Psychedelic visuals, experimental music, and a whole lot of dancing were key ingredients to creating Sugar Mountain this year. While some performances have the crowd off their seats, others have punters out the door.
Lower Plenty kick off the evening on the main stage of the Forum. Self-described as ‘downer-country’, the lead singer’s baritone is similar to that of the National’s Matt Berninger, and equally as moody. It’s certainly worth catching these guys for a local residency.
For something a little more left of centre, we go up to the 500-seat amphitheater called 'The Summit' to check out Phantoscopia. Figures in hoods chant and drag members of the audience onto the stage where videos of them performing unusual tasks will stream to the beat of at least two drum kits. The short films are at times terrifying but also humorous, so that the crowd never becomes too alienated with the whole experience.
Electronic duo Naysayer and Gilsun have added a lot of new material to their visual smorgasbord of film mash-up. Video footage – including snippets of Brick, Adventureland, The Shining and clips from The Discovery Channel – is mixed with Sam Gill and Luke Neher's highly danceable beats. The only downside to the performance is that it's in a seated venue; not being up and dancing to these two mavericks feels a bit strange.
Brothers Hand Mirror, which consists of Oscar Vicente Slorach-Thorn (of Oscar + Martin fame) and Grant Jonathon Gronewold (HTML Flowers), are giddy with excitement at the dance party they've created on the mezzanine level of the Forum, known for the evening as 'The Boiler Room'. They're joined by two female hip-hop dancers who essentially lead the way for the rest of the crowd. There's no actual stage for the Boiler Room – the performers are on the same levels of the audience, which gives it a house party vibe. The vocals are almost exclusively taken care of by the wiry and sprightly HTML Flowers, who's clearly gleeful with the turn out. Look out for these guys, and especially their song ‘Bus Tickets’.
There are sure to be a lot of questions about what went down at Kirin J Callinan and Kris Moyes' set. As we walk in there are a few boos after the news that Kris and Kirin can’t perform what they had originally planned for the event. They go on to explain that they need someone "going crazy" in the centre of the audience, and ask if "Billy" is in the crowd. A small, excitable man joins them on stage. Kris explains that when they were looking for someone to add to their original performance, they tried actors, but no one was really right. Then Kris and Kirin started looking in hospitals, which is where they met Billy. Billy was visiting his son, who has photosensitive epilepsy. Kris then plays a video that showed Billy having an epileptic fit after being induced by a strobe light. The mood very quickly changes from intrigue to outrage; lots of booing, "They’re using you, Billy" and "You’re a dickhead" are hurled at Kris and Kirin. One protester even brands it pornographic. Many people walk out or are urging them to hurry up and play some music. We'd love to report more, but we're not about to miss Collarbones.
The heaviness of moments before is immediately lifted when Collarbones opens with ‘Hypothermia’. Marcus Whale is unstoppable with his gyrating and flawless R&B vocal performance. Travis Cook is certainly more reserved, calmly in control of the beats, but coming out for a dance at the end. HTML Flowers returns to join them for ‘Die Young’, but the highlight of the performance is ‘Too Much’ – again due to Marcus and his unstoppable energy. Collarbones finish with ‘Beaman Park’, which ends with an interlude of J-Lo’s ‘Jenny From the Block’ and Marcus body-rolling off the speaker stand.
Now, we don’t know how much clothing Sethe Bogart – lead singer of Hunx and His Punx – had on at the start of his set, but by the time we get there, there is very little remaining. Strutting around in shredded sheer tights with a black g-string underneath, black sunglasses and a leather cap, he's certainly giving the crowd their money's worth. Hunx parades around with a "Fuck me, it’s my birthday" attitude and a whiny San Fran accent, and asks the audience if anyone has any weed, which is as much fun to watch as their Ramones-inspired performance. (One photographer describes the face humping he receives while trying to shoot Hunx as a highlight of his night.) Hunx is backed onstage by what looks like Vince Noir, Elvira and a blonde Beth Ditto, but the Punx are more than caricatures – they are equally as fierce as their fearless, and perhaps a little wasted, leader.
ESG is where the dance party of the night is at. The Scroggins sisters are out way past their usual bedtime on the other side of the world, and they couldn’t be happier. Considering ESG have been going since 1978 and have been sampled by some of the greatest hip-hop artists of the ’90s, they still pack a wallop when they play. ‘Dance’ and ‘Moody’ are exceptionally well received, and they end with ‘You Make No Sense’, which induces a crowd sing-along, and some ferocious dancing on stage. A special shout out needs to go to the drummer, Valerie Scroggins, who has stoic concentration on her face the whole set, and does not quit on those sticks. ESG say this is their first and last tour to Australia; if that’s the case then they make it count.
HTRK is probably the most polar opposite performance to experience directly after ESG, but impressive in an entirely different way. Ominous, lo-fi experimental music with intriguing visuals to match, their cult following is understandable and deserved... but we do experience a drop in intensity.
Fresh out of the kitchen (and Flushing, Queens) is Action Bronson with his unique food-based rap. Action has often been reported as sounding a lot like Ghostface Killah and in truth he does, but his constant cooking and food references certainly makes his tales of banging bitches and get “high as the sun in June” more interesting. “…I’m lonely, at times my only friends in life are drugs and a cannoli” is a particularly memorable line in ‘9-24-11’ . Unfortunately this former-chef concludes his set 20 minutes early for no known reason; hopefully he’ll be back to serve it up again soon.
By now Kit Webster’s projections over the forum are taking full effect, with geometric patterns morphing into optical illusions. Dirty Projector’s lead singer David Longstreth will later thank Kit for the “Windows ’98 vibe”, which certainly keeps the crowd entranced between sets.
When Dirty Projectors finally hit the stage, lead singer David Longstreth snaps one of his guitar strings in the opening song, but continues with another guitar and performs his solos with an endearing neck-jutting motion, reaching for every note. Perhaps a little hesitant at the start, by the second song, ‘Offspring are Blank’, they are well into the swing of things. Amber Coffman is exquisite when taking the lead vocals in ‘The Socialites’, and the harmonies between all the women in the band are nothing short of gorgeous for the entire set. The Dirty Projectors are a charming way to end a night filled with so many different genres and types of performances.
This festival is at times an onslaught of the senses. It's captivating on many sensory levels; at times challenging, at other times uplifting. We've seen some extraordinary performances we won’t forget anytime soon, and the brilliantly curated, showcased artists are truly creative and innovative in their desire and ability to push boundaries. Oursympathies would only lie with anyone who thought it might be a good idea to drop any drugs tonight. Yikes.