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Live Review: Summer Camp Festival 2023

5 December 2023 | 1:43 pm | Guido Farnell

The carnivalesque atmosphere of Summer Camp saw the super friendly crowd keen to socialise and bring their own party to the festival.

Summer Camp Festival

Summer Camp Festival (Credit: Matto Lucas)

The only thing missing from the 2023 Melbourne edition of Summer Camp was the actual summer. Black clouds and plenty of drizzle threatened to ruin but didn’t dampen the high-spirited crowd that turned out ready to party.

Heading into the event was a bit like having a glitter bomb of rainbows and sparkles explode in your face, the diverse crowd an ocean of iridescent colour. Exhibitionists at heart, many were scantily clad and expressed their individuality with a queer uniform of their own inventive design that tried very hard to surprise and delight.

Taking the time to people watch and observe the sparkles and sequins, leather, rubber, wigs and lashes, pearls, paste jewellery, and precariously high heels was most definitely a part of the entertainment on offer. They kept warm by dancing and twerking the day away. Only the very sensible wore jumpers and jackets.

Summer Camp was presented as part of the Victorian Government’s Always Live initiative, which, along with a number of smaller festivals, attempts to fill the space once occupied by the behemoth Melbourne International Arts Festival. After a couple of iterations, it has become a fabulous safe space for the queer community to play and let it all hang out. Unlike a lot of rock festivals where the focus is on seeing bands and basking in the glory of their musicianship, the carnivalesque atmosphere of Summer Camp saw the super friendly crowd keen to socialise and bring their own party to the festival.

Much of the entertainment was presented by performance artists and drag queens. Heavy on the glitter, The Huxleys did their Bloodline thing, honouring those who succumbed to HIV. They look like they have landed here from another planet, but their message is fitting just one day after World AIDS Day. Look out for their exhibition at the Abbotsford Convent in February next year.

A YouTube viral sensation at just 13 with the tune Friday, Rebecca Black is now 26, and this year, she has been celebrating her independently released first album. She showcased the album with eight songs that delivered a sugary pop bounce, all of which got a wildly enthusiastic response from the crowd. There is a wide-eyed innocence about Rebecca Black, who kind of has a Young Talent Time starlet ambition about her. She brought her set down with Friday, leaving out her follow-up single Saturday out of the set, even though it actually was Saturday.

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The indoor Beat stage had a bit of a rave cave vibe with somewhat harder tech house beats delivering a feel-good dancefloor thud throughout the day. Spinners on the outdoor Club Love stage braved strong winds but managed to work up a lighter party vibe with plenty of dance remixes of tunes by well-known pop divas. Dare we ask? Padam Padam?

The crowd seemed to thin for the DJ duo The Illustrious Blacks. They toasted, rapped and vogued over a comprehensive mix of cut-up disco and house. At times, they came across like a camp version of Green Velvet, but their mix took aim at the camp achievements of Chicago house and disco without ever descending into the gaudier excesses of ‘handbag’. References to Patrick Cowley and Sylvester, amongst others abound, but their set is a virtual history lesson in black gay house music. They concluded proudly toasting a long list of many of their gay heroes and icons with reverential respect over house loops.

RuPaul Drag Race contestant from the Down Under season, Kween Kong, strutted her ample stuff and shook her jelly about the stage whilst dropping amusingly saucy raps and rhymes. There is a certain comedy about Kween Kong that is designed to put a smile on your face.

The crowd swells in number in anticipation of the 90s disco diva Ultra Naté. Resplendent in a shiny holographic grey catsuit and silver headpiece, Ultra Naté wrapped us in her magnificently powerful vocals. Happy Feeling brought the feel-good party vibes while Unbreakable and Free flexed inspirational anthemic muscle. A key moment in nineties dance music, Free feels especially euphoric and empowering tonight. If You Could Read My Mind brought Ultra Naté’s unbelievably short five-song set to a quick but resolutely feel-good end - disappointing as she most certainly is a legendary pioneer of house music with plenty to offer than a couple of well-known hits. 

Kito started mixing up a storm, but feeling hungry; we discovered that there was only one food outlet and the queue of punters just waiting to be gouged seemed to be endless. Vegan options were sold out, and organisers were sheepishly handing out slices of pizza. “Why is there a super spicy chicken burger on the menu?” asks the dude in a powdery pink tracksuit behind us. “It’s not bottom food”, he asserts, and his friends laugh in amused agreement. Eventually, we got our fill and by that time, Yo! Mafia was spinning solid party vibes that had the crowd bumping. Art Simone and Etcetera Etcetera briefly lip sync for their lives. Most were just starting to get impatient for nu-disco diva Jessie Ware.

Never mind Virginia Trioli’s argument that there is nowhere for middle-aged women to go dancing after Jessie Ware reignited her interest in disco; she should have been front and centre at Summer Camp for a carefree boogie. A truly all-ages crowd ranging from old leather daddies to young ladies with LED-illuminated fairy wings were surging to be close to the stage for Ware’s show. Totally diverse and inclusive. Of course, the LGBTQIA+ community love a disco diva, and with five illustrious albums in her career, Ware is at the top of her game.

Ware exudes pure class as she takes to the stage in a diaphanous blood-red evening gown. The sleek sophistication of That! Feels Good! and Shake the Bottle makes them smouldering, seductive, sexy, and decadent pleasure-seeking party starters - Prince might say the lady has a dirty mind despite her lady-like posturing. The only annoying thing about Ware’s set was the almost constant drizzle through the set. Ware seemed worried that she and her dancers would slip and hurt themselves in these somewhat soggy conditions.

Ware was supported by a drummer and a keyboard player who sometimes played bass or guitar; everything else in the mix seemed to be dialled in with samples. Her backing singers exude a cool-as-funk attitude while two male dancers pull slick disco shapes with a very posed elegance. At times, the choreography seemed complex, with everyone concentrating hard on being in the right place at the right time. Freak Me Now and Kiss Of Life, as well as recent duets with Roisin Murphy and Kylie Minogue, are obvious highlights, but the cheeky charm of What’s Your Pleasure? has fans roaring with approval. The queen in front of us, who had wrapped herself in faux pearls, obviously went off when they played Pearls, while even slower numbers like Mirage and Spotlight showcase Ware’s devotion to disco as subtly constant but insistent beats chug across the dancefloor. A cover of Cher’s Believe has the crowd chanting and feeling good about themselves. Leaving the best for last, Free Yourself delivers a fabulously empowering message whilst ending Ware’s delightful set on an ecstatic high.

In a massive blonde beehive, Trixie Mattel reminded us of Melbourne’s much-loved Miss Candee. Mattel drops what she calls her Solid Pink Disco show and DJs remixes of camp party favourites. It’s a fun vibe, but after being drenched during Ware’s set, it feels like a comedown. Mattel’s fans are up the front and bouncing to the beats while most, who have had enough bedazzlement for one day, are slowly dissipating into the night.