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Words by Kate Lockyer
Photography by Sam Townsend

The last stop of the SummerSalt Festival was Broadwater Parklands at the Gold Coast, and the day lived up to its name with a sizzling heat, plenty of salt (and sweat!) on our bodies, and not a cloud in the sky. Featuring Angus and Julia Stone, Ben Harper, City and Colour, The Rubens, Middle Kids, and Alex the Astronaut, there was something for everyone, and plenty came out early, battling the unrelenting sun to listen to Alex the Astronaut.

Alex The Astronaut

Wryly acknowledging the sun exposure those at the front were feeling, Alex commented, “I hope the people who paid extra do well in sun”. Kicking off with the driving beat of Haircut and Octopus, her conversational songs and unaffected vocals are a quintessential part of her onstage persona. Singing about the mundane and imbuing it with meaning is a skill Alex has perfected.

Not Worth Hiding spares no time on allegories, as she sings matter-of-factly yet sweetly, “It’s not worth hiding if you think you might be gay, or different in another way, or perfect just the same”. The next track, she jokes, might help us to escape the heat. Her latest release, South London, is full of vitality with its “da-di-do” and lyrics that go, “So much changes and so much stays”. She follows in that great Australian tradition of acoustic storytelling, as done by the likes of Paul Kelly. I Like to Dance touches on the dark theme of domestic violence but is done with empathy and grace, much like Kelly.

Alex The Astronaut

A cover of As It Was is raw, and her earnestness makes it seem as though she was the one who wrote it. One of her better-known tracks, I Think You’re Great, is a real treat with the dynamic of buzzy bass, the warmth of Alex’s electric, and thumping drums. The circular singable melody is combined with simple but heartfelt lyrics. Her style is raconteurial, making me feel like she is an older sibling, confiding her own stories and advice. Growing Up shares all the questions she has about life, perhaps realising that growing up means not always having the answer.

Middle Kids break out with a jangly R U 4 Me, exuberant yet vulnerable at the same time, and the bell-like tones of vocalist Hannah ring through. Cellophane brings cool tones in the electric’s riff, and the melody crashes like waves as it switches from low to high, a light drumbeat ticking away in the background.

Middle Kids

“I’m not trying to start a fight here / But it’s building up inside” in Never Start ramps up the tension with every line and every slight tone shift upwards. The band has an infectious energy, until the soaring last line of the song. Meanwhile, deep synth like a tuba starts out the next song, Questions. I love the melody of this song, like a sob in “I got questions, you got answers”, though they break out of the funk to groove around onstage in the instrumental. Stacking Chairs is a perfect evocation of youth, and working out what you want “when the party’s over”.

Today We’re The Greatest is one of those achingly bittersweet tunes that evoke the feeling of knowing that these moments may be the best of your life, trying your best to notice them as they pass by. Mistake, on the other hand, is a thumping, soul-permeating track, and Edge of Town makes you feel like you’re floating in that space you inhabit when you’re waiting for a resolution with “Some things just don’t add up, I’m upside down, I’m inside out”. The song speeds up towards the end, accelerating as Hannah flips her voice up in pitch to create a mesmerising, chaotic finish.

Middle Kids

The Rubens come onstage to a pulsating synth, the simple acoustic accompanying the beginning of Muddy Evil Pain. The song is about hardship, but the band bursts through with inexorable energy. The next song, Heavy Weather, starts stripped back, then is dominated by the rhythmic synth, a canon to the melody in the main chorus. A beer in hand, vocalist Sam spits out the lyrics – “Do it on your own / And you’re gonna get better”. God Forgot is delivered with nonchalance, while Live in Life sums up The Rubens as a band that finds popularity not just with their millennial compatriots but also with gen x, judging by the response of the crowd, for their blend of catchy, effortless rock/pop. Freakout showcases the richness of Sam’s voice, a moody track, classic tale of male miscommunication, where the keys and percussion shine as well.

Thank You is full of bitter irony, and the guitar and synth build from the middle to the end, mirroring that massive feeling of betrayal that wells in your chest. Peppery electric starts out My Gun, like a modern-day Western duel. An unreleased song delivered more of what fans love about The Rubens, with thundering choruses, and dark themes. It contained some enigmatic lyrics (if I heard right!) – “Red corolla, black balloons”… Hallelujah is rousing with its dramatic pauses and gritty vocals, while Lay It Down, a throwback to their first album 10 years ago, is more mellow. Million Man has Sam strutting up and down the stage, and the band continues to rock out to Hoops and Masterpiece, which sees Sam jump into the crowd and wade amongst them for the end of the song.

City and Colour deliver a tender first song – Meant to Be – “Now that you’re gone, I write down this song.” His next, with the tele and strat complementing each other’s sounds, has a compelling melody, and “living in lightning for what seems like eternity” strikes me as a delightful turn of phrase.

Thirst starts with the da-dum of the bass, and is highlighted by a sultry defiant riff from the electric as Dallas sings, “And just like a snake charmer / You led me astray”. Another minor key has insistent, fast-played bass and crackling electric for Strangers. Haunting synth comes in as Dallas says, “This song is about searching for something”, and as he sings, “Northwest is where I’m headed / Underneath the golden sky”, I think of him driving through the desert, rattling along to “explore the constellations”, in true Americana fashion.

Then, we have “Live, Laugh, Love” in a song, but presented so wholesomely, you can’t help but forget the cringy-ness that phrase usually evokes, especially the track’s title, We Will Find Each Other In The Dark. Then, “Come close, lay next to me,” he calls, and pauses. He plays a delicious, brassy riff, and there is a cracking solo from the lead in Weightless. Dallas’ voice is powerful, keeping a husky rock bent, but retains a gentleness in other songs. Like the next, where he’s back to playing acoustic, bringing an earthiness and roots feel. The slight vibrato in his voice reaches into your heart in Waiting. Then, an old track, which Dallas says “goes out to anyone who’s been there since the beginning with me”. Hello, I’m in Delaware is slow and melodic, featuring ringing steel guitar. It reminds me of airports, of endings and beginnings.

A new track he introduces as “a peppy little number” off a record that is coming out at the end of March. The bassline grooves along, and it feels like something you already know, one of those hooks that stick in your mind. The guitar is like dappled sunlight; instrumental lines trickle in through the vocals; “You bring me to my knees / I’m tired of running”. Lover Come Back has a jazzy melody highlighted by Dallas’ smooth voice. Riffing on the synth and lead adds more to the bluesy-ness of the song, but keeps that roots/Americana sound blended in. Sleeping Sickness rounds off the set, a singalongable folky tune.

Ben Harper was held in high esteem by all of the artists sharing his billing, and I soon discovered why. He sat onstage, ringed by his numerous guitars, and began with Burn One Down. He comes out with simple guitar and a classic that all the crowd knows, saying “The world looked so much different when I first wrote this song”.

He sings delicately, soulfully – “Excuse me Mr / But I’m a Mister too / And you’re givin’ Mr a bad name”. The lyrics are the hero of this song, harkening to two great Bobs – Dylan and Marley – and deceptive in their clever simplicity. He sings about the blind eyes we turn to injustice. Every so often he breaks out with an almost tortured line full of soulful vocal line. Welcome to the Cruel World, the first song he ever wrote, follows a similar line, and he pulls a guitar onto his lap to play with the slide, creating a melancholy sound.

His gospel influences are also evident in his evocations of heaven and angels, though in the previous song, his social justice sense perhaps wins out in his description of a “cruel” heaven. Waiting On An Angel is a soft love song where you can see Harper feels completely, with every fibre of his being. The deep, warm tones of the electric frame Amen, Omen, and these lyrics – “Amen, omen, will I see your face again” – stay with me. I feel like Ray Charles is peering over his shoulder at his virtuosity. The lyric “amen” is drawn out, at first to alternating notes, then goes husky as he puts all his feeling into the word. Giving Up Your Ghost is similarly haunting.

Then, we get She’s Only Happy in the Sun, where he sings beautifully, and reflectively, renewing each repetition of the line with feeling. Another well-known song is Steal My Kisses, and we find out it was written for his son, who would always run away from his prickly bearded kisses as a child. It has a lighter, livened, Nashville country sound. He delivers his second masterful instrumental for the night on the 12-string. In Another Lonely Day, he sings an almost-whispered tune about resisting temptation, and his complete emotional attention gifted to each word is highlighted.

Harper pauses to note, “Every one of my songs are modular when it comes to pronouns”. Though he says he is just a boring, straight male, experience can be universal. A cover of Dancing in the Dark in his stripped-back style gives room for the lyrics and vocals to shine as the sun sets across the parklands. Diamonds on the Inside is another highlight of his set, as he throws his voice around and, in the second verse says, “WWAD. What would Aretha do?”, before playing around soulfully, incredibly, with the rest of the song. For his last song, he brings Cody Simpson onstage as a surprise guest, to perform a fantastic cover of Neil Young’s It’s a Dream.

Meandering synth begins Angus and Julia Stone’s set, and the band walks out onstage silhouetted by blue light. Snow is their first song, and with Julia in a floaty blue dress and Angus in a black jacket, Angus and Julia Stone emulate the stage presence of a vintage 60s duo. The song sparkles with their harmonies and electric guitar – as they sing “Looking at the stars, I have you to myself” I can’t help but feel that is what the crowd has right now, these stars to themselves for an evening.

Julia’s diaphanous trumpet floats through the air, before the more upbeat strokes of The Go- Betweens’ Streets of Your Town hits the notes of nostalgia. In a display of confounding versatility, the beginning of Private Lawns features reggae beats and a banjo, creating sounds I’ve never heard a banjo make in its almost flamenco-inspired solo. Then, suddenly the beat picks up and they burst into something more full-bodied with the band.

Julia confesses that the show is like a full-circle moment, playing with Ben Harper, as his song Walk Away was one of the first songs that Angus taught her to play on guitar. They dedicate Wherever You Are to Harper, and he joins them onstage for a shivery, glittery magical moment where his harmonises with them in “Don’t take my word for it / Just look at me to know that I love you”.

For their next song, a cover of Sam Smith’s Stay With Me, they put away their instruments to bring all the focus to what they do best – their harmonies. Then, a Dope Lemon track – Angus’ alter ego. Home Soon cultivates their irrepressible air of mystique as it folds a lush, light percussion and trumpet intro into choppy guitar and Angus’ croon of “Won’t you come home soon”.
Written at a time when Angus and Julia Stone say they weren’t sure if they wanted to stay together, From the Stalls came after a phone call from the US, asking them to do another album. They stand, facing one another, and we witness the bewitching magic of their music-making. This magic continues into the next song as For You is delivered with its heartrending earnestness and a searing guitar solo that really needs to be heard live.

Big Jet Plane, admittedly my introduction to their music and the reason I didn’t listen to the band for a long time, is reimagined harmonically, winning me over. A lot of noodling around from Angus and the lead guitar introduced the beloved track. In the chorus, Julia’s harmonies are accentuated, while Angus sings softly, giving the song a breath of fresh air in supplanting the melody with the harmony. Uptown Folks and Chateau bring the set to a satisfying ending, the stage coming alive as Angus gets up on the drummer’s platform and Julia grooves on the tambourine. In Chateau, the crowd dances wildly as the band gradually ramps up the energy and volume to farewell the crowd.

With thanks to Menard PR

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