first night

First time I’ve written anything here for a really long time, and it’s about my first experience of Sydney Festival First Night. Kicking off the sprawling three-week-long Sydney Festival, the event has been a much-celebrated happening since it was inaugurated a few years ago.

This year, as summer began, the holidays passed and the start of the festival approached, there was a current of bubbly excitement about Festival First Night in conversations with friends and strangers alike. Plans were made to attend as a matter of course. I had no idea what to expect. But lately I’m down for anything.

The Saturday afternoon begins with another first: my first time DJing on the radio in Sydney. I’m at the 2SER studios on Broadway, playing a few tunes for a new friend, El Chino, on his long-running mix show, Departure Lounge. Shaking off the rust; feels pretty good. Making things happen on the Sydney scene. No train wrecks.

Leaving the station, I walk up to Hyde Park, headed for a meeting with my wife and our friend. It’s a lovely day. It’s summer in Sydney, I just played on the radio and I’ve got nothing to do but hang out in the park and check out a festival. But I’m tired and hungry. I stop at the first lunch counter I see, a kebab joint. I order falafel – my first Australian one. The counter lady asks me if I want cheese with that. I shouldn’t make fun; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them stuffed with French fries in the UAE.

I park myself on the grass in front of the ANZAC War Memorial, and down the falafel. It’s… interesting. But edible enough. Across the park there’s a commotion that sounds suspiciously like a festival under way. The girls arrive. They explain a bit more about what First Night is. They show me schedules and maps. Turns out Arrested Development and Emmylou Harris are involved. Emmylou, huh? Bigger than I thought.

We get in motion, head for the other side. Across Park Street, up the wide stone steps and under the huge trees that frame the old park’s central walkway. Elaborate decorations are set up on either side. Some of the trees are wrapped with fuchsia cloth. It looks sort of like lingerie. There are huge disco balls hanging in the trees. Soap bubbles, somehow processed to look like snow, whirl all around. We join a parade of people making their way to the center. A sound system blasts “Blue Suede Shoes.” Maybe it’s the atmosphere or maybe just me, but the tune seems to have a glimmer of its original raunch and camp. Other, bigger sound systems beckon in the distance. The parade gets more packed in. I realize there’s a huge stage set up over to the left and there are already thousands gathered.

We want no part of the thousands, for the moment anyway. We break away, out of the park. On our way out I see there’s another setup in another area, this one a big movie screen with a silent film showing on it. Hundreds more watching. Sounds like live musical accompaniment. We’d like to check it out, but drinks are a priority. We cross College Street to the plaza in front of St Mary’s, around a barrier to get to the bar. We elect a two-fisting strategy. Then realize we can’t cross the barrier again. That’s why it’s there, to keep drinks from getting out. OK, fine. We sit in front of the cathedral to skull our two each.

My beer’s not going down very well. Headache coming on; I feel a bit out of it. There’s another screen set up in front of us by the cathedral, this one looking like a big inflatable TV. But there’s only some festival collateral projected onto it. The sound system’s on, giving off a loud power hum that tunes right into my headache.

We take our time. Seems the festival’s going on without us, but it’s a great evening to just sit and drink and talk. Eventually we muster ourselves again and decide to head back across to grab some gözleme and see what’s afoot.

The park’s center is jammed now. There’s a queue just to get into the queue in the food corral. There’s some burlesque musical comedian on the big stage. Apparently his schtick is campy music with humorously violent lyrics. Why a headache now anyway?

Gözleme line’s way too long. Aussies love their gözleme, and for good reason. Line’s not moving at all. I wonder how those poor Turkish ladies can ever work fast enough making the dough and frying them. We settle for wraps (salad sandwich, anyone?), and more drinks. Amo can’t find Panadol in her purse. But this third beer picks up my spirits a bit.

From where we’re sat on the grass in the food corral we can’t really see out into the main area. Catching a glimpse at the big monitor, it seems the performers from the raunchy circus/cabaraet Smoke & Mirrors (which I’ll catch in the Spiegeltent in a few days) are doing acrobatic things on the stage a long way away. Festival’s going on without us. Back into motion, this time up Macquarie Street, headed for Chifley Square. Or maybe the Domain. We’ll know where we’re going when we get there.

Macquarie Street has been pedestrianized for the evening. Listen, pedestrianizing city streets is how to get on my good side. Hundreds of people of all ages, all races fill the street, in good boisterous Aussie spirits. Off to the right a crowd gathers and waits in front of the Mint. There are two dozen or more drummers in formation on both the ground floor and the second-floor balcony. They’re not drumming, they’re waiting for some signal. Arrayed like they are, evenly spaced between the columns of the historic building, all wearing identical black T-shirts, with big drums of several types below and little drums above, it’s apparent they’re very serious about making a lot of noise soon. All kinds of people in their ranks, too, including a couple of older ladies.

Still waiting. We can hear drums thundering from up the street. We’re not sure why those drummers are playing and these ones aren’t. The feeling of being perpetually in between whatever is happening. But while we’re waiting we get some ice cream. It’s been a busy day: the guy’s sold out of everything except drumsticks. (Aussies have another name for drumsticks but I’ve forgotten it.) Is ice cream good for a headache?

We give up on the drummers at the Mint and move up the street. The crowds thicken. The noise from the distant drums increases. Now we’re right in it: I realize there are batteries of drummers all up and down Macquarie, as far as I can see and hear. One battery is even elevated high above us on the balcony of an office tower. And now they’re all at it, pounding away in sequence. Each battery has a conductor with a baton; the conductor in turn has an earpiece. It’s clear they’re remotely coordinating the rhythm and sound. And it’s a huge sound: not so much deafening as all-encompassing. It seems to come out of the ground and occupy the air for miles. It’s electrifying. I’m thinking of how drums make people move – dance – fight. Never experienced anything like this. I’m truly impressed and say so to the girls. (Later I’ll learn the name of the ensemble, or tribe or whatever, is TaikOz.)

We’re moving still, that big sound behind us, down to Chifley Square. More pedestrianized streets. There’s another massive installation down here: images are being projected on the façades of tall buildings, but I can’t make out what they are, there are no screens, it’s all lost in the windows and architectural detail. An overworked sound system is blaring something that sounds like an old radio show. It’s meant to be about the history of Polynesia, but it’s difficult to latch onto. Still impressive though. Another crowd here, watching and listening. I wonder if they get it. But we give up. As we step away, up a side street, the distorted sound echoes off the buildings all around, becoming something ghostly and fascinating. Is this is the whole point of the installation, to be perceived as a huge haunted noise from blocks away?

Martin Place, not far away. A Senegalese reggae band is playing for hundreds more people on yet another stage, yet another sound system. Arrested Development will be on soon. The scope of this thing starts to sink in. They’ve basically shut down the center of the city and turned it into a gigantic party, a carnival, with attractions and distractions in every direction. We still haven’t found anywhere to be, but I’m beginning to love this.

We leave Martin Place and cross over into the Domain. There’s still another stage. Turns out this is the really big one. There are thousands more people here. Emmylou will be on in a little while. We find a spot on the grass. After all the drifting, it feels good to lay down and stretch out. Considering this is prime time, there are some, uh, quaint opening acts. A pair of young women playing old standards on ukeleles (their band name: you guessed it, the Ukeleles) are soon joined by a stout indigenous lady who sings her own regional variation on “Waltzing Matilda” and baas like a sheep, imploring us to baa with her.

Don’t want to make too much fun of the lady and her sheep. She’s happy to be here. So am I; it’s really pleasant. The broad meadows of the Domain stretch out before us, the Botanic Garden and the Harbour somewhere behind. There are people everywhere – laying on the grass, milling about, queueing up for food, working – but it’s a mellow and oddly cozy scene. From over here the big stage looks like a an expensive toy castle, lit from within. Beyond loom the buildings of the CBD, but they too seem far off and unreal. From somewhere over there in the city, searchlights quietly swoop through the glowing overcast sky overhead.

Emmylou comes on. She’s a tiny figure, but her blazing silver hair is an unmistakeable beacon. I’m a fan and have been most of my life. I saw her once before, at Carnegie Hall in 2003. Maybe this is too obvious, but it’s so interesting that life could bring us both, separately, two Americans, from there to this meadow on this night eight years later.

The first part of her set is much more country than we ware expecting, and she doesn’t seem to have written any new songs in eight years. Soon the crowd’s energy dissipates even more. It’s too mellow. I thought Aussies were into their country; but maybe not Sydneysiders. We all agree it probably wasn’t the best programming decision for opening night. I try to fight it, but somehow this musical legend has become a mere soundtrack, just another installation. An exquisite soundtrack it is: but we’re ready to move on.

Back at Hyde Park. One of the movie screens has clips from old Busby Berkely musicals being looped on it. A fedora-sporting DJ on the stage to the right of the screen is playing a set of house and breakbeat tunes that sample old jazz standards. Old movies, jazzy new music, get it? He’s making a performance out of it, bobbing his head, dancing around. The crowd – maybe a couple of hundred in all – is sat on the grass, just watching and listening, as if it was a conventional movie screening. Hanging over the stage is a massive crystal chandelier. Not sure what they are trying to do here. But I’m hypnotized by the impossible formations of dancing girls onscreen. I can’t always tell Berkeley’s wild choreography from the the video artist’s cheeky cutups.

There’s exactly one guy dancing on the lawn in front of the screen: middle-aged, with white chinos, a hot pink T-shirt and a shiny bald head. He’s dancing in place, staring at the screen, oblivious to the stares of others. The soft ambient light from the screen illuminates him like a saint. He’s awkward, he may be on something, but he’s feeling it and who can argue? As many people watch him as are watching the kaleidoscope of dancing girls. I hear a stranger ask another, How long’s he been at it? Oh, about half an hour.

Finally a couple of young girls get up to join him. He breaks into a huge grin and finds new reserves of energy, leaping about, hands in the air. Just like that, more people are up and moving over to dance with them. It took half an hour for anyone to join him, now they’re coming in droves, and it’s a party, something truly interesting, uniting music and film in a way  both new and natural. They all dance, while the girls on the screen looming behind them spin in complex loops, the DJ rocks, the chandelier hangs overhead. And the music is –

– wrapping up? Yep, the last record fades out, and nothing replaces it but power hum. The thing’s over just as it was getting started. Oh, well. This is the kind of night we’re having.

Down the central walkway of Hyde Park again, past a huge illuminated inflatable rabbit selling Chinese New Year to the masses. There are still masses in the park, untold numbers in the semidark, looks even more like a carnival, kids running around shouting and giggling, drunk adults, under the huge trees, under the disco balls, under the artificial fog and lasers.

Yes, there are lasers in the trees, green ones and magenta ones. Bright bold beams, cutting the fog, seeming more real than everything else. But something different happens when they touch the leaves of the trees high overhead. They splinter into thousands of little lights reflected off the leaves, like swarms of colored fireflies. I could stare for a long time. I feel a bit foolish, as if I’m acting like a kid, but I look around and realize a lot of other people, adults and kids, are stopping and staring too, pointing into the trees, getting snapshots. It’s like a celebration of something. Childlike wonder, maybe.

But we’re gone, leaving again, or going home. I’m tired and the headache never went away. Never did find anywhere to be. Quite a first night.

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