Hard News by Russell Brown

I still love rock 'n' roll

I have been to every Big Day Out since it launched in New Zealand in 1994, but I don't think I've ever enjoyed one more than the one that took place on Friday. It was loud, happy, tiring and surprising, and the music was mostly great.

The buzz began early this year, as several of the headliners arrived in the country a few days ahead of the event, to play showcase gigs or just hang out. You might have seen Damian out drinking with the Darkness, or the Strokes digging the Datsuns at the King's Arms, or Muse out at Piha, or the Dandy Warhols at a café. It felt a bit special.

Anyway, came the day: and we'd timed our run in the front gate to make the D4's 2pm set on the big stage, which we did nicely. Unfortunately, that didn't include time to grab a bottle of water on the way, and by the time they finished with a blistering version of the Dead Boys' 'Sonic Reducer' we were deranged with heat and thirst.

We climbed the hill, bought water and flopped down under a tree to hydrate. Happily, it began to cloud over. There was time for 10 minutes of Concord Dawn in the Boiler Room - which was actually enough - before Fat Freddy's Drop at the hip-hop stage. They played a typically supple, groovy set, perhaps pumping it up a little to fight the constant spill of noise from the Boiler Room.

If one thing has to change about the whole event, it's the hip-hop stage. By the time Scribe closed out the evening, it was just a shame. With what he's done this year - a four times platinum album, simultaneous number one album and single - Scribe had every right to play the big stages. Instead, he was stuck off in a corner, where many of his fans couldn't really even see or hear him properly.

We checked out the alternative stage, but Lostprophets were playing. One development in musical fashion that has vastly improved the Big Day Out in the past couple of years is the commercial death of nu metal. Unfortunately, as Lostprophets demonstrated, it's not quite as dead as it ought to be.

Next up were Kings of Leon, this year's obligatory Dad-rock band (although unlike Wilco, they're not old enough to be anyone's Dad, and they even had teenage girls screaming down at the front of the stage). I tried to like them, but they just didn't quite do it for me like they appeared to be doing for everyone else.

We agreed it was time for a trip up in the lift to the Immortals Lounge, where every ligger in town was arriving, leaving or sitting around looking dazed and goofy. One or two grievous offenders seemed to spend almost the entire festival in the bar, texting their friends.

It was a bit - well, a lot - harder to get a drink out in the public bars - and that, I am sure, was no accident. In its earlier years, there was a surly edge to the Big Day Out crowds, and more emphasis on alcohol: either sneaking it in or swilling it onsite. And the crowds were smaller back then - had Friday's sellout crowd of more than 45,000 been even half-liquored it would have been chaos.

But they weren't and it wasn't. The crowd, indeed, was the star of the show: people were considerate and good humoured and said sorry when they stood on each other. The advent of ecstasy as the festival drug of choice, alongside dear old marijuana, no doubt had a bit to do with that. The legal BZP-based party pills were widely available this year and also, it appeared, popular.

(BTW: Apparently Jim Anderton is keen to outlaw the party pills, even though they seem to be causing no problems. It's stupid to have them for sale at corner diaries, but R18 environments like liquor stores seem the appropriate place for them. Could someone please explain to Jim that he can't and won't actually change the entire shape of modern social life, and if Euphoria et al are banned from sale, you'll just have that many more kids on P? Is that really what he wants?)

So we holed up in the bar for a short while, then I went down to the bFM studio and found myself being interviewed on air by Damian. I hope it sounded alright. It seemed pretty funny at the time. From there you could see the Datsuns nicely on the big screen, which was this year's most welcome innovation. I don't know why there hasn't been one before.

Muse were on the big stage next, and were unspeakable, pompous shite. We found ourselves an unoccupied broadcast box and hurled abuse at them from the top of the stand until we figured it was time to check out the Boiler Room, which had cleared of the astonishing crowd that jammed in earlier to hear Salmonella Dub.

We popped down for a little Aphex Twin - too little as it turned out. I really liked his boffin techno, but the Strokes were pending in the stadium, so we had to go. The Strokes rocked - really. Their laconic chug sounded great at stadium size, and the singer, Julian Casablancas, was a riot. (He took the rock star behaviour a little too far in the bar after they'd played and was subsequently given a firm talking-to by Dion from the D4.) They really are a very cool band.

Directly afterwards, Afrika Bambaata was playing the hip-hop stage; a huge figure behind turntables, dropping old-school breaks. His MCs were hopeless, but he was for real. And it was great to hear Rob Base and DJ Ezy Rock's 'It Takes Two' played out for the first time in years. No complaints there.

Basement Jaxx had the last two hours in the Boiler Room, and made it a happy scene indeed. They play a real bangin' South London sound: no trace of ninny trance at all, and very much my kind of house music. But yet again, we had to be away: the Flaming Lips were playing the alternative stage, and they were magnificent.

I've struggled a bit to get the point of the Flaming Lips on record, but I immediately picked up on the warmth of their live show. Indeed, they could show anyone a few things about the meaning of performance. Singer and raconteur Wayne Coyne engaged the crowd constantly, and there were large, furry animals dancing on the stage (Dolf Datsun was inside the Goodnight Kiwi).

One moment, the band was swoony and florid, the next they'd hit almost a trip-hop groove. It was funny and beautiful and I'd pay money to see them play again any day. Coyne kept saying they'd love to come back if someone were to invite them, so perhaps they'll play here later in the year.

There are quite a few happy messages on the bulletin board on the Flaming Lips' website, and a review and pics at Cheese on Toast. (Feel free to post me links to any other online reviews of the event and I'll put them in the blog tomorrow.)

Real Groovy Records sold out of their album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots the next day. Now that's winning people over. (I went in on Sunday morning and bought Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell, a seven-track CD of unreleased tracks and remixes. I think I played it nine times over the course of the day, and the Sunday evening debrief on the deck, where we raved at each other and ate fish and possibly drank a little too much nice wine. Yeah, I think you can call me a fan now.)

So it came time to trail out the gates, our minds barely troubled by thoughts of Metallica, who had ground on for two whole hours on the main stage. A great many people appeared to have come specifically to see them, and they seemed to feel they'd had their money's worth. Good for them.

After a pitstop at home, we decided to make a night of it and go to a party on K Road, where the Checks were going to play. Unfortunately, it was pushing 3am by the time they started playing, and we discovered that it was too late and too loud and we were too old. It had been a hell of a day.

So we only caught about 20 minutes of the Checks set. Kings of Leon, who were supposedly lined up to attend, still hadn't shown, but I like to think that maybe they came up the stairs just after we left, and saw the Checks - a bunch of inspired 17 year-olds from the Shore - playing their taut, angular R&B, almost encircled by a crowd of bright young things. They'd have seen something good.

So, yeah. I still love rock 'n' roll.