In Tentsby Karl Kemp / Images by Sydelle Willow Smith / 08.12.2012
I blame P.H.fat for the bloodying of Synergy’s nose, because it got straight up fucked from there. We’re standing about halfway back in the massive crowd gathered at the Red Bull stage to watch Sedge, Disco and Naartjie drop their usual bass heavy glitch-hop witticisms when the security guard shoves his way through. People are pointing out the dude swaying like a zombie; he’s got a film of foam around his mouth and his eyes are dangerously close to rolling up into his head. The Red Bull stage is slightly more elevated than the mainstage and the entrance slopes down, so stepping a ways back reveals a panoramic view of the thousand or so punters bopping and gyrating brainlessly to the all-encompassing bass. Behind them the sun was blazing red against the skyline. I snapped a photo for posterity and noticed the most probably OD’ing guy being frogmarched away, presumably to the medi-tent. I could almost feel the collective shrug as people opted to chow more pills and carry on carrying on. I try shouting something at my mates but it’s useless; the sound is too loud and the growing dark is complicating hand gestures. You’re on your own in a crowd this size. From here on in, at 19h00 on the Saturday, things deteriorated rapidly into madness.
I should confirm the rumours; Synergy Live was badly organised. You wouldn’t have noticed it if you were fucked, but it happened. Backstage was a field of discontent. “Only four rooms for the artists?” “Look at the shitty journalists they let in here!” and so forth. I didn’t mind; a glitch landed us up camping five minutes from the mainstage and right behind the Red Bull stage. Considering the twenty minute walk from gen pop, the admin errors didn’t seem all that bad. The sky was ash grey and the wind dangerously strong, mussing trendy hairstyles and forcing disappointed jocks to cover up their arm tats. We’d been promised a summer festival but despite the crappy weather, people were in high spirits. The mainstage only opened at 15h00 so with nothing to do but drink we stepped out among the tents being erected, various feminine screeches of frustration erupting here and there. After half an hour of wanderlust we emerged from a long, fenced off road onto the general camping area. The tents were located in the thick of the woods, right on the river, and the place was a tinderbox waiting to be lit. The signs warning punters of the danger (Please Don’t Flick Butts) seemed useless as a deterrent, and still more signs prohibited swimming outside of the designated areas, which were back 20 minutes in the direction we had come from. Still, the vibe was excellent. We had seen the obligatory early pass-outs, the douchebags with the guitars prompting sing-alongs, the soon to be shitstormed porta-potties and everything seemed quite vanilla.
Casual beers led to casual sips of whisky and finally around 17h00 I remember the brief brief Davis gave me: “Remember to watch the bands”. We bade goodbye to those we had met and set off for the mainstage. As I was nursing the developing blisters on my feet backstage, the first rumours of Nomadic Orchestra being relocated from their opening slot on the mainstage reached my ears. Apparently The Prodigy had thrown their toys out of the cot and almost cancelled due to sound-checking delays on the Thursday, courtesy of the shitty weather. The domino effect had introduced some unwanted time constraints. The Orchestra apparently played a brilliant set at the LMG stage much later on, but the prestige of a mainstage appearance being denied them must have stung. Musos were pacing about, wondering aloud if their slots were also in jeopardy. It sounds much worse than it was though. The Future Primitives did eventually open the festival good and proper, relieving a lot of tension, but during the performance the PA cut out several times, leaving them reedy and vulnerable to the wind. Frontman Johnny Tex is a great fucking songwriter and their surfer rock sound set a good tone. They are much better live than on record; feedback on the show is strictly positive and the behind-the-scenes ‘drama’ was completely lost on the festivalgoers as the night got darker and bands got grittier. I missed the majority of Desmond and the Tutus but I’ve yet to meet a detractor of theirs and the closing moments sated my lust as always. They make way for the mutt that is Beast, which is a completely different kettle of fish. The dual bass guitar attack driven by Louis and Riaan of Taxi Violence fame is daring, and works well, but not as well as you wish it would. It’s dark, eerie-at-times music and works well as a frenzy instiller. The question remains as to whether Inge Beckmann’s vocals belong at the vanguard. Lark was/is an exceptional light amongst the dreary copycat indie-folk shite in Cape Town and the question of whether Inge sings or screeches doesn’t matter in that milieu. But take away the creepy synth and you’re left with something that might seem a bit overzealous. I’ve mulled this over since their admittedly brilliant performance on Friday night and still can’t decide.
The Narrow’s set was cut short, down to all of approximately 17 minutes. They tuned sorry on their Facebook page but how the fuck is it their fault? They dominated their short slot in any case. I don’t tolerate nu-metal bullshit and I’m glad it died a horrible death during the garage rock revival of the noughties, but The Narrow is something different. They stomped the shit out of the stage caveman style, and Hanu apologises, as genially as ever, for the severance of their set, and hypes The Prodigy mercilessly, which is of course the reason we all came. Synergy Live 2012 should’ve been billed as a Prodigy gig. It’s too bad then that I missed the actual show. I waited my turn, stayed in front, battled my bladder and stayed beer-less, only to discover that festival etiquette is tossed aside when international acts are involved as the first 20 metres in front of the stage turned into the island from Lord of the Flies. I retreated from the crush and stumbled to the fringe. Reports state they were excellent, great, the most mind-blowing performance, and what I myself heard was indeed as fat and frenetic as I’d expected. But in the end it seemed almost an anti-climax which you’d only notice if you weren’t swallowing MDMA caps like candy. The night ended on a blackened note. I’m sure if you read the myriad of reviews the blogging scene has been inundated with you’ll find some kind of qualified view of the big beat giant’s performance.
On Saturday, Satan seemed to relent and sent forth hellish rays of sun, raising a tremendous sigh of relief from all those who had thought they wouldn’t be able to show off their hard-earned abdomens. This meant only two things to the rest of the beer-swilling masses; bands and bikinis. There really were a lot of beautiful, rich, well-adjusted people at Synergy which drove home the point that it’s not as much a music festival as a weekend away with some music on display. I wasn’t planning on hitting the mainstage much because the LMG stage was crawling with bands I’d been hearing about for a while. We strolled along the winding path and my schedule revealed the cello and violin sounds emanating from the LMG tent as Al Bairre. They’re a clear favourite; the lead singer seemed to know everyone in the crowd and released a storm of skanking. The school girls playing the classic instruments was a nice touch and the band is well put together but at times it’s just too generic and watered down. It’s nice music, fluffy music, and very well placed on a sunny Saturday afternoon, so the atmosphere was great. Meanwhile on the mainstage the exact same thing was happening with one of two splinter groups New Holland had left in their wake: Sons of Settlers. Along with ex-opera singer Le-Roi Nel, Gerdus Oosthuizen has crafted a Cape Town indie-folk group with a twist: their songs are a bit longer. The lack of shade kills off widespread skanking as was for Al Bairre but SOS are ‘deeper’ anyway, and results in a bit of a more pleasant hangover experience. They pull off some excellent harmonising and the melodies have clearly been meticulously thought out, but the ratatat-drum Mumford groove will only take so much more pummelling before it’s arse becomes too stretched and the hipsters move on to something else.
The sun didn’t relent in the hour or so I’d spent wandering so we reached compromise by carrying a beach-cover from the tent site and parking it in the 10 metre gap between the river and the LMG tent, where I could hear Gary Cool of twitter and 2OceansVibe fame introducing the next act. From this vantage point I spent two hours in the company of extreme originality and agonising boredom. Sun-Do Q’Lisi came off initially as another ska band but morphed into a monster. Screams and whispers clanged together to form a sonic barrage of so many textures and depths I’m unable really to form a coherent opinion. Sufficed to say, fun was had. What’d you expect from a band with a moniker like that anyway? The head-splitting contrast was some guy called Matthew Mole. Now, Mr Mole I only listened to from the safety of the gazebo/beach-cover thing we had brought over, and I listened for what I think was two songs, so I’d concede my reviewing failure if someone was to come to me and explain how Matthew had torn off a mask after those two songs and told everyone it had been a joke, that his real set was now only starting. But how anyone could ever have allowed this guy to play is beyond me. It was the most unimaginative, soft-rock drivel kak I’d heard since Mark Haze. It doesn’t matter that both Mole and Mark can sing, as one fan later tried arguing. If everyone that could keep their voice in key and hold a note was allowed into the music industry then a lot more fucking grade-school music teachers would be playing these festivals.
On the way back to the mainstage I run into Dylan Jones from Red Huxley and he informs me that their name had been left off the mainstage billing on the schedules handed out at the venues, but that their set had gone off well despite the heat and turnout. I sympathised, and cursed, that I had missed some proper rock ‘n roll, because I seemed to be catching every single fucking ska-reggae band playing at the festival. We reached the mainstage and trumpet-bearing Fox Comet confirmed my suspicions. They bent over for Steri Stumpi to fuck them and sold out before they were even able to sell out. Grassy Park restored my faith in the genre immediately afterwards. A six piece band that started off same-y, they quickly showed their true colours as a Blink 182 cum My Chemical Romance influenced spectacle of real Saffa talent. I’m not a fan of either of those two bands but what I dug about Grassy Park, despite the punny name, was the skill and originality that should be the standard at a festival this size. And their set became progressively better as they lifted me from my cynical headspace, destroying illusions of objective journalism uninfluenced by hangovers and preconceived notions.
The ska bands had been well placed. The festival, despite the organisation, was a hive of activity and revelry. Healthy activities were taking place; swimming and skanking and such. Beer was being drunk; weed was being smoked. Normal stuff, happy stuff, what you’d expect and want and got. How everything changed in the walk up to P.H.fat, I don’t know. I noticed some oke dressed as the Flash running up and down the path like a coke-bunny, and turning the corner at the tents I saw a sign advertising sceletium that had definitely not been there before. An official looking bakkie with “fire-unit” or something similar finally rushed past and it was then that a suspicion started forming. As mentioned, it went south from here. My notebook is empty after that entry. The electro tent got into full swing but I’d been tasked with bands and not electro acts so we trekked back to the LMG stage. The lighting on the paths was minimal and I praised whatever stoned god was watching over this festival that I wouldn’t have to stumble through this mess later to find my tent. It contributed to the strange atmosphere; random flashes of madness from the dark as the previously docile punters became demons sprinting past, pupils engorged and yelling nonsensically at everyone that caught their attention. Into and under the LMG tent we went, because Jack Parow had been spectacularly shite for once, and we abandoned him and his embarrassing friend Rufio Vegas halfway through “Afrikaans Is Dood”, laughing at how out of sync and plastic his act has become, his strangled vocals on the backtrack for “Hos Tokoloshe” being particularly disconcerting.
Within the airless, rank hole we find work and spam fiends Woodstock Mafia playing a genre-bending set displaying their developing maturity. Bassist Ryan Matthews might be solely responsible for their fame, seemingly having spent countless hours spamming the globe. When they play sets like this it seems justified; their meaty blend of Taxi Violence and 36 Crazyfists is setting the standard for what Cape Town’s scene should be investing their time in. They’re not yet perfect, but they’re fucking trying to be, and a very dedicated fanbase shows why this pays off because they rock out like it had been announced the 90’s are fashionable again. Dead Alphabet play next, and they play to all of 10 people. After a quick beer mission –poof – the crowd disappeared to watch Goodnight Wembley or prepare for Haezer. They’re Joburg based, fucking brilliant, have completed a tour in America, and are completely ignored by the festival, something which seems stupid to me as GW and Taxi Violence are almost interchangeable and both can be seen every other night in Cape Town. But such is the nature of the generic festival, as demonstrated by the massive crowd that later gathered for Prime Circle. I’d heard rumours and warnings that they were playing but it didn’t sink in until they were on stage.
Coincidence, booze and time constraints all contributed to the disaster that was missing bands like The Dollfins and The Make-Overs live for the first time. All in all it seems the LMG stage this year had the better line-up, and as we left for what I thought was the last time I realised that big props must be given to Tecla and her mates for organising this kind of talent.
We ping-ponged back to the mainstage, dodging drunks and loners, to see Van Coke Kartel. This was the first time I had seen them with a crowd that didn’t know every single word to every song and it genuinely threw me off because suddenly the frenzied, almost reverent admiration the diehards displayed seemed out of place. Luckily I was drunk enough to shrug it off, and the ballad “Tot die Son Uitkom” brought us all together anyway. It was nothing special as far as Van Coke shows go but remained as enjoyable as ever, and was supposed to be the conclusion to my weekend.
Friends on drugs made it otherwise. It felt like we were drowning at sea in that vast venue. Options were everywhere but chance led us into the LMG tent again, where hardcore band Yes Sir! Mr Machine was almost literally tearing down the place (I have no idea how it survived the sneaky second Haezer set a couple of hours after). If the hedonism of the festival was ever brought to a head somewhere, this was it. An absolution of furious screams and strange time signatures heralded a twisted kind of brilliance somehow sweetened by the camp frontman and shitty jokes of the bassist, who was on his second shift having played with Goodnight Wembley hours prior. From here it’s black; I might’ve been knocked on the head during the fray. I remember beanbags and tears, waterfights and wrongs, bottle after bottle, falling through the tent opening and waking up too hungover to even attempt watching LA.VI or Black Cat Bones as the set closers I wished had played earlier on the weekend.
The rampant disorganisation and madness seemed out of place at a festival as innocuous as Synergy, which ranks with Rocking the Daisies in my opinion. It’s supposed to be more of an oversized matric weekend, traditionally anyway, and I wasn’t expecting what I encountered. Great fun though, and social media seems to indicate I wasn’t alone in my experience. The Saturday turned out to be the Summer festival that was advertised and the nights turned out to have more teeth than anyone expected. This was bad for the 16 year olds I saw stumbling about; good for those of us with hardened livers and desensitised brains. But if only to avoid the ska punk bands and jocks, next year I might try the Blues Summit in Durbanville again.
*All images © Sydelle Willow Smith / Red Bull.