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Live Review: With the future of NSW festivals uncertain, Farmer & The Owl felt like a step in the right direction

14 March 2019 | 9:48 am | Michael Stratford Hutch

“Thank you for being part of the fabric of our lives” said Beach House’s Alex Scally, near the end of their set. As I walked back to the train station in Wollongong, I inevitably tried to formulate some kind of takeaway from my time at Farmer & The Owl 2019, and it was this phrase that my mind continued to circle around. Even for days after, “Thank you for being part of the fabric of our lives” continued to resonate within me - such a simple string of words, yet a rare encapsulation of the true and honest power of a great festival set, and of great festival experiences in general.

Farmer & The Owl has been an interesting proposition in my mind since its announcement in 2018, facing a unique set of challenges in both inception and production that I was honestly not sure it could handle. Curated by a team that includes members of Hockey Dad, Totally Unicorn, The Pinheads, TEES and Tropical Strength, and situated in the heart of Wollongong at McCabe Park, the festival couldn’t have come at a worse time for festivals in NSW. On top of this, festivals seemingly refuse to reckon with the monoculture of gronk-y guitar dudes, and endless producer-and-guest-vocalist clones which dominate bills. Any festival worth its ticket price would somehow need to navigate heinous over-regulation and curatorial inertia, a combination that the majority of festivals fail to do.

As the first lineup was announced in late November last year, however, I couldn’t help but feel that I had become a little jaded. What a fucking good line-up - with balance of gender and genre, a lot of genuinely surprising, slightly obscure bookings, and obvious real engagement with local talent. The kind of festival that can book Beach House, The Garden, Rhye, Stella Donnelly, Amyl & The Sniffers, RVG, Party Dozen, Lucy Cliché and Godtet in the same breath, is definitely one worth investigating.

Despite being greeted by a small army of police officers upon arrival, I found myself feeling remarkably positive for someone who swore off festivals in 2015. Checking out the lay of the festival site, I found eager attendees wherever I went, despite it being early, and despite the size of the site making crowds seem smaller than they were.

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Planète was first on my watch-list: his set emerged from bubbling synths, before moving quickly into propulsive beats. The relatively short set was a lovely way to ease into proceedings, with flourishes of arpeggiation used periodically.

Jon Watts cut through white noise with an alluring synth-line, delivering his sonic sleights of hand with a quiet confidence, shifting from one idea to the other almost imperceptibly. Watts pulled from the mesmeric rhythms of trance and raver synths, refracting them through a darker, more abstract prism to great effect.

Lucy Cliché, who followed, was an immediate and active presence, physically engaging with her live analogue set up, crafting snappy, grooving rhythms from the ground up. Incorporating the full range of drum machine sounds, mutagenic arps and electro basslines, Cliché’s work has an infectious sense of pulse, and she just gets synth timbre, choosing layered tones that really sink their teeth in. As percussive elements morphed in and out of the periphery, a definite highlight was hearing the filth of ‘Heady Duet’ emerge - one of my favourite tracks from 2018.

Heading into the evening, Banoffee opened with early single ‘Let’s Go To The Beach,’ wearing a “Fuck Patriarchy” t-shirt and delivering her off-centre pop goodness like an underground star. Her use of only a backing track was alleviated somewhat by her stage presence, which was unwaveringly focused and professional. Mostly, I thought about how uncanny it would feel to go from playing international arenas with Charli XCX to playing a park in Wollongong.

Rhye was backed by a full band for his set, a twilit stunner of a performance which fleshed out his sound completely. His signature lilting voice was a welcome contrast to the harsher punk voices of the daytime, and with the help of his band extended songs into longer, satisfying jam sessions.

Gavin Rayna Russom presented a choice selection of classic spins across disco and house, with hints of acid here and there. It felt slightly anomalous to see the LCD Soundsystem member removed from that context, but they played a fun set as the sun went down, with clear through-lines to their work with the dance punk icons.

At the main stage, festival headliners Beach House dove straight into ‘Dark Spring,’ radiating a wall of sound and light that drew onlookers in like moths. The backlit silhouettes of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally were powerful in their symbolism: that their music was not about them, that it was about a feeling rather than a knowing, or perhaps, that feeling is in fact knowing. I have to hand it to their lighting designer too, they captured exactly what makes Beach House so singular in terms of sonics and translated it near-perfectly to light and projection. Overall, an incredible set, and one I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

Sitting on the train, I couldn't help but ask myself: What happens when the fabric of our lives, as Scally put it, no longer includes adequate and safe access to our culture? My experience of Farmer & The Owl, surrounded by friends, music-lovers, the occasional gronk, and way-too-fucking-many cops, was brought into much sharper relief by this question. All I have to say in response is that, with the future of festivals uncertain, Farmer & The Owl was very much a step in the right direction, and a pretty bold experiment that I hope to see repeated. If there’s a next time I’d love to see less stages, and more integration between electronic and guitar-based acts, but apart from that I was honestly impressed.

It’s not hard to start sounding soppy when talking about the joys of festivals, or any kind of large-scale cultural activity. Such events remind us that fundamentally we’re a crowd animal - a highly sociable, communicative species. Live music, if we love it, returns us to our place in the crowd, without destroying those things that make us individuals, which is deeply restorative.

Partying, festivals and music, however, are not neutral issues, despite their unifying power. They are not independent and floating in some apolitical void, far away from Australia’s systematic contempt and maltreatment of those who are different, vulnerable, or part of minority groups.

The fact that in NSW there will be progressively less of these experiences is upsetting, to say the least. What’s much more concerning is the fact that those most affected by slim chances for recreation and communal healing will be those already most vulnerable in our communities. Mainstream discourse on changes in cultural policy in NSW has largely ignored the disproportionate effect on our vulnerable people. Nayuka Gorrie, a Kurnai/Gunai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta writer, has a wonderful, incisive article in the Guardian here - I implore you to read it and consider what’s really at stake here.

Photo by Jess Gleeson