Strawberry Fields 2019 – Tocumwal, NSW (29/11-1/12/19)

Even before you consider all of the music, art, performances, workshops and food, just on the basic levels of design, scale and location, Strawberry Fields was just nuts. Like any festival worth its weight, it has a distinctive vibe, a combination of the expansive, beautiful setting on Yorta Yorta bushland on the banks of the Murray River, and the way that its layout has been designed to compliment those natural surroundings.

Giant art installations were erected throughout the grounds, some interactive, some, such as the giant bird made of branches or the pirate ship, intended to be sat within, while others, such as the triangle shaped mirror room or the bus full of lasers, were simply some trippy shit to look at. Not only did each of these artworks, as well as the design of the stages themselves, add to the feeling of being in a carefully constructed private universe, but also provided revellers with some perfect Instagram opportunities. It was like an adventure playground for young adults.

With five stages dedicated to music there was a lot to see, but interestingly the festival seemed to be built to its own pace, with each stage delivering diverse styles and most of the DJ sets lasting at least two hours. Instead of rushing between areas in fear of missing anything, this meant you could spend a decent amount of time watching each artist before moving on.

The Wildlands stage had the biggest names and was basically going off the entire time. Detroit techno legend Derrick May was an early highlight on Friday night, followed by Hamburg’s Helena Hauff, whose acid house and electro vibes built into some pretty hard hitting techno.

Over at the Tea Lounge stage, local jazz outfit The Rookies curated Friday’s lineup, featuring a hugely engaging instrumental funk workout from Karate Boogaloo and an energetic, broken beat jazz-funk trip from their own offshoot, Claps.

The Grove was the second live music stage, and on Saturday was being run by Cazeaux O.S.L.O, of Man Made Mountain and So.Crates, who kicked things off with a duo performance, freestyle rapping alongside kora player Amadou Suso from The Senegambian Jazz Band. Drawing both melodic and percussive elements from his instrument, Suso dazzled the crowd with his fast fingerwork and sense of groove, delivering a second version of the set the following day in the chill out zone area dubbed the Mirage Motel.

Elle Shimada and band were another highlight of The Grove, as their eclectic, beats-heavy jazz pop was truly mesmerising. Later on CC:DISCO would turn the small stage into hugely enjoyable classic house and disco party, playing back to back with Raphael Top Secret.

The Deep Jungle stage offered some of the more left-of-centre electronic music going, with Melbourne’s Cassette for Kids and Roza Terenzi appearing as highlights on either side of Saturday’s lineup, and Moe Aloha totalling owning his Sunday afternoon slot.

The Beach stage overlooked the banks of the Murray River, which allowed for some refreshing bathing while raving (and vice versa) during the sunny afternoon on Saturday, which itself was a welcome break from the dust storms that had typified the previous 24 hours, or the rain that was to come. Thanks to its small size and beautiful location, The Beach stage was constantly packed, with Resident Advisor curating Saturday’s bill and Melbourne’s own Wax O Paradiso keeping the energy high with their closing set on Sunday.

Back at Wildlands, Merve was quite possibly best on ground for Sunday with her opening set, covering lots of musical ground (her bio says she plays house, acid, tribal, techno) but keeping it soulful while moving through sections seamlessly.

With 9000 people in attendance, Strawberry was remarkably well run while still feeling like it had the fingerprints of real people on it. The sustainability measures enacted were commendable and should be used as a guide to other festivals, including a rewashable plate system instead of single use goods, plenty of free drinking water and a car entry fee, which was used to offset the festival’s carbon footprint.

As we would sadly learn, there could of course be a darker side to the sense of freedom leant by the constructed village, and with it the possibility for the misjudgement of normal consequences. The news, announced on the main stage on Sunday, that 24-year-old Glenn Mcrae had passed away onsite the night before, was met with silent shock.

Perhaps not having any bars onsite helped avoid any agro, as, despite drug use and in particular nangs, being ubiquitous and very out in the open, there didn’t seem to be anyone out to cause any trouble or behave obnoxiously towards one another at all. By and large everyone seemed to be on the same page, with outfits channeling combinations of Mad Max-style apocalyptic steam punk, mixed with 90s rave culture and stripper attire, and all with lots of butt cheek on display. It felt safe. That an event as lovingly put together in such a beautiful place should end in tragedy is just heartbreaking.

Written for Beat Magazine.

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