Playground Weekender @ Del Rio Resort, Wisemans Ferry (17-20/02/2011)

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Five years in, the drive to Playground Weekender still brings with it a giddy feeling of anticipation. As the crawl of Pennant Hills Road gives way to the fields and farmhouses, the drudgery of the working week recedes from view. Every year since 2007 I’ve felt that woozy sensation as Old Northern Road begins to wind down to Wisemans Ferry. Once stationed in the pub’s garden overlooking the Hawkesbury River, you’ve got no doubts about the difference between a festival and a Weekender.

Unfortunately for anyone arriving on Friday afternoon, the blissful reverie doesn’t last long. With Caribou’s 6:30pm slot the first must-see on many itineraries, the queue to board the ferries for Del Rio Resort is dispiritingly long. Everyone is laden with bags, Eskies and camping paraphernalia, and security is determined to give each item a thorough going-over. For many, the wait in the stifling heat stretches over four hours. It’s enough to leave you broken before it’s even begun.

Thankfully, the ferry’s slow crawl along the Hawkesbury has a therapeutic effect. Angling away from the dramatic ridge behind, you pass car ferries, ski-park lodges and lone houses on the riverbanks. Then the capsule of the Slingshot ride rockets into the air above the tree-line. It’s good to be back.

After three Labradors have given you the all-clear, it’s high time to make a beeline to the mainstage (via a bar, naturally) for Caribou. There’s a celebratory buzz in the air as Dan Snaith and his three pastel-clad band members take up their instruments. The spark of the Caribou live show owes something to the way the players and their instruments are huddled in close formation at centre stage. While not as visually striking in the afternoon light as it is in a darkened club, it’s still a thrill to see the four players fire into life as one propulsive unit.

It’s a perfectly-pitched set-list for the occasion, too. The precise drumming of Brad Weber keeps a danceable pulse throughout, which is only amplified when Snaith joins in on a second kit. The ecstatic house keys of Hannibal build into a virtuosic jam complete with duelling drums, while later the psychedelic swirl of Swim sends a field of hands skywards.

From here, it’s straight to the Big Top for Caribou’s touring partner Four Tet. With ‘under the sea’ themed decorations adorning the dance tent, the Londoner gets busy on his laptops and controllers. While he’s not going to rival Snaith and co. for presence, Four Tet’s music is entertainment enough. Far more four-four focused than what we saw from him in 2009, the set draws largely on There Is In Love In You, with added bottom-end. There’s a tent-wide cheer as the bass drops in Love Cry and the gathered throng remains on-side for each twist and turn across the 90 minutes.

With the colour seeped out of the sky, the next migration seems to be in the direction of the mainstage for Cut Copy, leaving a sparsely-populated Big Top for Andy Fletcher. His barrage of dated electroclash and ravey remixes is a curious follow-on from Four Tet, but any set with a smattering of Depeche Mode classics can’t be all bad. It comes close though.

The reception is warmer for Cut Copy on the mainstage, who now look every bit the headlining act. It’s all hyperactive lighting and grandiose synths, which seems to be just what the revellers are after. That same euphoric vibe is strangely absent from Ewan Pearson’s closing set in the Big Top. His tech-house selections seem serviceable enough, but the soundsystem is not holding its end of the bargain. That said, a Ewan Pearson set without enough volume still beats the guy playing Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You at The Shack.

A Tricky performance can go several ways – occasionally mesmerising, often frustrating – and tonight on the mainstage his volatile presence doesn’t translate as it might in a low-ceilinged room. Stalking the shadows while his vocalist Francesca Riley keeps busy, the frontman isn’t much interested in a feelgood farewell. He does, however, incite a commendable stage invasion.

From the moment you peel your face off the floor of the tent, it’s clear Saturday’s going to be a scorcher. The first hesitant beer is well-matched by an understated 45 minutes from Giselle on the River Stage, while in the shade of the Big Top it’s up to Heidi to coax lethargic feet to the dust floor. She does a valiant job with a set handpicked from the Phonica top-sellers shelf, mixing of-the-moment house with staples like Jack Your Body and Late Nite Tuff Guy’s I Get Deeper.

Next up, James Curd takes things in a more jacking direction, peppered with a bit of sly humour on the side (is that Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair we hear?). The crowd ebbs and flows over his set, as the heat starts to take its toll. A few brave souls are already fancy-dressed, with references to Black Swan, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, The Life Aquatic, Guess Who?, Facebook and of course the sexual indiscretions of Tiger Woods all on show.

Butch has gone shirtless for his stint in the Big Top tent and his functional tech-house is moving plenty of bodies. It’s perhaps a little early for the bang he’s delivering, particularly when he can go deeper, but the beauty of this setting is how easy it is to meander away in search of a breather.

For this reviewer, the centrepiece of the festival is the almost-three-hours from Ame and Dixon. After a particularly muscular final track from Butch, Dixon calmly resets the energy with a warm and spacious mood-setter. From there, the Innversions labelmates trade consummate deep house, their demeanours as restrained as the set they’re building. The shimmery vocal cuts like When Saints Go Machine’s sublime Fail Forever and even a slinky version of NERD’s Hypnotize You are coolly measured out, and there’s a surge of tingly vibes when Dixon dispenses a need-to-find remix of LCD Soundsystem’s I Can Change. These are the kind of DJ sets that make the festival great: the sun setting outside the tent, friends and fellow freaks on all sides and that untranslatable feeling of Playground-ness.

That energy isn’t lost on the mainstage tonight either. Kool & The Gang is the kind of act the Weekender was made for, and their hits parade is a sight to behold. Sprightly in white suits, the group performs time-honoured classics like Jungle Boogie and Celebrate as if they’re fresh from the studio. The sea of costumes only adds to the one-of-a-kind atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Heidi has stepped up to replace the M.I.A. Black & Dangerous in the Big Top, making her entrance with Art Department’s Without You. By the time Damian Lazarus has taken over, the sound issues that plagued Pearson seem to be back. The Crosstown Rebels boss is in his element though, complementing the tent’s unhinged vibe with trippy, 4am-appropriate tech-house.

It might be almost midnight now, but the sweat is here to stay. Ever the showmen, De La Soul breeze through a tried-and-true festival set to close the mainstage. They’ve got the crowd participation tricks and they’ve certainly got the repertoire of hits, so this one’s a doozy. Norman Jay has also got his formula perfected, but for those not in the mood for anthemic house and drum & bass, it’s time to regroup at the campsite for those self-made parties.

Sunday, muggy Sunday. With face-paint smeared and dress-ups discarded, it takes a while to find your party legs on the final day. The site itself is also starting to signs of fatigue, but what’s a festival without a hazardous Portaloo? Despite the heavy trudge of campers heading home on the early ferries, the true believers are settled in for the long haul. A stroll into the Club Tropicana pool area to sample LTJ Bukem’s four-four side is rewarded by acid house from the halcyon days. It’s a pleasingly Beatport-Top-10-free session.

As ominous clouds cluster overhead, Manchester house specialist Trus’me is faced with a near-empty Big Top tent. His always-refined selections don’t exactly compel you to dance, but it’s a soothing entry to the hours ahead. The mainstage shows its first real signs of life with the arrival of Mayer Hawthorne & The County. Gradually reeling in the tired bodies lolling around the grass, the Detroit soul-man is charismatic company. His sharply-dressed band are just as tight as they were at last year’s Days Like This!, and the frontman is in fine voice for crowd-pleasers like Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’, No Strings and I Wish It Would Rain. He hands out his heart-shaped vinyl of Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out and gets a long-stemmed flower in return – Playground Weekender reciprocity at its best.

With LTJ Bukem now in rolling drum & bass mode over at the River Stage, the Big Top is thin for Mock & Toof’s live set. Despite barely looking up from their laptops, the duo’s warm and disco-tinged catalogue suits the Sunday evening slot to a tee.

Mowgli then ups the tempo with a fairly unremarkable set, but luckily there’s no better time to wander Del Rio admiring the glowing sunset. Amongst other sights, the Jamaican food stall guys have now set up a kissing booth. “Oh my god, they’re…so…hot,” moans a passing admirer (not to her boyfriend).

The balmy night kicks up another gear with the arrival of Derrick Carter in the Big Top, whose bumping Chicago house is the galvanising set the tent needs. Over at the mainstage, it’s Lamb’s turn to bring it home. After last year’s rave-up for the ages from Orbital, tonight’s send-off is more quietly seductive. The crystalline voice of Lou Rhodes carries beautifully in the night air, never overpowered by the jazzy drum patterns or shudders of bass. It’s the last chance to soak up the setting for another year -and with the stars out and the light show darting all over the trees, it’s a bittersweet feeling.

As magical as Playground Weekender is, there are always gripes. This year they were more pronounced (ranging from water shortages to those ferry dramas), and it’s true that loving this festival unconditionally is getting harder. Musically, too, there were arguably less definitive moments than past Playgrounds.

Despite the growing pains, though, it’s still a rare festival. And I know that I’ll be feeling that same shiver of excitement in 2012 as the Hawkesbury peeps into view from the top of the hill.

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