ENTERTAINMENT

Splendour In The Grass Review, Day One

The xx, Peking Duk and Haim blew us away on a beautiful Byron Bay day.

22/07/2017 4:11 PM AEST | Updated 22/07/2017 4:11 PM AEST
Bianca Holderness/Supplied
The xx headlining day one of Splendour In The Grass

It's a special time of year on the NSW north coast. While most of the country shivers through July, rugging up against the winter cold and willing the chilly months to hurry up and finish, in this small pocket of the country around Byron Bay, it's one of the best times of the year.

Sure the water is a bit colder for a surf, and locals might need to swap the singlets and thongs for t-shirts and sneakers, but the chill is more than offset as the entire region heats up for one of its biggest weekends of the year as Splendour In The Grass -- with its 100 artists and 32,000 fans -- streams into town.

The local cafes, supermarkets, taxi and Uber drivers, bottleshops and bars hungrily welcome the thousands of music lovers and festival-goers to town; a bohemian horde of flowing flowery capes, unnecessarily large hats, fashionable overalls which have never seen a day's yardwork, and this year's must-have accessory, huge flat mirrored sunglasses more resembling solar panels than sun protection gear.

In that vein, it's fitting that we started our Splendour weekender with Tash Sultana. Barefoot, dressed in an oversize baggy lurid shirt and bohemian cap keeping her ringlets and dreadlocks under control, standing on a rug surrounded by pedals and gear, the singer/guitarist/one-woman-band was an absolute tour de force as she commanded the amphitheatre stage on Friday afternoon, filling it to the brim in the fading light. Solitary on stage, bar her vital pedals and keyboards, it was Sultana alone with herself and her sounds, and she was ecstatic to be home.

"I've played 20 countries in the last six months and I'm stoked to be home," she told the crowd, but aside from a few brief notes of gratitude and thanks for the crowd choosing to see her, it was all business. Her loop pedal-driven music has taken the world by storm, her voice -- at times sweet and soaring, at times gravelly and blues-esque -- anchoring her hypnotic reggae-influenced and danceable guitar tunes, with the Splendour crowd a perfect homecoming for the pint-sized Melbourne star. All shimmering guitar tones and reverb-heavy vocals, looping and looping on top of each other, Sultana's solo act swirled in a booming, powerful vibe. In front of a simple black and white backdrop of only her name, she held the building crowd in palm of her hand.

Canberra dance lords Peking Duk managed to get Karl Stefanovic and David Hasselhoff to give them viral intro videos for their Stereosonic and Splendour performances in the past. It's hard to top that, but try they did, as they scored Aussie actor Stephen Curry -- in character as Dale Kerrigan from classic 'The Castle' -- to hype up their set on the big screen, setting the scene for what will go down as one of the most insane sets of the entire weekend, possibly even in Splendour history, and ushering in a new era of Peking Duk.

Dressed in all-white tracksuits, the DJ duo did for the first time the very thing that dance music naysayers complain about artists not doing -- actually playing their instruments live. Friday night was the premiere of the Peking Duk live experience, as the pair stepped out from behind the decks, slung guitars around their necks, and brought out friends to play live drums, trumpet and violin. It might not sound like the perfect foil for a set of high-energy dancefloor-fillers, but rest assured, festival-goers were treated to a seamless transition and adaptation of their Triple J-dominating, bringing the recorded versions to life with live instruments, guitar shredding and drum pounding.

And the guests! Oh, the guests. Peking Duk's chart-topping EDM tunes obliterate dance floors on their own, but often the real stars are the incredible array of special friends they enlist along the way. Friday saw guest appearances from Safia, Dan Sultan, Ivan Ooze, Vera Blue and Nicole Millar at various points through the set, each popping up to contribute vocals (or in Sultan's case, some devastating guitar shredding). Most special mention goes to British stars Aluna George, not even on the Splendour lineup, who somehow jetted halfway across the world to sing a special track.

Supplied/Bianca Holderness
Peking Duk perform

Their well-known and loved DJ set still made up the bulk of the show, as Peking Duk offered up high-octane remixes of Kendrick Lamar, Rage Against The Machine, Kanye and even a new one from Lorde to keep the party going, but it was their live debut which was the standout here. They made their names with the bombastic live show and DJ set, but they've stepped out and taken a risk they didn't need to at all -- and it really paid off, as they managed to upstage those international stars which followed them, setting the tone for the night which was hard to top, not just for energy and surprise but for sheer stage presence and entertainment factor. Strobes, smoke, cannons, hypnotic repetitive projections from silver bullets to gold chains, and a huge finale of bubbles and torrents of confetti billowing from cannons like a snowstorm almost blocking out the sky.

Peking Duk were far from the headliners on Friday, but it seems somebody forgot to tell them.

Splendour In The Grass - Day One

Elsewhere through the grounds, Aussie festival favourites Cut Copy returned to local stages for the first time in ages, enjoying a packed crowd on the Mix Up stage. The Australian electro forebears, who pioneered the way for many after them -- including the likes of Peking Duk -- to gain international recognition, made their long-awaited return, and it was like they never left, as their groovy dance-pop numbers got an entire venue grooving and shaking. Back on the main stage, American sisters Haim might have put on the most endearing and lovely set of the evening as they charmed all in their path with their upbeat pop-rock tunes and genuinely warm, funny stage presence. Talking openly with the crowd between songs -- "this is an angry one, this is about a f**king dude", one laughed midway through the set -- their infectious energy and performance would have converted many (including this reviewer) into fans.

But many would have been hanging out all day to see the mysterious, brooding and alluring British trio who headlined the night. The xx, playing their first Australian show in a number of years, came on in darkness and played under muted blue and white light as they sauntered through a set drawing heavily on their old favourites. 'Intro' and 'Crystalised' from their beloved debut album started things, the familiar sparse guitars and icy textures underpinned by a booming, chest-rattling percussion amped up from the recorded version. Vocalists Romy and Oliver stood proud at the front of stage, weaving in and around each other and their twinkling minimal guitar lines as band maestro Jamie tapped out beats and synth, as well as thudding on the booming floor drums, on a clear perspex platform at the back. Jamie beat out tribal drum lines, infusing the bare bones songs with a new energy, powerful and vital, even when all the rest was stripped back to literally just delicate vocals during 'Crystalised'.

Supplied/Charlie Hardy

It's a simple stage show, just muted light and Jamie's clear platform, with the trio dressed in all black. But that's not to say it is a lacking performance in any way, with the distraction-free stage setup allowing the band's pure sound -- fragile vocals, intricate and spidery guitar lines, shimmering beats -- to shine through. The xx is a sound built more on what isn't there, each element carefully selected for maximum effect, superfluous sound is filtered out and cast aside to bring the remaining aspects to the fore. These are stripped-back songs focused on progression, to the point where a physical tension is felt as you journey through the set, anticipation building as the delicate textures grow and grow and threaten to burst forth. It shouldn't work in a live setting, even less so on a huge festival stage just hours after the Peking Duk sound explosion, but it does. Minimal plucked guitars, the sparse drums, splashing cymbals and thrumming bass build to an intense crescendo as the band finally join together for a full-throated wall of sound, rhythm and vocals. It's a midnight sound, late night, nocturnal, yet infused with the rhythm and vibe of those bursting ear drums on the late night dance and hip hop stages. The xx came away with the quietest set of the day, but definitely the most magical and wonderful.

HuffPost Australia is at Splendour this year, taking in the vibe and chatting to the big acts. Stay tuned after Splendour wraps up for our documentary on the festival, featuring interviews with some of the best bands on the lineup, with organisers, and backstage access. Keep up with us this weekend on Instagram (@HuffPostAu) and Twitter (@HuffPostAu) for behind-the-scenes access and interviews, as well as on Facebook for a series of Live interviews with big-name acts.

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