Falls Festival Byron Bay

Falls Festival Byron Bay

It’s become almost Australian lore to spend New Year’s at a music festival – and after the cancellation of Pyramid Rock Festival, Falls Festival has become the place to be. After a relatively tame New Year’s celebration last year, I figured I might as well do something exciting to welcome in 2017, so I headed down to Byron Bay.

With mud and rainy weather plaguing the Marion Bay event, the Byron Bay leg couldn’t have been any more different … at least for the first two and a half days. Like a younger sibling trying to live up to the previous overachievers in the family, the event offered good weather in spades – and then some. With searing heat and limited shade, it certainly lived up to the definition of “summer” festival.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

After a two-day road trip from Cairns, we arrived at Falls Festival Byron Bay late on the night of December 30th, and found that our decision to hire a tent through Byron Bay Camping Hire paid off almost instantly. There were no struggles and fights to set up a tent and unpack at 10pm at night (sure to test any friendship). Instead, after unpacking the car, we went straight to the showers (exclusive to Byron Bay Camping Hire residents) and hit the camp stretchers for some much needed rest. Bliss.

Day 1

Although I grew up camping regularly as a kid, I still found myself surprised when the sun rudely awakened me at 5:45am the following morning. Within minutes of waking, the inside temperature of the tent was comparable to an oven, and it was time to find a shady spot to eat breakfast.

At this point, I think it’s important to acknowledge the hard work of the guys running the little coffee shop hidden behind Byron Bay Camping Hire and Flash Camp. Their daily provision of iced coffee and bad jokes were the lifeblood of my festival experience and without them, I’m not sure I’d be here to tell the tale.

Thankfully, another added benefit of staying with Byron Bay Camping Hire was the ‘chill out’ tent located in the middle of the tent village. Canvas bean bags and chairs filled the area, providing a much-needed solace from the sun, and it became the perfect place to enjoy a morning nap (read: extended sleep in) before hitting the festival every afternoon.

But back to the music. The first act of the festival didn’t hit the stage until 1:30pm so I made the most of the morning and explored the rest of what Falls Festival had to offer.

Upon entering the gates, it was near impossible to miss one of the most popular areas of this year’s event – the Palm Springs Water Park. Made up of a number of swimming pools, beach chairs, sand (of course), a beach volleyball court, and a beach shack, the water park was full to capacity almost every time I walked past. Considering the brutal heat that was bearing down on us by 9am every day, it was easy to understand why.

After a quick stroll through the food stalls and markets, I made my way to the Valley Stage ready to catch Northeast Party House. The wide open expanse of the amphitheatre was impressive as far as music venues go, with plenty of space for sitting, standing or dancing … but with limited options for shade, the crowd in front of the stage itself was reduced to those who were either extremely dedicated, or drunk enough not to care about their impending sunburn.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

Nonetheless, the Northeast Party House boys put on a brave performance, opening with 'Any Given Weekend' and 'Perfect Lines'. Admitting he may have peaked too early in the set, lead singer Zac Hamilton-Reeves acknowledged the heat and thanked the early crowd for making the effort to watch them play.

As more and more festivalgoers made their way out of the campground and over to the amphitheatre, a shady spot to sit became almost as impossible to find as the Holy Grail itself. The lone tree located closest to the stage was prime real estate, with others relegated to the crop of trees far away at the top of the hill.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

Spit Syndicate had the good fortune to hit the Valley Stage as the sun started to move down behind the hills, offering the beginnings of shade and cooler temperatures. Nonetheless, the Sydney-based pair made a point of asking pit security to hose down the crowd regularly, and as with any good summer festival crowd, the brief respite was received with open arms.

A solid set included a surprise cameo from Thelma Plum during 'Hold On Me' and a couple of covers, including Scribe’s 'Not Many'.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

Client Liaison hit the stage not long after, and took out my award for Most Entertaining Act of the Day. Dressed to the nines in leopard print and black leather (I was sweating just watching him), Monte Morgan and partner-in-crime Harvey Miller put on a killer set with ridiculously tight dance moves and even a cold slab of beer. It was hot, okay?

I’ll be honest, I’m not one for dancing (it’s more of a wiggle) but even I felt like making my way down to join the mob in front of the stage with hits like 'Pretty Lovers' and 'Feed the Rhythm'. A cover of Savage Garden’s 'I Want You' didn’t do much to help the cause, but for the sake of those around me, I restrained myself enough to enjoy the rest of the set (including 'World of Our Love') in relative stillness.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

With the crowd starting to noticeably build, ready for a big New Year’s Eve celebration, New Zealand brother and sister duo Broods made their way on stage. I’ve found myself watching this band closely over the last twelve months or so – there’s something about the incredible vocals of Georgia Nott that sends chills down my spine.
Their set was thoroughly enjoyable, and although energetic and electric, it was also the perfect chance for old folk like me to sit on the hillside and enjoy the cool of the evening. Those braving the mosh pit had far more stamina than I – with waving arms and loud singing almost drowning out the band, they caused Nott to pause and proclaim the set the “highlight of the year”.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

With darkness falling, it was time for Grandmaster Flash to remind us why he’s found so much success over the last forty odd years, including a tribute to the late (and great) George Michael. I’ll be the first to admit that DJing is not my favourite genre of music, but his set had enough recognisable tunes to make it entertaining – although when it comes to a DJ set, I find it far more fascinating watching the people around me. Falls Festival Byron Bay, I’ll hand it to you – you put on some pretty impressive dance moves!

The only thing I dislike more than watching one live DJ set is watching two live DJ sets in a row, so you can imagine my feelings about Hot Dub Time Machine taking the stage right after Grandmaster Flash. No disrespect to either of them as artists, but give me a live band over a DJ turntable any day!

Nonetheless, credit where credit is due – despite making his way through what I would call a glorified Spotify playlist, Hot Dub Time Machine ended up being the highlight of the night for most people I spoke to. Starting in the 1950s ('Rock Around The Clock'), he invited everyone to join him as he made his way through the last seven decades of music – from Steppenwolf to Stevie Wright, AC/DC to Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper to INXS, Red Hot Chilli Peppers to Outkast.

I’m a sucker for live bands and instruments, so my spirits improved when Hot Dub Time Machine was joined onstage by a saxophonist for INXS’ 'Never Tear Us Apart'. A long-time Art vs Science fan, I was also beside myself when Dan Mac appeared on stage to offer his services in the way of live guitar for 'Parlez Vous Francais', however to my disappointment, no one in my vicinity seemed to realise the talent that was on stage in front of them.

The end of the set brought a brief intermission before the New Year’s celebrations officially kicked off. In an awkward twist of fate, I’d managed to lose my friends in the crowd so I watched the countdown from the hill with some strangers I’d managed to befriend.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

Finally, it was time for the headline act of the three-day festival – Childish Gambino. Although I’d loved Donald Glover’s character in TV show Community, I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the fruits of his music career. However, nearly every second person I’d spoken to leading up to the festival told me his set was not to be missed, so I found myself curious and intrigued about what it would bring.

Gambino made an exuberant appearance on stage dressed all in white, to rapturous applause and screams. But just as quickly as they started, the crowd started to fade. Noticeably. I’m still not sure whether it was a case of pure exhaustion and sunburn/sunstroke, or whether his set just didn’t live up to expectations but I was bemused to see large swarms of people leaving the Valley Stage within two or three songs. It certainly made for an unexpected end to Day 1 of Falls Festival Byron Bay.

Day 2

One of the first things I noticed after emerging from my tent/oven on Day 2 was the colour red. Red arms, red legs, red faces. I briefly wondered whether I’d imagined the existence of sunscreen, but as I lathered myself liberally in SPF 50+ (I’ve got really pale skin, okay?) I remembered that it was just really hot. Really, really hot.

In fact, if I had a dollar for every time someone mentioned the heat that day, I think I’d have been a millionaire by midday (now there’s a song title if ever I’ve heard one). It was relentless. Thankfully by this point of the festival, I’d found the Backstage Bar and adjoining Media Tent, and it became a haven in between sets.

Walking around the festival grounds, the prominent tired eyes and sheer number of people sleeping on the hillsides made me feel like I was back at university. It was clear that 2016 had ended with a bang!

Hein Cooper had the dubious honour of being the first opener on the Valley Stage for Day 2, and despite the heat (that’s one dollar, thanks), his folky vocals drew a crowd as they echoed through the amphitheatre. Mind you, that crowd was primarily scattered underneath the trees at the back and to the sides, but they were there. Although I’m not overly familiar with Cooper’s music, I was urged to watch his set and I’m glad I made the effort.

City Calm Down were next to appear on the Valley Stage, and I found myself eagerly awaiting their set. Although I’d heard a couple of their songs by accident on the radio, I actually came across this band on Instagram when someone I followed kept posting photos and rave reviews of their gigs, so their addition to the Falls Festival line up was a bonus for me.

I’m not sure how they didn’t pass out from heatstroke, but somehow they played the entire set in black. 'Falling' and 'Your Fix' went down a treat, along with 'Rabbit Run' and 'Border On Control', and we were treated to a performance of a new song as reward for braving the heat.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

After an eventful 2016, including health issues for keyboardist Heather Shannon and extensive touring, The Jezabels would have been forgiven for taking a break before kicking off the New Year. Selfishly though, I’m glad they didn’t – their set was brilliant. Opening with 'Mace Spray,' the mosh pit quickly swelled, with the crowd’s singing overpowering lead singer Hayley Mary’s vocals at times. 'Endless Summer' seemed incredibly appropriate, with Mary proclaiming Australia an “insane nation” for scheduling festivals for the middle of summer – at this point, I was inclined to agree with her.

Despite a few heat-related technical issues and some terrible jokes to pass the time (Why did Cinderella lose the football match? She kept running away from the ball!), the set was a solid effort and thoroughly enjoyable.

At this point in the day, I was ready for some shade so it was time to make my way to the Forest Stage. Shaded and surrounded by trees, the tent was clearly the place to be during the day – I’m relatively certain that most people under the tent weren’t actually there for the music.

Modern Baseball reminded me of a group of friends jamming out in the garage. Their pre-show huddle and on-stage banter made the set feel more like a party than a music festival – although calls from the crowd for a shoey/skull were declined due to “dehydration reasons”. Yeah, I’m not sure about that one either.

'Broken Cash Machine', 'The Weekend' and 'Apple Cider, I Don't Mind' were standouts for me – my aforementioned rule about dancing may have even been broken during the latter. The set closed with a frenzied rendition of 'Your Graduation', with the boys describing the Byron Bay crowd as “fucking wild”.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

Middle Kids were up next, and I’m slightly ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard much of them before now. I say ashamed, because their set was loads of fun and one of the best of the day. Lead singer Hannah Joy was mesmerising to watch and listen to, with her vocals taking on an enjoyable country twang at times.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

After a quick dinner break, I settled in for Matt Corby’s set on the Valley Stage. There’s no denying the man has talent – from singing, to playing his flute and guitar, he’s certainly very good at what he does. It just doesn’t do it for me though – with the exception of 'Resolution' and 'Brother', I feel as though so many of his songs meld into one.

I took the opportunity to trek back over to the Forest Stage to catch Illy for a guaranteed energetic, upbeat set. I was clearly not the only one to have that idea – there were hundreds of people swarming over the hill in the same direction as me.

Opening with 'One For The City', the Melbourne-born artist had the crowd wrapped around his little finger. They were literally spilling out of the tent – even if the tent was doubled in size, there still wouldn’t have been room to fit everyone. It was incredible to see. Not surprisingly, 'Catch 22', 'On and On' and 'Youngbloods' were favourites before Illy led into his triple j Ausmusic Month Medley of Australian songs.

It was the second time I’ve seen him perform the medley, and both times, he has stopped the song thirty seconds in to ask the crowd for more energy. I’m not sure whether it’s all part of the show, or whether he genuinely expected more, but either way the request worked and he had the crowd jumping even more.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

Feeling vaguely like a boomerang by this point, I made my way back once again to the Valley Stage to catch the last few songs from POND. Last minute additions after Grouplove pulled out, the band offered a chilled out, electric/psych rock-type vibe. It was completely enjoyable, and although I was disappointed that Grouplove couldn’t make it, I was grateful for the chance to see Pond instead.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

As dark fell, Violent Soho brought some much needed rock and roll to the festival. I for one was glad. The sheer number of people taking over the Valley Stage was surprising to me. Considering the overall vibe of the festival, I honestly expected a smaller crowd for the Brisbane band, but after seeing photos from the Marion Bay and Lorne legs of the festival, it probably should have been obvious that they’d be a popular act.

Amusingly, the request for a shoey was turned down – guitarist James Tidswell explaining he’d picked up food poisoning after a shoey in Marion Bay (“Tasmanians don’t wash their feet!”), but gladly skolling a beer in its place.

Falls Festival Byron Bay
THE SHOEY - Falls Festival, Marion Bay
Photo credit: Rag & Bone Photography

'Blanket', 'Viceroy', 'Saramona Said' and 'Dope Calypso' were energetically received, before the band finished up with 'Covered In Chrome'. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many people scream “Yeah!” or “Hell, fuck yeah!” at one time – if there was any doubt that Australians love Violent Soho, it surely disappeared after this set.

The last bands of the night were scheduled to play at the exact same time, making it a difficult choice for those wanting to catch both. I made the executive decision to watch the half of The Avalanches’ set, before a quick detour to The Rubens and then back to my tent.

I was immediately happy with my decision. Before a pulsating crowd, The Avalanches launched into their most recent single, 'Because I’m Me', followed by 'Since I Left You' and 'Frankie Sinatra'. Sadly, I missed 'Frontier Psychiatrist' but from all reports, it was an electric performance.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

As for The Rubens, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the sheer adoration from their fans, easily drowning out lead singer Sam Margin during 'Hoops' and 'My Gun'. As I made my way back to the tent after the set, I found myself surrounded by a throng of people simply swooning over the five-piece and riding the high of exhilaration after an incredible show.

Day 3

The last day of a multi-day festival is always tough. People are starting to get grumpier, smellier and more exhausted, but there’s also a sense of determination to see the festival out.

It’s also a busy day for the medical tent – after accompanying a friend to have her blisters tended to and seeing/hearing the amount of patrons the medics are dealing with, I have to acknowledge their hard work. Somehow, even after hearing “Do you have Band Aids?” for the hundredth time that day, they still managed a smile as they handed over the sticky plasters.

The third day brought with it a promise of thunderstorms that evening, with some of the more organised campers closing up their tents early in readiness for the onset of rain.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

I started the day with an iced coffee (praise the god of coffee beans), before a trek over to the Valley Stage to catch Tired Lion. I first saw this band when they supported British India in 2015. I instantly fell in love after lead singer Sophie Hopes performed the gig with a cold, and a Vicks Inhaler shoved up her nose. That’s rock and roll.

They certainly didn’t disappoint this time around – thankfully no sickness to contend with, but still a battle in 30+ degree heat. Hopes acknowledged the heat and the Baywatch vibe the band had going on – drummer Ethan Darnell opting to play shirtless, and Hopes in a bathing suit. In a moment of empathy with the dedicated fans in the mosh pit, security were asked to bring out the water hoses and keep the crowd cool – a welcome moment of relief.

Ball Park Music were next on the Valley Stage, opening with Leef. Their contribution to the heat discussion was to wish for “ten million leaves on tree branches to give shade to you all” – not altogether realistic or practical, but a nice sentiment nonetheless!

Although I do love Ball Park Music, I have to be honest and admit that my favourite part of their set wasn’t actually the band, but the girl sitting/standing in front of me under the shade of the only tree in the amphitheatre.

After an enthusiastic seated dance while trying to eat her pizza, she managed to drop dust and twigs all over it, thereby rendering it inedible. Not to be deterred, she spent the rest of the set singing every word to every song, dancing with everyone around her, stepping in the aforementioned pizza, and waging a constant battle against her singlet top (thank goodness for nipple tape).

Back to the shade of the Forest Stage, and AlunaGeorge packed out the tent. Despite starting slightly late, the opener 'Hold Your Head High' was received well – it seems being fashionably late isn’t always a bad thing!

Due to an awkward scheduling clash, I only managed to catch a couple of songs by DMA’s as I made my way back to the Valley Stage to see Bernard Fanning. It seemed I was in the minority in switching stages – over half the festival was trying to fit under the tent of the Forest Stage to watch the Sydney trio.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

As Bernard Fanning took to the stage with 'Hope and Validation', the first drops of rain started to appear. It’s at this point I mentally applauded myself for grabbing my rain jacket, and stashing my gumboots in the media tent in preparation for the oncoming thunderstorms. The dark grey, threatening clouds were impossible to miss – but the festival crowd was not to be deterred.

Fanning’s set was impeccable, and I was disappointed for him that his crowd was as small as it was. Despite being of a completely different genre to DMA’s, I couldn’t help but feel as though he would have had a larger crowd if the set times were slightly different.

With a nod to the heat (“It’s been a hot day, we’re in no hurry to get going!”), the set continued with a mix of Fanning’s individual singles and Powderfinger hits including 'Sunsets' (slightly ruined by the ominous clouds that are growing ever closer). 'Songbird' was another standout, with the live violinist and solo winning hearts among the crowd, and 'Wish You Well' had just about everyone moving.

In an oddly serendipitous moment, Fanning closed the set with 'Purple Rain' in a moving tribute to Prince … right as the heavens opened, and the rain started to pour. The storm had arrived.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

I managed to take shelter in the media tent (along with almost every other photographer and journalist on site) as the water came down, and we quickly realised the rain was here to stay. That’ll teach us for complaining about the heat!

The news soon came in that Catfish and the Bottlemen had been delayed due to the rain (apparently electricity and water don’t mix), so we settled in for a long wait. We had a brief moment of silence for the photographers who were stuck out in the photo pit – they weren’t allowed to come back to the media tent, so we could only imagine how wet and miserable they were getting.

After a 90 minute or so delay, Catfish finally took to the stage and from all accounts, were as good as expected. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a sook when it comes to cold rain (in Cairns, the rain is warm, okay?) so I took the chance to get some warm food and hide out in the hopes it might dissipate soon. I was wrong.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

By the time London Grammar were scheduled to come on (taking into account the delay), the weather hadn’t eased, but I’d found a teaspoon of concrete and put on my gumboots. I was ready.

Not only was I ready, I was not disappointed. London Grammar were incredible. Hannah Reid’s vocals are enough to send chills down the spine of even the most emotionless person, and the first time she hit a high note, there was a deafening appreciative roar from the crowd. In a special moment that made the rain almost bearable, we were incredibly lucky to be treated to a live rendition of their first song in three years, 'Rooting For You'.

Alison Wonderland closed out the third and final night of Falls Festival, and although it was tempting to go straight to my bed after London Grammar’s set, I made a point of stopping by the Valley Stage one last time to catch a couple of songs. After all, I’d made it this far (heat, rain, lack of sleep) so what’s one more artist, right?

Complemented by an incredible light show and a sea of adoring fans, Wonderland was clearly having a blast on stage – I’ve rarely seen an artist move around a stage so deftly.

It was finally time to head back to my tent, and with that came the end of Falls Festival Byron Bay. With a 30+ hour road trip back home ahead of me, I needed some sleep.

Falls Festival Byron Bay

For Kurt Petersen's complete Falls Festival photo gallery from Byron Bay:
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