Picnic pres. Andrew Weatherall & Neville Watson @ Keystone Festival Bar, Sydney (14/01/2012)

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The Festival Bar at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum has become one of my favourite venues in the world. To me you can’t beat that big marquee, the projections shimmering on that sandstone edifice, the canopy of trees, and Sydney Tower looming over all – especially with some jams pumping on a mild summer’s night. It’s too bad it’s only around for a month.

Even in a crowded field of competitors during the month-long Sydney Festival, the annual Picnic gig at the Festival Bar has established a high standard, bringing veteran DJs to these shores and packing the marquee with a discerning crowd – including lots of older heads who’ve been around and know how to dance. Last year we were treated to a sizzling three-hour set of underground disco and funky esoterica from the illustrious DJ Harvey. This year Kali and crew landed the one and only Andrew Weatherall for only his second tour of Oz. So it’s all about long sets from British legends with beards, I guess.

As we arrived at the Barracks on Saturday evening, Weatherall was just coming on. The sun had just set; the cloudy summertime dusk still lit the trees in the park. Without fanfare, dressed in an unpretentious flannel, the beardy legend strolled up to the decks and immediately laid down a thumping dubby mid-tempo instrumental. The impact of the big bass was amplified by the lack of bodies on the floor – the marquee was nearly empty. It was as if Weatherall was opening for himself. But it gave him a chance to build the vibe from scratch. Andy is known for long, patiently constructed sets that take listeners on a journey. He hails from an era when there would never have been multiple DJs crowded onto a bill; you had to come with a full crate to keep the party rocking all night or else.

In short order, Weatherall had the dancefloor at a steady simmer. I hadn’t heard him live before; and knowing his vast repertoire, I wasn’t sure what to expect – whether gliding minimal techno or more indie-type sounds. I was surprised and pleased to hear him playing a kind of bright, melodic, mid-tempo Balearic house that you don’t often hear anymore. I’m talking about untreated, kinetic drum sounds with lots of snare action and tambourines, rubbery basslines, swirling layers of analogue synths, and little flourishes of gospelly piano and wah guitar – that weird fusion of old-school house, trippy electronica and UK indie. It’s a style Weatherall owns as much as anyone, having done many classic remixes for Happy Mondays, One Dove, New Order and countless others; and he’s been busy making it popular again now the indie-dance thing is back in vogue.

It’s a cliche to say it sounded like the old days, but it did – like a warehouse party circa 1989. I don’t mean he was playing old tunes; I reckon most of them were new. Neither did they sound quaint or old fashioned. What he did was mix new material in a way that made the music seem as fresh as it must have back in the day. No mean feat, that. His set didn’t follow the usual patterns of buildup and breakdown that can be charted in even a good DJ’s technique. His mixing was smooth as butter, but he let each tune play for a loooooong time; and when the transitions finally came, they were done in a tricky sideways fashion that flipped the vibe without derailing the energy one bit. The breakdowns – often featuring those awesome 1989 piano sounds – seemed to rise up out of the mix organically and catch us by surprise, instead of feeling programmed. I’ve been spinning records for a long time, and it wasn’t easy to pin down exactly what he was doing; it all flowed together, even though each new tune seemed like its own new, unclassifiable type of music.

Andy was completely taken up by his task, bent over the decks in concentration, nodding constantly to the rhythm and occasionally air-drumming to himself as if no one was watching. Only occasionally would he look up and smile – and a couple of times during a big tune that had the whole place cheering he would graciously bow and salute us in a strangely old-fashioned but entirely befitting manner.

As the set progressed, it got more up-tempo and intense, and I sensed he was about to really turn it on. Then, after threatening all evening, the skies opened up. It always seems to rain on the Festival Bar – but it rains in January, so what are you gonna do? In a flash, the marquee was filled with revellers pouring in from the courtyard. Suddenly the place was as packed as an illegal basement party. Without looking up, Andy tweaked the vibe up a notch to match the influx of wet party people, and now it really felt old school. The beats hit that much harder; the appreciative noise from the crowd became near-constant. Around this time Andy dropped his pulsating remix of Cut Copy’s Sun God – cannily working in some local flavour and lifting the marquee that much higher.

Then Andy was done and off the decks, taking a final bow after only two hours plus, before he really got a chance to let loose. My only complaint about the night is that he could have played a lot longer. There was, however, another player in Picnic’s plan. Following Weatherall’s exit, on came one of his contemporaries Neville Watson for the post-11pm stretch. With a smattering of the people on the dancefloor peeling off at this point (some to relieve their babysitters, no doubt), Watson nevertheless got down to business with some acid house gems.

His set surely raised the tempo from Weatherall, while still maintaining the headliner’s allegiance to analogue groove. Despite the tent no longer heaving like that illegal basement party, the soundtrack certainly fit the bill. Slightly rain-bedraggled punters from the free show in the Domain began to filter in after 11:30pm to see what was thudding from inside the walls of Hyde Park Barracks. For anyone familiar with the old-school-leaning records Watson makes alongside KiNK, for the most part his set hit that sweet spot. The many hours Watson has spent in the mix at the infamous Checkpoint Charlie parties in Reading certainly showed in the depth of his record bag and how he put it together. As midnight turned into 2am, it was either home to bed or down the road for the after-party; all in all, an epic night done properly.

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