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Future Music Festival @ Randwick Racecoure, Sydney (12/03/2011)

Festivals! There’s nothing on the music scene more quintessentially Australian. But hailing from foreign parts, I was rather clueless. We don’t really do festivals in a big way in New York. There are a few big annual gatherings in the States, but they’re by no means the universal experience they are here in Oz.

So last Saturday’s Future Music Festival here in Sydney was my big chance to find out what all the fuss is about. The buzz factor was high for this one, both on the interwebs and among friends, with a seemingly endless string of prominent names promised across multiple stages.

I set out for the Royal Randwick Racecourse with a man-bag packed with sundry survival gear, and a sense of humour too – I figure I’ll need it to deal with the lines, the expensive beer and portable toilets. It’s a gorgeous day. As I make my way from Central, all around the city I see excited youth headed in the same direction. Smells like teen spirit!

Arriving at the Racecourse, I expect to wait in line forever, but instead there’s a very efficient system of corralling us inside en masse. I’m seriously impressed by how quickly and easily they get us all in. This will be an ongoing theme for the day: efficiency, timeliness, order – and courteous staff. Before I even get to the music, I have to give it up to Future Entertainment for running such a tight ship. It’s a huge production and clearly they know what they’re doing.

OK, I’m inside. Did I say huge? Trying to remember the last time I was at an event this big. It’s a record crowd, which would put it in the 40,000 range. But spread out over the grounds, it looks like even more. And they’re all up for it. Hard not to get in the mood with so much energy in the air.

I grab a beer from the lounge in the grandstand (terrible selection – no correlation between sponsorship and drinkability at all), snap a couple of pics of the distant teeming masses (it’s really quite a sight), and wander around in the front area, checking out some of the smaller stages. At the Dim Mak set-up, one of the warm-up DJs is making an agreeably bassy noise and people are already dancing on the grass. Its a festival, y’all. The roller disco looks like fun.

The Pod is pretty cool: it’s a big white inflatable tent, forming a good-sized all-natural grass dancefloor, illuminated by sunlight from outside, with huge color images of mountains on its interior. Looks like people are dancing in the grass in a glowing Alpine meadow. Striking and surreal. For what’s essentially a big advert for low-carb beer, I must say the Pod takes the early prize.

Across the ramp to the main area. There’s a constant throng of a couple of thousand people on this artery at all times, going to and from from either side of the festival. Lots of them have foam all over their legs – must be some kind of foamy interactive shindig going on here somewhere.

About this time, looking around at the festival grounds framed by the green of the surrounding parks and crowned by the towers of the distant city, I’m really psyched just to be here. It’s a sunny summer Saturday, lots of great music in store, and boundless youthful energy to appreciate it.

Arriving at the main stage, my friends tell me I missed out on good sets from Tame Impala and Gypsy & the Cat. Oh, well. Mark Ronson & the Business International are now in full swing, hitting all the right notes for mid-day on the main stage. Several thousand revelers packed in and singing along with every word. A great showman and master of ceremonies, Ronson admirably balances singing and playing, DJing and hosting many guest performers. (Sadly, no surprise appearance from Q-Tip.) I’ve never seen Ronson in action before, so I’m pretty sure I’m missing some of the ‘60s-pop and classic-soul nuances that would come off in a smaller venue. Here it just seems a bit, well, pop. But mind you it’s good-quality pop and the fans are really into it.

We head over to The Likes Of You tent for Leftfield. The first thing I notice is how great a venue the tent is – huge, spacious and nicely cool after the heat and dust of the main area. Leftfield are under way, and the crowd, featuring a number of older heads, are tuned right in. Leftfield have changed little in the last 15 years – still the same dubby progressive house and down-tempo Bristol-ish soul. A stubbornly dated sound but it goes over well right now.

Two middle-aged knob-twiddlers behind the rack-mounts patiently and expertly unspool each track, giving most of them a full ten minutes to build up and peak, and keep peaking. The up-tempo jams hit hard with main-floor energy – hands raise – euphoric cheers – the tent rocks. When they slow it down, it gives the vocalists a chance to flex, especially during Release the Pressure, a full-on reggae jam and one of their biggest hits.

When original vocalist Earl Sixteen steps out to a jubilant reception and fills up the huge tent with his powerful wail, “I’ve got to stand and fight in this creation!” my mind drifts away from the good times to people struggling in other parts of the world. For a moment this gig feels like the soulful heart of the festival.

I dash back over to the main area for some of the bigger names. I only manage to catch the Presets’ last tune. But it’s worth the trouble: the sunset casts an epic light on the huge crowd as they dance and match the throbbing track with their own energetic shout-a-long: “I’m here with all of my people!” Indeed.

Now MGMT is on next door at the Mazda 2 Flamingo stage. (Oh, these corporate names.) I remember seeing them play at a bar in Brooklyn – now look at them! I’ve never been a huge fan, but the chemistry is perfect here: another sea of fans, another sing-along. The more obvious the hit, the better it sounds, and something relatively rugged and indie in the midst of all the electronica is a good thing. Electric Feel is exquisite in the liquid sunset.

I’m back in The Likes Of You. German techno/trance legend Sven Vath is on the decks, his bright hair and wicked grin lighting up the dark space. The crowd has spread out into a more rave-like formation, and Sven is reeling out some really sharp minimal beats at a house-like clip; it’s the closest I’ll come to hearing proper house today and it sounds good. He keeps it steady rocking for two hours plus and the crowd rides patiently right along with him during the buildups and goes nuts during the breaks. It’s a good party.

I’m starting to wonder, where are all the freaks? OK, Sven Vath is a freak – but where are the others? Where are the guys in panda bear costumes, the crazy hippies, the flaming hoop dancers, the sword swallowers? This is a festival, right? Aren’t there supposed to be lots of weird people here? So far I’ve just seen thousands of young dudes with their shirts off, and girls wearing Daisy Dukes. Glad the kids are having fun, but but I could use more carnival atmosphere.

Sven has flatlined a bit; I’m worn out from dancing, and hungry. I go and check the refreshment stands behind the main area, but the lines are killer. I head for the other side, pushing through lots of dusty, drunk kids. I can hear Dizzee Rascal doing his thing on the big stage. As with many live rappers at big shows, he’s a little breathless, overcompensating, lacking finesse. But it’s good to hear something with a bit of funk and a bassline, and there’s something about the uptempo groove that makes me nostalgic for the hip-house of my youth. He’s playing the crowd well too, chanting “Aussie Aussie Aussie!” Can’t go wrong with that one.

It takes me a while to cross over, but the gozleme is totally worth it. As I’m scarfing it down and recharging, I check out Steve Aoki on his custom Dim Mak stage. Dunno what to say here – heads are into it and having fun, how can I hate? Mind you I like proper hard stuff, too – Jeff Mills and Dave Clarke are my heroes. This stuff just sounds thin and hollow to me – less like dance music and more like a video-game soundtrack.

Chemical Brothers on the big stage. The light show is unsurpassed, with lasers, a massive high-def video screen and an awe-inspiring ‘video curtain’. I do have to wonder how the video show is synched up with it so precisely that animated characters can mouth along to the samples. Are the videos on some sort of trigger so they can improvise – or is it just the same set every night? It feels a little by-the-numbers. And their tunes have always left me a little cold – always lacking that extra melodic element in all the noisy build-ups and big beats. But it’s dynamic enough, they bring the goods as advertised, and I doubt any of the fans are seriously disappointed. Don’t think.

Back in The Likes Of You for Plastikman. Windsor, Ontario’s finest is hiding behind his own (smaller) video curtain like the great and powerful Oz. It’s a really impressive display, but since the curtain never lifts, and we never get to see him, it’s an impersonal show – just a pillar of light emanating crystalline 303 lines and thumping, jacking beats. Pure, elemental techno. It’s a flawless, timeless sound, but I’m knackered, and there’s nothing to engage me. No more energy to dance on the straw-filled, dusty floor. I could use some good, melodic deep house right about now – something I’ve been missing all day. So I start to drift away. But I’m happy to at least end this experience with some quality techno ringing in my ears.

I’m grateful once again for the level of organisation here, as it takes no time at all to get on a bus back to Central with a bunch of other tired, happy punters. For me, the bill was hit or miss – it was lacking that one headlining artist that I could pour all my passion into, and with little or no deep house it was an unfulfilled quest for soul. But all in all my first festival experience here was a memorable one, and I’m looking forward to giving it another go soon.