Nestled inland from Newcastle in the New South Wales Hunter Valley, the city of Maitland is a sleepy and mostly unassuming place. The local showground plays to the same tune as the town– neighbour to local sports clubs, a smattering of small suburban houses, and many a green field. It will surely arouse little controversy to suggest that this is no great champion of the Australian festival pantheon.
But this Saturday that venue plays host to the Groovin’ the Moo festival, and the shackles of quiet regional life have been very much discarded. From modest beginnings in 2005, the event has continued to gather momentum in successive years. Although it seems almost mandatory for festival spruikers to make such claims, a scan of this year’s line up suggests it is indeed the ‘biggest yet’ – featuring a host of local Triple J favourites and a selection of quality internationals. It’s little surprise the event is sold out, and many punters have made the eight-hour trip from Queensland for the pleasure of attendance.
After a two-hour drive of my own and a festive beer in a nearby car park, The Go! Team’s mid-afternoon set kicks off the festivities for yours truly. The UK sextet deliver with typical charisma to a reception audience. But, with the boundless energy, athleticism, and sporty attire of frontwoman Ninja, it is sometimes difficult to escape the impression that I am an out of shape participant in an Aerobics Oz Style rerun.
Obvious personal insecurities aside, it is still rap veterans House of Pain who truly get the afternoon going. In behaviour sure to alarm haughtier rock stars, Everlast is happy to reproduce solo hit ‘What It’s Like’ for the gathered masses. There’s also a charming, self-effacing moment, where he acknowledges that most of the young crowd were barely alive for his crew’s last visit. But, naturally, the biggest cheer is reserved for iconic closer ‘Jump Around’ – instructions which all in question dutifully follow.
Gyroscope are left to follow, and maybe it’s the search for some of that same idolatry that sees them cover giants Nirvana and Midnight Oil during their forty minutes. The Perth rockers also play to the first violent ejection of the afternoon – though it’s hard to know why Mister Bliss N Eso-themed basketball singlet requires no less than four men to escort him from the premises, after what seems like a minor scuffle.
And it’s a shame to see much of the Gyroscope crowd disperse as The Drums take the stage. Undeterred, they passionately exhaust the best from their first-rate, Curesque debut album. It comes as a surprise to learn that vocalist Jonathan Pierce is in fact a Maitland aficionado, noting that the experience has made him “really want to come back.”
Their departure ushers in nightfall over the showgrounds, and with the only light source coming courtesy of the racecourse next-door, festival navigation is suddenly risky business. But at least rubbish strewn everywhere is not an issue. Organisers have effectively traded one variety of messiness for another, allowing punters to exchange empty cans for refunds on their next beer or spirit purchase. Some of the more frugal in attendance roam the fields with satchel bags full of gathered empties. Needless to say, this critic is most impressed.
Art vs Science are as much a festival favourite as a teenage favourite, so it’s little surprise the very youthful crowd here affords them a rapturous reception. The tent stage is positively heaving as the Sydneysiders reel off their full repertoire of tongue-in-check electro. Everybody in attendance agrees that in the beginning there was a fountain, and that it was indeed a magic magic magic magic magic magic fountain. Particular kudos goes out to the many punters who climb the tent scaffolding, braving both the danger of falling, and a storm of cups from below, in search of a better look at the ongoing battle between creativity and reason.
Back at the main stage, a duo of promoters giving out as many free red frogs as possibly provide a welcome distraction from Birds of Tokyo. All the earnestness in the Hunter doesn’t succeed in selling the worth of ‘we made plans to kiss the sun at night’ to me as something which should be said out loud.
But never mind – their departure sees the biggest crowd of the day gather for what feels like a headline performance from British indie favourites The Wombats. The Liverpudlian trio rise to the occasion, mixing the better parts of their debut with larger slabs of its more consistent follow-up. But, really, most are just itching to hear heavy-hitting singles ‘Tokyo’ and ‘Let’s Dance to Joy Division’ – which close the set. Tokyo doesn’t quite scale the heights, the frantic energy of the recorded version somewhat lost in transition to live performance. Thankfully they nail ‘Joy Division’, to grins and poor ironic dancing all-round.
The visuals accompanying the portion of UNKLE that I manage to catch are an easy best in class for the day. Particularly memorable is the giant electronic Nick Cave, featured on recent single ‘Money and Run’, looking very much himself with a dapper suit and two Uzi submachine guns.
As locals, Triple J darlings, and able to boast of a genuine international profile, Cut Copy surely qualify as the ultimate Groovin’ the Moo band. But by now a bitingly cold fog has formed over Maitland, so they are left to see off the day to a smaller, less enthusiastic crowd than expected. Thanking those who persevere, they offer a thoroughly professional showing. But, understandably under the settings, it lacks some of the flair and atmosphere of their performance at the recent Sydney Laneway festival, where they played the same slot.
None of which really detracts from what was a fairly diverse, mostly joyous, and very can-heavy day. As a Sydney local, it is tempting to think of the event as something of a sideshow in the festival circuit – taking place away from both the big cities and the summer months as it does. This sort of thinking probably doesn’t bother those from the regions. They know they’re onto a winner, and on today’s evidence will almost certainly continue to enjoy it in great numbers amongst themselves.
- Tom Mortimer