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February 1, 2009 | by  | in Music Online Only | [ssba]

The Big Day Out – extended review

The Big Day Out, now in its sixteenth year in Aotearoa, is still the most diverse musical showcase event in the country. This means that every audience member will get a mix of music they love and music they hate, and 2009’s edition certainly followed this format. For me it was a mix of some outstanding, powerful acts fusing rock and electronica (Prodigy, Pendulum and Fantomas all put on incredible performances), and a plethora guitar acts ranging from the mediocre to the awful. As someone who has always preferred guitar-based rock to techno, I find this a difficult thing to write, but facts are facts, and given the way the Big Day Out has evolved over the last two decades, it’s hardly surprising. Before I go into detail with this round-up, it’s worth stating that since the Big Day Out aims to cater to the tastes of everyone, it doesn’t really matter how many bands that you hate appear, or how awful you think there performances are, so long as there are a handful of acts you enjoy. Thus while I will talk about the some of what I consider to be the terrible performances, I do need to point out that none of these really matter, because I got three incredible shows and a couple of other sweet little surprises.


Opening in Sydney in 1992, the Big Day Out came to Auckland in 1994. In those early years, the event was very much about bringing the big grunge acts of the day to an antipodean crowd – in its first six years, headliners included Nirvana, the Violent Femmes, Primus, Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, the Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine and the Prodigy, as well as a bit of brilliant eccentricity with Bjork and Nick Cave. In 1998 the Big Day Out was canceled and replaced with an electronic-only event. After the combined rock and techno event’s return in 1999, there followed several years of Industrial and Nu Metal domination, with headliners Korn, Marilyn Manson, Rammstein, System of a Down and Tool where the big grunge acts of the mid-90s had once stood. With Metallica headlining 2004 and Iggy and the Stooges in 2006, the organisers began to show a penchant for aging nostalgia acts, repeated this year with Neil Young. In the last few years, the popularity of retro garage rock has come to the fore, with the Kings of Leon, the Strokes, the White Stripes and this year’s Arctic Monkeys performance.

Local Morning Delights

Although it pains me to admit it, the banality of this garage rock means that the guitar-heavy acts are now looking weaker when compared to the boiler room’s practitioners of innovation. Arriving around eleven in the morning, me and my reviewing companion headed straight for this tent, where An Emerald City were warming up. Probably the best addition to local music in 2008, these guys are a lot like Godspeed You! Black Emperor only without the overly drawn out silences, but with a violinist, a guy with a sitar and a cape (because why have just a sitar when you can accessorize it so?), a dancing eyeball (probably the spirit of the Residents come to help out), and general shamanic instrumental awesomeness. The violinist wasn’t wearing a twig on his head as he was at their Canaan Downs performance over New Year’s, but that’s okay because they had an extra level of intensity shooting through their sound at the Big Day Out.

An Emerald City’s strange, beautiful instrumental strumming was followed by some New Zealand Drum and Bass from Antiform and State of Mind. Antiform’s set sounded promising, but I really had to head to the beer tent at this stage, and arrived back for the beginning of State of Mind. Given the heavy, dirty punch of their 2006 long player Take Control I was expecting a lot from these guys, but a lack of bass kick gave them an underwhelming build up. However, the sweaty crowd was having fun, and when they finally pulled out ‘Sunking’ as their last track our hands exploded into the air, and at the end of it I remembered that one of my sarong’s main uses is to wipe everyone else’s sweat of my back after such intense dance sets.

The Boring Part

Moving from State of Mind’s boiler room set to the afternoon acts on the main stage was like witnessing the death of rock’n’roll. The only big “metal” act this year was the sanitised tweeny metal of Bullet for My Valentine; the Datsuns gave their usual energetic but uninspired and simplistic set of three-chord tracks; the Living End played catchy and enjoyable yet ultimately empty and repetitive pop; and somehow, someone once again thought that booking Elemeno P – easily New Zealand’s worst band – on the main stage was a good idea. This last group’s mediocre pop-“punk” is made unendurable by their vocalist’s total and utter lack of singing ability, and while it’s perfectly fine for them to play awful music if they enjoy it, what makes them such a blight on our vocal landscape is the fact that putting their songs on all those C4 and Telecom ads forces an otherwise unhostile public to suffer. Seeing the Telecom-branded video screens by the stage, I began to realise why such an obviously unbearable band had been given such an inexplicably central position in the lineup. They were followed by Bullet for My Valentine, who tried to be hardcore but couldn’t help coming off as cute, while their endearing lil’ fans ran around in circles.

Perhaps the best guitar-based act of the day were the Arctic Monkeys. Personally I find these Brits dull and overrated, but since I wanted to find out why they’re so popular I went along to watch: yes, their music is so simple they can play it well while entirely pissed (which they were), and yes there is no emotion in their lyrics, but the lyrics are nonetheless quite witty, and I finally understand why they are so popular – because they put on a fun show, and because their drunkenness and quirky accents are engaging. So although I still find nothing in their stuff to connect with, it was fun and I danced along. Next up was Neil Young, whose Harvest is still a truly great album. However, seeing this aging rocker on stage was nothing special – he looked cool, and sounded like, well, Neil Young. But Fantomas were on at the same time, and as interesting as Young is, he’s no Mike Patton.

The most thoughtful acts of the day had to be My Morning Jacket and TV On the Radio, who both put out insightful and creative albums in 2008, mixing quiet, brooding guitar with heavy electronic bass lines. Sadly, both acts were let down by the sound systems, as their delicate performances could not stand up to the wind interference. Nevertheless, they still stood out as some of the most interesting acts of the day, and TV’ were a lovely comedown from Pendulum, even if singer Tunde Adebimpe’s usually soaring vocals were muffled – but the starring roles went to the three acts that put out electronic bass lines and guitar textures so powerful nothing could stand in their way…

The Highlights: Pendulum, Fantomas and the Prodigy

That Perth Drum and Bass metalheads-turned-rock act Pendulum could kick the shit out of any of the proper rock’n’roll acts of the day was demonstrated by their audience size: whereas the D (the fenced in mosh pit) was barely full for Bullet for My Valentine (who played before Pendulum) and the Datsuns (who followed immediately after), Pendulum packed out Mount Smart stadium’s field almost to the back, and had people dancing in the stands. BLAM is probably the most appropriate way to sum these guys up. Well, maybe beep, Blam beep BEEP BLAM, because a) Jesus Christ that was enormous, and b) their synth bleeps really are quite silly, although yeah they’re a helluva lot of fun. ‘Voodoo People’, ‘Propane Nightmares’ and ‘Blood Sugar’ had the whole stadium leaping about, howling with pleasure. Their MC managed to get in a fair bit of hyping up without becoming really annoying or ruining the music. Of course, unless you like to ponder the confluence of techno and metal as if their fusion were a great philosophical question, Pendulum are hardly what you would call deep or thoughtful music, and they sounded positively shiny under all that sun when set against State of Mind’s serious, cavernous set – but the beats were stronger than anything else on the day, and it worked.

Fantomas, the creation of Mike Patton – the intellectual powerhouse behind Tomahawk, Faith No More and Mr. Bungle – saw Patton sitting on one side of the stage, squealing into the mike, feeding everything through his console and conducting with hand signals his guitarist, bass player and drummer as they looked on. He stared at the audience until we got goose bumps and, playing baseball classic ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’, told us to wave our hands along and pretend that it was “cricket, or something.” Giving us such a brilliantly eccentric act as Fantomas has to be the organiser’s greatest achievement. Thanks guys – I will never forget Patton’s soul-piercing stare, or the way my reviewing companion Haimona turned to me and said “that man is raping sound” with a gigantic grin on his face.

The last act of the night were the Prodigy, come back from the dead to attempt to reclaim ‘Voodoo People’ from Pendulum, and pack out the boiler room until it damn near exploded. MCs Maxim Reality (he of the monstrous dreads) and Keith Flint (he of the punky spikes and snarl) strode across the stage, strutting and issuing such commanding arrogance that I felt like I would follow them into battle. The lack of space didn’t prevent us from jumping about madly, and the day’s weirdest moment came with thousands chanting “Smack my bitch up!” I was a little too creeped out to chant along, although knowing that this was really just musical irony at its bluntest kept me amused.

So while the dearth of decent rock’n’roll or metal did sadden my old guitar player’s heart, the massive impact of these three acts, the bass that shat upon my ears and fierce attack of Patton, Reality and Flint’s vocals made the day more than worthwhile. Add in the beauty and promise of An Emerald City’s set and the satisfaction of hearing State of Mind do Sunking live, and we have one well worthwhile day of noises.


About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

Comments (5)

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  1. Laura McQuillan says:

    Bet you didn’t even go to Dropkick Murphys like I told you to about seven times! They were sooo choice

  2. Gibbon says:


  3. aye, I s’pose if I’d seen the Dropkicks I wouldn’t have been able to make such sweeping generalisations about the contrasting sorts of music but, I believe there was some sort o’ clash…

  4. Tristan, did you manage to catch Simian Mobile Disco? That was some awesome stuff. They tore the place up.

  5. That was sweet Tristan, but made me all the more happier I was out of the country at the time.

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