Subsonic Music Festival 2010 @ Barrington Tops (3-5/12/10)

Image for Subsonic Music Festival 2010 @ Barrington Tops (3-5/12/10)

These days it seems I’m starting all my reviews the same way. It’s been the best year of techno that Sydney has ever seen, and so I begin writing down my thoughts and essentially shoot my load sometime during the preamble. This year, in terms of festivals, I’ve been blown away by how much I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve been to. Playground was a bit off in 2009 and Stereosonic straight out sucked – but both of them have enjoyed near-faultless events in 2010.

If you were indulging the upstart of our festival circuit, Subsonic, you’d almost say that the rest were scrambling to keep up. And after the inaugural event last year was so bloody brilliant, the smart money would say that the established players were trying to keep their regulars on side lest they find out what’s going on in Barrington Tops.

Twelve months ago, I pointed out the reasons why Subsonic was already a better proposition than any other festival in this state. This year, they kept all of that awesomeness intact (deckchairs by the river…lush) whilst attracting a larger crowd (who still ‘got’ it), more food and drink vendors (possibly the tastiest grub I’ve had at an Australian festival), and many more decor installations including a third outdoor stage (the best art I’ve seen at a festival this size anywhere in the world).

The trek from Sydney was long, but the friendly welcome, no-fuss entry, and first glimpse of the campsite quickly got punters refocused on the task at hand – setting up a tent, sitting down to a well-earned beer, and then being lured by the call of the dancefloor to settle into quite a spectacular opening night.

The Woolshed stage was no longer – it had been moved outdoors to a glen next to the river, and on arrival at sundown it was already pulsating with some jacking tech-house. So it wasn’t long before campers made their way over, with Craig Pringle being an early highlight before Dave Stuart stepped up to really get the weekend started.

En route to the dancefloor I witnessed another one of the moments that set this festival apart from the rest. Security was politely asking people to leave their glass outside the arena bounds. I say ‘politely’ without a hint of sarcasm – security was affable, charming, and not trying to spoil the fun. In fact, when I walked past, security was on the radio trying to organise plastic cups so people wouldn’t have to say goodbye to their drink.

As for the police, they did their job perfectly. Hands off, unobtrusive, quiet observers that were happy to let a well-run party run itself. Compare that with what was happening back in Sydney at the Villalobos gig. The mind boggles.

Back by the river, Dave Stuart was playing the best set I’ve heard from him. Upbeat tech house with just the right amount of twisted melody to complement the lights dancing in the trees. As the crowd kept arriving, Jordan Deck again showed off the dazzling style he’s unleashed at the recent Subsonic parties. Later on, Robbie Lowe was his usual classy self, before Diatribe got loose and the party headed for sunrise.

Daylight emphasised what the night had suggested – the Subsonic crew had gone to town on the décor. Every area had its own little theming and surprises; the main stage had big Rubiks Cubes to sit on and smaller ones to play with. The Market stage’s cabanas were watched over by a giant ant made from car and bike parts – complete with a steering column that turned its head.

The walks between stages were a feast for the eyes, too; sculptures, paintings, a giant skull-shaped mirrorball with a billion reflected laserbeams shooting out of it, and a water mist with the pressure set to ‘intense’. Subsonic’s décor was stunning, functional, playful, and intricate in its details and little in-jokes. Brilliant.

Musically, Saturday was starting to heat up. I’d missed reportedly excellent sets by Dylan Griffin and Fiord, but was down by the river to hear quite an impressive chilled out set from Luke Harland. As the Franchi Brothers began to increase the tempo, Andre Wakko was setting the pace at the Market stage for a long day of delicious, pumping tech. It wasn’t such a shame then, when Hermitude were late in arriving to the main stage – although I have to admit I was having too much fun to catch them later on when they did get there!

Marcotix played as the sun set and already the crowd was ‘avin’ it. I checked into a marquee for that most restorative of elixirs, hippie festival chai, only to be transfixed by a woman playing some gorgeous, emotive flamenco guitar. The tent was swaying to her delicate strumming, almost oblivious of the impending mayhem outside, and the sound of Watussi bleeding in from the main stage.

After about 15 minutes of mesmerising music came one of the most memorable moments of the festival – with the tent transfixed, the guitarist abruptly stopped playing, gestured at the main stage and snapped, “That’s actually quite distracting.”

Maybe you had to be there, but at least it freed me up to float back to the Market stage for some more fist-pumping to techno – which is exactly what I saw the guitarist doing a short time later! Hilarious.

The Bastards were in full effect, the Portuguese duo not just dialing up their tribal/Latin tech sound, but also bringing the party behind the decks. The boys are flamboyant performers and their energy is infectious.

With a completely different swagger, Jens Bond took control with an equally commanding set of tech heaven. I was particularly excited about seeing two of the Highgrade roster out in the forest, and Bond and Gunnar Stiller absolutely smashed it. It was like the best of Berlin in Barrington Tops, the cabana bearing some small resemblance to Bar 25, and the vibe being as good as you’d find there. In amongst the hedonism there was even a sample of Ce Ce Peniston – Finally. Hot.

While Turnspringer continued the marathon of the best German tech-house I’ve heard this year, the main stage was being wowed by the glitchy, breaky, funked-up dub of Opiuo. For many, the Melbourne adoptee was the surprise packet of the festival – the name they’d never heard of, but won’t soon forget.

But then it was time for a couple of names that the tech-heads had been drooling over since the lineup was announced. There was a high chance the mighty Extrawelt and Boris Brejcha were going to do some serious brain damage, and they delivered on the promise. Heads were rearranged, first by an incredible, extended live set from the headliners, and then some slamming tunes mixed with precision to confirm the slaughter.

Most headed for bed, but the musical rotation about the stages continued, with Paul Taylor and Antix welcoming Sunday morning. Subsonic’s programming was so good at last year and this year was almost perfect. Sublime moments of light and dark happened across all the stages all weekend long. And there were surprises – walking back to camp for a drink refill during the Saturday night mayhem to hear Schwa playing some beautiful chilled out drum ‘n bass by the river was an outstanding discovery.

In fact, everywhere you looked there was something crazy and altogether unexpected happening. Clowns in a caravan were scaring the shit out of punters. In a teepee, the crowd was creating their own music on an interactive tabletop.

Still think these guys don’t know how to do things differently? Let’s talk about their policy on fence-jumpers. A couple of idiots tried to sneak in for free and were caught. What would they get at a Future festival for that? A black eye and a return flight over the fence. What did they get at Subsonic? A job. They were put on clean-up duty, given garbage bags, and sent on their way. But not before also being given writsbands and a meal ticket.

That is a seriously impressive attitude.

Last year, I compared Subsonic to Rainbow Serpent, which is quite peerless in terms of camping festivals in Australia. I said that Subsonic needed to grow to establish itself as NSW’s answer to its southern counterpart. Certainly, at this time of year, Subsonic has some stiff competition from Victoria in the form of Strawberry Fields and Meredith. But after this year’s event, there’s no comparison to be made. Subsonic combined promoter investment and dedication with an under-capacity, clued-up crowd. It was perhaps more perfect than you could imagine a festival in this country being.

Everyone had a feeling they were in for something special when they entered the gates and saw the festival spread out around them. By Sunday afternoon, everyone was confirming – vocally, ecstatically – that these initial suspicions had been correct. This was one of the best parties they’d ever been to.

And then Michael Mayer started.

I have heard Mayer play a few times, but lately my attention has been elsewhere. So I wondered what he would do with his four-hour afternoon set. I wondered if he could recapture the exceptional set construction and track selection that made us fall in love with him.

But nothing, nothing could prepare me for the reality. Mayer ambled on stage in shorts showing off pasty legs and bare feet, a German tourist who hadn’t seen the sun for a while but had just woken up in the middle of the Australian bush. The man was devoid of pretense; relaxed and welcoming. And the music: a blend of ambient, downtempo house, schaffel, synths, strings, a whole Pandora’s box of pure sex that you fell into and kept falling. Four hours became closer to six. Beats like syrup, peppered with haunting vocals, the crowd led through patches of bliss and melancholy, rare grooves and familiar dancefloor melters.

It was too good. Impossibly, inconceivably beautiful. Mayer knew what he was giving us and his interaction with the crowd was really special. Joking, gesturing, smiling, laughing…at one point he even slowly hid himself with a Hannah Montana bodyboard. What? Where the fuck did that even come from?

But this was no prop comic. This was a masterful DJ playing the most perfect music for the moment. A craftsman working both the mixer and the crowd. And the end result was hyperbole. The best set I’ve ever seen. There. I said it.

Unlike 2009, Sunday was a full day of music, with locals like Simon Caldwell and Daniel Crocetti, international highlights like Telefon Tel Aviv, and yet more German weapons like Tobias Thomas and Heinrichs & Hirtenfellner. But the day belonged to one man. Michael Mayer was inspirational.

In the same way, the festival calendar of 2010 belongs to one event, and what an inspiration it was. The bar has been raised. See you next year.

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