Illuminate The River: an exercise in forced positivity

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There’s a unique and enigmatic vibe that I’m pretty sure exists exclusively at free music festivals (and is only amplified when it’s one either hosted or funded by a Government body). 

At “normal” festivals, punters are usually some flavour of staunch – there’s a rigid itinerary of artists they want to see and/or activities they want to check out, and there’s this energy, driven by the atmosphere and the excitement and the fact that tickets cost a truly stupid amount of money, that makes it all feel spectacular. And I love that. I love big festivals like Splendour and Falls and Good Things (which is in less than two weeks!!!!) and UNIFY. But I love the inverse atmosphere at a free music festival – this youthful looseness and “whatever happens will happen” kind of spirit – equally so. It’s much more lowkey; crowds are a lot more diverse, settings are a lot more suburban, and the setups look (and sound) like they were put together by students and interns and members of local communities who wouldn’t normally be involved in events like music festivals. However, because government bodies tend to have government money, the lineups certainly don’t reflect the DIY energy.

Cue: Illuminate The River, a daylong “festival of music and light”, hosted collaboratively by the City of Moonee Valley and Creative Victoria (via their ‘On The Road Again’ initiative), taking place last Saturday at The Boulevard in Aberfeldie. The lineup looked too good to be true: Art Vs Science, Baker Boy, Something For Kate, Montaigne and Mia Wray (and Teenie Tiny Stevies, but seeing as though their target audience are no older than preschool-aged, they didn’t particularly appeal to me). It became even better when set times were released, with each act given a full hour to perform. Ancillary to that, the festival promised carnival rides, food trucks, a beer garden, and at the end of it all, “an extravagant laser and water show on the river.”

The festival’s team hit a major snag in the weeks leading up to it, when they were forced to pull the laser and water show because… Actually, I’m not sure. I can’t find any info online about it, but it might have something to do with the recent floods? Either way, the team soldiered on and remained devoted to putting on a killer festival (even if its title had become a lot more metaphorical than they’d initially planned) – the right move, I’d argue!

For myself, the biggest two selling points for Illuminate The River were Montaigne and Something For Kate. I missed out on both of the latter’s 2022 tours (they played The Forum four times in March, when they played both Echolalia and The Modern Medieval in full, and then the Northcote Theatre in August, when they played Elsewhere For 8 Minutes) because I’d been swept up in other events and bullshit deadlines, and I missed Montaigne on the Making It! tour last month because I’m a fucking idiot: I went to buy a ticket to their Melbourne show on Monday October 24th – four days before it was set to take place – only to realised I’d fucked the dates up when I put the show in my calendar; the show happened on the 20th. I’ve been absolutely rinsing Making It! since I got my copy in August (I reviewed it for NME) and wouldn’t hesitate to call it one of the best albums released in 2022 – and of late, Montaigne has been performing it in full. Keen was a massive fucking understatement

The day before Illuminate The River, Montaigne dropped off the bill for illness – a huge bummer, obviously, but not one without a notably shimmery silver lining: Sly Withers were stepping in to replace them. Their own third album, Overgrown, is also one of this year’s best, and on the Friday, I was set to see them play a headline show at the Northcote Theatre but got buckled in bed with a miniature depressive episode; so rather than force myself out and mentally drain myself further, I could just see the band play their full hourlong set at Illuminate The River. Again, a huge bummer on the Montaigne front, but a huge win everywhere else. 

I made it to the festival halfway through Mia Wray’s set, thanks in part to my own lack of planning (I couldn’t find a clean pair of pants lmao) and my Uber driver swearing erroneously that he knew a shortcut. I’m not calling this a downside, though: I still caught a very solid 30 minutes of Wray time, and she absolutely slayed. Her songs are emotive and melodic and slathered in colour, Wray herself always bang-on with her tonal and characteristic balance of gentleness and fervour. The skies were grey and the spittle grew as her set reached its end, but this felt more like a feature than a bug: Mia Wray in the (Mia W)rain. A collision of gloom and community. Poetic, given the Noosa-born singer-songwriter’s material.

With 30 minutes to kill, I took a lap of the setup – food trucks (including a Boost Juice and a Chatime!), stalls for markets and community initiatives, carnival rides, no less than three charity sausage sizzles, and plenty of dogs, young and old alike, just begging to be petted – all set along the idyllic Maribyrnong River. I copped four pairs of downright adorable earrings (handmade from polymer clay by the sweetest elderly woman) and a Caribbean Green juice from Boost (because it was the least calorific option, at 278 for a large) before strolling back to the main stage – a whole 40 metres away – for Sly Withers. The vibes, grey skies and spittle and all, were immaculate. 

The four pairs of hella cute clay earrings I bought. Shoutout to Pelican Crafts!

Expectedly, Sly Withers’ set was fucking magical. Their banter was on point (co-frontman Sam Blitvich started by apologising for not knowing any Montaigne songs, and a few times throughout the set, noted the band’s collective anxiety over missing their flight to Hobart layer that afternoon), their performance was as tight and sharp as the band have come to be known for, and the setlist itself was stacked from start to end with only their biggest and most belt-worthy bangers. They also played the rain away, quite literally: it was nigh-on pissing down when the set started, but but by the time it ended, we were all standing under baby blue skies with only wisps of cloud in sight – the power of pop-punk in action. Also noteworthy is Blitvich’s guitarsenal: old mate rolled through something like five Telecasters, each more beautiful than the last. 

And the juice, though chosen for its healthiness, was actually pretty great – just sweet enough to feel like a treat, with a nice ratio of tropical fruitiness (from the passionfruit, mango and banana), coconut-inferred silkiness (from the one-two punch of coconut milk and coconut water) and vegetal bite (from the spinach that, surprisingly, works in this application). Subtle and refreshing, it paired nicely with the band’s musical crunch and belly-strong energy. 

With another 30 minutes to kill, I perched myself under a tree on a hill leading down to the river, whipped out my Switch, turtle-shelled my arms and head into my shirt (for additional shade) and started beating the shit out of Golducks – Pokémon Scarlet came out on Friday, and in the pursuit of becoming the very best – like no-one ever was – the hustle never stops. Halfway through my Goldduck grinding sesh, this saccharine, pseudo-squealy toddler voice piped up from a few metres away: “is there a person in there!?” I popped my fat head up and two facepainted ragamuffins, no taller than two feet each – one a pretty pink butterfly and the other a glittery blue unicorn – giggled in unison. They were enamoured by Crocalor’s fiery breath on my Switch screen, and together we epically decimated two Goldducks – the girls feeding me instructions (“light him on fire!” and “do the spooky face!” being their main commands) and me executing them on the Switch – and taking on a Fidough in a Tera Raid Battle. They were very keen to tell me all about their own Fidough (a pug named Stevie) and show off the badges they’d drawn in crayons a few hours earlier.

The view I had to accompany my Pokémon sesh (when I wasn’t turtle-shelling it)

Hearing the hum of amplifier feedback cascading over the hill, I palmed the kids off to their parents and dashed back to the stage, where Something For Kate promptly launched into a punchy and hypnotic rendition of ‘Ain’t That A Kick In The Head’. Paul Dempsey’s vocal prowess was only matched in its butteriness and depth by his fretting hands, and on bass, Stephanie Ashworth (also Dempsey’s wife) brought a stunning richness to the mix. What followed was my favourite song from The Modern Medieval – ‘Come Back Before I Come Back To My Senses’ – and then a brief pause as one of the crew members darted out to whisper something in Dempsey’s ear. Seemingly flustered, Dempsey told the crowd he and the band would have to leave the stage (momentarily, or course) while the crew dealt with an electrical issue caused by the harsh winds. 

20 minutes passed without a glimpse of Something For Kate, and after some punters started shooting enquiries off to staffers on the ground, someone came out onstage to promise us the band would return and perform their full set. But at 5:30pm, 15 minutes after their set was supposed to finish, Dempsey sauntered out (cue: cheers) and informed us that, regretfully, the band wouldn’t be able to come back out because the winds posed a safety hazard. This feels like something the festival team should have planned for more in advance – it was windy, yeah, but it wasn’t windy (I’ve certainly been to windier outdoor festivals) – but I will not be one to question their moves: this was, at the end of the day, a decision made in the interest of punter safety, and for that I can only applaud them. Still: this fucking sucked.

Cut as I was, I’d told myself repeatedly in the mirror that morning that I wasn’t going to let my shitty mental health affect my enjoyment of the festival. The river trail looked beautiful, and the weather was perfect, so I went for a walk. It was something like four kilometres, shrubbery and bird songs and (obviously) a sprawling river to visually soundtrack the excursion. It was nice! I burned off the whole juice and then some! I came back to the festival grounds feeling refreshed and relaxed and ready for a big ol’ bop to Baker Boy… Until again, right at Baker Boy’s start time of 6:30pm, we were informed that the rest of the festival had been cancelled; the winds had only intensified (to reported gusts of 80km/h) and with most of the crowd now comprising families with young kids and pets, it wasn’t safe to roll on. Cue: crying children and dejected parents (and, fittingly, a return to grey skies and spittle). 

Try as we might to avoid it, the mood shifted well into dourness. It was a bit of a shit end to an otherwise solidly nice day – and again, at no fault of the promoters or staff or anyone else involved in Illuminate The River – and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bummed out. But I kept my stride going and took myself on a little tour of suburban Aberfeldie. It’s a quaint little area – I’m sure houses there cost like $10 million and the souls of your extended lineage, but they’re pretty, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. 

If nothing else, Illuminate The River was, for me, an exercise in forced positivity – a test to see how high up I could keep my chin in the face of repeated blows to my excitement and expectation. This is one test I’d never been great at passing; I am, at my core, a giant fucking Debbie Downer. But that’s something I’m actively trying to change, and this trainwreck of a Saturday gave me the perfect opportunity to make a cogent effort doing so. And I think this alone – that I have the perspective outlined above – shows I’ve succeeded. 

I still had a bloody great time at Illuminate The River: Mia Wray and Sly Withers both played phenomenal sets, and the two songs Something For Kate played were similarly stellar. I enjoyed every last sip of my juice – one I’d’ve never thought to order at an actual Boost – and I had a blast playing Pokémon with those future Champions-in-the-making. I love my new earrings, too, and that walk along the river was exactly what my stale soul needed that day. If given a chance to relive the day exactly as it was, I wouldn’t hesitate – I would certainly temper my expectations (and leave early enough to see Wray’s full set) but fuck, sure, I’d do it all again… 

I mean… It was free, anyway. 

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