21 Apr A Wholesome Music Festival – By The Meadow 2018
The drive to By The Meadow doesn’t feel all that different to the drive to Meredith or Golden Plains. You head towards Geelong, you take the bypass and at some point, you take a turn off away from Geelong for 40 minutes. The first main difference that caught our attention was instead of going through a small town with a pub like Meredith, you read a green wooden sign that says Bambra Bushland Reserve – Removal Of Forest Produce Illegal. This sign sets the tone early, you now know you’re entering nature with some music inside, not a music festival carved into nature.
It feels like the location of the Shady Cottage 2016, on a farm in Trentham, except upon entry to Shady Cottage you went past the house on the property, reminding you that you’re on a farm. At By The Meadow, it took until 7 pm on Saturday for me to notice the location of the house on the farm, hidden back up the hill behind the back of the camping area. For 24 hours I could’ve easily have been in a National Park instead.
When you enter the festival site, there’s one woman checking the car for glass, but instead of the reasonably thorough search one would get at Meredith or the very thorough search at Falls Festival, there’s a trust by the woman. If you say you don’t have glass, she trusts that you’re telling the truth, no search is actually needed. This trust is important, like leaving your clothes by the side of a public pool; you’ll enjoy your swim more if you don’t consistently think somebody will steal your stuff.
By The Meadow has all the nice aspects of other Victorian boutique festivals. The area feels expansive yet close like Camp Casual 2015 in Gippsland. The divide between the tents and car area brings the friendly neighbour tents closer together like Inner Varnika 2013 in Ruffy. There’s an endless view as the sun descends like Paradise Music Festival on Lake Mountain. There’s a valley drop facing the sunset like Sunset Point at Meredith, except at this one you can also camp on it and make it your morning view from your tent. In the words of two overheard early comments “fuck it’s fucking nice” and “this feels like home, very calming.”
But no festival is perfect and there’s still some work in progress elements for By The Meadow. But first, the tunes:
Unfortunately, I missed Tram Cops, but he’s definitely an artist I’m curious to follow the progress of as he plays more live shows. The first band I saw was Totally Mild. If you were new to any of these artists, but you had some understanding and appreciation for hearing four individually talented musicians working together as a cohesive unit, creating something bigger than the sum of its parts, then Totally Mild would confuse you as to how they are still playing 500 people festivals. In another world where dream pop is pop, By The Meadow can’t snatch Totally Mild, because they are too busy headlining festivals worldwide. But instead we don’t live in that world, and lucky for us, because we get to hear them up close, with a quiet appreciation around us, on a sound system that’s 10 out of 10. Yes, the sound system was that good — it made hearing bands you’ve heard many times before a whole new experience.
Cameron Wade (who is behind By The Meadow) said in his interview that the sound was the most important thing to get right. I won’t get too technical, but essentially the sound system was the XD15 series by Martin Audio London with 3 stack X118 series (I think) subs on both sides. What that means was that bands had a full range of highs, mids and lows, and the wide frequency distinction was clear up close or up on the hill. You could hear separation between guitars, between different toms, it wasn’t quite like monitors in a studio, but it was an ear pleasure nonetheless. But the really impressive part was that because of the 6 subs, the electronic acts at night had a powerful low-end to work with, throttling your gut into the early hours. That’s hard to do and is rare at small festivals, to make both bands and electronic artists sound even better than most small venues in Melbourne.
Next up was The Harpoons, and despite having to restart one song due to I think laptop problems, they came home particularly strong and worked seamlessly as a segway into the Daydreams DJ set. Which is in part due to their latest album Amaro carrying a stronger house structure than their previous work, likely influenced by member Jack Madin’s latest side project Shouse, which dives into a variety of house genres.
Max and Mark of Daydreams (no Luke Pocock) know what time it is. They didn’t waste any time pretending this was a Sunday daytime Daydreams set at The Gasometer with light-outside house or disco. They got dark and hectic quick, taking turns whipping this party into shape. Then as soon as you thought you were in for a session of hard techno, they starting dropping lots of ’90s tracks and pop songs. Which isn’t my personal taste, but it’s a wise move to make at a festival, where people are generally more social and silly than in the club environment, but dropping Jimmy Barnes was surely too far. I know he’s relevant again due to that Kirin J Callinan collaboration, but I’m calling them out on that one, a very rare mistake. Almost as if they knew they pushed the boundaries a little too far, they won me back by dropping ‘On & On’ by Orbital, which again, on that sound system, had me lost in my head for at least five minutes
It also helped that the lighting technician was dialled in on every track drop and mood change. What a lot of big festivals do, is they tend to use their best technicians on the bands because they have a lot of pressure to not miss a cue, but then they generally tend to sub out and sleep when the DJ’s come on stage late at night. Usually, it’s either a young tech told not to use the best lights and save them for the bands or the sound guy takes over. Which often leads to bland and boring lighting just scrolling on a loop for the rest of the night. Which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when the lights are cued throughout the whole night, the highs are way higher — after all, there’s not much to look at during a DJ set, so the lighting is how we process the journey. This minor detail brightened many sets throughout the weekend.
As the Daydreams set continued beyond its intended finish time of 1 am, the crowd began to walk on to the stage, with no objections from Mark or Max. After all, everyone at By The Meadow felt like family (or at least felt like they could be trusted like family). With smiles on every face, the pin was finally pulled on the Daydreams set after they finished with ‘Call On Me’ by Eric Prydz, everyone began the “big” 2-minute walk back to their tents. If night one was meant to feel like an opening ceremony, then they hit the nail straight bang on its shiny head.
On the walk back to the tents, there were some security guards present, but so far back and away from the crowd of people that you never noticed them during any of the sets — but you could easily find them just in case you needed too, which is how it should always be. At the tents, there was condensation, it was cold, but I guess being on a hill near the sea lends itself to those sorts of conditions. It wasn’t Lake Mountain freezing, but I do recommend bringing solid sleeping gear if you plan on going in the future.
In the morning we went for a walk down the hill, past the By The Meadow sign, opened the gate and meandered the Kangaroo track. I don’t know what counts as a Kangaroo track, but my friend who lives in the country assured me that it was one.There was a creek maybe 20 metres further down the steep ditch, but we decided to do some brief yoga instead. After all, the sun was out, and we had some pleasant shade under a tree with no wind, and not a person to be heard near us. After around 30 minutes we ended up back at the campsite — it wasn’t quite the exploration you can take at Lake Mountain, but at least you can escape, unlike the current Inner Varnika location. It’s probably not further of a walk than the one you can take at Hopkins Creek, but at least people can’t still see you at By The Meadow, especially when you just need some escape time that’s not sitting on a public toilet.
Back to the stage action and it felt like Stella Donnelly was the headliner, or at least the name most talked about. She’s been generating attention in the US market and that appears to be helping her exposure back here in Australia. The crowd was all over the hill, sitting down with both ears pointed at the stage, like a school assembly by a guest speaker. After opening with a respectful stolen land speech, she played huge singles during her set such as ‘Mechanical Bull’ and ‘Boy Will Be Boys’. Even threw in a short funny song about the negatives of Sportsbet, that got plenty of laughs. Even told the funny story of explaining the EP title Thrush Metal to her formal Welsh family. This is where Stella is very impressive at such an early stage of her career — she commands the stage and people are just locked into everything she says. I haven’t seen a crowd more quietly locked in at a festival since The Tallest Man on Earth at Golden Plains 2013.
To help process Stella’s set, we took a break about 30 metres away on an open section of the hill to play Finska. Yes they had Finska, freely available for anyone to take and play anywhere they wanted. It was a great way to stretch the legs, meet a few locals confused by the game, and then clearly see when the Dianas were about to take the stage.
This is where I found myself scratching my head and shaking it at the same time. How is one of the countries best bands and best live bands, still completely unknown to even the niches of boutique festivals. Dianas had one of the smallest crowds of the entire weekend, maybe the crowd used the sunny afternoon as a chance to explore the festival campground, I don’t know. But what I do know is that Dianas are like punk angels from another world, almost telepathic with their on-stage musical chemistry. The kind that makes other bands watching say to each other “we need to get more in sync like them”. They’re the kind of band that wouldn’t work if they were missing a member, and despite it clearly being very hot on stage with the back wall all sealed up, by the end of the set the crowd was watching in awe (based solely on the look on their faces). Even when member Caitlin accidentally kicked her volume down via her guitar pedal, during their final song ‘Somebody Else,’ she kept her cool and managed to recover for the final explosive finish to the song — like a skateboarder messing up a trick, yet still managing to remain standing on the skateboard, pure class. My only advice on both the band’s end and the audio technician’s end would’ve been to lift the vocals, they were buried a tad too low in the mix (and this is coming from a fan of low vocals in mixes).
The next activity of the day had the right intentions but needed a little more originality. I’m not talking about the Welcome section, where Cameron and Ruby thanked all the workers, punters (for not destroying the stage during Daydreams the night before), bands and general vibe of the festival, which was all very cute. I’m talking about the running race up the hill in order for one man and then one woman to win a free pass to next year’s festival. The gender separation wasn’t the only awkward part, it’s the fact that this activity is something Meredith has held since the ‘90s. So any real exciting enthusiasm was mixed in with comments of “they took this from Meredith.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s very generous to give up two free passes, but there are so many ways this could be more creative. A stage talent show perhaps, or how about a wholesome activity course without gender separation, or clothes swapping, even — always hilarious, especially with strangers. At festivals like Camp Casual, they would have had dance circles and moments of musical yoga. You could take it one step further like Dan Deacon, and curate those spiral dance circles. Ground participation is so easy at a small festival, there’s nowhere to hide. If anything they should break up the sets with a few more activities throughout the day. Make the crowd very intimate with each other. Even before any music on the Friday, why not start with an activity down at the sunset point area — but I’ll speak more on that area soon.
I’ve seen Suss Cunts a few times now, and this probably wasn’t their best set. I’m guessing a combination of the heat and something else, like having to rush back to Melbourne, because the songs felt a tad rushed, even considering the already short length of them. However, even to fresh ears, the songs would’ve come across tightly constructed, led by their singer Nina Renee, who doesn’t mess around with half cooked ideas — she knows exactly what she wants with every song. This assertiveness makes you a believer in Suss Cunts, a quiet confidence, that they can weather any storm, and that this is still only just the beginning for the band. Or they might flame out at any moment, which makes each set even more vital.
Then came perhaps the favourite moment of the weekend, a real grounding reminder of how lucky and fortunate we are in Melbourne, and it didn’t really have anything to with the strength of our music scene. Recently, Pitchfork posted an article about how artists in the US are leading a trend of running their own festivals, small festivals with a communal feel, moving away from the generic commercial ‘play the set, get paid, and leave’ festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza. This article would be really exciting for people in the US, but as someone from Melbourne, where we’ve had small niche communal festival all around Victoria for this entire decade, you almost had to feel sorry for US music fans.
Which brings me back to the sunset gathering at By The Meadow. The location and the view would’ve been magical even in a windy gusty storm, but luckily for us we scored a warm gradient sunset spectacle. Painters couldn’t paint how magnificent the sunset was. The stroke of genius move by BTM (By The Meadow) was having a classical duo including a Cello, playing delicate arrangements including the Game Of Thrones theme song, that forced the gathering to keep chatter to a low volume and really take in this special country land we are surrounded by in Victoria. Even after a festival season that started all the way back in October and took me all around Victoria, by early April we’re still able to wear shorts and t-shirts at 7pm. This special secret world for 600 people did make you wonder how we got so lucky, and reminded us that we shouldn’t take any of it for granted, and that any missteps we could accuse of the festival of making, would really be us just being incredibly selfish.
I decided to leave behind my new found elderly friends drinking wine well outside my price range to check out Flowertruck‘s set. When I think of Sydney bands that I wish would make the permanent move to Melbourne, Flowertruck is definitely one of the first who come to mind. A lot of that is because I want the lead singer Charles Rushforth to reach his full potential, unleash his personality and get weird in ways he hasn’t yet achieved. He’s got the stage presence, the character, the vocals, the lyrics — he just needs to embrace weird, surround himself with madness and get lost in it. He’s just a bit too clean, a bit too tight. If those screws get loosened, he could become one of those lead singers that’s great in 20 years.
A good example of his confinement was his bewilderment of somebody bringing a couch down to the stage. Then his following bewilderment from the lack of crowd reaction to his comment. Now maybe he’s been to Meredith or Golden Plains before and forgotten, but it sounds more likely that he’s never been to either festival before. In that case Charles, there’s literally 100’s of couches down at the stage there and they feature everything from personal bars, to totem tennis poles, to popcorn machines. The stage comment that was however very funny, was when he described the feeling that all the festival’s millions of crickets must be experiencing down at their ground level. Comparing it to the end of the world or 100-foot tall Slipknot Monsters blasting music above us and then proceeding to dedicate the next song to the crickets. Then they finished with my favourite song moment of the weekend when Flowertruck emphatically played ‘Come Across’, a song I already featured on several of my Spotify playlists, but live on that Maxim PA it was another experience altogether. It couldn’t have felt more from the heart. Throw on top that keyboard hook by Sarah Sykes, which is as vintage as any Depeche Mode keyboard hook, and I looked like the take-all-my-money Futurama meme up on the hill.
If ‘Come Across’ was my favourite live song of the weekend, then The Senegambian Jazz Band were my favourite band of the weekend. There were numerous reasons why. They managed to ride that fine line between fun festive big band and tight, interesting, dissectible, headphone-worthy music. Then there was their noticeable pure enjoyment and smiles across all the members, the kind that comes from enjoying their own music and seeing the crowd’s warm reaction to it. Simple, but the enjoyment was mutual across everyone in the area. The real festival MVP however was the singer and Kora player Amadou Suso. He may be one of the coolest musicians in Melbourne. I have no idea what he’s like off stage, but I don’t want to ruin that illusion of just how cool he is. He automatically makes the band almost a must on every festival in the country, which would actually kind of suck, because I don’t want to get sick of The Senegambian Jazz Band, which could happen if everyone booked them, like they really should. They just spice up not only the Melbourne music scene, but the Australian music scene.
With an evident West African influence in his rhythms and flows, he makes you want to get down and be silly. More impressively the set never feels tiring, there’s enough variety in the arrangements that it makes you actually never want it to end, or at least for it to go a little longer. Whether it’s turning the Kora upside and playing it like a magician or covering a ‘90s song — of which I sadly can’t think of title, despite it being a very famous song (I’m better at naming obscure B-sides). Please DM me the song title if you were there.
I had to gather myself for a moment and went to get some food, $10 small pizzas to be exact, which hit the spot. On the way to the toilets I walked past a classic Australian scene. On the left people were watching Jaws in the movie theatre inside a country hut (props to the selection of movies including Trainspotting, Spirited Away and Kill Bill: Vol 1). Jaws may not be Australian, but a film about a killer shark is more Australian than any other country could claim. Then on the right I could see inside the First-Aid RV, yes a mobile home First-Aid (something you would see rock up to a country footy match), people watching the AFL live on Channel 7. Felt like a scene dropped from The Castle’s final edit. It was all very endearing, and because there was never any lines for the toilets in the toilet truck, I didn’t feel guilty sitting on the toilet for a while, while I typed down all my notes. A nice pause, something you don’t get at big festivals, where you know there’s a busting line outside the door and the guilt gets to you, forcing you to hurry up and not actually gather yourself for a few minutes. Or maybe that’s just me.
Outside of Billy Davis and Pjenné, the rest of the Saturday night set times could’ve been reworked more effectively, and again this is something BTM were aware of, and sometimes it’s unavoidable due to scheduling clashes and stage criteria etc. Firstly, Tiny Little Houses felt like somebody pulling you away from a dance floor (The Senegambian Jazz Band) for a serious D&M. I’m all for D&M’s, but the timing was off, the mood was too positive, those two bands should’ve switched set times. GUM was actually more interesting than I expected, a one-man show like D.D Dumbo, but more focused on snyth and guitar layering. But honestly I wasn’t expecting much — I’m surely not the only person a bit tired of Tame Impala members getting so much exposure (over far more interesting Australian musicians), simply because Kevin Parker is a genius. Jay Watson tried his best — he comes across as a good dude, no ego. Apparently, he was originally meant to have a band, again he would’ve worked better before Senegambian and Billy Davis. Darcy Baylis was also his usual hard-to-pin-down self, twisting and turning from ‘90s electronica to hip-hop to PBR-RnB. It was more noteworthy and discussion worthy than party mood. Which is how Paradise used him when he played upstairs in clubland, while there was an option of basement party DJs at the same time downstairs. Giving punters an option. The crowd was a little confused at BTM by the set time pacing at this point and started to thin out.
Which was unfortunate for Pjenné, who was 100% from the get go. The lighting guy made a big no-no by sitting tight on the lights for like 20 minutes — FYI, DJ set lighting must be 80% go-go from the start, very different to lighting a band or group. This really hurt the early momentum of loosening up the crowd, which was evident by the time the lights got moving and the crowd finally appeared to be back in full party mode, but a good 4 hours later than the full party mood during Billy Davis. For those who hung around, it was a genre world tour experience hour, with the only blemish being playing too much Kylie Minogue, again another trend I wish Melbourne DJs would stop, trying to be too cute and full-circle self-aware, playing pop songs we’ve already played too much for the last 20 years. There’s so much amazing music out there, new and old. Keep it exciting, please. It’s really hard to not get behind Pjenné, who sings along to many of the songs dropped, and chats to everyone in the front row.
The music stopped at 4 am, and for most, it was late enough, however as someone who loves dancing until sunrise at festivals, I had to take the UEboom down the hill to continue the party. Only 8 other people came along, but it’s when I started to jog down notes on how the festival’s identity needs clarifying. By finishing the nights with DJs, some punters come along thinking each night will be a loose party. Instead the DJs need to be advertised as a little boogie before bed or just spread out between the bands, and they had the right lighter DJs to do so. I think to advertise the festival as a day and evening festival, a summer season winde down, would help its market and would leave punters a little less confused at the end of the night. A lot of this was also my fault, naturally assuming the nights should finish the same way, just like every other festival, instead of viewing By The Meadow differently.
This was a notion I didn’t fully grasp until the next morning with a lush closing combination of Leah Senior (who Lachlan, during the following The Ocean Party set, claimed to be his favourite set in a long time) and The Ocean Party. It’s an unfortunate situation Leah Senior find themselves in. Their calm, angelic lulling atmosphere is ideal for festival recovery mornings, I can honestly only think of one other equal option in Australia, that being Dannika. The unfortunate part is that Leah deserves a later time-slot, a bigger audience. Maybe that’s why two of the band members started the more upbeat and fun band Girlatones, trying to break their typecast.
Having said that, Leah Senior looked liked she had grown up on this farm, her music embodied the purity of the country community.
Despite some strong wind kicking in and knocking down the fences around the stage, nothing could prevent the sound during The Ocean Party. I question every PA I’ve ever heard them play through, and there’s been a lot of PA’s I’ve heard them play through. I sat on the hill thinking “oh, this is what they must actually sound like in the studio.” Almost like a jump from Earbuds to $1000 open headphones. They introduced a guest pan flute player as Aldani, which I still find funny typing this up weeks later and I don’t even know the story behind the joke. I think he’s from the band Cool Sounds. Then after reading on Facebook that Snowy (their Saxophone player) couldn’t find his Saxophone the day before, in true dolewave DYI fashion they closed with a local classic ‘Head Down’ with Snowy bringing it home via somebody else’s Saxophone. Please never change, The Ocean Party.
And that’s it, really. By The Meadow is a few slight adjustments from being a flawless wholesome weekend. Add some gripple wire across the stage, hang some ferns. Get rid of the gap between the stage and the crowd, no fence needed, bring everyone together. Add one more vegan option and group activities between sets. Open the gates earlier on the first day, give people a couple hours to set up their tents before the first band. Really minor adjustments, that’s just how impressive By The Meadow truly is.