Strawberry Fields 2013

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  • It's been five years since Strawberry Fields brought electronic music to the berry-growing region four hours north of Melbourne. This year's edition celebrated the milestone with restrained fanfare—all things considered, the organisers could have been more indulgent. Running a three-day festival is a huge effort, and especially so without permanent access to running water or electricity. Over the years, Strawberry Fields have overcome some massive hurdles, not least the 2011 flood that levelled the site 24 hours before it opened. Ironically, after mastering the important stuff, it's been the little details—keeping music on schedule, providing bearable toilets—that have consistently eluded the festival and created the most frustration for attendees. Last year's review suggested these niggles might be coming to an end, but the lead up to this year's event didn't bode well. First were the clumsy, late-notice changes to the festival's BYO policy, followed by a welcome about-face. It seemed attendees hoping for a new level of professionalism might have to wait. Regardless of pre-event impressions, the site itself was again world-class, with four different arenas: the chilled Pyramid Tea Lounge, the more boisterous Electric Nectar Lounge and the Deep Jungle and Wildlands stages, which hosted most of the action. The latter's decor was constructed by popular American designers BambooDNA, and equipped with a Turbosound rig that looked and sounded phenomenal. From early evening on Friday, it was here that a mix of locals and internationals explored the many facets of house. Fantastic Man was slow and groovy, Aram was weird and wonderful, and KiNK, with his Tenori-on raised triumphantly, was downright banging. One of the other key acts for the evening, Avatism, almost didn't make it: on the previous night, the festival's Facebook page was offering free tickets for anyone willing to collect the Italian from the airport and drive him to the site (a four-hour trip). The Deep Jungle had some great moments, too. DjRUM, Ben Fester, Shigeto and Phaeleh's tidy cross-section of bass comes to mind. Jacob Korn, Tin Man and Moomin delivered a superb three hours of driving, trippy and gentle house, respectively. But not all of the bill was so well-programmed. At times, the festival didn't seem to know which genres it was about. As a result, slower house jocks like The Tortoise and Brad Daniels were followed just a few hours later by trance acts like Liquid Soul. Despite booking headliners like Moodymann and Tiga, Strawberry Fields still felt like a hippie-indebted doof, with all the new-age trimmings that entails. Speaking of Moody, his extended set was one of the weekend's best, reigning in his trademark eclecticism just enough to create something coherent and propulsive, but with the usual sense of fun (e.g. Hot Chocolate's "Heaven Is In The Back Seat Of My Cadillac"). It was matched perhaps only by local duo Sleep D, who closed out the festival with a total curveball, eschewing their usual slow and funky house for searing techno. It was just a shame their momentum was cut short by the sound dropping out and a staff member yelling, "Go to the Electric Nectar Lounge, there's music there!" It was unclear whether this was a planned cut-off time, or if the soundsystem had simply failed. There were a few such moments of confusion at Strawberry Fields. The printed programme often felt useless, because stages were ahead or behind time, or acts had swapped. With at least one DJ complaining of a stage manager "wasted" on the job, it's actually surprising how smoothly things went. Part of the problem seems to be just how many acts there were on the bill, and all of the coordination all those artists require. Perhaps this wasn't the year, but with its top-notch taste in international DJs, passionate crew, not to mention its sheer ambition, Strawberry Fields still feels poised mid-step, ready to hit a new level of professionalism. How many more years of practice that will take remains to be seen, but in the meantime, it's a blast. Photo credits: Asher Floyd