with aplomb. They always seem to be scheduled against other great bands though - last year I missed the first half of their Download set to watch Alice Cooper (well worth it), and this time I missed the second half of their set to go check out Sisters of Mercy, who didn't disappoint when I found them shrouded in smoke in a dark warehouse - exactly where Mr Eldritch belongs!

Overall, a beaut bonzer ripper festival experience, cheers Soundwave!