Music festivals are to Melbourne what herpes is to Charlie Sheen. Whenever we think we’re finished with them there’s an itch in our pants that demands a quick scratch. As far as music festivals go, Sugar Mountain, sponsored by Triple R, Three Thousand and Inpress, was a quick scratch of local and international aural revelry. Housed in the grand old dame of Melbourne live venues, the Forum, the inaugural Sugar Mountain was an inner-city celebration more akin to the old St. Jerome’s laneway shows than the rash of GHB taste-tests that sprout across Birrarung Marr during the summer.
If fucking Charlie Sheen without a rubber is a bad idea, then so is drinking at a music festival on an empty stomach. But at three when I got there, and Oscar + Martin were wrapping up their set before a few dozen indie-kids slouched with backpacks, drinking seemed appropriate. The dance floor shuffled and polite claps fluttered across the cavernous hall. Behind me, in the rows of booths that fill the theatre floor, people found friends and the will to drink; yet there was a lingering hesitation, as if the crowd hadn’t confirmed this was the festival.
Things started to look up as coils of mist entangled the stage and the No Lights, No Lycra Dancers pranced out with Melbourne three-piece Otouto. More confusing as to how to pronounce Otouto (otto-oo-toe) was whether or not the No Lights, No Lycra Dancers were using their name to have a dig at cyclists (hopefully). What was less confusing was the sublime harmonies of sisters Hazel and Martha Brown, accompanied by ephemeral key tinkling and tinkerbell string plucking, all held together by Kishore Ryan’s tenacious clutch of the drum kit.
The hesitation began to melt and hips swayed more freely. Time to check out the rest of the place. The upstairs theatre, steeply crammed like a lecture hall, was ordained by six-person psych-out No Zu(below). With a performance fuelled by shamanic desert dreams, creeping synths punctuated by trilling brass and bombast drumbeats, No Zu deserved a dance floor and almost single-handedly bridged the gap between art and music.
Which was more than could be said of the ‘art’ section of the festival. The upstairs mezzanine housed two large panels of plywood laboured with unassigned artworks. In front of the upstairs bar you eyeballed the art, which seemed to serve as elaborate bunting, while waiting for your next Little Creatures. That is not to say that there was no talent on display, but the execution diluted whatever impact the art could’ve made. There seemed no thematic link between the sinister, jewelled owls and printed stretch of paper that advised the viewer to phase out, which was what I did so maybe I didn’t get it. The famous blue roof of the Forum was also an enemy as it stained the closer works with an unflattering azure.
Despite my indifference to the art section, there was a strange door manned by fake-bearded cultists that people seemed eager to pass through. There was a clipboard and form to be filled out and when people emerged they had three-dimensional shapes sketched on their hands. Several times I was told to check it out, but each time I wandered back there was a line that would take me too close to the start of the next band. What was beautifully rendered was the lightshow bordering the main stage downstairs. The ornate Roman columns decorating the theatre hummed with kaleidoscopic shadows, seducing the crowd towards the stage and creating an evanescent intimacy.
And those clouds of intimacy hung low over Sugar Mountain. Despite many amazing afternoon performances that hesitancy, that carefulness from the crowd, tainted the day with a mellowed restraint. As more people filed through the doors, the exuberance of a music festival never evolved but was diffused between the two theatres and bathroom stalls.
Then, at about five thirty, when Texan duo Yellow Fever took the stage, the mood started to lift. With a rollicking bass shadowing Jennifer Moore’s soft singing style, Yellow Fever’s minimalist art-pop captivated the crowd, lulling them into a steady celebration that was set to explode when Rat vs Possum took the stage next. Lined up behind their keyboards and Macs, RvP whipped the languid crowd with a psychedelic battle cry of drum and synth, guitar and chant, unleashing the pixelated, rainbow-pelted, bastard of Donkey Kong. After the mangled anthem Pills, the applause from the crowd seemed bigger than the half-thousand people watching.
But then it was seven thirty, dinnertime for most and the crowd thinned out just as the festival carousel was starting to spin. Though a documentary, The Creative Lives, was screening upstairs, I never particularly feel like watching films when intoxicated so shared a joint in the alleyway near Movida, which as the only place to smoke, was crammed full of the good-looking citizens of Sugar Mountain.
Shortly afterwards, ready to park myself in front of a glowing screen, I trudged back up to the second stage. But there was no movie. Brous were playing to a full house. This ship of excellent musicians is anchored by classically trained Sophia Brous, who in a short sapphire dress was completely enthralling. Her voice has no vocal boundaries; it soars and roars, eludes and seduces, squeals and snarls. This amazing ability is coupled with the easy yet exciting grace of a born showwoman and was a nice change from the collaborative drumming that was defining the festival soundscape.
Things started to get a little blurry at this point. Event organisers were rushing around, smoothing any bumps in the punter’s day. Musicians lingered in the hallways and bathrooms and kids sat outside smashing sushi when they should’ve been watching Twerps fill the atmosphere with warm rays of summery pop.
And I should’ve gone for dinner when everyone else did, because by the time Brooklyn DIY band Aa (big A little A) took the main stage, my stomach was frothing beer. But as the thunderous cavalcade of far-out samples, jungle chants and squawks, quaking beats and chimes filled the Forum, I found myself one of the crowd, revitalised and stuffed full of satisfaction.