A sun-soaked boulder warms my jumper and jeans. A not-quite-cold breeze from across the plains plays at my hair. The sky’s powder-blue, streaked with cirrus, and the music echoes through the valley. It’s Gunns, singing the words “I’m sitting on top of the world,” which is kind of how I feel, even though I know that Hyden is roughly on the Earth’s underside. Figuratively speaking the words ring true; literally, they ring out, sprawling across the grey-green canopies and shimmering salt-lakes beyond. At this moment, nothing can trouble me.
Early today, this was not quite the case. My alarm rattled me into consciousness while the sky was still dark, the kookaburras still awakening; I joined mates from bands ANTON FRANC and THE TWOKS in a minibus, and we set off into the sunrise. We took at least one wrong turn before springing a flat tyre about an hour into the bush. Thank Odin we had a spare, which turned out to also be flat. Kindly farmers Vaughn and Kelly pulled over and drove us to a tyre shop to get the original offender patched up, while some of us jumped in another car that had pulled over, and also got lost.
Against fate’s will, we do arrive at Hyden National Park, with approximately zero minutes to spare. We (ANTON FRANC and myself, an auxiliary body) hurl our gear on stage and play a set, while the Fremantle Dockers play the Hawthorn Hawks. A crowd to our rear watches the match and roars, but a healthy quorum watch us, too, and it’s a fun mixture of relief and heartening good vibes.
I pick out a tent location as MT. MOUNTAIN rip assuredly through forty-odd minutes of darkly-hued, propulsive peyote-rock. As far as blues-rooted psych jams go, these guys are pretty interesting, catching you off guard with curious time signatures, crafty arrangements and dirgey interludes. DIANAS take over – I’ve waxed lyrical about this trio over and over, but they keep getting better, so I’ll keep doing it. They’ve largely shed their garage-rock chrysalis, emerging as a beguiling and layered pop creature. The rhythm section is driving, the songs are both fun and somehow melancholy and distant; the harmonies are unmistakable. The footy concludes; despite the purple defeat spirits remain high; Gunns fire up and I watch a few of their fast, dirty, sunny tunes before meandering out to the huge wave-shaped rock and climbing up its side. I peer down at the dried-up gnammas, seeing aquatic plants leftover from when the shallow pits were full of rainwater. I lie on a boulder and let the elements and the sound wash over me.
Some mates join me up on Hyden Rock while HUGE MAGNET play their back-to-basics blues rock down below. We see the pink-gold sun duck under the horizon in the west, and then hear the QUARRY MOUNTAIN DEAD RATS who muster a veritable hoodang replete with washboard, southern twang and rampantly scuttling tempos.
Few combinations are as satisfying as fresh paella and the wonderful, clever, ebullient and magic-infused Arizona band CALEXICO. This is one of the few non-Perth acts I’ve actually listened to in the past, though my existing fondness does little to foretell what’s in store. Lead singer Joey Burns provides a charismatic, smiling entry point to a set which zig-zags from one infectious sound to the next – be it bubbling mariachi, artful country or carribean cumbia. Every Latin or “world,” genre, mind you, is channeled and interpreted rather than merely appropriated. The dizzying eclecticism is tempered by old-fashioned indie-rock songwriting nouse, and delivered with an irresistible enthusiasm and virtuosity. A vibraphone here. A lightning-fast guitar solo there. A heart-squeezing duet with Hollie from Tiny ruins, a vivacious horn section, a crisp, restrained and quietly jaw-dropping rhythm section. I was expecting to enjoy Calexico; I wasn’t expecting to dance up a sweat in the chilly evening, nor feel totally revived by their incredible performance. This is one band that should never be missed if the chance to catch them arises.
Carrying us into the star-spangled later are THE CHEMIST – whose new percussion additions courtesy Phil Stroud provide an intoxicating counterpoint to Ben Witt’s chaotic guitar wig-outs and vocal gnarlings. We get a somewhat messy but lovably earnest set from punk legend KIM SALMON, who – between resurrecting acid-flecked Scientists classics, unpretentious rock songs and newer slacker-ballad efforts – fumbles with his iPhone to get the Tuner app to work, possibly the least punk gesture I have ever seen. Abbe May sees the night out with an impressive show, though I feel it clashes somewhat with the setting, a time and space steeped in positive moods and unpretentious revelry. Here, May instead adopts a sort of rock-god persona, complete with horror-movie eye makeup, tousled peroxide mop and oddly vitriolic banter like “They say karma’s a bitch… but that’s only if you fuck with it…Don’t fuck with karma!” The new songs from her Kiss My Apocalypse LP are masterfully wrought, dark synthpop jigsaws, but tonight I’m just not riding that particular wave. We meander down to the festival’s “speakeasy,” where a red light bulb and smooth jazz welcomes you into a repurposed Australiana-type cafe serving up free toast, tea, coffee and milo while a fire blazes in the room’s centre. Incredible.
At around nine in the morning, I become aware of sunlight streaming into my tent. Not long after, I become aware of the the sounds of one of the festival’s surprise highlights – COSMIC DRAMA. The group consists of bass guitar, drum kit and a majestic concert harp which provides dazzling, crystalline chords, arpeggios and jazz-inflected melodies over the slinky, stuttering rhythm section. The band name’s allusion to Flying Lotus gives you some indication of their vibe – but this is really a unique affair, and I kind of want it to continue forever. TINY RUINS follow – an Auckland-based duo revolving around the songs of the aforementioned Hollie Fullbrook. They’ve been touring with Calexico and, though their sounds aren’t necessarily comparable, it’s not hard to see why: these tunes are heartfelt, beautiful, faintly eccentric, channeling time-honoured folk styles in alliance with a modern indie-pop aesthetic. Perhaps none of this sounds remarkable, but with Fullbrook’s guitar spinning offbeat harmonic spiderwebs, her voice leaking half-surreal, half-quotidian lyrics, perfect double-bass and vocal harmonies from sidekick Cass Basil – it’s a really superb, compelling, hangover-soothing set.
THE PERCH STREET FAMILY JUG BAND now appear, with banjo, brass, musical saw and loony props in tow; they’re a fun and talented diversion, but we soon take to the salt lakes beyond the festival site, paddling in the buoyant salty pool. I take a stroll out into the scrub and marshes. The ground cracks and sinks like the surface of an under-cooked cake. The vista is dotted with low-lying pink wildflowers so bright they seem to glow, and spindles of lifeless swamp trees reach out of the mire like long, ancient fingers. We play a little Frisbee and return to the festival.
BILLIE ROGERS & THE COUNTRY GENTS deliver a set of inoffensive, squeaky clean country-pop, somewhat lacking in imagination but bolstered but good playing and occasional saxophone solos. DEPEDRO – the enchanting Spanish guitarist last seen with CALEXICO – stirs the crowd into a gentle continental frenzy with help from Paul ‘Sloandog’ Sloan (the festival’s big banana) and Cass Basil (Tiny Ruins, remember) on kit and bass respectively. RASA DUENDE follow suit, grabbing the relay-baton of energy and carrying it in intricate raga-cum-flamenco style. CHRIS RUSSELL’S CHICKEN WALK falls into the festival’s growing “nostalgia blues” basket, but they make a good go of it for sure.
Now up jump the TWOKS – they quite literally jump – by now they are friendly acquaintes (having shared in a traumatic bus ride) but I have no idea what their music sounds like, or if I’m going to like it. As it turns out, it’s one of the absolute best sets of the weekend, a fierce and unusual cocktail of live violin looping and intense, nimble, dancey drum beats. It is by turns reminiscent of Scottish folk-groovers Shooglenifty, Andrew Bird, Holy Fuck and even fellow Melbourners My Disco (but with a whole lot more smiling and singalongs). Frontlady/violinist/singer Xani Kolac whips out entertaining crowd interaction tactics and incredible fiddle skills while Mark Leahy holds down the incredible grooves. A man is one stage taking polaroids of everyone, then handing them to them as a goodwill gesture. The crowd is going mental. It’s a great time.
The SUNSHINE BROTHERS fill the air with the lush, hook-heavy, faintly psychedelic dub; CACTUS CHANNEL deliver danceable conservatorium-grade soul, before the MELBOURNE SKA ORCHESTRA (headed up by Nicky Bomba – ex-Bomba, John Butler Trio) deliver a hugely entertaining set of sanguine, down-the-line ska originals and covers with loads of tongue-in-cheek spectacle, pork pie hats and outrageous banter.
We dance into the hours just shy of dawn, up at the rock itself, where THE COMMUNITY Djs are spinning tunes ranging from experimental beats to street band marches and pulsating funk; STEVEN A. HUGHES projects suitably trippy visuals onto the rock face, and light rain sprinkles down, cooling our faces.
The freezing night winds up soon enough, with morning melting our frost-bitten sleeping bags. I stumble out and lean over one of the still-smoking fire drums. I stumble further, to the Wave Rock Cafe, where they sling me a coffee and poach some eggs. I ponder the beauty of the Wave Rock Weekender; how there was never a single bad vibe in the air; how the surrounds filled me with a life-affirming sense of wonder and warmth. How, due to clever, relaxed scheduling, I still managed to see at least part of every musical set as well as watching a few films in the makeshift cinema, wandering the crags and rivulets, enjoying the beers and pizzas and mexican street corn and sweet-smelling fires hemming in the festival’s central stage and dancefloor. I don’t want to romanticize it too much, for the beauty wasn’t in some kind of transcendence; it was in the reality of simple pleasures, like good mates, good music, good food, good places. Wave Rock Weekender, more than almost any festival I’ve been to, has its priorities in order. No matter how many flat tyres try to thwart my future journeys – I know for sure I’ll be back.