A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.
29 January 2012
This past Sunday I attended one of Australia’s biggest one day rock restivals, the Big Day Out. It was 35C (90+F), sunny, clear skies, and under the whole in the ozone layer. The stages (6 in all) were spread out over a fairly large swath with plenty of vendors in between.
I arrived much quicker than expected to a crowd mostly filled with teenagers. While not my preferred cohorts for a concert, I was far more concerned with how they afforded it. The concert tickets were $180 all together with charges (no, it wasn’t worth it). These kids are 17. Where the hell are they getting that kind of money and why are they spending it here?
I ran into Luke, a guy who had connections with security, on my way in. Both of us solo and without anything to see for a few hours decided to wander and talk. Free slurpees, free beer (well, he paid, but free for me), good talking, and all that. I really do appreciate traveling solo because I get to meet people and do this kind of thing.
The first band we ended up checking out was Frenzal Bomb, a hardcore group where the lead singer brought out his 2-year-old son and told him that his daddy was a bum and had to perform for other people for money. From there it was Parkway Drive, a hardcore outfit Luke wanted to see. After a couple songs of getting knocked around, and having been in the sun for a few hours already with my toes already starting to burn despite the sunblock reapplications, I decided to head to a tent stage to relax.
I finally made it back into the crowds for The Jezabels – a four piece out of Sydney that I see doing very well for themselves. One well placed song on a WB show aimed at teens and they are going to be a known name in the US. Or at least have that song you’ve heard a bunch but have no idea who it is by. I’ve now seen them twice, both times at festivals. Both times they were one of the main draws for me. And both times I couldn’t even focus the whole way through a song, even my favorite of theirs. This is a factor I cannot fully explain. They are musically on point, but their music is a little aetherial and it doesn’t translate live nearly as well. They don’t add much to the recordings so there isn’t much novel. And there is practically no banter. Some part of me needs novelty to keep my attention: conversation, screaming, jumping around, goofing off. Something. The lead singer has the professional performer thing down cold, walking around just enough, bouncing just enough, female lead rock posturing enough without overdoing it, moving her hand near her inner thigh when singing a sexual line – not blatantly enough to offend, but certainly enough that the subtle cue is there to pique interest. But the set ended and I didn’t have much memory of it.
The Hilltop Hoods followed up on the sister stage. They are a talented hip hop group, with the band changing pace as a game and the singers managing to keep up even at auctioneer speeds. But when I can’t fully understand lyrics, it is harder for me to get into hip-hop live. And while I understand that raising one’s arms is a sign of enjoyment or energy, it is something that must be used sparingly. They insisted that the crowd “put your hands up” on nearly every song, and forcing that energy just makes it seem somewhat cheap. And having to command the crowd to do it just seems amateur.
From there came the Living End. The backdrop was Ouroboros, a triskelle, and the optical illusion triangle, which was instantly promising. The bass player was playing a standing bass, another good sign. And while they were punk-ish, they were also middle aged. They seemed like an Australian version of Social Distortion, and they put on just as solid a set, wishing the Big Day Out festival a happy 20th birthday and throwing cake into the crowd, then playing a remarkably solid cover of Nirvana’s “Breed” – a song which is also 20 this year (yes, we’re old).
They were followed by the primary band I was there to see: My Chemical Romance. Surprisingly, I wasn’t the only guy interested, nor the only adult (there were a couple others). And much of the crowd there to see them seemed to be pretty mainstream blonde girls and beach bum bros. MCR is a band that has changed their musical style and fashion for every album. So seeing a post-apocalyptic glam rock band playing songs written by black hair-dyed cutters/school anarchists was a bit incongruous. The band attacked all of their songs with fervor and energy. The only slight difference was frontman Gerard Way who seemed to be having a bit more fun on the new tracks. He sang all the songs with energy and emotion, but the older tracks had just a bit of rehearsed knowledge of exactly where to get people to jump and how to command the crowd, where the new ones he just seemed a bit more into himself (“Planetary (GO!)” especially). Most impressively, when compared to Hilltop, was the fact that almost all the arm raising, festival clapping, fist pumping and arm bouncing was directed almost solely by pantomime, Way rarely having to say anything so trite as “Get your arms up!”
Straight from there was Girl Talk. I haven’t been to many famous DJs before, and this guy is certainly the real deal. A completely over the top light rigging setup. Huge stage. He didn’t stop bouncing while spinning the whole time. He was probably the most energetic person in the tent, which is saying a lot. But as much as he had the energy, and as much as critics fawn over him, I’m going to say that I wasn’t overly impressed. He has the benefit of mashing up hundreds of songs, so he only has to use about 15 to 30 seconds of each. This allows him to keep the crowd’s energy up with constant musical climaxes without having to build to it. Blur’s “woohoo”s, Byonce’s soaring big band from “Crazy In Love,” and DJ Kool’s unmistakable hip hop beat from “Let Me Clear My Throat” (trust me, you know it). All one after another. Crowd erupting at each one. The problem is that it makes it all seem as cheap as the highlight clip-reel that it is. And when you cram that much together, you have to be really, really good to make it all work well and sound good. And I think most of the people listening are willing to gloss over the fact that he isn’t and it isn’t because what he is doing is novel, creative, and, most importantly, popular. His crowd also had the biggest concentration of selfish, belligerent, and forceful people. Not the hip hop artists. Not the hardcore acts. It was this crowd who were shoving and just walking forward despite the fact there was nowhere to go. It wasn’t a bad set, I just was disappointed. I’d hoped he could improve on the albums live. Turns out those are what he makes when he has the time to actually test out the combinations.
Next up was Drapht, a hip hop artist from Western Australia who won last year’s ARIA award for best urban album. His songs are about doing your own thing, living how you want to live, and not conforming to society’s standards. While this may seem a little trite, it isn’t. He doesn’t do it in the rebellious to be rebellious way, and he sings it like someone who has the life experience to back it up, with enough pop culture references thrown in and pop hooks to sound polished. (He’s also my age, which makes his whole message resonate a little stronger for me, off here doing my own thing and trying to find what makes me happy since it clearly isn’t the standard life-course most people take.) He got the crowd jumping and singing along without having to plead with them to do so. The lyrics were understandable. The crowd was singing along to the choruses. It was a solid set for an artist I’d been wanting to see who lived up to the expectation. He even brought out a collaborator for my favorite song off his new album, though they cut out the best part: a selt-aware little bit about one talking over the other’s rap.
Last of the bands I cared about was Foster the People. I was completely into the album when it came out, back when it wasn’t picked up on US radio. By the time “Pumped Up Kicks” hit the airwaves, I’d already had it go through my rotation and was ready to give it a rest. As everyone started to play it constantly and their popularity shot up, I started to get sick of the band. Their headlining sideshow here this week sold out almost immediately. I was going to see them out of a past appreciation, largely tired of hearing about them.
For a band that plays fairly chill music, I expected a fairly laid back set. In my head I was going to see someone in the vein of Coldplay. Lead singer Foster is fairly soft-spoken on banter, giving the explanations for a few songs but largely letting the music set itself up. But it was the ferocity with which the guys attacked their instruments that floored me. I was expecting adult alternative. Instead I was presented with hard rock energy. For a band that has so much electronic sound and where post-production seems so critical, they created a deep and booming live sound that converted me back into a fan within a couple songs. The main detractor was towards the end when I noticed that other than the vocalist/guitarist, everyone else was bent over their contributions (drums, synth, keys, tables, loops, samples). There is some old rock sensibility in me that appreciates live bands more when they are not on digital instruments.
The last thing to hit before leaving was Kanye West – not so much to appreciate the set but to inspect it. I’d paid for it already. The sound levels were psychotic. I never got closer than 200 meters but could hear everything clearly, and at a level that was causing my ears to hurt. I stayed for a few songs to see if I could “get it”, and while I appreciate that he delves into his own faults more than the bitches-n-bling rappers, the levels of praise that have been thrown his way still elude my understanding. The biggest selling point is that his stage show was phenomenal. Unfortunately his stage presence wasn’t any more impressive than the average musician. He just had a gigantic flying-through-space LED wall behind a giant, well-lit backdrop of carved angels, a wall of backup singers/dancers, and pyrotechnics. As I walked away from him, having him drop into invisibility while still being able to hear him, I started to get angry. How much did that setup cost? Why the hell did the organizers agree to that? Couldn’t the money have been spread more evenly so bands like Soundgarden could have a stage show? And if not, could Kanye get no fireworks and only 1/3 the backup crew and I get $10 back on my ticket?
All told it was a good show. Again, not worth the cost of the ticket over here. But more and more I’m finding that things here are just stupidly expensive. And as long as we keep paying it, they will continue to be.