Sugar Mountain is a music festival for people who don’t always enjoy music festivals — it’s boutique, curated and still not too well-known. It’s like an inner-city Meredith or a vintage Laneway. But, touted as “A Summit of Music and Art”, it also accommodates visual art and, increasingly, gourmet food.
Sugar Mountain, which originated in 2011 at The Forum, found a new genteel outdoor home at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in Southbank last year. It returned to the site this year, and the acts were again buzz, cred and diverse, with Hot Chip, Courtney Barnett, Empress Of, Kelela and Julio Bashmore among the big draws.
Touchingly, Sugar Mountain 2016 was turned into a quasi-David Bowie tribute, with the late pop icon’s classics broadcast between sets. The crowd hushed when before Kelela, that illwave Erykah Badu, Bowie’s cosmic-jazz Blackstar symbolically aired.
There was plenty to attract punters early — Sampa The Great, the boho rapper and singer down with Wondercore Island, was programmed on the Car Park stage at 12.30pm. She was followed by Kate Tempest, the literary English MC who received a Mercury Prize nom for 2014’s Everybody Down, with band. Tempest, unadorned and unpretentious, is half-rapper, half-slam poet. The Londoner demonstrated remarkable breath control as she finished a cappella for an attentive and awestruck crowd.
In fact, the day’s most cutting-edge music was heard at the Car Park. Empress Of (aka Lorely Rodriguez), presenting her inaugural Australian show, arrived early to set up her own gear. She sang powerfully and played keyboards, accompanied by a drummer and second keyboardist/percussionist.
Empress Of’s material largely came from 2015’s debut album, Me, and Water Water was her second number. The Honduran-American rebelette composes electro-pop with political and personal themes. Though not theatrical, she has a particular flair and her songs are so catchy. Empress Of is like Zola Jesus with Charli XCX’s chart sensibility. Plus, live, How Do You Do It was close to a techno banger.
Le1f, back in Oz, knows how to make an entrance. He wore a pendant and pleathery sheath, while his dreads, tied up high, were tipped tropical orange –– a look which could be called regally futurist. The New Yorker, arguably the first openly gay rap superstar, performed subversive techno-trap, launching with Koi off his debut Riot Boi.
Imagine Grace Jones body-jumping from Busta Rhymes into Spank Rock and you have Le1f. A few songs in, the animated rapper was joined by two dancers as he stripped down to colourful jocks. Some punters didn’t just dance, they grinded.
Next was the comparatively downbeat Kelela — striking with her undercut, B-girl earrings, cropped pale denim jacket and white pants. Kelela cut a solitary figure on stage, her slot virtually a live PA. But, given the intensity of her elegant avant-soul, it worked. The most festive songs? Bank Head, Kelela’s collab with Kingdom, and 2015’s Rewind — a crowd hit. By the end, she had both Empress Of and Le1f grooving backstage.
The Dodds Street main stage became more interesting from mid-afternoon. Melbourne six-piece Alpine pulled a sizeable crowd with their blithe summer indie vibes. Booking Courtney Barnett proved a coup for Sugar Mountain, the charming (and robust) singer/guitarist, widely compared to Bob Dylan despite her ultra-parochial lyrics about Melbourne #MoochLyf, is now up for a prestigious Grammy as ‘Best New Artist’. She played her cult Avant Gardener early.
Reformed Australian heritage post-rock instrumentalists Dirty Three were a surprise, if sentimental, addition to Sugar Mountain, but their show was also surprisingly opulent. A drone mysteriously flew above as they jammed.
Many a hipster descended on the Boiler Room late in the day — even Le1f headed there with his party posse. Tim Sweeney, recognised as much for his old association with James Murphy’s DFA Records as his own Beats In Space concern, DJed house with a NY heart. He closed with Bowie’s ’70s funk Fame, to applause. Julio Bashmore’s set went off too, and the Brit dropped disco over deep house. We spotted Ms Tempest busting moves in front of the speaker.
If initially Sugar Mountain didn’t appear to have a clear headliner in 2016, then Hot Chip (humbly) claimed that privilege with a blockbuster show on the Dodds Street dais. The band, Aussie faves since 2007’s Big Day Out excursion, reproduced songs old and new, opening with Huarache Lights, a single off 2015’s Why Make Sense.
Still, Hot Chip’s strongest moments were from their back catalogue: Over And Over and, off 2012’s In Our Heads, the dramatic Night & Day (here encompassing a twee snatch of Prince’s obscure ’80s B-side Irresistible Bitch) and Flutes, Alexis Taylor’s voice ever so sonorous. The Brits bowed out with a kitsch, albeit wonky and glitchy, RSL disco cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark. And, by then, everybody was.
Gallery: Sugar Mountain 2016, Melbourne 23.01.16 / Photos: Nikki Williams