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Live Review: Yours & Owls Festival 2021

Cry Club
(Image credit: Jess Gleeson)

What: Yours & Owls Festival
When: Saturday April 17th + Sunday 18th, 2021
Where: Thomas Dalton Park, Wollongong NSW
Words: Matt Doria


After the past year of cancellations, routine postponements and general dream‑crushing, it felt indescribably euphoric to boogie at a proper, full-fat outdoor music festival. Yours & Owls’ hotly awaited return to Wollongong marked the first large-scale, free-roaming festival on NSW turf in over a year – there were some minor hiccups, as to be expected, but nothing could dampen the excitement of spending a day in the sun, soaking up the vibes and revelling in the energy of Australia’s biggest and brightest live acts.

To comply with government-sanctioned COVID‑Safe guidelines, the festival was split into four colour‑coded sections, each with their own entries and exits, bars, food trucks and amenities. There were definite upsides: shorter lines and more space to move around, plus a more cohesive and calculated layout that eliminated the need to race between stages to catch our favourite bands. But there were a few minor downsides, too.

Sandwiched in the middle of Thomas Dalton Park was a dual-stage setup where bands performed on oversized lazy Susans. Each section of the crowd faced one side of its respective stage, with performers constantly in motion to reach all four quadrants of rowdy punters. But while this meant we could see and hear every act on the main lineup, it also meant a good deal of the sets were spent watching bands from awkward angles, and we had to catch half of them play either from an uncomfortable distance, or on LCD screens.

Aside from the two main stages, the local legends at Rad set up some wonderful showcases of up‑and‑coming acts in dedicated zones. The only caveat here was that each section had its own dedicated Rad stage, meaning only the punters in that section could enjoy its respective lineup. This meant we missed out on some choice acts like Towns, Dregg and Party Dozen. 

Of course, these were all necessary compromises to make sure Yours & Owls could even go ahead – we’d certainly much rather a hemmed fezzie experience than none at all. And the crew did an absolutely phenomenal job bringing the whole shebang together, making for what was undoubtedly one of the year’s most unforgettable weekends. We could dance, we could drink, we could thrash our heads and pump our fists… Yeah, we’ll never take another music festival for granted. This is what home feels like.

DAY ONE

Rocking up early on Saturday arvo turned out to be a smart choice, as the Canberran luminaries in Teen Jesus And The Jean Teasers packed their half-hour showcase tightly with infectious ‘90s-esque power‑pop hooks and angsty punk riffage. We’ve noted this in prior issues, but it truly bears repeating that Anna Ryan and Scarlett McKahey wield a jaw‑droppingly virtuosic chemistry as guitarists – the grungy, grimy jut of Ryan’s Telecaster meshed with McKahey’s sharply rounded SG bends like butter melting over fresh toast. Delightful. One day Teen Jesus will be headlining festivals like these.

The groovy, opalescent art-rock stylings of Shining Bird made for an enthralling – if a little polarising – twist in the vibe. The local blokes swerved between brisk, prickly bites of indie-pop and gauzy, downright hypnotic passages of Floydian instrumental prog-rock. The amount of curveballs they threw us in 30 short minutes was extremely impressive; if nothing else, Shining Bird delivered the most unpredictable set of the entire weekend. Of course it certainly helped that they sounded fantastic, too.

Hot on the heels of their landmark 2020 debut, God I’m Such A Mess, Cry Club were an absolute must‑see. It’s a shame, then, that their set was pillaged by tech issues – their setup was fried before Jono Tooke could strum his first glittery, overdriven riff – but even with a botched mix in mono sound, the power-pop duo burst to life like theirs depended on it. Frontperson Heather Riley took full advantage of their rotating platform, buoyantly bounding around every corner with unremitting aplomb. If their forthcoming headline tour is half as good, it’ll be one for the history books.

After three back-to-back hip-hop acts, the Melbourne punks in Clowns hit especially hard. It was quite obvious the Yours & Owls crowd was not their typical fare: the five-piece launched into a cataclysmic cyclone of thundering fret abuse and wall-rattling howls to a sea of scrunched faces; but if any hardcore band could baptise a flock of rap devouts into the church of the dark arts, it was going to be Clowns. Two songs in, horns were raised high and hair was thrashing in every direction. Cam Rust and Jarrod Good ruled the mix with their chainsaw riffage, duelling it out with the force of a thousand sweaty, slightly drunk suns.

The Vanns made for a perfect soundtrack to our golden hour zen-out wielding a loveably loose slate of brisk and bubbly indie-rock. Their cover of Bon Iver’s “Hey Ma” was an especially tasty treat, conjuring a spirited singalong that made a snack out of Jimmy Vann’s own enigmatic lead vocal. Vann and co‑strummer Cameron Little shone with their slick, honey-sweetened fretwork, blending cool and cruisy noodling with angular rock ’n’ roll wallops.

A time-tested festival favourite – and for good reason – The Smith Street Band landed hit after hit, from old-school classics like “Young Drunk” to recent gems like “Death To The Lads”. The pub-school titans came prepared for the microwave-esque stage, setting up in an actual circle so that no matter where you were angled, there was always at least one member to lock eyes with. Wil Wagner was in exceptional form – we’ve seen the Smithies play a dozen or so gigs over the years, but never has the frontman been as bright, energised or tight with his performance as he was at Yours & Owls.

Our hard-earned buzz tanked hard with Winston Surfshirt and Dope Lemon, both trodding along with tediously bloated sets of dull, uninspired indie-rock, played with the kind of apathetic flatness that forced us to ponder: have we finally lost touch of what’s hip and fresh, or were these just jarringly weak performances? A quick check-in to YouTube calmed our fears – they just had an off night. Fingers crossed for next time, right?

Britpop revivalists DMA’s did a cracking job of reinvigorating the mood, closing out the first day’s six-stringed syllabus with a riveting showcase of soaring grooves and summery jamming. Johnny Took’s emphatic acoustic strumming stood out in the mix, adding a spry levity that kept us hooked for every last second of the band’s set. Highlights came in the handful of cuts from their 2020 album The Glow – the stylistic leaps they take on the record translated wonderfully to the stage, with the band tangibly stoked to finally bust them out for such a massive crowd.

DAY TWO

If there’s one thing we certainly didn’t miss about outdoor music festivals – particularly those here Down Under – it was the blaring sun. Trust us when we say it was hot on Sunday afternoon; what a good day it must have been to have stock in Coopers. We admittedly f***ed ourselves over a bit by getting lost on the way to the festival grounds – mostly because one of our new favourite bands, Adelaidian pop-punk stalwarts Teenage Joans, kicked off the jaunt with a full jam‑through of their new EP, Taste Of Me. If the snippets we caught on Instagram are anything to go by, they absolutely smashed it. 

Catching the latter half of an ethereal set from Greta Stanley, we were instantly whipped away in a haze of woolly, crystalline melodies. Stanley’s radiant singing flooded the pastures; her backing band was sharp and not a beat off key, but allowed her to shine unrestricted. And goddamn, how she did.

Yours Truly cranked the energy up to 11 with their loud and lively pop-punk blitzkrieg. It’s hard to believe they only dropped their debut album last September – the Sydney quartet tore it up with the breakneck fury of the genre’s greatest, slamming through a reel of highlights from Self Care with every boisterous hook and belting riff thrashing from the PA like a bolt of lightning. The energy from singer Mikaila Delgado was utterly infectious, too – she sank into every line as though it might have been her last, capering around the stage with the fluidity of a Disney animation.

Wielding a mustard yellow hollowbody with a tenor as beautiful as her lead vocal, George Alice brought Yours & Owls to a standstill with her buttery smooth indie-pop stylings. It was simply impossible not to smile as she rolled through a stacked setlist of hits (including her breakout gem “Circles”, which clicked instantly her fast‑blossoming crowd), making 30 sunny minutes in a park feel like a weightless cruise down a dreamy labyrinth.

Children Collide took to the stage with fire in their eyes and chaos in their fingers, pushing the speaker setup to its absolute limits with their raw, ravenous shredding. The tunes themselves were actually oddly chill – the Melbourne trio dealt in breezy psychedelic pop jams, spun through a web of six-stringed insanity. All the while he was wreaking havoc on his Jaguar, Johnny Mackay delivered some of the festival’s tightest and most captivating vocals.

But when it came to convulsive, balls-to-the-wall energy, no band could reach the riotous highs of the ultra-melodic maniacs in Slowly Slowly. Their punchy, hook-laden alt-rock made even the most stoic amongst us bop their heads; alongside his doughy pseudo-emo lead vocals, Ben Stewart held down the mix with his tight and tasteful Rickenbacker shredding, while Albert Doan filled in the gaps with a dry, P-90-flavoured crunch. With a setlist heavy on cuts from both parts of their Race Car Blues epic, the Melbourne foursome proved they’re more than suited to lead Australia’s rock scene in the years to come.

We only caught a glimpse of Cosmos Midnight – the smell of the gourmet hot dog truck was simply too overpowering, and dinnertime was just around the corner – but the funky, playful guitars and shimmery keys were more than enough to make it crystal clear, the hype around these Sydney-native stunners is well, well earned. 

Hockey Dad, on the other hand, are one act whose appeal has never struck us. And though we’ll admit they’ve got some damn catchy choruses under their belt, overall their set of scratchy, snappy indie‑punk felt messy and lifeless. There are countless other Australian bands doing what Hockey Dad do except so much better – we don’t get how the local duo are still copping such high billings. 

Wrapping up a weekend for the ages with their surfy, off-kilter indie-rock, Lime Cordiale delivered good vibes in abundance, breezing through an intoxicating spread of scorchers from their mammoth debut album, 14 Steps To A Better You. Though looking damn schmick clad in suits, the Sydney fivesome seldom took themselves seriously, revelling in a bright and upbeat atmosphere their crowd embraced wholeheartedly.