Over the last 18 months, live music has been at a standstill. While many were hoping that 2021 would be a respite from the madness of 2020, it's only continued, which saw the need for a different means of bringing live music to the world - that's where the innovative Splendour XR comes in.
Splendour XR was billed as a virtual version of Splendour In The Grass, and it delivered. While not everyone was able to experience it in VR (including yours truly), nevertheless it was obvious the love and attention that had gone into recreating Splendour's iconic Amphitheatre, as well as the other stages, bars and amenities that makes Splendour a pilgrimage for music fans each year.
The festival's been made possible thanks to Splendour working with Sansar, delivering a virtual experience that captures the essence of being at Splendour with your mates. Fans were given the option to create an in-game avatar that would be present amongst the other attendees, and while the mud might not be real, the online festival managed to capture what makes Splendour so special - it was a celebration of music in a time that fans needed it most.
While it may have operated on Australian time, a quick glance at the chat in-game showed that people were tuning in from all over the world. It was a great opportunity to showcase the best Australian artists on a world scale, and those that played certainly made the most of the opportunity. With international touring still looking like it won't return to Australia for a little while, it's a rare opportunity for up-and-coming artists to (virtually) share the stage with the likes of Charli XCX, The Killers, Grimes, Khalid, Denzel Curry and more.
The Amphitheatre kicked off with Arnhem Land rockers King Stingray, and as is often the case with Splendour's opening Amphitheatre set, it was an inspired choice. They've only released a handful of tracks so far, but luckily, each track has been better than the last, so their performance gave us a taste of why the band is so highly spoken of by those that have been lucky to see them perform to date.
Next up on the Amphitheatre was Client Liaison, who have built a cult following as a band that puts their all into their live performances. That was on full display with their set here, nailing the transitions between songs, as well as the performances themselves. They've built a formidable discography full of disco-influenced anthems, and while people might have been confined to their living rooms, the home dancefloors around Australia and beyond were definitely bouncing while they played. Tracks like Off-White Limousine and World Of Our Love went down a treat, and it certainly set the standard for the rest of the festival.
After CL wrapped up, it was time to head across to the Mix Up stage to catch R&B/pop artist Tayla Parx. While she was first introduced to the world as a co-writer for the likes of Ariana Grande and Khalid, anyone that got a glimpse of Tayla's set will have realised the star power that she possesses. Everyone involved in Tayla's set nailed the choreography, and her vocals sounded flawless as she powered through tracks like Fixerupper and You Don't Know. Hopefully she can make it to Australia for a live show once international touring resumes, as it's hard not to get swept up in her charm.
Staying at the Mix Up stage proved to be the right choice, as after Tayla Parx came Pink Sweat$, who brought along a swag of large teddy bears (as well as a world-class band/backing singers). Pink Sweat$ has been busy in recent times endearing himself to both classic and modern R&B fans, and he backed it up on the (virtual) stage, staring down the camera while delivering a live vocal masterclass. If you weren't swooning by the end of Pink Sweats' performance, then you might not have been watching closely enough. Welcome to the Pink Family.
While waiting for Griff, we managed to catch some of Norwegian singer/songwriter Aurora's set, and we're so glad we did. Her ethereal vocals were pitch-perfect, while her green screen setup made it feel like we were actually in the moshpit alongside everyone else. It might have not been cold in our living rooms, but our hairs were definitely standing up. The virtual equivalent of a huge sunset slot, and a performance we won't soon forget.
We were soon faced with a dilemma - catch British rising star Griff, or watch Australian rapper Masked Wolf perform a 'hometown' show on the back of the phenomenal success of his track Astronaut In The Ocean? In the end, we made our way between stages, and thankfully, the virtual format made this a lot easier than otherwise would have been possible. Griff's performance solidified what we've known for a little while now - she's got superstar energy, and she knew it. Hard to watch this without beaming.
Masked Wolf is one of the biggest artists in the world right now, but most people won't have had a chance to see him perform, save for televised performances. This was a chance to show fans what his live performances will be like once he's able to return to the stage, and he delivered. Throughout the set, he rattled off his bars with the focus of a title fighter, while also stopping to talk about mental health, a theme key to his music. Of course, Astronaut In The Ocean was the showstopper, but Masked Wolf definitely proved that he's an artist that's going to stick around for the long haul.
Australia's Vera Blue has played pretty much every festival that Australia has to offer, and that experience was on full display during her set here. The lighting for the performance meant it felt like you were watching her perform a late-night set, and the dancefloor (both in the virtual world and at people's houses across the globe) was in full swing. The Mix Up tent was packed to the rafters for Vera's set, and whether it's virtually or in-person, she knows how to own the stage.
Australians have fallen in love with Denzel Curry in recent years, largely thanks to his all-conquering Bulls On Parade Like A Version. His Splendour XR performance was a reminder of his immense discography, as well as his ability to command any stage, virtual or otherwise. Denzel and his DJ had some wildly entertaining back-and-forth banter between songs, and it's clear just how much he loves Australia. Let's hope he can get to Australia sooner rather than later.
For more than a few artists on the bill, this might have been the first time they were performing for a live stream, and it was intriguing seeing everyone's approach to it. Phoebe Bridgers and Little Simz, who both performed at the same time, took wildly different approaches - Phoebe in a room with her band, while Little Simz felt like she was performing in an empty theatre. Both settings suited their performances, and it showcased how the virtual experience can help artists feel more at home, as well as customise every aspect of their performance to suit the aesthetics of their music.
We ended the day off with Khalid, who's no stranger to Australian shores. As someone who's played an IRL Splendour In The Grass, he proved he understood what the festival was all about, and tailored his set accordingly. It was a set worthy of a headliner, and we could practically hear all the hearts melting across Australia and beyond. Day 1 proved to be a great first half of Splendour XR, and we were excited for what the Sunday would bring - and it delivered on all fronts.
There's something magical about waking up for Day 2 of a festival in your own bed, and not having to wait in line for a shower. Settling down for the day is a lot easier when you haven't been lying down in a tent all night. Australian rising star Gretta Ray was the first act of the day, and she set the tone with her note-perfect vocal performance. The amount of eye contact she made with the camera meant it felt like she was singing just for us, and by the end, we were firmly in the palm of her hand. Having the song titles show up at the start of each song also meant it was easy for new fans to go and check out her music after the set, which was a nice touch.
Having watched Gretta's set, we (virtually) ran over to the Mix Up stage for Ziggy Ramo, and it was the right decision. The Indigenous singer-songwriter released the blisteringly powerful Black Thoughts last year, after recording the album back in 2015. It's an album that discusses the systemic racism and trauma that Indigenous Australians have endured, as well as the prevalence of racism in both Australian and American society (the release was sparked by the murder of George Floyd). His stage presence, even through the screen, is undeniable, and he's a voice that all Australians should be listening to.
Spacey Jane's music is made for the live setting, and they've endeared themselves to Australians with a swag of songs that you can belt out with your mates after a couple of drinks. Their XR performance captured the essence of what makes them so great, with the band sounding as in sync as ever. They played in front of a background of clouds, which meant we felt like we were flying - not unlike how we'd be feeling at 3.30pm on Day 2 of Splendour proper. Much like Spacey Jane, Wafia's set captured what fans love about her music - her powerhouse vocals. The lighting meant we felt like we were in front of her watching her perform, and it was flawless from start to finish.
Fresh off releasing their fourth album, Love Signs, The Jungle Giants packed every bit of their 10 years as a band into their Splendour XR set. If this weekend's shown anything, it's that the best artists know how to connect with their fans, no matter how/where they're performing. Having seen the Jungle Giants live before on a few occasions, this set brought everything they would in a live setting - just instead of screaming fans, fans were able to be huddled up on the couch. A guest performance from Hatchie made the performance even better - and the band's appreciation for their fans radiated through the screen.
The Avalanches' set was a live video from their recent Enmore Theatre performance, and it was bittersweet. It showcased their live show as they'd perform for a real crowd, but it also was a stark reminder for many what they're missing at the moment. Nevertheless, it was great to see how their music evolves in a live setting, and for both old and new fans of the band, it was a scorching set. We're a long way from the band's decade + hiatus, and we're all the happier for it.
Of Monsters And Men might win the prize for the prettiest set design, with the artwork behind them staring into your soul. The band didn't miss a beat, either, and it felt like we were watching a lounge-room performance from the band, in all the best ways. It's hard not to feel zen when you're watching Of Monsters And Men perform, so this was definitely what Australians everywhere needed at the moment. Australians have always loved the band, and this performance ensures that Aussie fans everywhere will be hanging out for their next tour.
When Charli XCX released her quarantine album, how i'm feeling now, it was clear she was set on being the popstar for the pandemic. Making of the most of a green screen, Charli's performance looked like she was performing on the in-world stage, and while it might have lacked the theatrics of some of the other performances of Splendour XR, she certainly brought the hits. Bike shorts have never looked so cool.
We didn't get to catch all of Kaytranada's set (we were waiting for The Killers to play in the Amphitheatre), but his performance was mesmerising. Playing at what appeared to be a house party, it was the perfect mood for the end-of-festival vibes everyone was feeling, and we just wish we'd been able to be at that house party, TBH.
We capped off our Splendour experience with a performance from The Killers, who Australians have always had a soft spot for, especially since their performance at the 2017 AFL Grand Final. For a band that's been around since 2001, they looked just at home in the virtual realm as any of the other bands on the line-up. Then again, you could probably throw the Killers into an isolated desert with nothing but a pile of scrap and 24 hours to put together a live show and they'd pull it off - being charismatic is what lead singer Brandon Flowers was born to do. And yes, Mr Brightside is still as great as the first time you heard it. Maybe even better.
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Splendour XR hit at just the right time for Australian music fans, the large majority of whom are stuck at home. While we weren't actually in the moshpit alongside everyone else, singing along, it did make us feel more connected to each other. The developers didn't miss anything - there were merch tents, the Forum, the Smirnoff Wilds area, the Global Village, the Tipi Forest, the triple j tent backstage, all of it. Overall, the concept was fantastic, though the Sansar App felt unequipped to handle the server load of thousands of Australians logging on to experience the magic - as a result, there were lags when walking around and experiencing the Splendour world (at least for us and the many Australians who weren't watching with a VR headset and gaming laptop).
The next in-person Splendour In The Grass will be very special, but until then, this certainly filled the void. The Splendour name is revered by Australian music fans, and this was an opportunity for music lovers worldwide to get a glimpse of why Australians love it so much. Thankfully, we don't have to clean off any mud after this Splendour, which is always a positive...