It had been three years since the last Golden Plains festival. That year’s event ended with a Covid alert, leading many of us to look back on our memories of Golden Plains with a sort of Tomorrow, When the War Began wistfulness during the many long lockdowns that followed.
The drawn-out abeyance caused some people to experience anxious growing pains on day one of Golden Plains 2023. One person dreading night two pitched an alternative festival model to me: a one-day-and-night camping festival, with the following day reserved for recuperation. “How am I going to do this again tomorrow night?” they asked, pupils wide, the clock ticking towards midnight. But, looking around, these concerns were not shared by the majority.
From the Pink Flamingo bar on the top of the hill through the thicket of BYO couches and down to the stage barrier, people were relishing being back in the Supernatural Amphitheatre. Custom doofsticks lit up the dancefloor as the club beats and R&B vocals of Rochelle Jordan rolled into the excitable Korean hip hop of the Sydney-based 1300 and the audio-visual drum’n’bass onslaught of Overmono.
There were a lot of druggy gazes and the odd person whose limbs had given out on them. But people were also looking each other in the eyes; unfazed, smiling, thrilled to be here together.
The spirit of kindness and generosity that permeates through Golden Plains has a lot to do with the fact everyone moves into the festival site on Wadawurrung Country for a few days. The raising of this temporary community contributes to the magic feeling that circulates on the second afternoon of the festival. Even if you rise on day two wondering how you’ll back it up, come mid-afternoon, as the amphitheatre fills with bodies and the energy levels lift, a kind of collective euphoria prevails.
It’s helped along by the apt programming choices – this year it was Gil Scott-Heron collaborator Brian Jackson followed by Japanese house musician Soichi Terada. The former regaled us with stories from his many years spent working with Scott-Heron, who he called “one of the greatest poets of the 20th century”. Joined by a crack ensemble of jazz and funk players, Jackson performed a few of Scott-Heron’s songs, including ‘Home is Where the Hatred Is’, foregrounding his Rhodes piano and a singing voice that bore the hallmarks of a resilient soul.
From the moment Terada introduced himself – “je suis Soichi Terada,” he told us – the Japanese electronic don had a smile glued to his face, mirroring the countenance of Mdou Moctar from the same time slot one day earlier. Terada’s set of sample-rich house and jungle music made body movement feel effortless as the sun shone down on the amphitheatre.
The discernible joy displayed by Terada and Jackson was shared by many performers in the course of the weekend. “What a cool festival,” said Kathleen Hanna after Bikini Kill opened their set with ‘New Radio’ on night one. Hanna told us that her 17-year-old self could never have imagined she’d be singing her teenage poetry to an audience of 10,000+ on the other side of the world at the age of 54, and she more than lived up to her reputation as a subversive punk rock valley girl.
Bikini Kill’s drummer and occasional singer, Tobi Vail, fell sick two shows earlier, which meant Lauren “Hammer” Hammel of Tropical Fuck Storm was called in at the last minute. Hammer proved a more than capable stand-in, and so did Al, the band’s monitor engineer, who took lead vocal duties for a few of Vail’s songs.
But Hanna was the obvious kernel of appeal, bemoaning new Tennessee laws that prohibit same-sex marriage and cautioning against letting heteronormative pornography influence your own sexual performance. Before ‘Rebel Girl’, Hanna addressed the women and oppressed minorities in the crowd, telling them it’s okay to feel hurt when cynics and naysayers try to shut down your pursuit of equality and justice. Just don’t let them derail your attempts to dismantle societal conservatism, she said.
Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar did precisely as expected: wailed on his lefty Fender Stratocaster from beginning to end. Moctar’s music is an electrifying blend of Western rock music, a la Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath, and Saharan African harmony. Drummer Souleymane Ibrahim was one of the hardest tasked players of the weekend, pushing Moctar’s rollicking rock songs, with lyrics in Tamasheq, up to penetrating tempos. Moctar was a fully engaged front person, frequently removing his nimble, gloved-sized hands from the fretboard to initiate audience time-keeping and vocal commotion.
Armand Hammer favour a lo-fi, woozy sound on record, and they brought this sound with them to the stage. The performance mightn’t have hit the spot for everyone, as the voices of rappers billy woods and E L U C I D were somewhat concealed beneath the soil-shaking bass frequencies. But, playing songs from 2020’s Shrines and 2021’s Haram – including the glorious, Caribbean influenced ‘Stonefruit’ – they left us wanting more.
London jazz ensemble Kokoroko had a surprise Covid-era viral hit with the seven-minute instrumental ‘Abusey Junction’, but the septet is no one-hit wonder. Their set of elongated soul and Afro-jazz fusion numbers was like bathing in agave syrup after the rock’n’assouf fireworks of Mdou Moctar.
Boots, sneakers and Crocs had been in the air ever since Stiff Richards got things started at 2pm on Saturday. But the emphatic catharsis facilitated by Angel Olsen – whose repertoire contains more than a few slow-burners that rise to a god-sighting crescendo – was tailor-made to receive the seal of approbation that a raised boot denotes.
Here on the back of last year’s country-inclined Big Time LP, Olsen was accompanied by a violinist, cellist, keyboardist and harmony vocalist, as well as a lead guitarist, bass player and drummer. The group showcased the benefits of long-term touring, getting behind Olsen’s terrific and emotionally charged voice to create the biggest sound of the weekend. They ended their time on stage with a cover of Badfinger’s ‘Without You’, a song of absolute devotion that Olsen, like Harry Nilsson before her, was born to sing.
The local acts on the bill, from the arty post-punk of EXEK to the angular, Wire-meets-Beat Happening sound of Delivery, were all essential cogs in the machine. Mulalo, donning a designer picnic hat, was a particular fan favourite, winning over the mid-afternoon crowd with her no-fucks-given raps and bucketloads of stage presence.
On Sunday morning, Wadawurrung man Uncle Barry Gilson delivered a sobering history lesson, explaining how, on the orders of Australian-born genocidal colony man John Batman, the Wadawurrung population was reduced from 4000 to just 279 within 30 years of the European invasion in the early 19th century. Uncle Barry asked us to cheer so that he could determine whether to return next year, and he was met by a minutes’ long standing ovation.
The performance of Yolngu funk performer Andrew Gurruwiwi, and his comrades from Nhulunbuy and Yirrkala in the Northern Territory, was a testament to the survival that Uncle Barry Gilson and his ancestors had fought so hard for. Gurruwiwi, a Yolngu elder, sat behind a keytar as he sang in tandem with Dion Gurruwiwi. The performance had watch-this-space written all over it, never mind Andrew Gurruwiwi’s advanced age.
By the end of the festival, despite the aforementioned reservations, it can feel like it’s over all too soon. Sitting on the grassy incline on Monday morning, looking out towards the neighbouring windfarm, there was much to be grateful for. The roti wraps from Hotties Eat Rotis, for one, and the general abundance of vegan food and quality filter coffee for another.
The amount of effort people put into their preparations for the event was mighty impressive. Campsites were distinguished by twinkling ladybugs and technicoloured curtains. There was a white picket fence with a mailbox, and flags painted with love hearts and rainbows.
On the ground, matching costumes were the going trend. We saw Buzz Lightyear and Woody from Toy Story, a group of Freddie Mercury doppelgangers, an approximation of 101 Dalmatians and groups of friends dressed in all gold, all pink and athletic spandex and headbands. There were a heckload of cowboys, girls and theys, including many with light-up Stetsons to ensure they could keep making hay long after the sun went down.
Many groups shared doofstick duties, taking turns to hold up totems of George Clooney, Richard Gere and beloved family pets. One stick was topped by a miniature Henry Hoover and others featured lightning bolts, love hearts, flexible duct tubing and dangling space jellyfish. The majority of them glowed and twinkled after the sun sank below the horizon, transforming the amphitheatre into a psychedelic swarm, no matter your brain chemistry.
It’s fair to interrogate what role a music festival plays in an affluent country like Australia in 2023. Partly on account of its remote location, there’s an “anything goes” attitude at Golden Plains, giving rise to reinless behaviour that detractors might denigrate as nothing more than mindless indulgence – you know, people seeking escape, ego death, the extinguishing of inhibition.
But the capacity for pleasure is relatively curtailed within societies structured around capitalism and the 40-hour working week. Out here, you become part of a community that refrains from moralising and demonstrates a “yes and” attitude, which means the potential for release – and, for many, transcendence – is greatly amplified.
We’ll see you again next year, Golden Plains.
Golden Plains took place at the Meredith Supernatural Amphitheatre from Saturday, 11th – Monday, 13th March. All photos by Juliette Younger.