Festival

After a two-year hiatus, Golden Plains Festival returned with its trademark feeling of community and camaraderie, interspersed with unexpected gems and straight-up bangers. By Esther Linder.

Golden Plains 2023

Soul II Soul performing at the Golden Plains Festival last weekend.
Soul II Soul performing at the Golden Plains Festival last weekend.
Credit: Esther Linder

“Get loose but keep your shit together” is the unofficial motto of Golden Plains Festival, and it held up swimmingly over two-and-a-half days of merrymaking in the bush about 90 kilometres west of Melbourne.

Golden Plains is the sister of the early-summer Meredith Music Festival, and is held on Victoria’s Labour Day long weekend at the same site – the Nolan family farm, 13 kilometres from the town of Meredith, halfway between Geelong and Ballarat. This was its 15th iteration – a return after two years of pandemic-induced hiatus, and a last hurrah for a summer of camping and shenanigans. Iconic musical acts, new friends and old, and a flawless operational team made the event one to remember.

The weekend began with a welcome to Country and reminder to guests of its history. Wadawurrung man and proud storyteller Uncle Barry Gilson led a smoking ceremony using the leaves of the cherry ballart tree, part of Wadawurrung rituals for thousands of years. He also shared stories of his land and people on Sunday, in a special hour that brought a tear to more than one eye.

Stiff Richards, a savage outfit from Rye, fulfilled the festival’s tradition of a punk opener for an initial series of homegrown acts. Mo’Ju carried the momentum into a powerful spoken and sung set, as a storyteller of Wiradjuri and Filipino heritage whose performances have graced the WorldPride stages. Shifting the focus to Niger, with a beautiful mix of electrifying riffs, was band Mdou Moctar. Lead vocalist, guitarist and all-round stage presence Mahamadou Souleymane sang in the Tamasheq language of western North Africa in a set that was the perfect invitation for an early boogie.

They were followed by Kokoroko, an English band with West African roots that blended brass and beats flawlessly. In the lead-up to the festival, several unofficial Spotify playlists made the rounds of festival-goers, offering unfamiliar gems and an opportunity to widen musical horizons. Kokoroko was certainly one of the new-found treasures to be revisited long after the festival, and the crowd agreed. The first major solo act, Angel Olsen, was one we had all been waiting for. In many ways she reminds me of another Golden Plains alumna, Aldous Harding, with her quiet power to make time stand still. Olsen’s music ranges from a sad rock and country base to emotional balladry, and all was on display in her versatile set list. There was just a hint of punk in her indie-rock anthem “Shut Up Kiss Me”, and her final song was an aching cover of Badfinger’s “Without You”. In the festival’s Supernatural Amphitheatre (known as the Sup), it felt like a heartstring plucked from each individual in the crowd and wound together in her song as we swayed under the lanterns.

American band Bikini Kill – the vanguard of the feminist punk Riot Grrrl movement of the ’90s and best described as “fucking iconic” by a fellow punter – took the stage like a force of nature. Mid-performance, lead singer Kathleen Hanna raged against the laws passed recently in Texas that ban almost all abortions and widely discriminate against transgender people. It was a keen reminder of the importance of protest art, and a fiery, cathartic and explosive performance.

Making a comeback on the Golden Plains stage with their distinctive blend of melodic psych-pop, Australian band Methyl Ethel impressed and repaired a previous reputation for sound issues and lack of connection. Rochelle Jordan and 1300 – the last acts before DJs took control of the Sup that night – both came up repeatedly in conversations on Sunday morning about the unexpected pleasures of seeing new music at Golden Plains. The former’s powerful R&B club set list left a big impression, while the latter, a Korean–Australian rap collective, was a welcome discovery for those unfamiliar with its combination of K-pop, dance and trap music.

As the festival went on, I relished in the particular joy of befriending camp neighbours – whether conducting a timely intervention for an outfit malfunction or sharing a post-set debrief and the simple pleasure of watching the light fade from Sunset Strip at the end of the day, with thousands of others gathered to do the same. These moments brought to mind How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, a book that reflects in part on pleasure that can be found in drawing attention to, and giving time to, the natural and simple wonders of life.

A constant and unofficial entertainment source for the weekend was the unexpected and conspicuous flexing of creative muscle: a doof stick fashioned from a working water cooler carried above the mosh, and costumes ranging from the daring to the slightly deranged. Special mention must be made here of the wardrobe and choreography department of the “Golden Plains Airlines” group.

While wandering the festival, I ran into two original attendees. Scott and Stewart were parked at a makeshift bar bench halfway up the hill with a perfect view, hats on and beers in hand. They told me they had come to every Golden Plains since the very beginning, when tickets were $80 – less than a fifth of today’s price – only a couple of hundred people were on site and all the permanent infrastructure now on the farm was yet to come. Did the festival still have the original magic? Scott and Stewart’s answer was simple: “Vibe’s still the same.”

Each visit to Golden Plains impresses upon me the incredible amount of care and attention to detail that goes into making the festival work. From the kind Helper Hut staff and volunteers happy to offer sunscreen and a chat, to the medics and waste management workers keeping patrons healthy and safe, to the festival production and artist crews, as well as the astronomers who set up telescopes for anyone wishing to watch Jupiter pass by.

 

Sunday’s program opened with a strong suite of local acts, ranging from the Budawang/Yuin artist E Fishpool, Freya Josephine Hollick, Delivery and Mulalo. The myriad musical tastes on display were a tribute to the strength of Aunty – the overarching term for the team that runs Meredith and Golden Plains – and her bookers.

Andrew Gurruwiwi Band was a definitive highlight of the afternoon. On an unofficial guide that made the internet rounds, the band was described as “Archie Roach meets Yothu Yindi” – a description that did not disappoint. As they performed in Yolŋu Matha language, the blazing vocals and top-notch beats made it difficult to look away from Andrew Gurruwiwi and his bandmates.

Wrapping up the golden hour, Soichi Terada’s set just might be the most beautiful and joyous I have encountered. The Japanese grandfather, originally known for composing and producing music for video games, gave his audience an experience somewhere between tai chi and clubbing. Sampling, remixing and playing with various musical connections across Eastern and Western cultures, it was almost an hour of bliss punctuated by a humble if somewhat distorted “arigato!”

As the night deepened, Soul II Soul began the spiritual proceedings. A divinely talented collective of artists hailing from North London, steeped in British club history since the late ’80s, Soul II Soul stormed Golden Plains’ single stage with a command from founder and MC Jazzie B to groove, shake and remind everyone of the love that unites. I saw more than one boot raised – the signal from each festival-goer that they’ve found their favourite artist of the weekend.

Carly Rae Jepsen was the highlight of my festival – a confetti-inflected set that boomed out over those packed into the mosh pit and into the gum trees. Known as the singer behind the viral 2012 hit “Call Me Maybe”, Jepsen has since developed into a cult queer icon, releasing consistently stunning pop albums such as Emotion and most recently The Loneliest Time, upon which her performance in the Supernatural Amphitheatre turned. Wearing a fluid green gown, bright blue eyeshadow, knee-high metallic platform boots and the widest smile, Jepsen took to the stage with a natural ease that exuded talent and the obvious joy she takes in performing. Straight-up bangers such as “Cut to the Feeling”, “Surrender My Heart” and “Run Away with Me” filled the Sup with explosive joy and pure euphoria. I saw more than one doof stick emblazoned with her initials and lyrics raised as the amphitheatre heaved with her music.

Possibly the most anticipated comeback to Golden Plains was the British DJ and producer Four Tet, who last performed there in 2019. This time, Kieran Hebden’s alter ego had three hours for a show that flitted across time, space and genre as he mixed punk and pop and played his best-known dance offerings to the crowd. Despite his two-decade career at the height of dance-techno music, Hebden didn’t shy away from sampling pop essentials such as Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift in ways that felt cheeky and left-of-centre. For those of us shouting the lyrics of “Love Story” back at the stage, it felt like a deliberate choice by Hebden to give gravitas to female pop artists.

It’ll be another nine months before the next return to the Supernatural Amphitheatre, and the joy from this first Golden Plains in three years will linger long.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 18, 2023 as "Plains still cuts to the feelings".

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