Subsonic Music Festival 2011 @ Barrington Tops, NSW (2-4/12/2011)

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Three years ago, a festival called Subsonic kicked off for the first time, nestled deep in Barrington Tops, over three hours north west of Sydney. As far as the punters were concerned, it was a resounding success. Here was something very different to the summer festival circuit, that also provided a music-fun-happiness-awesome-infused break from Sydney altogether. Many wondered whether it would make the distance and establish itself as a permanent fixture.

Two years later, it was my turn to make my first pilgrimage. Many had raved about it, and assured me that it was almost impossible to have a bad time. Ever the cynic, I also pondered whether it could have fallen victim to the fate of other festivals, where after a few good years, the edge that made the infant years so damn good is lost. Time would ultimately tell.

Situated on the banks of the Karuah River, the spot is absolutely perfect. Camping spots are plentiful and only minutes into the experience you can’t help but adopt the casual, chilled, relaxed vibe of it all. Your neighbors, strangers moments earlier, become friends. And there lay one of the many beauties of this festival experience: it may be short-lived, but for three or so days, there is a distinct sense of community.

While some, or rather me, moaned about a forty minute delay on Friday afternoon, the three hour delays on Friday night would’ve been enough to make many go home before it all started. I shudder to think of the exchanges that would’ve no doubt happened at a city festival between security guards and punters that had not been let in after three hours.

Not at Subsonic though, where despite being obviously disappointed, all seemed to take a relaxed approach to the experience. By the time they had pitched their tents and cracked open that first drink, most had forgotten about it. I mention it here foremost for the example of how different this festival really is, and less so for the criticism attached to it. This truly was something different. Whether it was chilling at a campsite with your mates, going for a stroll, sitting by the river, or getting stuck into some serious music – it really was a case of getting stuck into your own adventure. And there would be plenty of those….

The Upbeats made their mark early with a very loose and boisterous party down on the River Stage, Robbie Lowe was his ever reliable self down at the new Pizza Lab stage, and with Antix and SQL[ doing their thing in style at the always popular Paradiso there was plenty to choose from. There was also the big white tent Chapel Perilous, which all weekend would be the perfect mix of psy-trance, speed-dating, laughing yoga, and belly dancing. No jokes.

Come Friday night, I was already calling it the best festival experience I’d been to. I would’ve called all my friends and told them, except that there was no mobile phone reception. And that is its own sort of awesome: hell, you don’t even need a mobile phone. You’ll find your friends again. And in the meantime, you’ll stumble across someone else, or some music you’ve never heard before. Win.

Waking up on Saturday morning to Massive Attack’s Teardrop coming from the River Stage beats any alarm clock. The warmth of the morning sun, having your mates literally in a nearby tent, good music, great vibe – it took my already favourite part of the week to the next level. Saturday’s sunlight also revealed the intricate detail to which the stages had once again been adorned, with some serious thought and meticulous work. The payoff was tremendous, with props scattered perfectly across the various sites – the clown caravan, the cupcake that had people in it, the juggling acts, the spiritually decked out Chapel, the River Stage_comprised almost entirely of picture frames; it all made for plenty of eye candy.

As for the sense of taste, Subsonic had hands down, the best food I’ve experienced at a festival. Whether it was a falafel pocket, a lamb wrap, some Armenian nutmeg cake, chocolate chai, BBQ sausages (cooked by the local volunteer fire fighters), or a pizza down by the river; there was an abundance of good food everywhere – and all so well priced.

Saturday was a belter. With perfect weather, everyone appeared to be having a ball. A few of the local constabulary dropped in to check the place out, and were nothing but friendly, courteous and respectful to all. It allowed for an afternoon spent chilling in the sun by the river, with plenty of party tunes coming out of both ‘Pizza’ where The Cook and Robohan dished up the fun, and ‘Paradise’ where Marcotix and YokoO got things nice and hot under the sun. There was awesome everywhere, whether you danced, took a nap under a tree, caught up with your mates, or just rolled around on the grass. Someone dropped You Are Sleeping from PQM in the ‘Pizza’ however, and all the prog-heads were sent into delirium. Not even the sound bleed (something to look at for next year) between some of the stages could spoil the perfect afternoon.

Dave Stuart let us bounce around with lots of fun stuff at ‘Pizza’, before Trinity stepped up and nailed it in an hour of melodic magic that was deserving of the rapturous applause she got. Simon Caldwell laid down some serious tunes at Paradiso, while Chali 2na of Jurassic 5 fame pulled in a big crowd on main stage and delivered one of the performances of the festival. What’s Golden and Righteous Way gave the crowd exactly what it wanted, and together with Hermitude, the main stage was opened in style. There was amazing music everywhere, and you couldn’t help but want to be everywhere at once.

Phil Smart and A Guy Called Gerald made ‘Paradiso’ their own, and Jimi Polar put in one absolute cracker of a performance with a seriously infectious vibe back at ‘Pizza’, while on main stage one of the headliners in Max Cooper caressed the crisp cold country air with that warm, emotive and almost heartbreakingly lush sound that he produces so well. It is a sound that makes such a ridiculously good booking for a festival with this vibe. Tunes like Enveloped and Heresy littered a live performance that, despite sounding a little too effect-ridden at times (sometimes, less can often be more), confirmed why his star is indeed one that is rising. Meanwhile, back in the ‘Chapel’, Daheen was creating a very different party: costume changes, Michael Jackson, horse heads, all laced with some awesome psy-trance. Needless to say, an up-for-it crowd loved it. A Saturday night with indeed everything.

Sunday greeted us with sunny blue skies, a nice gentle breeze, and once again, all was right in the world. The ‘Chapel’ had Galaktik and Darkchild in an ‘epic sunrise set’ transforming the place. Putting aside the great music they pumped out, I couldn’t help but reflect that only hours earlier there was a guy behind the decks wearing a horse head and the dance floor was a sea of unbridled chaos. Now, the room was one of the most tranquil spots you could find, with people of all ages. Parents, kids. Toddlers. Infants. If you could bottle the emotion that is in this room, and supply it across the world – I shit you not, the world would be a much nicer place. And in some ways, after the music, it is that vibe that makes Subsonic so special.

The amount of good music through the entire festival was ridiculous, but Sunday was just phenomenal. Channel X provided a pre-lunch highlight under blue skies, which were soon replaced with clouds of doom. The wet weather gear finally came out, and just in time for Perfect Stranger, who I admit, three months ago I had not even heard of. Those that had, could not stop raving about him. A little after 4pm, I realized why, as the reality definitely matches the hype.

With the rain tumbling (but no-one really caring), he unleashed his own 90 minute progressive-psy power storm. Some driving stuff with more than a few twists and turns that had the River Stage going crazy. Tunes like Easy and his Simple Cells wreaked havoc, and he left a sea of carnage behind him in one of the performances of the festival. Tough act to follow, but from all reports, a handful of Sydney locals proceeded to then try and put all the pieces of those on the dance floor back together, only to then break them all over again as the night progressed. Kudos to Oliver Gurney, Defined By Rhythm and Shepz, for doing exactly that.

For me though, it was off to the main stage, where Alexkid had been in serious form and had pulled quite the crowd, despite the soggy conditions. (He’d later hit ‘Pizza’ and do it all again.) By the time Minilogue stepped up to the plate, there was a palpable air of excitement cutting through the chilly country air, and with rain slowing to an occasional drizzle, it was cold, it was overcast…but I tell you this, it was actually perfect.

And for the next few hours Minilogue produced some of the best electronic live music I have ever heard. The layering, the subtle melodies, the all-encompassing ambience of it, provided so much to truly ‘listen’ to. Needless to say, the Sunday smorgasbord of music was turning out exactly how we’d all hoped.

And then, we were wooed one final time by Apparat. I’d seen Apparat no less than three days earlier in a inner city venue in Sydney. To say this was different was an understatement. Firstly, there were no annoying hipsters. Secondly, it was bloody cold. Nevertheless, despite the inclement weather, all the good times of the preceding three days – the amazing music, your friends – new and old – it all came to this defining moment – and when Apparat entered stage left, with a lighting show cast not just on stage, but upwards on the hills of Barrington Tops – the breathtaking warmth of the moment hit the festival nail on the proverbial head.

Sascha Ring and his entourage provided the perfect farewell. Opening with the beautiful Your House Is My World before gliding into the well-known Arcadia the crowd was captivated, listening to absolutely beautiful, live music. The warm lush synths, the pluck of an emotive string, Ring’s voice; they combined to create the perfect storm. In a sense, the performance matched that of the festival’s: one to never forget.

One of the beauties of Subsonic – putting aside the amazing location, the beautiful people, the peaceful vibe, the BYO drinks, having your car next to your tent, the no-fuss approach to everything (I could go on) – is that it broadens your musical horizon so much more, as you listen to music that you may never have otherwise stumbled across. The headliners are great, yes – but there is so much to hear elsewhere too. And for those who have that unmistakable passion for music – the impact of that cannot be understated.

Kudos goes to all. From the great bookings, to the tremendous vibe, to the pleasant security guards, to the chocolate chai that warmed my cockles, to the people that that held on to my camera when I thought I’d lost it, and (but for the delays associated with getting in on Friday) the smooth and pain-free logistics. Subsonic has it as close to spot on as is possible. One only hopes it remains that way, and that too much tinkering doesn’t see it fall by the wayside like many before it. As they say, if it ain’t broke…

Because ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, this is not just a festival. This is an experience. One that many will never forget. And hopefully, one that never changes.

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