Was 2016 Harbourlife’s best year yet?

inthemix sent dedicated house head JIM POE to review Harbourlife, Fuzzy’s annual festival on the shores of Sydney Harbour.

Ah, Harbourlife. The annual start-of-summer shindig in the spectacular confines of the Fleet Steps alongside Sydney Harbour has, in its 13 years of existence (minus one unfortunate cancellation in 2011), earned a reputation as one of the most solid day festivals on the local calendar. Fuzzy, the promotions crew behind the event, sure know how to throw a well-run party; and the Harbourlife line-up, which typically leans towards the housier end of the spectrum, is always ace.

That quality and dependability was just what the doctor ordered on Saturday as the latest edition of Harbourlife went down. It was a terrible weekend in Sydney for gigs: the De La Soul concert at the Greenwood Hotel on Friday night and the all-ages Hot Dub Time Machine party at the Enmore Theatre on Saturday were both shut down by police. I was at the De La show, and I’m with those who say it was one of the most disastrous gigs in Sydney in recent memory.

So it was a relief to spend the next afternoon and evening partying at a well-established and smoothly organised festival in a reasonably safe space by the Harbour and knowing there was little chance the authorities or anyone else would interfere. (That is, once you made it past the intimidating gauntlet of cops and sniffer dogs outside the gates, but that’s another set of issues.)

“The first thing you have to mention about Harbourlife is location, location, location. Is there a more magnificently situated urban festival anywhere else in the world?”

The first thing you have to mention about Harbourlife is location, location, location. Is there a more magnificently situated urban festival anywhere else in the world? From above as you approach, the view overlooking the steep descent down the Fleet Steps never ceases to be a stunner, with the sweep of Farm Cove stretching away to the rest of the Harbour and the city, and Sydney Opera House and the Bridge looming in the distance as the bass fills the air all around from the massive speaker stacks.

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Once you’re on the landing area at water level, it’s even better, with the clifftops and massive trees of Mrs. Macquaries Chair framing the stage and the 5000 or so punters, and the Harbour right at hand as you revel (complete with dozens of cheeky private boat parties checking out the action). For one afternoon every year, Harbourlife puts Sydney on a level with Ibiza or any other party destination you care to name – which is no doubt why the lineup is always geared towards warmer and groovier sounds that will work a treat with the setting.

“For one afternoon every year, Harbourlife puts Sydney on a level with Ibiza or any other party destination you care to name”

The one thing lacking this year was a sunset to match: the sky was overcast all day. As disappointing as that was, the threatening clouds (which thankfully never let loose with rain, though it seemed disturbingly imminent at times) added a fair bit of atmosphere to the proceedings.

The DJs on hand contributed their share to the atmosphere too. I missed Gabby and Young Franco, and only heard Fred Falke’s cool tech-house ringing across Farm Cove from a distance as I rocked up; but the huge dancefloor was already chockas and absolutely heaving by 5pm – much more so than that time at the last Harbourlife I attended – so they must have really delivered. At that point Berlin-based English producer George Fitzgerald took to the decks. He kept Falke’s tech-house energy up at first, but worked a deeper vein towards the end of his set, bringing out a distinct tropical flavour with Latin polyrhythms and broken beats that dazzled in the humid harbourside air.

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The next act, Sydney’s own Hayden James, might be the Platonic ideal of a Harbourlife headliner, with his perfect synthesis of indie dance, pop, house and boogie. He played a set made up of all his own tunes, including his most recognisable hits like Permission to Love and Something About You, but stitched it together like a DJ set in a progression that highlighted the rhythmic element and milked maximum drama out of the radio-ready melodies. The crowd surged and grooved with the entire set, with hundreds singing along with every lyric. His buddy and Future Classic labelmate Touch Sensitive showed up to play his distinctive slap-bass for one track, adding extra funk power. It was a spot-on performance.

“There’s no doubt techno is more commercially viable than ever and [Nina Kraviz] was the proof”

After that crowd-pleasing set, Nina Kraviz took over for the sunset slot. Her music is about as different to James as it’s possible to get while still broadly fitting the Harbourlife format, but whether or not that was a bold programming choice or just a happy accident, it worked.

The Russian took the big energy left behind by James and elevated it into orbit with her transcendent techno as the spooky clouds descended and darkness gathered. As a lifelong techno head myself, this was my personal highlight of the evening; and it was really gratifying to see a big and relatively commercial crowd writhing and whooping to her uncompromising Detroit-influenced sound. The pummelling bass, blistering high-hats and cinematic ambience sounded as if she were playing at Berghain, a fantastic change of pace from more conventional tech house. There’s no doubt techno is more commercially viable than ever and here was the proof.

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Was Kraviz’s full-speed-ahead approach a response to last week’s controversy du jour over her supposedly too-eclectic set in Melbourne? Surely not; I doubt an artist as singular and resolute as she’s known to be would alter her game plan based on social-media feedback. And there was plenty of variety in her set at Harbourlife too, with lots of melody and some old-school soulful vocals mixed in with the facemelters. For new techno fans and old it was a cracking 90 minutes of music.

That left MK to close things out, and once again the transition worked wonders, with his big, appealing UK garage sound a great cap to the festivities. The veteran laid down one ridiculously chunky house cut after another, with R&B-style vocals riding over rubbery basslines that had the whole place shaking their butts. Just before time to close, he dropped his remix of Storm Queen’s Look Right Through as thousands of arms and voices were raised from one end of the floor to the other.

All up it was another very impressive and fun affair from the Harbourlife crew.

Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1.