British Sea Power Down Under Part 2

Into the Wilderness with a feather up your arse

Another day and another flight; this time to Sydney where our by now somewhat ragged UK contingent manage to quickly make a load of new friends and completely miss the support, although one of them tells us they're not much cop anyway so I won't lose any sleep over that. No technical issues tonight, anyway, as the band pull out what can only be described as an outstanding set. Reading the set-list back a couple of weeks later there's nothing about it that really marks it as a classic, the long overdue return of a beautiful Blackout notwithstanding, but those unquantifiables, the atmosphere and the energy, are spot on. And if the Perth and Melbourne crowds enjoyed the sets, here they absolutely fucking love it. And with British Sea Power this does make a difference as band and crowd energise each other into a big feedback loop. It peaks during the brilliant career-spanning attack that is Zeus (probably the best reception I've ever seen for an unknown song in a set otherwise all released) / Waving Flags / Remember Me / Apologies, after which it takes a certain level of genius to finish the main set on an extended version of atmospheric instrumental The Great Skua complete with bird migration projections. With nothing particularly stupid to climb up here, Noble resorts to his other, newer, favourite end-of-encore game of attaching people to each other with enormous lengths of sticky tape - band, audience, anyone who gets in his way really. The bouncers look completely flummoxed.

The bar's shut by the time they finish, which is how we end up back at the Lansdowne which seems to have transformed over our absence into a sort of unofficial AC/DC after-show - yes, there was another, rather bigger, gig in Sydney tonight and the bar is packed with hairy middle-aged men with official merch carrier bags. This, it transpires, is the reason hotel rooms were in short supply even two months ago, and why one of our party ends up (eventually) sleeping at the airport. Which does – fortuitously - give him a head start on the last hire car in town; as come Sunday we're heading off into the wilderness...

Wiseman's Ferry is an hour or so north of Sydney and named after Solomon Wiseman, a former convict who received a land grant in the area and established a ferry service on the Hawkesbury River in 1827 for the transport of produce and provisions to the convicts building the Great North Road; on the fringe of two National Parks the scenery is breathtaking as wooded banks tower high above the creek. A pretty amazing location for a festival then (Reading city centre this most definitely is not!) and moreover one that's unlikely to draw many noise complaints unless the local kangaroos have a hotline to the council. Parking up we're directed to a jetty for the 20 minute cruise to the site. Playground Weekender has already been going for three days, and when the boat arrives, those staggering off have that thousand-yard stare noted in workplaces across Britain on the Tuesday after Glastonbury. The ferry sweeps round wide river bands until eventually we hear distant beats, catch sight of a row of rent-a-yurts; we're here and... bloody hell it's hot. No, really hot. So hot Australians think it's hot; I'm no judge of such things but if the 37 degrees reported on a beach information board the following day is correct we're talking easily the other side of 40. It's at least 50% a dance type event with a couple of dedicated DJ tents and big-name sets scattered across the other stages, with just the Filth Stage reserved for up-and-coming bands; the main stage features a quite bewildering line-up which last night was probably the only time anyone will book Bjorn Again and The Brian Jonestown Massacre in the same place...

As we enter we're drawn to the Filth Stage by some classic "Antipodean Underground" sounds: Sierra Fin have that Nick Cave via dark-end Veils desert blues vibe that's completely at odds spiritually with the blistering sunshine and yet carries a kind of scorched-earth feel you just don't get in European bands. There's a real sense of vision here, a sense that this could be the next great Australian band I'm watching at a privileged early stage. Later I discover they have ambition, too: their album, due some time this year, will be "a concept album, a symphonic work where every song is linked to each other and forms part of a linear story, utilising an orchestra for almost it's entirety". That's their debut album. And yes, I believe they are good enough to pull it off.

Time for a wander: there's a tiny hop-hop stage where two lads in big shorts are rapping in unconvincing American accents over old soul-pop hit Gimme The Night (was that George Benson? If so, why do I even know this?). The main stage has no bands on for much of the afternoon, just Norman Jay DJing to a handful of rather bemused looking people. We suspect a fair few weekenders have started to drift away already. We find ourselves eating some lovely if rather odd Turkish pancakes. But the weirdest thing is - it's half three in the afternoon at a festival and hardly anyone has beer. The mainstage bar staff stand around bored. Aside from a few hardy souls - largely male and with sun-faded tattoos - it's just too bloody hot. A bottle of water goes nowhere; a massive cup of multicoloured synthetic fruit slush little further. Add to that the fact that most here are on day four of this, and you'd have to be insane.

Back on the Filth Stage, Dimity Claire And Bleeding Hearts is a slight exaggeration, as there's just her and a bloke, although research implies there's usually a horn section. Not today. He strums, she sings, with a cheap drum machine backing what they probably consider quirky lo-fi, but the bunch of us sheltering under one of the few big sunshades on the site mostly consider a bit rubbish. The lads behind us shout dryly "Yeah. That's... really... good." Untutored would be a polite description of both parties - although when they introduce a "new one" at the end that's more Regina-ish spike-poppy, I suspect they just need to rehearse the less-old ones a little more. The lads who'd been sat behind us are in fact the next band, Royal Chant, who do classic bar-to-road Springsteeny American rock with a bit of a Teenage Fanclub / Lemonheads pop side that makes much more sense here than it ever has before; some of their tunes actually sound like the sort of ride down a cool freeway in the midday heat that we had getting here.

Ten minutes before British Sea Power's slot the area around the main stage is somewhat under populated to say the least. Headed down early for a good spot we've found ourselves surrounded by space and a handful of people lazily batting a beach ball; another five minutes and two older ladies have pulled up deckchairs front centre. We rather hope a few more arrive. People, that is, not necessarily with deckchairs.

Starting with True Adventures the band draw the attention of the assembled few towards them, which is a start. The sound is ridiculously bassy (which at least bodes well for tonight's headliners) and the crowd very chilled to the point of being mostly sat down (that said, it is about a million degrees out here) but the band seem untroubled. Even when they're engulfed by the product of the biggest smoke machine ever. Never a standout on record, Atom is a clear highlight early on with a few people up and dancing, and Noble playing his guitar with a cushion someone's thrown onstage. As the song ends he chucks it back at the crowd. It's back at his feet seconds later. Perhaps it's got a boomerang concealed in it or something. Blackout and No Lucifer lead into Carrion and a short Rock In... and - that can't be it, can it? It's not. the last song British Sea Power play on Australian soil, this time round at least, is a stunning Great Skua just as the sun starts to fall behind the trees, a moment so beautiful it's actually indescribable.

There's music on the other stages, but how do you follow that? We plump instead for Chips On A Stick, an early contender for Festival Snack Of The Year: cheap, equal parts ingenious and ridiculous, and unlike Primavera's now legendary Pizza Cones they're actually really nice.

Unlike Sound Casino, who (back on the Filth Stage) start off doing quite American stoner rock'n'roll; their bassist (who was watching British Sea Power) looks so wasted he might fall over any minute. They then proceed to get less interesting as the set goes on, but there's a good few very tanned and underdressed people (of both sexes) dancing wildly. Indeed, if you had a rock cliche bingo card ("keep awwn", "yeeeeeeaaaaaaaaw!" unnecessary bits of soloing, a last song with an audience-participation "woh-oh-oh-ohhh" chorus, etc) they'd serve you well. That there are more people dancing to this tripe than British Sea Power is faintly depressing, really, but then this is after all the country that gave us Jet. Thankfully Underlights have a much more subtle, melodic approach - mainstream end of atmospheric indie with some nice sweeping guitars and yearning, understated vocals; the sun's all but set now and it works rather well amongst the long shadows, but it's time to head back to the main stage...

Orbital: two middle-aged Englishmen with torches on their heads and a synth rig that looks like an Apollo lander. Getting that lot across the river must have been a laugh. They have, not surprisingly, drawn the majority of the weekend survivors. As we noted earlier the festival seems slightly more biased towards dance music (a meaningless term, I know, but you know what I mean) than rock, and for the Hartnoll brothers it must be quite refreshing to do festivals and play to a crowd young enough to have been their offspring - many of whom seem to be sporting cartoon "Red Indian" feather headdresses. We even spotted a security guard wearing one earlier; couldn't see the likes of Showsec tolerating such frivolity back home.

The set is much the same as the one they were touring last year, a Greatest Hits sort of thing with the emphasis firmly on the more rave-worthy end of their repertoire, which is fair enough: this really isn't the time or the place for weird electronica, but it's very much the time and place for a load of rapidly tiring, half-sunstroked party animals to find one last burst of energy to fling their arms in the air and shout along to "SATAN! SATAN! SATAN! SATAN!". "I'm giving you a feather from my arse" says a rather wasted looking lad dancing next to me, and indeed he does (from his back pocket, anyway). The screens flicker, the smoke machine goes into overdrive, the bass vibrates possibly to the very core of the earth, and when they merge Halcyon gradually but perfectly into Chime under the clear moonlit sky it's the second completely sublime moment of the day - and a fitting time to leave. We love this place but we don't fancy spending the night here so we head back to the ferry before the rush.

As we drift back up the river away from the festival lights we look up and have never seen so many stars; the Milky Way stretches visibly across the sky and I suddenly get what The Church were on about (Under The Milky Way) all those years ago, when Australia was just some far-off place that somehow gave birth to a whole load of inspiring music. A couple of days later the railroad takes us home - well, back to Perth, anyway - through fields of cattle, through fields of cane.

Links to other artists

http://www.myspace.com/nickhugginsmusic
http://www.myspace.com/seagullmusic
http://www.myspace.com/sierrafin
http://www.myspace.com/dcandthebleedinghearts
http://www.myspace.com/royalchant
http://www.myspace.com/soundcasino
http://www.myspace.com/underlightsband
http://www.myspace.com/orbitalofficial

•    Many thanks to Dave Taylor for gig access and Boom for great company and driving *