Is there a place for Sydney City Limits in the festival calendar?
There is something spiritually enriching about soaking up a fully packed day's worth of high-quality music from artists across all stages of their career.
The chance to embrace the songs that have been staples in your life for years (or decades) and also be assured that the future of music is in good hands makes for a pretty powerful day.
From 19-year-old Brisbane pop-rap boss in the making Mallrat to 69-year-old leader of the free world Grace Jones, the inaugural Sydney City Limits provided a fascinating, at times perplexing, but ultimately hugely satisfying day of live music.
Such was the quality of everyone’s performance that it took something truly special to stand out. Thankfully, three artists brought that little bit extra.
If you’re a Billy Bragg fan and you’re not listening to Stella Donnelly, you’re missing something special. On the surface it’s probably an odd comparison to make, but as the 25-year-old Perth singer stood valiantly on a stage that threatened to dwarf her, armed with just one electric guitar, her voice and quick wit, it felt like there were so few people who could make this work.
Every song was a gripping tale. About bad jobs, racist cousins, sexual assault and more. Fans both young and old – plenty of both camps were present – heard something in these songs that connected. If they didn’t directly relate, they provided direct insights into the millennial struggle; something far too often dismissed in a search for clicks and sanctimonious Facebook comments.
‘Boys Will Be Boys’ might be her ‘Levi Stubbs Tears’, just more raw and terrifying. Stella’s shining a light where the light needs to be.
Go and see her, and do it soon. Every opportunity you miss will be a crying shame.
Car Seat Headrest
On this tour, Will Toledo has brought a mammoth six-piece band to back him up. It seems excessive when you read it on paper, but this version of Car Seat Headrest felt like the ultimate way of bringing these songs to the live stage.
The huge energy his backing band – a Seattle group called Naked Giants who exhibited one of their own brilliant songs towards the set’s end – brought allowed Toledo to play the role of frontman. Without a guitar, he stumbled shyly across the front of the stage, belting out each line with the controlled passion necessary.
Opening their set with a blistering rendition of Devo’s ‘Uncontrollable Urge’, unquestionably one of the greatest songs of all time, may have been perplexing to some of the younger Car Seat devotees. When you’ve spent so much time absorbing Toledo’s many brilliant records, it’s fair if you haven’t yet delved into the world of Akron’s best ever band.
The audience does lose their mind when Toledo and co. roll out the anthemic ode to self-hatred ‘Fill In The Blanks’ and the anti-party anthem ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’ and it’s a beautiful thing to experience. That these two songs have connected feels important. There’s not an ounce of braggadocio from the scrawny, nerdy Toledo and as the irrepressible audience belt out the songs’ respective choruses, there’s a real feeling of catharsis.
Toledo is following a rare but importnat indie-rock tradition of airing his anxieties and the lonely, dissociating feeling of depression for all to hear, and to share. He’s the kind of artist who is going to give people a great deal of strength when they hear him on record. And, judging from the Sydney City Limits performance, he’ll give equal amounts of joy when they see him live.
It feels churlish to try and describe the Grace Jones live show using mere words from the English language. The truth is, as a performer and an artist, she exists on a higher plane. I understand this sounds like hyperbole, but if you have ever been lucky enough to be a part of one of her performances, you’ll understand the need for such strong language.
In the space of 45 very, very short minutes, Jones, who turns 70 in just a couple of months, danced and sang with the kind of finesse that would, and does, make any performer envious. It was all hits - ‘Nightclubbing’, ‘My Jamaican Guy’, ‘Love Is The Drug’ - and all class from go to whoa. The band didn’t miss a note, not that you even knew they were there, so immense was the body-paint clad Ms. Jones’ presence.
Her costumes, of which there were many, were extravagant and breathtaking. Her movement on stage electrifying.
But it all led up to one moment.
The band kicked in to ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’, one of Jones’ most enduring hits, and shit got real.
An almost naked man with a hugely imposing presence danced on a pole, exhibiting enormous strength and skill. Another man stood on a podium wearing a tribal-looking grass skirt and waving two enormous flags with a close up of Grace Jones’ face emblazoned on the front. Jones jumped into the crowd to sing the song, connecting physically with the audience, which was powerful in itself given she felt so damn untouchable throughout the performance.
She was late on stage, so she had to finish early, But a truncated Grace Jones set is more powerful than a full set of just about anyone else in the world.
If you’re ever afforded the opportunity, you must witness this extraordinary artist in concert. It’s an experience you’ll not soon forget.
Of course, there were other highlights.
That The Avalanches are finding their feet as a reasonably good live band is heartening. They’ll never be able to live up to the rich beauty they give us on record, but that’s okay. Experiencing these songs live is something many of us never believed would be possible at all.
The appetite for soft rock, space-jazz and psych-funk was larger than you might have expected, as Thundercat exhibited all of the above and far more to a very hearty crowd. He aired plenty of highlights from last year’s Drunk, but ‘Them Changes’ from 2015 is starting to feel like a genuine classic.
Norweigian singer Sigrid sounds like she’s ready to play stadiums already, The Staves and The Head and the Heart gave us equally proficient and slick takes on indie folk, the former subtle and beautiful, the latter more rousing and suitable for car commercials. Though perhaps not as suitable as Gang Of Youths, who proved their immense popularity by drawing a mammoth, adoring audience.
The Libertines showed up and made a lot of people’s bucket list that little bit shorter, Future showed up as well and confused and delighted the audience in pretty equal measure.
An unavoidable lowlight came courtesy of the dreaded festival clash (which I've been thinking a lot about of late). Missing a Beck show is not something to be done lightly, but in order to see the brilliant Grace Jones, it was a necessary casualty. All reports were that Mr Hansen killed it, and I did get to squeeze in the final verse of set closer 'Where It's At', which was better than nothing.
So, is there a place for Sydney City Limits in the festival landscape?
This isn’t just a new Big Day Out, it’s more intimate and with a slightly narrower remit. There’s no Boiler Room, no stadium sized headliner and I didn't see a single Australian flag cape.
It’s not a souped up Laneway. The names are far more commercial and, dare I say, safe.
While it’s undoubtedly an event for people who once loved Falls, or even Splendour, it’s perhaps an event for those who no longer consider those events to be much fun. If anything, it’s a refreshed take on the Harvest Festival, with a more inclusive (read: more youthful) attitude towards its booking.
It seemed pretty much without teething issues, perhaps due to its modest crowd, and hopefully that will continue. Its location was pleasant enough – Centennial Park’s massive trees providing welcome reprieve from the stinging sun – but also not exactly a selling point. The lack of big screens made getting a good spot for the big acts vital, which would probably become an issue should the event book someone with gargantuan appeal.
All in all, it feels like a worthy addition to a festival calendar that probably doesn’t need to have much more added to it at this stage. That’s a pretty big win in and of itself.