When word spread of bushfires along the Great Ocean Road on Christmas Day 2015, there was little thought spared for the Victorian location of the annual Falls Festival and more concern (rightly so) for the families who had watched helplessly as their homes burnt alongside the dense bushland surrounding Erskine Falls.
It was only on Boxing Day, as out of control flames still ravaged the coastal towns of Lorne and Wye River that festival organisers knew that they had a very big decision on their hands – make some serious changes or risk the safety of several thousand attendees.
And make some serious changes they did. In a little over 27 hours the folk behind one of Australia’s longest running music festivals managed to relocate the entire event from its longstanding base in the foothills of Lorne and into a safer location, Day on the Green venue and winery Mt Duneed Estate, Geelong.
It was an epic effort by the team and a large group of volunteers who were still busy setting up as festivities got underway on Monday 28th December. While backhoes and cranes silently lifted equipment and tradies were hard at work putting the finishing touches on the main stage, a select group of performers entertained the first wave of ticketholders in the Grand Theatre, getting the audience psyched for four days of entertainment in the brand new space.
While the grounds weren’t overly busy it was nice to see the gleeful faces of punters as they strolled through the Mt Duneed entry gates, the majority of whom had no doubt been glued to social media over the Christmas weekend, patiently waiting for news on the future of the 2015 festival.
As afternoon rolled into evening excitement built around the theatre, as we early arrivers prepared ourselves for a performance by American comedian ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. Although his set was peppered with technical difficulties it was still a great time – no one knows showbiz like ‘Weird Al’ and with fat suits, Segway’s and several costume changes thrown into the mix, everyone seemed happy enough to trade a couple of electrical blackouts for hits like ‘Fat’ and ‘White and Nerdy’.
In the interest of full disclosure there are two things that I need to mention:
1) The ‘new’ location meant that this reviewer was able to travel to the venue everyday from the comfort of her own Melbourne apartment.
2) Sometimes the best entertainment happens in the VIP area (but that’s a story for another time).
After ‘Weird Al’ wrapped, the executive decision is made to hit the road and skip a late night slot by Art vs Science. On the drive back to Melbourne my companion and I listen to a compilation of the best of the worst of the 80s, the only appropriate thing to do after seeing one of the decade’s biggest cult stars.
Day two, otherwise known as Tuesday, starts off well. After watching lovable larrikins Dune Rats pelt the amassed audience with an array of sex toys and blow up dolls this reviewer is scolded by a fellow member of the media for missing Leon Bridges’ show earlier that afternoon. A couple of minutes are spent contemplating his sideshow at 170 Russell before I’m informed that it has completely sold out. There’s no time to be sad as latest it-girl indie pop princess Halsey struts her way onto the main stage and instantly wins over the throng with a selection of tracks off her debut album, ‘Badlands’. Originally discovered on YouTube, the New Jersey native has attitude to spare and maintains this momentum for her entire 50-minute slot.
Next on the agenda is Paul Kelly and the Merri Soul Sessions, featuring performances by Dan Sultan, Ash Naylor, Vika and Linda Bull and Clairy Browne. We watch the set while sitting on a patch of dry grass and eating delicious Hare Krishna dinners, content to relax and let the smooth stylings wash over us like waves, not to be confused with Wavves, who storm the stage straight after Kelly, dedicating their set to Motorhead front man Lemmy, who had sadly passed away that morning. After sticking around for a couple of songs I wander back to the VIP area to grab a drink and settle in for some serious people watching.
Resident DJ Eddie spins classic disco and offers complimentary massages to the motley crew dancing in front of him, some of whom look like they could desperately use a nap after working around the clock to get the event up and running.
Darkness falls and Wavves make way for perennial favourites Hilltop Hoods. Hilltop Hoods are followed by crowd pleasers Wombats. Their set finishes at around 1am and once again we’re back in the car for the journey home.
Wednesday, day three, is a scorcher. Attendees struggle to keep cool as festival organizers erect shade cloths and security hose down the crowd near the main stage. Melbourne locals Alpine have the right idea; they’ve made their entrance carrying pineapple shaped cocktail glasses, although the group still looks like they’re suffering in the heat.
There’s time to spare before Gary Clark Jnr is due on stage so we hike up the hill to watch an angelic sounding Jarryd James. His set ends and once again we’re thrust into the glaring afternoon sun, there’s a race to get back to the main stage before Jnr’s blues tinged show begins, although the heat makes it feel like we’re wading through toffee. The American performer’s so great that I have plans to stay and watch the entire show, unfortunately the temperature gets to me after a handful of songs and I have to leave the main stage area to find myself some shade. The tracks that I do manage to catch before venturing off sound pitch perfect and I make a mental note to download his entire back catalogue on Spotify.
There’s a moment every year at Falls when the sun dips and the temperature drops to almost freezing conditions. Amazingly Mt Duneed Estate doesn’t seem to work in the same way as Erskine Falls and once late afternoon sets in we still find ourselves comfortable in short sleeves – for once there’s no need at all to rug up in the usual winter layers.
Melbourne Ska Orchestra are trying their darndest to bring back dancehall flavours. The Wednesday evening crowd is digging the beats and follow up performances by Rufus, Block Party and Disclosure means that the night is one giant party.
Usually by New Years Eve energy starts to lag. It’s the classic combo of heat (and freezing cold), lack of sleep and a steady diet of festival food that leaves everyone feeling slightly worse for wear on the last day.
I’m lucky that I’ve had the luxury of going home each night, especially in such dry conditions. Although beautiful, Mt Duneed has morphed into a dustbowl and by night time my companion and I are grateful to be able to wipe the dirt of the day off our shoes and hands.
My afternoon begins with a super mellow routine by Meg Mack. She’s attempting to sing while holding on to her sunhat, but gives in and allows the wind to blow the stylish accessory off her head and towards the back of the stage. Mack finishes her show and the early afternoon crowd cheers the heartfelt performance. The temperature is peaking as I ease my way back up to the Grand Theatre to watch Money for Rope. I don’t really mean to, but end up staying for their whole act, they’re good fun and it’s so much cooler in the tent.
The evening passes in a blur of Kurt Vile, The Maccabees, Harts and Sweden’s own Elliphant, who performs while wearing a Falls Fest volunteer t-shirt.
2015 is coming to a close and excitement is thick in the air. As night settles in I catch an encore performance by Borns (after the cancellation of The Avener leaves a gap in the schedule). The young rock group are super talented so it’s a pleasure to watch them again – this time playing in front of a much larger and energized pack.
Before I know it it’s time for Foals, the London based band chosen to ring in the new year with style. This is the show I’ve been looking forward to the most over the past few days and they don’t disappoint. Lead singer Yannis Philippakis dives off the stage and heads into the assembled mass several times during the show and by the time they wrap things up the crowd seems to have reached maximum hyperactivity – the people are ready to keep the party going. It’s a tough act to follow but Django Django don’t appear to have any issues, they put on a killer set and wish everyone a great 2016.
As Django Django’s last song winds up we sneak out of the grounds via a hole in the fence and wander back to our car. The sun has set on yet another great Falls Festival and despite the unusual circumstances we've enjoyed four great days of music, performance, food, vintage fashion and general people watching. It’s been a fantastic effort by the Falls group and the seemingly tireless volunteers, who have managed to raise over $139,000 for bush fire relief via the release of a one off New Years Eve Appeal ticket, day parking rates and collection tins onsite.
It’s been an awesome, albeit hot, four days and no matter where the show ends up in 2016, you can guarantee that it won’t ever be boring.