Playground Weekender has developed a reputation as a New South Wales, all-comers music festival worth attending. Its camping grounds and stages are set along the Hawkesbury riverbank, 90 minutes out of Sydney. With four days of clear weather, it felt more like an island resort than a music festival. There was mini-golf, pool parties during the day, food stalls serving delights from every corner of the globe and even a sling-shot carnival ride. You could also take a dip in the Hawkesbury and catch a glimpse of kangaroos jumping through the campsites.
It sounds like an idyllic setting for a festival, but getting to this little slice of paradise was exhausting. Before catching a ferry from one side of the river to the other, the enthusiasm took a beating for the over-zealous searches of tents, toiletries and hand luggage by security searching for alcohol. Once aboard the ferry, it was announced over a PA that police and sniffer dogs would be camped at the festival entrance every hour of each of the four days. Unfortunately, the tense atmosphere on arrival resembled the first day of a prison sentence. Once inside, police would continue to oversee the campsites via patrol cars into the early hours of the morning. Whatever the reason for such visible police presence, people never seemed at ease, constantly looking over their shoulder.
Nevertheless, it was easy to enjoy the incredible lineup without contrabands. Six stages, all catering to differing tastes and a main stage flaunting acts like Roy Ayers Ubiquity, De La Soul, Caribou and Lamb. The dance tent, decked out with Funktion One stacks, still had sound problems, the most depressing of which came to a head on Friday during Ewan Pearson's set, which was drowned out by the chatter of punters. Caribou was the only electronic act not to play in the dance tent, but similarly, his live band was compromised by the poor sound quality, as the live drumming often rung out stronger than anything else. Back in the tent, Four Tet was doing his best to lift the Big Top from the ground. The depth of sound he was producing was, on one hand, overwhelming, but also peaceful and sedate enough that much of the crowd was gazing in trance, rather than dancing. Sydney locals, Canyons, only played to a handful of people, but showed why they seem to have greater currency overseas than at home.
The second day bought slightly better sound to the Big Top dance tent, but slightly odd programming. Heidi played some cheesy bangers around 1 PM, while Butch played a much harder techno set, only to be followed by the sexy deep house of Dixon and Kristian Beyer of Âme. The Innervisions labelmates worked off of each other for two hours and forty-five minutes, playing Rocco's mix of Cloudkicker's "Bring On the Night" and ending the set with Oni Ayhun. This longish window was a definite highlight amongst the constant stream of frustrating one-and-a-half hour sets. Heidi returned to the decks to show off her tech-house sensibilities, beginning with Art Department's "Without You" and belting out Poker Flat tracks like "Swallowed Too Much Bass."
The last day began slowly with the mid-tempo efforts of Pete Herbert. Mock and Toof proved popular, swelling the smallish crowd as they punched out some cool tools and tracks from Tuning Echoes. Mowgli, Derrick Carter and Tom Middleton played consecutive sets that closed out the Weekender on Sunday night with a much more enthusiastic and relaxed crowd. It was, however, disappointing to hear Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" towards the end of the night—a somewhat ironic gesture seeing as the music came to a close at midnight.
The whole weekend was full of distractions. And yet, Playground Weekender had compiled a line-up, electronic and otherwise, that deserved to be the centre of attention. Fancy dress Saturday was one initiative among many that was "cool," but ended with people taking photos of each other on the dance floor, while acts like Ame and Dixon and Four Tet et al. poured everything they had into their performance. So for the music, a resounding thumbs-up. For the festival, with its heavy police presence and random "charm," a lot was left wanting. Luckily, good music transcends even the greatest irritations and undesirables. It wasn't difficult to leave Playground Weekender with at least a few pleasant memories.