Making a Splashby Alex Sudheim, images by Jessica Rogers / 07.04.2010
Despite having recently discovered to my chagrin that I am not getting any younger, I took this sobering realisation on the chin and resolved to immediately avail myself of all the trappings of what The National so eloquently describes as “another uninnocent elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults.” Responsibility, reliability, maturity, integrity, that sort of thing.
In other words at Splashy Fen 2010 I would conduct myself in the appropriate adult fashion with none of the lunacy, depravity, havoc and general balls-out debauchery that have characterised my previous ten or so trips to the annual mountain mayhem that is The Fen. I would observe the proceedings from a distance and record my field notes with the detached objectivity of the most dedicated social anthropologist. I would present my findings, astutely grounded in a rigorous theoretical framework, to a jury of academic peers in a suitably esteemed scholarly journal.
Well, if the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, the above just built the Golden Gate Bridge across the River Styx. On Thursday afternoon I headed for the hills a healthy, high-spirited young(ish) buck fired up with the prospect of innocent pastoral pleasures but returned on Monday morning a smouldering ruin of of a man. Burns, bruises, lacerations, puncture wounds, insect bites and strange rashes covered my filthy, desecrated body. In short, I had a fucking fantastic time. Now, let’s see if I can remember any of it.
Despite Thursday being the first day of the festival and not a public holiday, over 10 000 people had already pitched their tents and put on their party faces when Splashy Fen roared into gear at 6pm. Or more like squealed into gear – after the all the build-up and anticipation there is no excuse for opening any festival with Haggis & Bong. They call themselves “Celtic metal” but whatever spin you put on it the bagpipe is an abomination that sounds like a pig being tortured to death with sharpened vuvuzelas, and should be banned.
Fortunately, immediate redemption is on hand when Cortina Whiplash hit the stage. The all-girl 3-piece have more balls than all the blustering lad-bands at the festival combined, with their raw, snarling, helter-skelter blues-rock powered by bassist and lead singer Loandi Boersma’s feral stage prowling and Joplin-channeling vocal energy. By the time they rip into their blistering cover of Patti Smith’s “Rock ‘n Roll Nigger” you begin to wonder if the metal fence in front of the stage is to protect the band from the audience or vice versa.
The rest of Thursday night saw raucous performances from The Shadowclub, Straatligkinders and perennial festival favourites Captain Stu and Hog Hoggidy Hog while on Friday night Splashy Fen cast aside its Anglo-Saxon reservations and embraced the Afrikaans rock revolution. Jack Parow established himself as South Africa’s Beck and emphatically proved he’s way more than a one-hit wonder; the sublime indietronic rock of Die Heuwels Fantasties comes across as a harder, homegrown version of The Postal Service and Fokofpoliesiekar, while rocking as manfully as ever, seem somewhat overshadowed by their own hype as breathlessly portrayed in the melodramatic documentary that can’t emphasise enough the assertion that “there will never be another band like this.”
Then Splashy Fen hits a wobble in the time-space continuum as Saturday’s programme should have been swapped en masse with Sunday’s. Despite impressive sets from genre-mashing iconoclasts T.H.O.T.S and electro-spazz-rap trio Spitmunky in the afternoon, these end when the main tent is given over to the Sharks game and the rest of the evening promises major snoozefests from Ard Matthews and Prime Circle. The beseeching, overwrought sincerity of Matthews is positively emetic and, even though Prime Circle can get a bit lighters-in-the-air ballad-y, not even they deserve the Nickelback comparison one rapturous fan bestows upon them.
Instead, a tight, frenetic set by Car Boot Vendors on the smaller stage salvages the evening but it remains a pity that many festival-goers, out of cash and out of stamina, leave on Sunday and miss smoking sets by seductive rock-reggae band Manuvah To Land; indie-punk group LowProfile; B-grade horror-rock outfit The Death Valley Blues Band and synapse-frying US “Nintendo-core” act Horse The Band. The latter employs various electronic instruments to simulate the sounds of classic 8-bit Nintendo games (Super Mario Brothers, Tetris etc) which they throw into the blender with paint-peeling metal-core. The band has famously toured the planet several times on the most suicidal of shoestring budgets, a fact which is plain to see in their commitment and intensity onstage but which also left one wondering why they were turning out the lights at the tail end of Splashy Fen instead of starting a fire in the middle of it.
In closing, an obligatory word on the festival in terms of race-obsessed South Africa to pre-empt the predictable, inevitable and oh-so-witty remarks that are about to ensue in the comments section with some or other smug smartarse cracking wise about bands called Tighty Whitey and The Pale Natives or whatever: the fact that the overwhelming majority of Splashy Fen’s patrons are white is an incontrovertible but not necessarily racial one. The healthy spattering of black kids partying it up at Splashy pointed to various cultural factors to explain the demographic disparity – “black people aren’t into camping”; “black people aren’t into live rock music”; “black people dig R&B in clubs” are some of the common responses I received. And it kinda makes sense: when I went to the sold-out Akon show at Durban’s International Convention Centre, the crowd was close to 100% black yet no-one was tooting the race horn there.
In short, just like the Akon concert, Splashy Fen is a mountain that Mohamed can come to if he wants to. No-one is telling him that he can’t: at neither event is there any form of policy excluding anybody on the basis of race therefore both – despite attracting a majority of patrons from different race groups – are by definition non-racial events. And besides, if you really want to solve the sociological, psychological, historical and economic mysteries of race in South Africa in the context of public music events, go write and publish a Phd thesis on the subject. A callow comment here simply means you don’t have the balls for the battle.
All images courtesy and © Jessica Rogers.