Rainbow Serpent Festival 2011 @ Beaufort, Victoria (24/1/2011)

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It’s 2011 and the Rainbow Serpent Festival is in its 14th year. An amazing feat by any measure, the festival – or RSF as it is fondly known to regular ITMers – has grown exponentially in this time, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone within a thousand kilometers who doesn’t have at least a vague understanding of an event which has become much more than a fixture on the summer calendar.

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the better part of the last decade, this annual event provokes a mass exodus from Melbourne, Sydney, Australia and even lands beyond the sea, as thrill seekers and city dwellers alike travel in search of an extraordinary experience in sound and sight. Camping over a lush hillside just outside of Beaufort, the festival encompasses four days, three nights, dozens of international and local acts, 10,000 plus attendees, and about half a million doses of the unexpected.

It all began with a rather uneventful Thursday night spent camping in the IGA carpark in Beaufort. The previous week’s flooding had destroyed access roads to the festival site and the wise organisers had postponed entry until 8am Friday morning to allow them to make up for lost time preparing the site.

Consequently, camping vans, station wagons and regular sedans packed with partygoers filled the humble car-park, as it became almost a designated BBQ point for those en route to the festival. The next morning the car park contingent migrated swiftly to the gates for the 8am open, only to find that hundreds of crews had made the commitment to leave Melbourne before sunrise and were already waiting in line.

All of this was a testament to the hunger people have for this festival every year – and we haven’t even spoken about the music yet. Ah yes, tunes, tunes, tunes. While I am obligated to give you a rundown of the weekends most anticipated performances, its important to note that one of the best things about this festival is unanticipated discovery. Wandering around to find the unknown jam band doing Beatles covers with beatboxing interludes, or the local act just starting to gain momentum. That said, the big names did deliver in by the bucket.

Friday was all about discovery. Discovery of friends’ campsites, new shade structure designs, and a world of smells, tastes, sights and sounds encompassed by this years layout (hot showers for the faint of heart). I did manage to catch some funkadelic jams on the Market from Melbourne’s own Shane Vigo – a.k.a. The Mollusk – before sampling Luke McD’s blend of chunky tribal electro on the Red Bus Sunset stage. Mr McD was followed by Chameleon Recordings head honcho Steve Ward, arguably the man of the hour in Australian house music after being featured in Dave Seaman’s compilation for Global Underground late last year. Ward kept it classy and tight, all steady bass and sexy deep house and Detroit, a diet swiftly consumed by dancers eager to kick off the weekend with a bang.

Saturday morning was all pancakes, chai and free massage therapy, followed by a look through the creative COSM space featuring Alex Grey, local artists, and impressive work of the Projections magazine crew, before a hop, skip and a jump over to Market Stage for the day’s musical stylings. Mmmmmm, techno. It began with SQL, the 22 year old techno wunderkind who’s productions have already made the playlists of Richie Hawtin and Marco Carola and attained the coveted Beatport No. 1 chart spot. Starting things off deep with a remix of Radiohead’s Everything in its Right Place, the Dutchman built up and onwards, with a relentless knack for groove and percussion, tempered by just the right amount of tweaked hooks and crunchy FX.

The crowd went nuts for Primitive, and was almost sad to say goodbye as he turned over the helm to the one and only Yuli Fershtat for a Perfect Stranger DJ Set. From then on it was dance, dance, dance, wander here, frolick there, more massage, an unforgettable Jerry’s vegeburger and some driving progressive house from Kasey Taylor. Next up was glitch hop apostle Opiou, who seemed to deliver a performance hugely popular with the crowd, though not exactly my cup of tea. Wiped out, I headed for the hammock village and found myself a swinging sanctuary to kick back in until the evening program began.

For me, that evening program was all about Shpongle. The group’s name is self-explanatory, as no listening experience involving their music is complete without a flipping of perceptions, inversion of nerve endings and tickling of the cortex. More or less the creators of an entirely new genre, the full live band opened the Main Stage in a performance which has been dreamed of but never realized anywhere in Australia before.

A sea of thousands bathed in pink and violet light while a symphony unfolded before our eyes. With Simon Posford, Michele Adamson and Dick Trevor all in tow, a fusion of Indian and Mediterranean instrumentals were fuelled by live vocals and analogue synthesisers, psychedelic crunch and the ever flawless flute of Raja Ram. A rainbow streaked bear, the size of large minivan and illuminated from within padded slowly through the crowds while a minatour on stilts pranced across the stage and Alex Grey manifested vision onto canvas live in front of the band.

Viewing all of this from a hillside retreat, where lights danced across the valley and figures moved smiling through shadows felt like a dream. I left my post sometime during the fall into chaos, as the million BPMS and undulating phasers of Hallucinogen and Kindzadza called me to my bed.

Early to rise again it was more pancakes, an ice cold shower and two espressos which propelled me back towards the main for a good old fashioned 8 hour stomp session. Hello Sun Control Species. Now that is how to own a main stage in the morning – two hours of thick and tasty tribal progressive house, digitally plucked synth hooks and an undulating wash of sweeps you just couldn’t stop nodding your head to. Buy his album or I will have to look you up and bash you. Out now on Iboga Records, it may or not make you smile so hard it hurts.

Next up Perfect Stranger really turned it out, showcasing a bucketload of new LIVE material previously unheard in Australia, and prompting the crowd to crave a new album quicker than you can say Digital Structures. D-Nox was the act to close Main with a DJ set, but his track selection felt somewhat disjointed. The charisma was there but the groove wasn’t and, slightly disappointed, I wandered up the hill in search of a more sensible sound.

The move was rewarded tenfold by Beats Antique. An eclectic mix of gypsy mystique, ethnic influence, trip hop, breaks dub and jam band styles, I find this group to be classic San Franscisco in its embrace of the musical melting pot. Everything flowed seamlessly, and with groups meandering across the hills and sun streaming through trees the timing could not have been more perfect. I highly recommend grabbing a copy of their latest album, Blind Threshold, produced partly by the one and only Tipper and the very talented Rena Jones. Cobblestone Jazz polished off the evening in classically unclassical style – always six feet in front of the frontier of electronic music, it did nothing I can properly describe other than make me smile.

Mad, mad Monday. Hands down provider of the most insane atmosphere of the weekend. It is the lovechild of this kind of perfect feedback relationship between joie de vivre and fear. So scared that this party is almost over, and that it will be another 365 days before the next installment, the entire population of the festival migrates to the Market stage for a final day of fantastical revelry. I cannot even describe to you how good that day was. It was so good I almost have to invent a new word for it. That word is frambocious.

From the costumes to the smiles to the seemingly endless amount of inexplicable physical and mental debris everywhere, Monday was uncompromisingly frambocious. Matthew Jonson, Khainz, Quivver – it all melted into one surreal procession of colour and feathers and flash and grins. A 20 ft pirate ship complete with pirate crew somehow made its way to the left hand side of the stage, while punters bounced up and down on a trampoline behind it, and a couple outfitted in ivory exchanged wedding vows mere metres away.

Now, keep in mind, I’ve just broken down about 1/100th of what this festival encompasses. No joke. Do yourself a favour and jump on this rainbow-coloured bandwagon – you’ll spend the next 350 odd days waiting for a carnival you need to see to believe.