Words by Joe Marks
Photos by Josh Groom
With the likes of Beck, Future, Grace Jones, Gang of Youths, Dune Rats and Car Seat Headrest – the inaugural Sydney City Limits had something for everyone.
Perhaps inspired by its Stateside namesake, Sydney City Limits takes place in a hot, dusty field – and yet Car Seat Headrest still managed to transport the crowd to a dark, grungy basement for the duration of their 45-minute set. Pulling material from their major label debut Teens of Denial and newly re-recorded Twin Fantasy, the guys have a loose approach to their performance, creating a washy wall of sound that ensures all heads are banging. Lead singer/musical mastermind Will Toledo is always a treat to watch on stage, somehow delivering brutally earnest lyrics whilst still going crazy on the maracas. An impressive feat. ‘Bodys’ and ‘Destroyed by Hippie Powers’ were given a blistering energy in the performance, but nothing could compare to the massive chorus of ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’ which showed how powerfully Will’s messages resonate with so many people.
Thundercat brought the funk next, inspiring the weirdest but most infectious dance moves of the day. Backed with just keys and drums, all three performers on stage had a chance to shine, especially during the incredibly-named/annoying-to-type ‘A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)’ which saw extended solos all around. Faces were subsequently melted during the freakishly fast fretwork of ‘Friendzone’ – try saying that aloud – and ‘Tron Song’, the former of which was dedicated to “everyone who loves videogames”. Highlights came in a cover of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Complexion’ (A Zulu Love) which Thundercat featured on, and of course ‘Them Changes’ which saw everyone flock to the stage for some aggressive head bopping.
Gang of Youths were up next, and used their slot to prove why they’re one of Australia’s favourite acts at the moment. Along with their guitars, the band bring all their emotions to the stage with them, preaching messages that resonate with all, and making their shows feel simultaneously epic and intimate. The latest album has made a huge splash around the country, and tracks like ‘The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows’, ‘The Heart is a Muscle’ and ‘Let Me Down Easy’, got people cheering and fists pumping. Dave Le’aupepe has grown into a truly incredible frontman, equal parts earnest and energetic. Plus, he never fails to get the crowd dancing and singing along with him, as in set closer ‘Say Yes To Life’.
The Avalanches’ 6pm set time was perfectly placed, as Robbie, Tony and friends (Paris Jeffree on drums, Spank Rock and Eliza Wolfgramm on vocals) transitioned us from an afternoon of rocking into an evening of partying. After a somewhat rocky return to live performances in 2016, the guys are on particularly fine form now. By cutting in new samples (‘My Generation’, ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood) and slightly reworking their older material, the guys sound fresh yet familiar, and have managed to capture the infectious inventiveness that makes their albums so goddamn good. Unexpected surprises came in the form of a cover of Spank Rock’s own ‘Bump’ (feat. Robbie on drums) and an extended outro of ‘Subways’ which had the two guys delivering what can only be described as an old-fashioned DJ-off. As good as the new material is however, nothing can top fan favourites ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ and ‘Since I Left You’, which had the crowd enthusiastically shouting along with every obscure sample.
The highlight of the day was obvious, and came in the form of a hat-wearing, rock-rap-funk-country dancemaster, known around these parts as Beck. It had been six long years since the man had last graced our shores, so anticipation was crazy high, but easily surpassed with the opening three track attack of ‘Devil’s Haircut’, ‘Loser’, and ‘Black Tambourine’. From here, the chameleon took us on a tour of his incredibly varied discography, ranging from rock anthems (‘E-Pro’), to downbeat acoustic ballads (‘Lost Cause’) to whatever the fuck ‘Qué Onda Güero’ is. New material also got a significant showing, with tracks like ‘Up All Night’ and ‘I’m So Free’ delivering on Beck’s promise to create an album that was “fun to play live”. The chaotic energy of the set was perfectly encapsulated in iconic closer ‘Where It’s At’, which was given the Peter Jackson extended edition treatment, giving Beck time to introduce his impressively talented band members one at a time and work in some instantly recognisable covers (including his own ‘One Foot in the Grave’). Oh mighty Beck, please don’t make us wait 6 years again.
Phoenix closed out the night with a speedy rush through all their biggest hits. Technical delays meant the band were late to the stage (and seemingly had to cut a track at the last moment), but this injected them with a crazy energy that resulted in the (urban) dictionary definition of an all killer no filler performance. Only two tracks from the band’s latest album Ti Amo were featured (‘J-Boy’ and ‘Ti Amo’), meaning that the set was stacked with fan favourites like ‘Lisztomania’, ‘1901’ and ‘Entertainment’. ‘If I Ever Feel Better’ was particularly impressive, with lead singer Thomas Mars climbing into the crowd to see first-hand everyone singing “one of the first songs we ever wrote”. Despite how many times the band have no doubt played these tunes, they still seem genuinely amazed by the reception they get when every single person can sing the chorus. “We come from the other side of the world, but we all speak the same language,” Thomas shouted at one point. The band’s light show was as impressive as their music, with the guys often appearing as mere silhouettes against a coloured background, evoking the ‘Italo Disco’ aesthetic that their newest material taps into.
It was an incredible end to a day of diverse music, and a sign of great things to come. To borrow an expression from the festival’s motherland – bring on sophomore year!
FULL PHOTO GALLERY
by Josh Groom