River Sessions @ Mackay, 28th June
Started in 2009, the Mackay festival River Sessions has quickly made a name for itself as a premier celebration of Australian music. Each year thousands migrate to the sugar city from across the state bolstering the sizeable local crowd. The festival is a synecdoche of Australian music – a multitude of genres (blues to pop, dance to trance; electronica, rap, and metalcore) stretching the width and breadth of contemporary music – providing new acts an opportunity to make a name for themselves, and established acts the chance to cement it. In an industry often criticised for sidelining Australian artists, it’s heartening to see a festival single-heartedly devoted to their promotion.
The festival opens with the metal-core favourite In Heart’s Wake, which swept an early swarm of metal fans into a swirling Charybdis of flesh. The Byron Bay five-piece have recently released their sophomore album Earthwalker to acclaim, and their set comprised of new and old material setting the early-morning vanguard of the metal militia into a mosh. Uncharacteristic even for a Mackay winter, the sun beats down furiously, and when it comes to the slower ballad-like Wildfire, the crowd’s hands and heads burned aloft instead of lighters.
The Mackay crowd flaunts its festival fashion: thrashing teletubbies collide with moshing Minions; a herd of zebra graze on Papa vs Pretty pre-split performance, while a brigade in bathrobes and shower caps rub-a-dub-dub to Way of the Eagle’s wub. Inflatable crocodiles cascade over the crush, and suit-wearing gentlemen play soccer with beach balls.
Recently returned from an England tour, Sydney surf-rock quintet Sticky Fingers was welcomed back to native soil. The group have recently released their first album Caress Your Soul, and a set comprised of fan favourites Australia Street, Clouds & Cream, and the eponymous track set the crowd into motion. Lead singer Dylan Frost has matured significantly over the last year, and glides about the stage in constant motion, limbs gliding fluidly over greased axels. The group is joined onstage by hip hop’s Horrorshow to engage in a blistering battle of words.
One of the standout performances in the early half of the day comes from the festival debutants Murcielago. The trio provide electronically generated soundscapes; overlayed with trance-like vocals, and an eclectic range of effects (filling the sorely needed cowbell quota for the festival), to create an ethereal and almost dream-like performance. A girl remarked as she floated serenely in front of the stage, the sound is “like butterflies aflutter.”
If one complaint can be made about River Sessions, it’s the synchronicity of the stages. While acts started and stopped with the horological efficiency of Swiss watchmakers on a Tokyo subway, the simultaneity of performances often leads to awkward downtime between acts. I often find myself at Stage 3, enjoying the sheer enthusiasm of the local acts. Thanartist is a standout highlight, the metal-core quintet smashing through their set to a more than appreciative crowd, finally taking a selfie with the wreckage.
They are followed by Mackay’s own Saints Alight, who perform the most memorable set of the day: the hardcore five-piece laying claim to a loyal legion of local supporters. The group combats an early overflux of bass to pummel through a brutal performance. Circle pits encompass the entire crowd, while fans are catapulted onto the stage; moshing minions make metal merry, before being decapitated – the foam head is passed around the crowd. Metal.
In direct contrast is the jazz and alt-rock heartthrob Megan Washington, the loveliest voice on the line-up. In a set touched with self-effacing humour and pathos “I was engaged once. Thank you for that lovely congratulations. But then I got unengaged. This song’s about that.” Megan touches on themes of sadness, heartbreak – buoyed by the levity of hope, and conveyed in vocals as sweet and dark as the sugar and coal that form the main industries of Mackay. She takes to the keyboard herself to perform a vaudeville highlight to the set.
As the electronic trio Art vs Science set up, the crowd thickened and swelled, drawn together by the gravitational pull of one of Australia’s best live acts. The pair premiered a song three weeks old, written for their new EP “It’s so new even our sound technician hasn’t heard it.” It goes down well with the crowd – an electric composition of distorted vocals and blitzkrieg breakdown. The crowd doubles with the theatric introduction of Magic Fountain, undulating with unrestrained ecstasy. The crowd disperses, swivels around, and comes together again, pressing more tightly for the set closer Parlez-Vous Francais. A few in the crowd follow the band’s suggestion and tombent ses chemises. The group cements their position as one of the nation’s premier live acts – an Australian Daft Punk that actually sings in French.
The crowd undergoes a guard change after successful rap/hip hop artist Illy (enjoying the crowd favourite Tightrope so much that he decides to play it twice) – as a regiment of hip hop fans is slowly replaced by the metal militia. The Amity Affliction is the most valuable metal to come out from Gympie since gold became less shiny, and the mines had lost their lustre. The last time they played to Mackay was to 30 people in a bar, now it’s nearer to a crowd of 3,000. The hardcore quintet plays a blistering barrage of new and old material, while the crowd seethes into a metalcore maelstrom.
Bookended on both sides by its hardest acts, it’s appropriate that as River Sessions comes to a close I notice the deflated corpse of the inflatable crocodile being dragged from the crowd as a trophy. Metal.