Southbound nails niche groove

The Roots. Picture: Becky Felstead.

Sir Stewart Bovell Park, Busselton
January 3 and 4


Ten years can be such an awkward stage and the annual Southbound festival hit double figures as an event that has found a niche, but a niche that hasn’t changed.

It attracts around 12,000 music lovers to Busselton year in, year out. Big names or hot talent seem unable to boost attendance, nor detract from it.

The past weekend featured well-received main stage performances from Vampire Weekend on Friday and MGMT on Saturday, but both were muted finales. The latter gathered Kiwi music legend Neil Finn and Perth psych-rockers Pond, plus Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker, on stage for a finale of Split Enz’s classic Six Months in a Leaky Boat. That would have served as an exclamation point on the laid-back event, yet the New York-based outfit decided to stay put for one more, far less exciting number.

Likewise fellow New Yorkers Vampire Weekend were a worthy yet rather chilled-out full stop on Friday night. Their continuation of the Peter Gabriel/Paul Simon afro-beat inspired sound is hard to dislike, especially when they add a dash of punk for Cousins, Giving Up the Gun and A-Punk.

So, which acts made Southbound 2014 one to remember?

Former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr delivered an 80s English rock fan’s dream, dishing up a rowdy, assured show spiced with classics from his old band, plus one Electronic number, a Clash cover and winning tunes from last year’s solo debut, The Messenger. New tune Upstarts was a ripper, pipped for sing-ability by Smiths favourites Bigmouth Strikes Again and How Soon is Now?

While the Rubens and the Cat Empire both pulled big crowds as the sun made its exit, Sacramento funky dance-punks !!! – it’s pronounced Chk Chk Chk, or simply raise your eyebrows three times – got the big top boogieing to Californiyeah and Get That Rhythm Right. The band held down the rhythms while singer Nic Offer spent most of the performance cavorting in the crowd. Great fun.

Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig. Picture: Becky Felstead

The only tighter sound on Friday came from Philadelphia-spawned live hip-hop and neo-soul ensemble the Roots, who basically showed off for an hour. Sousaphonist Damon Bryson, aka Tuba Gooding Jr, bounced around the stage wearing his instrument like a crazy crab shell, augmenting the white hot jams that dipped into Guns N’ Roses and Kool and the Gang.

On Saturday, it was impossible to go past Finn’s family band, featuring sons Elroy and Liam plus wife Sharon, as the highlight. The evergreen 55-year-old from Te Awamutu segued from Don’t Dream it’s Over into the Everly Brothers’ All I Have to Do is Dream in tribute to Phil Everly, who passed away on Saturday. “One of the great singing brothers,” Finn quipped during a top performance littered with sing-along favourites, including Crowded House’s Weather With You and Something So Strong, plus Split Enz’s I Got You and One Step Ahead.

In a portent of the ship-themed finale with MGMT, Finn finished strumming Better Be Home Soon on an acoustic guitar in an inflatable dingy.

Liverpudlian indie rock trio the Wombats proved their worth as festival main stagers, while another English three-piece, London Grammar, were underwhelming in the big top, despite gorgeous singer Hannah Reid’s equally stunning vocals.

The four winners on Saturday could not contrast more if they tried. Recently reunited Milwaukee acoustic punk outfit Violent Femmes played their entire self-titled 1983 debut, from Blister in the Sun to Good Feeling.

From American alternative music to African desert rock, Bombino unleashed fluid, bluesy rock in the big tent led by Tuareg axe slinger Omara Moctar. The Niamey, Niger-based guitarist, dressed in traditional violet robes, unleashed explosive tempo shifts and sizzling riffs.

Then there was Solange, the Venus to big sister Beyonce’s Serena, who brought glamour to the main stage mid-arvo. “Let’s turn this festival into one big grind session,” the 27-year-old with long, long braids and short shorts purred.

Smooth is not a word usually associated with Perth rockers Pond, who let their freak flag fly on Saturday afternoon. The fast-rising offshoot of the Tame Impala family tree dialled their psychedelic sound right up to avocado parrot.

MGMT could learn a thing or two about stage presence from Pond, who take a leaf (or bud) out of the Flaming Lips playbook. Go fully stupid, win the crowd then get the hell off stage.

Bombino. Picture: Becky Felstead