Hard News by Russell Brown


The Big Day Out, Auckland, 2009

It felt odd to be walking out on such heavenly dance music as Hot Chip were playing in the Boiler Room, but we had an appointment in the Big Day Out's main arena. And as we walked down the stadium steps, hey, Neil Young was playing

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The day began with me going to take a photo of my rock 'n' roll companions, Paul and Andy, outside the gates of Mt Smart -- and discovering I'd left my iPhone back in the car. So I walked all the way back to get it and my bros proceeded in to Lilyworld to see the Wellington International Ukelele Orchestra. But Lilyworld is a bar area, and the queue for a bar pass (even though Paul is fiddy) was impractical.

So we met up and proceeded to the Lehman Brothers table (David Slack has a bleak sense of humour) for a little sit-down. We went out for …

The Ting Tings, who were much better than I thought they'd be. There's a big whack of 80s Manchester in the way they play their quirky pop music live: sounding like New Order (yes, really) here, loping along like the Happy Mondays there. Having arrived at the top field for the last half hour of Luger Boa (who made me think of The Saints), we were 20m from the stage when the Ting Tings came on. And in very short order, so were a thousand extremely excited young persons. The crowd closed up tight and I thought for a few minutes that it was becoming a bit unstable and someone might get hurt, but in the way that Big Day Out crowds do, it sorted itself out. The fact that the considerable potential for chaos is so rarely realised is a testament to the good faith of those who attend.

We walked back over to the stadium. As a rule, it would be practically impossible for any band called Bullet for My Valentine to actually be good: it’s just such a complete loser name. And so it proved.

Pendulum … it would be wrong to say that Pendulum's music is devoid of intellectual content -- there are, after all, some words in the songs -- but it's, well, vestigal. Pendulum exist solely to make the kids crazy. And crazy they were, for an hour of breakneck heavy-metal-drum-and-bass. Unlike most of the people I was with I had actually heard of Pendulum -- I just had no idea they were so huge. Watching that crowd go nuts was an unexpected highlight.

There was some debate about from whence exactly Pendulum hail. Britain, Sweden and New Zealand all came up as guesses. I thought they were Australian, and it turns out I was right. But they're not just Australian, they're from Perth. I think that explains a lot. Anyway, they were, like, awesome.

Graham Reid wasn't quite so impressed: "they're like gymnasium music" he said. Well, that would be a pretty weird gym. But yes, it's fair to say it's utilitarian music. In conjunction with powerful audio-visual technology, it makes the people dance and have a crazy time. And that's okay.

Thereafter, TV on the Radio were always going to be a bit underwhelming, and poor sound and a major energy loss as the Pendulum masses vacated the stadium didn't exactly help the vibe. The Datsuns seemed to have a happier time.

We caught the end of Lupe Fiasco in the tent (it sounded pretty cool), and stuck around for Zane Lowe. I was interested to see what the Tastemaker General of British indie-dance would drop: after a slow start, it turned out to be a no-agenda set of floor-fillers: mash-ups and remixes of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', 'I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor', 'We Are Family' and the Incredible Bongo Band. Good fun, but too heavy on the mash, my friends felt.

We decamped to the top field, where My Morning Jacket were completely lost on me. We couldn't be bothered getting far forward enough to properly experience the Mint Chicks, so we caught some Simian Mobile Disco back at the tent. The dance music, I think, was much, much better this year.

We needed a rest, so we went to sit down back at the Lehman Brothers table. Which meant we got to see The Living End. If there was a hackneyed rock 'n' roll trick they didn't pull, it was only because they ran out of time. Their comprehensive crapness became a source of some mirth amongst us.

The Arctic Monkeys weren't really projecting, so we went back to the Boiler Room for Hot Chip. Who were, as noted above, a delight. Their fined-boned songs had their themes extended in arty, party jams. It was a happy, happy disco.

In these festival settings in particular, I think rock and dance moves are starting to merge. The Ting Tings dropped a monster bassline at the start of 'Shut Up and Let me Go', and, of course, there was Pendulum. Hot Chip, ostensibly a dance act, were more of a real band than Pendulum.

As we descended the steps, just in good time, we had that "hey, Neil Young's playing!" moment, which, as Danielle put it, "lasted for... the whole set."

I'll throw down right here and now and say it was the best mainstage performance the Big Day Out has ever seen. It brought home to me what major American compositions the likes of 'Powderfinger' and 'Cortez the Killer' are. Young's tremendous band went with him through a setlist (personally texted live to a web guy in Australia by Public Address reader Tony Parker of Napier!) that also 'Hey Hey My My' and 'Cinnamon Girl' and 'Heart of Gold' (played straight as a happy little folk song that everyone sang along to) and the new song 'Singing a Song Won't Change the World' (good song!). They finished up with an appropriately rockin' 'Keep on Rockin' in the Free World', and everybody danced.

Then … they encored with 'A Day in the Life'. Yes, the Beatles song. If I'd researched it, I'd know he's been encoring with that song for a few months, but it was better as a really good surprise. The Beatles' original is purely a studio creation: two songs, a Lennon and a McCartney, patched together. The orchestral section that Young re-created with his guitar was four different takes overlaid by George Martin. And yet Young and his band conducted an exploration of it that was so artistically valid there are barely words to say so.

It helped that the sound was crystal-clear without even being all that loud, and the sense of intimacy was enhanced by the better-than-usual direction of the big screen video. It touched on little details; a hand on the piano keyboard, and Young and his bass player convening like a pair of old witches over a cauldron. And it also demonstrated why Young chose to do this particular tour, and play an unabashed greatest hits set. Every now and then there was a shot of the crowd at the front of the stage. Clearly, not all the party kids had gone to the Boiler Room. And they were enthralled.

One more thing. I may have bored everyone I spoke to with this already: but Neil Young is cool.

By the time we got ourselves out of the stadium, the Headless Chickens were winding up with 'George' and then 'Leave that chicken alone'. Clearly, they'd got a lot sharper since I saw them at the Power Station last year, and it was a shame not to see more of the final show of their reunion.

I was up for a look in at The Prodigy, but my companions were not, so we headed for the gate. As we left, the Prodg's breakbeats thundered across from the tent, and we heard Keith Flint say "odoo-boodoo-doo-doo!" and "ack-ack-ackadakka!. Or something.


The festival is a much easier place to get around with 42,000 people there rather than 47,000. Let's hear it for Big Day Outs that don't sell out. (my apologies if it really was a decision to limit capacity by 5000 -- let's see it next year!). Sure, the TVNZ guy whined about not being able to get near the Boiler Room for the Prodigy, but them's the breaks. They were never going to appear on the mainstage, because it was Neil's night there.

Another welcome development: the overdue installation of a platform for wheelchair users at the foot of the East stand. Among those enjoying it on the day was Erin, a 16 year-old with cerebral palsy who keeps a blog. She wrote that she was going along knowing her startle reflex was going to get "quite a workout" and admitted to being "anxious and really really nervous" about what she was embarking on, but seems to have had a fantastic day:

AND THEN came the much anticipated NEIL YOUNG who of course got quite a reception. When he started playing his hits, all these oldish people were standing up and dancing in their seats. It was quite funny to watch really. It was such an honour to watch him though. He played hits like Heart of Gold, Hey Hey, My My, and then near the very end, Keep On Rocking in the Free World, which is my favourite song of his. Pretty much everyone sang and danced along to his songs.

The symmetry here is that both Neil Young's sons have cerebral palsy, and he and his wife organise annual benefit concerts for a special-needs school. If the promoters are reading this, Mr Young might like to know that a young woman had a rockin' time on Friday.

Not seen on the platform, but clearly having it very large was the bloke in a wheelchair I saw in the Boiler Room during Zane Lowe. He looked about 30 and had half a dozen friends with him. They were all totally mashed. People gave them space, and they clearly had a great time. I hadn't thought before about what someone in a wheelchair does when they're on E at a club. Answer: lots of hands in the air, but also a lot of zipping backwards and forwards with your front wheels up. It looked fun.

Some clips:

58 seconds of 'A Day in the Life' …

8 Seconds of 'Heart of Gold' …

Pendulum from the back of the crowd …

And up the front …

Dude warming up for the BDO with a quick round of Melbourne Shuffling …

P Money …

And a bright-eyed David Farrier does a live link to wrap around his clever BDO story for Nightline . He starts riffing at the end and that nice young chap they have reading the news doesn't really handle it.

One final thing. How unlucky, stupid or both do you have to be to be the sole person arrested for possession of illicit drugs at the Big Day Out ?

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