SUGAR MOUNTAIN @ THE VICTORIAN COLLEGE OF THE ARTS8 February 2016
At last year’s festival I fell asleep in the gutter alone during the brutal Swans set, feeling both sick and hungry. I didn’t think I could handle the full-day ticket solo this time around, so I decided to volunteer with a friend instead. We had to compromise for our shift, starting at 2:30pm, which cut off a few of the earlier acts I wanted to see My plan was to go in early, stand outside the Car Park Stage near Sturt Street and listen through the fence to Kate Tempest, but instead I was carrying a heavy shelf from the Solomon Islands into a trailer. The sun came surging through the overcast sky, highlighting my novice status in not bringing a hat. All searches at city souvenir shops were futile and weird. In the end I luckily snagged a black festival edition bucket hat that only just fit my head as I began the shift.
This was round two for Sugar Mountain at the VCA. Small updates had been made to its primary model, but the wider experience felt quite similar to the 2015 version. It’s still a one-day inner-city festival, and the burden of choice due to consistently solid programming means there is little time to rest. The entire time you’re caught in a tight crowd, your feet tiring on the tarmac. Others around me seemed to have the endurance, or the beer-fuelled happy haze to embrace it all, but I just became so uncomfortable from the squeeze that by night-time at Sugar Mountain I was ready to leave.
But before I even got inside the gates to apply wristbands to the masses, some renegade swooped out of nowhere and snatched a whole bag of them off a fellow staff member. We never did see that guy again, but his quick snatch and bolt remained a freaky thought as we did our shift, almost as though we ourselves had been targeted. Upon being released into the open, we caught the end of Alpine’s set on the main Dodds Street Stage. On the radio I had been indifferent to the band, but their live sound has a big movie-montage power that positively collided with the brick VCA walls lining the street, then sent back to the building crowd drawn to the main stage. It also worked as a neat intro to the heavy danceable program of this year’s festival that reflects the craving in 2016 for a solid rhythmic summer groove.
Over at the Car Park Stage, Le1f was spitting out his wild future rap. Acrobatic dancers ducked in and out behind him, responding to the thudding bass and rapid high-pitch shrieks. From side-of-stage, Le1f controlled all the beats in a singular performance. On returning from a fairly quick-moving bathroom queue, I heard the crowd going ballistic, and I soon realised why. Le1f had stripped down to his underpants and shoes, climbing the stage poles and laugh-screaming, “Ooh la la… mazel tov… what can I say?”
Kelela, my equally most-anticipated act at Sugar Mountain, was on next at the same stage, and she totally killed it. Marching out to the stationary mic, she cut a zen figure, transmitting her spiritual soul to an audience flowing with the beat. A very cool Hawaiian shirt-wearing DJ weaved each song together while mouthing every lyric that Kelela threw at us. The slowed-down groove was hypnotising after she told the crowd to get all introspective with her music. When I opened my eyes after racing through my mind in response to the beautiful sounds, I saw everybody around me sharing the same big smiles, cruising along. Right before the last song she addressed the crowd with, “thank you Sydney”, a jarring split-second error that slightly ruffled with the best set of the day. Then straight into ‘Rewind’, an instant redeeming effort from Kelela that almost made us forget that we were even in Melbourne at all.
All the food stands were concentrated in a grass area this year, which is more practical than spreading them throughout the venue. The food truck for Transformer, a Vegetarian restaurant in Fitzroy, seemed to be one of the few places that didn’t only serve BBQ meat. I usually wouldn’t buy a cold soba noodle salad and three-bite bao at $19, but perhaps the convenience of having good food within easy reach made up for it.
Back at the Car Park Stage, Dâm-Funk began his set. A drum kit and keyboard were set up but he appeared to just be doing a DJ slot. His mic was faulty and there were sound issues with the set-up. My friend and I in the frantic festival atmosphere quickly got agitated that we were missing out on a great performance elsewhere, so we ditched just as Dâm-Funk improvised a crazy g-funk solo on the keyboard that I had assumed was for Harvey Sutherland on afterwards. For all we knew, Dâm-Funk may have really turned it on.
There was no indoor theatre stage this year, instead replaced by Sensory, an “immersive restaurant experiment” add-on that I’ve heard no comments on. While mixing sound, visuals and food in the Sensory experience could be incredible, it is just too loaded for today with all the live music. Tim Sweeney was spinning fat techno at the revamped Boiler Room Stage, but the crowd was too munted and dense to go anywhere near, so Dodds Street is where we remained for the rest of the evening. We had both seen Courtney Barnett play at the Palais the night before in a strangely still setting. Here though, the crowd rocked out with raised arms. A dude near the front gleefully held up a tea towel that read ‘tune’. It’s so awesome to see Barnett in her home base after touring her decidedly local influenced songs all over the world. The people there to see her probably feel a connection beyond the usual rock-star-audience dynamic, which can be sensed in the enthusiasm during the performance.
The legendary Dirty Three came to the stage after a lengthy technical preparation that saw devoted crowd members vying for the attention of violin god Warren Ellis. It is Ellis who brought the madness to the stage, churning his little instrument through wicked distortion while shouting from the depths of his soul. Each song was preceded by an absurdly long introduction that explained their meaning, followed by inspiring instrumental freak-outs. I’m very grateful to have witnessed this band live, and there were moments of sheer musical transcendence, yet I yearned for the space to bounce around. The Dirty Three demand a recklessness that the Melbourne crowd once again didn’t deliver. It all closed with the sunset.
Hot Chip rounded it out at Dodds Street, ripping out a banging set with a several-piece live band. For such a popular group, they have a geekiness that’s endearing and fun to watch, switching around instruments mid-song to create such a polished sound. I was too squished to dance so I draped myself over the barrier at the front. As idyllic as it may be in imagination, carrying someone on your shoulders is really painful and difficult, so I had to politely decline the random who wanted that aerial experience. Not long after, a chain-smoking security guard barrelled over me to try and stop someone from ‘breaking the festival law’. The same person had been hoisted up by someone else and the pair were nifty at evasion too. After the giant guard had settled the minor disturbance and cleared my view of the stage, I zoned into Hot Chip’s closing cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’, which managed to ramp the crowd into ecstatic point. Then that version morphed into ‘All My Friends’ by LCD Soundsystem (Al Doyle from Hot Chip also plays with the recently reunited LCD), a sweet nod to one of my favourite bands that got me pogoing at last.
On the exterior Sugar Mountain’s hyper-cool aesthetic is attractive and exciting, however both years I left feeling slightly disappointed. This is probably more from my own irrational unattainable expectations that every thing can summon the levels of ecstasy that the three-day Meredith Music Festival can, than a distinct fault in Sugar Mountain itself. There could definitely be more shaded areas and places to sit within listening distance of the artists, so as to get through the day without fading from fatigue. The music programming is spot on, and over time the functioning elements that dance around that will likely improve. Maybe if I had checked out more of the visual art galleries that the festival curates as well I could have found the time to re-energise through exposure to a different art form, but intense musical FOMO inevitably gets the better of me. Or have I come to realise the depressing reality once not a kid anymore that it’s impossible to stay hyped for hours on end in front of great music without the aid of stimulants?