Harvest Festival 2011 @ Brisbane Riverstage

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9 Dic 2011, 0:18

Harvest Festival
Riverstage and Botanical Gardens, Brisbane
Saturday 19 November 2011

Harvest Festival is not above flattery. “Congratulations on your good taste and adventurous spirit,” reads the first line of the 36 page colour program I’m handed upon entry. This psychological ploy makes me smile. Which music fan, anywhere in the world, does not believe that they have the finest music taste? To argue otherwise suggests a lack of self-belief, or false modesty. And the rest of us? Our taste is fantastic. The best. Thanks for asking, Harvest. For AJ Maddah to align his festival with that sort of stroked-ego sycophancy exemplifies tact, and more than a little self-belief of his own. After all, he booked the bands.

“You are about to witness an amazing collection of great artists and memorable performances.” No minced words there. He then bangs on for a few short paragraphs about a vaudeville tent named Le Boudoir, a Secret Garden full of “world renowned DJs” and “specially designed seating”, and the festival’s Australian art installations and “troupe performances popping up from nowhere”. (Maddah’s emphasis on the nationality of the art is interesting, given that of the five Australian acts on the main stages, just one (Gung Ho) is not from Sydney and all are confined to the smallest one – The Big Red Tractor Stage. His other festival, Soundwave, traditionally has but a couple of Australian artists each year.) AJ’s program spiel ends with the line, “We know that you have come for the bands but hope you will return year after year for the experience!”

In the lead-up to the event, an emphasis was placed on how Harvest is “a feeling, not just a festival”. That’s a fairly airy-fairy thing to say while attempting to make a mark in an already crowded festival market; let alone in the notoriously cutthroat live music industry. What could this statement mean, exactly? Clearly, Harvest is pitched slightly left-of-centre. It is, apparently, for the more discerning punter. More mature, perhaps; not just in age, but probably in terms of “good taste”, too. I think about this statement all day. Though it’s probably marketing-speak not worth the scrap of paper it was scrawled on, perhaps there is some truth to AJ’s spin.

Those words flit across my mind while I watch Portishead. What feeling might they embody, then? I think ‘isolation’, then ‘boredom’. Cruel, perhaps. After an hour drinking in their enormous sound, though, I settle upon ‘empathy’. You’d have to be a hard bastard to not believe that Beth Gibbons was in a dark place, hurting, when she wrote these songs all those years ago. Even if she’s putting on a mask, 17 years later – who could sustain real sadness and hurt for so long, and still function as a performer at this level? – it’s a very convincing act. I fall for it, time and again. Right up until she thanks the crowd, and then lets out a nervous little laugh, just before the encore break. The spell is broken then and there, but I like her – and her band – a lot more after that tiny reveal of real human emotion. Earlier, I was put in mind of Interpol’s headline performance on this same stage in January. That, like this, was technically brilliant but delivered from a position of icy disaffection. The overwhelming enormity of a song like ‘Glory Box’ reduces these kinds of complaints to cinders, though, thanks particularly to its cutting, perfect guitar solo. During the encore break, two of the band members return to stage to thank AJ by name. “It’s tough doing festivals at the moment,” one says, “but I think this has got a really good vibe.”

Maddah seems to have won the hearts and minds of more than one band on the festival. Even Mogwai, the Scottish post-rock act whose pummelling output suggests inner gloom and discontent, make a point of dedicating their final song, ‘Batcat’, to their fellow acts on the bill. I stand behind the sound desk for the duration of their set, and watch the decibel meter spring from 70 to 95 – which, coincidentally, is the maximum sound level allowed on this stage, according to a note posted above the meter – during their 11 minute version of ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’. Weirdly, it doesn’t feel anywhere near loud enough, though the sudden explosion from near-silence to extreme noise provokes a surprised “Wow!” or two from those near me. On the same stage immediately afterwards, seeing The Flaming Lips for the first time is something best experienced, rather than described. The first 30 minutes engage all of the senses in the most impressive way possible. Then my attention dives off a cliff, until ‘Do You Realise??’ – though Wayne Coyne’s giant laser hands were awesome. The Lips look like they’re having more fun than every other band in the world put together, and they’re incredibly effective at translating that feeling from artist to listener. Now, finally, I understand and accept why so many people love this band. I think I do, too.

You’d have to drastically self-sabotage to have a bad time at Harvest, Brisbane. The weather’s perfect; neither food nor liquid supplies run out; I don’t queue for more than five minutes for anything; there’s a cash bar; there’s very little sound bleed; there’s enough toilets, and there are no bottlenecks between stages. It is a joy to attend a festival operating in perfect sync. While its southern cousins each drew a short straw, it seems, Harvest Brisbane is as near to a 10/10 as I’ve ever witnessed. The only act that comes close to disappointing me is The Walkmen, and they make up for their charmless meanderings by nailing their classic single ‘The Rat’. TV On The Radio own the main stage; their hour-long set continues to build momentum until the cathartic rush of ‘Wolf Like Me’. The Family Stone are wonderful, even if they do bang on about their Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame credentials a little too much. Bright Eyes, too, feel at home on the main stage: Conor Oberst’s transformation from introspective geek to stadium-sized everyman is remarkable.

Mercury Rev don’t impress me too much, though I wonder whether I’d feel the same way if they played at 8pm rather than three. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah provoke an excellent nostalgic trip by playing plenty from their still-great 2005 debut, while Hypnotic Brass Ensemble are uniformly enthralling across their hour-long set; local trio Gung Ho do a serviceable impression of their favourite post-punk bands, and Kevin Devine and his guitar provide a pleasant sight and sound to enter the festival just after 11.30am.

Between then and Portishead’s truly muscular headlining set, there’s a huge amount of good music and, yes, good feelings. Maddah’s gambit seems to be on the money, after all: though it was the bands that got us interested this time around, the festival in its entirety proves such a pleasant way to spend a Saturday that he’s likely to have won over a healthy proportion of repeat customers. Although, a tweet made by AJ immediately after the festival (then swiftly deleted) – “Wow! What a kick in the teeth. Just been informed by Parks Dept that this is the 1st & last Brisbane#HarvestAus” – hints that next year might be a challenge. Worth fighting for, I reckon, AJ.

The Vine

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