“It’s the best way to spend New Year’s Eve!” screeches Architecture In Helsinki’s Kellie Sutherland midway through their rapturously received set on the final day of Australia’s Falls Festival.
Later that night, as Alex Kapranos leads Franz Ferdinand onstage after the midnight countdown hits zero and the Glaswegians launch into a typically full throttle set, it’s hard to disagree.
Hmmm… sub-zero temperatures and lengthy wait for an overpriced taxi in the UK or partying in the heart of a rainforest until dawn then heading to the beaches of the Great Ocean Road for New Year’s Day?
The band certainly seem to be enjoying themselves, mixing tracks from the forthcoming ‘Tonight: Franz Ferdinand’ with their finely-honed classics, of which ‘Take Me Out’ and ‘This Fire’ threaten to cause mini riots.
Now in its 16th year and attracting around 30,000 people to its twin sites (think Leeds/Reading, but smaller and prettier) in Lorne, about two hours from Melbourne, and Marion Bay, Tasmania, the 2008 Falls line-up includes more international acts than ever before, including a pretty hefty cluster drawn from the year’s best album lists: Late of the Pier, Santogold, Fleet Foxes.
Robin Pecknold’s Seattle-based folk-rockers are the first of these to appear on Monday afternoon, initially testing the patience of some in the crowd with their unusual harmonies, but ultimately winning through.
‘Sun Giant’ and ‘Oliver James’ prove irresistible, especially as the former’s opening line – “What a life I lead in the summer” – coincides with a welcome appearance from the sun.
Hours later and in an ideal late-night slot, Late of the Pier bring their particular brand of schizophrenic mayhem to Australia for the first time.
The synth hooks in tracks like ‘Space And The Woods’ take on a greater intensity under the night sky and by the time the wonderfully ridiculous ‘Bathroom Gurgle’ brings their set to a close they’ve done enough to ensure they’re the subject of much excited “Did you see…?” chatter well into the following day.
Santogold easily justifies her hype – and a final night main stage slot – her filthy, bass-heavy dancehall rhythms encouraging many in the crowd packing the festival site’s perfect natural amphitheatre to mimic her perfectly synchronised, gold-lamé wearing dancers.
In between, there’s much else to enjoy, often from Australian bands yet to register in the UK.
Sydney’s rising electro stars Grafton Primary make light of their clash with ever-popular Melbourne carnival kings The Cat Empire to whip their crowd into a frenzied moshpit prior to Tuesday night headliners, The Hives.
Meanwhile, the Aussies could boost the reputation of their women overnight by sending exuberant, high-kicking Patience Hodgson and her indie poppers The Grates overseas and putting Nicole Kidman and the Minogue sisters out to pasture.
Perth’s Tame Impala, however, are let down by their lunchtime slot. The young trio has earned support slots with the likes of MGMT this year on the back of their cocksure psychedelic prog-rock, but their set swirls on the wind without ever really connecting with a crowd still waking up from the first night’s festivities.
By contrast, SoKo draws a huge crowd to the tented second stage on the back of ‘I’ll Kill Her’ then promptly half-empties it with an idiosyncratic vocal style that’s full of enthusiasm but pays scant regard to actual notes.
Those who ride out the early caterwauling are rewarded with some kookily charming tunes (and a rousing sing-along to her signature song), but far more charming is Australian singer-songwriter Darren Hanlon.
Proof that witty lyrics bordering on the comical can sit well with tender music, he also brings with him the best-looking band of the weekend.
A Belle & Sebastian song given life, the stern female librarian on drums is only beaten in the fancy dress stakes by the keyboardist: a life-affirming combination of Viz’s Tommy Brown (manager of Fulchester Rovers) and my father 20 years ago just after my mother’s told him he can have extra red wine and vintage cheese if he plays with real gusto.
Elsewhere, there are hefty lashings of feel-good tunes, ranging from the good (local favourites Architecture In Helsinki; Boston’s Eli “Paperboy” Reed, who packs the voice of a huge 50-year-old black man into a far younger white guy; Aussie hip-hoppers Tzu) – to the lightweight (Faker; The Kooks; America’s Donavon Frankenreiter).
A half-hour walk through towering trees is the Village where curious festival-goers can undergo a biscuit reading (this reviewer’s a spicy fruit roll) or try Bogan Bingo (think Chav Bingo, but with more inappropriate dingo jokes, lumberjack shirts and mullets) where ties are decided by Chicken Kissing: random strangers (usually men) kissing each other onstage until one chickens out.
It’s also where the sculptures paraded through the crowd on the final day in the first Falls Fiesta are created, including a bizarre pink He-She with giant man-eating cock.
A somewhat shambolic affair, the parade nevertheless captures the joy of the festival, highlighted elsewhere by the group dressed as Where’s Wally?s, a hopeful musclebound man trawling the site with a “FREE PENIS” sign and the girl seeing how fast she can roll downhill who’s saved from rolling in front of a tractor in the nick of time by a giggling friend.
Last year’s 40?C heatwave is replaced by high winds, occasionally driving rain and plummeting night time temperatures that have gate staff sending inebriated merry-makers back to their tents to layer up.
But liberal use of hessian matting ensures the site never comes close to the seemingly obligatory UK festival quagmire and, with party-goers looking ever further afield for new musical adventures, Falls proves an enticing NYE alternative – if you can face a year without overpriced taxis and ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
Words and photograph: James Smith