As the worldwide COVID pandemic took so much away, it forced us all to get creative, even push into the future by speeding up things like remote work. Live music was hit especially hard, being the ultimate super-spreader with sweaty bodies pushed up together & mouths open for singing, cheering, and drinking. Australia’s biggest music festival, Splendour In the Grass, canceled in 2020 like everyone else, but in addition to scheduling a 2021 edition in November (fingers crossed), put together Splendour XR, the first virtual reality music festival of its kind. On Saturday & Sunday, July 24th & 25th, avatars congregated in cyberspace to experience the Splendour.
[note: your correspondent doesn’t have the gear needed to go full VR at Splendour XR. Its host program Sansar doesn’t even work on his Mac. Instead, he watched it through his web browser like some Luddite. So, didn’t do the virtual reality experience of creating some crazy character that would bust moves with others from around the globe, going from one stage to another in 3D]
[second note: your correspondent is also in the American Eastern Time Zone, which meant he was way off the Australian Eastern Time Zone that the festival was set to. The first acts of a day went on just after 2:00 PM Down Under – which was just after midnight EST, the event pressing through the wee hours into daylight. However, the post-festival RELIVE rewatch meant he could catch the acts he lost to overlaps & sleep]
Splendour XR opened on Saturday with a couple hours of lead time, which people could use to figure out how this whole thing worked, from figuring out chromecasting from your mobile to your smart TV to realizing that you needed VR to have the full avatar walk around experience. For those in regular reality, there was an international chat (folks from the likes of even Brazil and Estonia), which did have a lot of, ‘Mine isn’t working’ and help from the festival staff. Later chat would, among other things, enjoy talking drugs (literally exchanging numbers), with none of the sniffer police dogs that have been imposed on Splendour In the Grass.
There were of course technical issues, perhaps most notably (in non-VR) that the chat’s downward scroll would make the whole screen scroll down – after a bit of time, even without scrolling, so sometimes the screen will scroll down out of the blue, unprompted. But given the unprecedented nature of the event, it all worked pretty damn well.
Each stage had multiple camera angles, from just watching the performance without avatars to viewing from deep in the crowd. Admittedly, without one’s own avatar, it was not that interesting seeing anything other than the straight performance, particularly as the area up front seemed to be cordoned off, VIP style, without a packed avatar audience. And most of the performances were essentially put up on a giant screen in the other camera angles, though a few artists did their sets in front of green screens, visually more integrated with the crowd.
Every stage began with a ‘Welcome To Country’ film of the region’s native aboriginal welcoming to the land. Splendour In the Grass takes place in the native country of Australia, giving respect to the land, its people, and its traditions.
Opening the main Amphitheatre was King Stingray, a next generation mixed Aboriginal/Caucasian group, with members related to Yothu Yindi of the nineties, hailing from North-East Arnhem Land. Their surf-rock (with mixed language vocals) was a really nice kickoff to the festival, setting the tone and grounding the event. Meanwhile, the more electronic Mix-Up Stage started with Cat & Calmell, a really charming pair of girls with a band (going in, it looked like Mix-Up was going to just be an EDM DJ stage, a-la Perry’s Tent at next weekend’s Lollapalooza – QRO preview – but that thankfully wasn’t the case). They won over a lot of new fans with their sweet, sad electro-pop on songs like “dumbshit”.
The McLennan Tent threw back to the Spirit of ’77 punk rock with The Chats, thanks to their working class roots & (Aussie) accents. Yes, they shouted “Oi!” multiple times at one point, but that’s what you should hear from a band whose website is www.thechatslovebeer.com. Throwing back to the eighties cheese was Client Liaison in the Amphitheatre, including synths, prominent saxophone, hair, outfits & more. Catchy, if a little artificial, they did really use the pre-recorded aspect of the event for full visuals, including background actors/dancers, like a music video from that heyday of the art form.
Methyl Ethel entered with their own matching white jumpsuits at the McLennan Tent. Filmed in a warehouse, they had full multi-camera work, even some screen effects, for their more searing electro-pop. On the Mix-Up Stage Tayla Parx brought her own, very charming R&B, including great back-up dancers and full-on choreography. It was really nice at Splendour XR that it wasn’t just the big names but also those lower on the bill that had eye-catching professionally put together sets – as Parx would say, “It’s rude not to stare.”
Late add Skegss brought their cheery garage-rock to the Amphitheatre. If not wholly original, they were relaxed & enjoyable (and most of their set benefited from being the only act playing at any of the three main stages at the time). Perth’s POND delivered their psych-rock (that does bear a similarity to their friends & townsmen Tame Impala), flute included at the McLennan Tent. The visuals were a little hazy, but that worked for the group. Meanwhile, there was sweet R&B from Pink Sweat$ on the Mix-Up Stage, with full band & horns.
The first artist to go green screen was Aurora at the Amphitheatre. While this meant no fancy camera work or effects, it reflected the actual festival appearance, integrated with the crowd, and you could do your own camera work by switching angles and getting different sights. And being a smaller size on the stage worked for the cute, shy Norwegian. Griff’s McLennan Tent performance was filmed as almost entirely just her, because her really heartfelt R&B pop is about being alone.
Usually, comedy at a music festival is a difficult prospect, a shift not just in genre but whole atmosphere, from the wide-open stages to an intimate tent, not to mention straining to hear over the bands. But the virtual nature of Splendour XR made it all much smoother, taking one to see a number of stand-up comedians who were in front of an actual audience in Melbourne. They were definitely Aussie comics, not just in accents but some references, like British colonialism, Australian Rules Football Women’s, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. But most of the humor was broad in accessibility, like being too old to be cool at festivals, parents, relationships, and the pandemic. After watching multiple acts that you probably didn’t know much/any about, it was a nice break from all of that before the day’s second half.
Even more than Griff, Tash Sultana was solo at the Amphitheatre, but it’s her usual approach, with multiple keyboards & loops (and a big pair of headphones), yet also touching acoustic guitar. Vera Blue delivered intimate emotionalist restrained electro-pop to the Mix-Up Stage (her starry evening lighting worked well for the hour – in Australia, but the morning sun was coming up in America…).
Hip-hop at alternative music festivals is standard now, but it was still a question of how much that would come Down Under. Thankfully, Denzel Curry brought some unapologetic American rhymes to the Amphitheatre. It’s not easy being a rapper at a festival, as it’s often just you & a DJ up on the big stage, and doubly so for a livestream, without the crowd that is so essential for hip-hop, but Curry pulled it off. He had an advantage in the camera work, able to be active and close up. Later, Little Simz brought strong U.K. female rap with an R&B backdrop to the Mix-Up Stage.
While we were all shut at home last year, we all fell in love with Phoebe Bridgers. Her Punisher (QRO review) may not have won any of the Grammys it was nominated for, but it won our broken hearts, as did Bridgers herself, with her delightfully awkward and self-deprecating humor. She played in her pajamas in her bedroom, but also big production numbers (QRO review) and numerous music videos (QRO review) – and made skeleton onesies a fashion statement.
No special fashion for her McLennan Tent set, with Bridgers and band seated in a studio, but there were some great asides, like her trying to burn her band (noting that one guy gave her scabies, another thought you couldn’t flush toilet paper in Germany, but the worst burn was that her drummer was also her ex…). The performance was very soft and intimate, more in the vein of alt-Punisher takes EP Copycat Killer (QRO review), playing the songs you had on repeat at the height of the pandemic. Bridgers described “Chinese Satellite” as about how God doesn’t exist and Elon Musk, but doesn’t hate Musk (husband of Sunday performer Grimes), because she “don’t want to cut her Tesla tie,” while “Kyoto” was more simply about her dad. After obsessing over her last year (Phoebe Bridgers getting Fleabag star and near-namesake Phoebe Waller-Bridge to direct the video for “Savior Complex” – QRO review – was peak 2020), it was great to see her return – still only online, but we’re getting there (and she was right about Eric Clapton…).
If there’s a current act well set for a virtual performance, it is CHVRCHES. Of course, their big electro-pop had many, many of their own screens behind them and full-on visuals at the Amphitheatre. Indeed, the whole thing seemed to be done on some sort of green screen, making one think that singer Lauren Mayberry wasn’t even in the same room when it was done, but it was still just on the big screen for the avatar crowd. They opened with new single “He Said She Said” from the upcoming Screen Violence (out August 27th), and they had very up-anthem energy that works well deep into the evening (if not so much at 8:00 AM EST…). If she makes one think of Natalie Portman as a kick-ass frontwoman, that’s a positive.
On the integrated green screen was Band of Horses at McLennan Tent. Playing with only three of the five members of the band, it was a stripped down, seated set, very different than overlapping CHVRCHES. The group did play intimate, joking with the ‘crowd,’ even having someone off-screen early on shout for their breakthrough hit “Funeral”, which main man Ben Bridwell is notorious for hating to hear being demanded – “I’ll play your funeral…” Of course, they still ended with it, thankfully.
Headliner Khalid brought smoother sounds and a very full band to close the Amphitheatre – when your correspondent was too damn sleepy. He also missed the Mix-Up Stage’s Russ Millions – who only played a fifteen minute set – and the day/night’s big EDM close with Duke Dumont, but caught the latter on RELIVE, where he spun in front of a massive screen and massive lights in a massive space.
Admittedly, the unprecedented nature of Splendour XR wasn’t as unprecedented on Sunday (and it was no easier for your correspondent to stay up in America), but it also easier to handle the event – so like a regular new festival. Chat got even lower brow, joking that drugs were now at the virtual med tent now, and the festival/tech support “Event Help” in the chat was the hardest working person of the festival – did have a nice joke when someone asked if performer Grimes’ famous husband Elon Musk was in the chat, Event Help noted, “Elon Musk is everywhere.”
Usually before you go to a music festival, you say that you’re gonna check out some new acts early in the day, really take the whole thing in – but end up arriving late and looking for shade while lesser known artists play big stages to not-so-big crowds. But there was no excuse to come late to Splendour XR (and you had not only shade but also air conditioning), so got to see some people you didn’t know, like Gretta Ray opening the McLennan Tent. The 2016 Triple J Unearthed winner brought her soulful indie-pop, along with reminiscing about playing her first big stage a few years ago at Splendour In the Grass.
But chat was particularly excited for Japan’s Band-Maid at the Amphitheatre. The young ladies might dress up like maids, but they rocked some heavy glam metal (in their native tongue), and definitely got some new fans. The Snuts brought some slyer rock n’ roll with heart to the McLennan Tent – though seemed to be playing in their apartment (even cam footage from outside). Like Day One, even the low on the bill acts had good visuals and sound.
Those high production values continued with the sultry R&B of Sinéad Harnett in the McLennan Tent and more hopeful soul of Wafia on the Mix-Up Stage. But there was also Spacey Jane at the Amphitheatre, who brought cheery mainstream rock with a country tinge. They kind of made one think of a nineties band that all the real alt-kids thought was lame – the frontman was even wearing an annoying hat.
Yesterday Splendour XR had the touted psych-rock of Perth’s POND, and for Day Two there was the even more touted King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard of Melbourne at the Amphitheatre. They’ve been making waves around the world with their many, many records (just released like their third microtonal album, Butterfly 3000), giving more shades of Ty Segall, or a later day Guided By Voices, than using Aussie psych namecheck Tame Impala. They played in front of a green screen, which enabled better crowd effects (including flames in the pit), though the large group was kind of all squeezed in their box. Definitely skilled, if overhyped (at least to music critics always hearing about their umpteenth latest album…).
Your aged male music critic should have preferred those critical darlings, but instead was more into the much younger Holly Humberstone at the McLennan Tent. Her solo performance was touching, seemingly done inside a big closet and other spots in her house (still with good video). She kind of looks like a younger version of Ted Lasso’s Keeley Jones (Juno Temple).
What do you prefer (or dislike less): too ambitious or not ambitious enough? Japan’s neo-jazz collective Millennium Parade didn’t lack ambition at the McLennan Tent, but perhaps with too many musicians, too many instruments, even too much faith in themselves. Interesting but all over the place, even their special video effects were marred by camera work that couldn’t stay in place for more than a few seconds.
Meanwhile, Crooked Colours (with an extra “u” like “Splendour”) on the Mix-Up Stage and Jungle Giants in the Amphitheatre swung the other way, with simpler, smoother, disco-influenced synth-pop. Certainly nice, but hardly gripping at this point, and god knows there’s already a lot of that out there (though Colours only played like half their scheduled time).
If Day Two’s King Gizzard matched Day One’s POND in Aussie psych, the throwback Aussie punk of Day One’s The Chats was matched by Day Two’s Amyl & The Sniffers in the McLennan Tent, whose frontwoman really reenergized Splendour XR. “Time-traveling DJ” Hot Dub Time Machine tried to bring his own energy to the Mix-Up Stage, spinning in front of a green screen for virtual integration, yet also had a back screen showing footage appropriate to the eras he was playing from. However, the limited number of VR dancers in the up-front space took something away.
While a few artists played in front of green screens, and most did special set filmed exclusively for Splendour XR, there were a two who just delivered filmed concerts from the before-times. The Avalanches’ Enmore Theatre set in Sydney was put up at the Amphitheatre, which did make the smooth pair of DJs stand out from the day’s other smooth acts, but did also point out the remove of the situation (particularly as even some in Enmore weren’t standing for them). Black Pumas were at Stubb’s in Austin (singer literally said so in the performance), which is a great outdoor venue (that QRO’s been missing with two canceled SXSWs…), though maybe didn’t work so well for Aussie viewers (or perhaps they liked seeing a foreign space). Still, it was good to see another highly-hyped act, with soul-rock in the McLennan Tent.
There was a second day of comedy at Splendour XR, again, not as special, but easier to find. Of note over both days was the gender & sexuality diversity of the comedians, including lesbian, asexual, and trans. Again, some Australia-specific material (this time wildlife like agapanthus flowers and Huntmans spiders), but also jokes on Splendour In the Grass attendees, from glitter girls to undercover cops (one was in the audience).
The relax of earlier in the day continued into the evening (or very early morning in America), and doing it better was Of Monsters and Men at the Amphitheatre. The Icelanders were all seated, “Doing it a little bit differently. A little slower, a little more boring,” said co-frontman Ragnar Þórhallsson. One might have wanted to see them do their big electric 2020 single “Visitor” (QRO review), especially after how good it was on the Tonight Show (QRO review), but it was interesting to hear frontwoman Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir perform it so somber. There is a quality to this sort of set, and Of Monsters and Men did it well.
Meanwhile, Ocean Alley might have been standing (in some seventies-like house) in the McLennan Tent, but were so relaxed as to be easy listening. Thankfully JUNGLE had a full show on the Mix-Up Stage, that livened up their own smooth sounds.
You could probably tell how someone felt about Splendour XR as a whole by how they felt about Charli XCX at the Amphitheatre. She performed behind a green screen, but it was just her, dancing & singing. It made her look very small (but still rocked the sports bra and shiny biker shorts), and again there weren’t enough avatars up front, but she has a super-presence on any stage, real or virtual. And, as we all know, she’s a nineties bitch, who declares, “I Don’t Care!”
Likely the biggest Australian act playing the Australian livestream music festival was Vance Joy, who folks were definitely excited to see close out the McLennan Tent. His set was filmed atop a palace in Barcelona, definitely a unique and beautiful setting, helping out that it was mostly just him up there (but still high-grade multi-camera work). He played for the first time “Missing Piece”, a song so new it was written over Zoom. And he did get some help, bringing out socially distanced saxophone player Marta for the final four songs, “You”, “Fire in the Flood”, “Lay It On Me”, and closer “Riptide”.
Going another direction in intimacy was Kaytranada at the Mix-Up Stage. His DJ set was filmed at a poolside party with friends, definitely unusual, though so relaxed as to become background music. Also, one couldn’t help but feel that you’d never get invited to this party, and no one there would ever talk to you.
Brandon Flowers opened The Killers’ headlining Amphitheatre set by asking, “Are we human?”, but he’s actually looking more like the undead Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (not a bad look, though). Guitarist Dave Keuning looked more like Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, while drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. like Diedrich Bader in Office Space, a.k.a. awesome – one major advantage of the livestream was that you could see Vannucci behind the drums. Though geriatric millennials might sniff that the band has never matched breakthrough debut Hot Fuss, one can see why their anthemistic pop-rock has kept them so popular. While they didn’t showcase anything from next month’s Pressure Machine, yes, they still did “Mr. Brightside”, because “Somebody Told Me” it was the best of “All These Things That I’ve Done”.
Late add 2manydjs spun at the Mix-Up Stage, but your correspondent was too tired as the sun was back up in America (so he caught their spinning & visuals effects in RELIVE). He also missed “Grimes Metaverse (Super Beta)” – which was moved to her Discord channel for some reason, but the ever-helpful Event Help provided all with the link to it – and it was made available as part of the RELIVE, though just the audio.
When the pandemic hit, live music slowly reinvented itself, but it mostly went for the low-hanging, easier-to-do routes, like Instagram livestreams with tip jars. Eventually, livestream concerts grew from being done on propped up phones to full-fledged platforms (many platforms were launched this last year-plus), and a livestream music festival seemed the next step – but each step is harder than the last. Splendour In the Grass ran up those steps two-at-a-time with their virtual reality setting, avatars & multiple cameras. While your correspondent couldn’t enjoy all that was offered (or at a reasonable hour), from his viewpoint it was great.