A great festival is much more than just a great lineup – it obviously helps to have some top notch acts onboard, but to really succeed at the game, you need to strike that perfect balance of atmosphere, entertainment and community. Now seven years deep into its presence, the 2017 edition of Yours & Owls knocked it out of the park with two riotous days of vodka, vibes, and viciously massive jams. It's no longer just a niche mini-fest to showcase Australia's up-and-coming, but rather a stately, international-starring event big enough to rival the Laneways and Groovin The Moos amongst it.
Beautifully warm and with the faint, comforting smell of saltwater lingering in the distance (Yours & Owls is held adjacent to the North Wollongong Beach), day one was off to a peachy start. Future slacker-pop queen Ruby Fields doled us our first sleet of festival vibes, her airy, homespun riffs and laidback vocal delivery as welcoming as they were energetic. Though she only has a few tracks on the market, Fields had no trouble packing her 30-minute set full of tight, sticky pop jams that made full use of her three-piece backing band but still kept the focus squarely on herself.
Two sets in, chaos struck when Brisbane pit-swellers WAAX bursted onto the Out Of Space stage. A last minute fill-in for Major Leagues (who dropped out sans explanation), the quintet proved themselves a worthy addition with more virile punk intensity than any daytime act should be able to muster. To a soundtrack of thick, wailing guitars from Ewan Birtwell and Chris Antolak, frontwoman Marie DeVita roamed the stage with rapturous gusto, coupling every blazing snarl with the appropriate dramatic flair. Cuts from this year's Wild & Weak EP spurred copious pits and some ineffable singalongs, but it was a small taste of their forthcoming debut album that truly cemented WAAX's set as the festival's best, before an intense cover of Courtney Barnett's "Pedestrian At Best" closed it out with a bang. Give it two years, and WAAX will be headlining events like this.
Sweat now streaming down our faces, Ali Barter's summery indie-pop strums brought us back to reality with vivid aplomb. Stacked with retro-flavoured gems from her March debut, A Suitable Girl, Barter's set was sprightly and very, very danceable, yet lowkey enough that we left her set feeling more relaxed than amped up. Barter made a point to actually connect with her audience, with made the set feel more like an intimate club show than a lofty festival scene; midway through, she commended our fashion sense as being "so much hashtag boho right now!" With ripping '90s grunge riffs driving it, lead single "Girlie Bits" saw the jaunt out with a singalong that almost overpowered Barter herself.
The cheerful energy rolled on with a buoyant set from Alex Lahey, whose rollicking power-pop flowed smiles through the park like maple syrup over pancakes. I Love You Like A Brother – Lahey's long-awaited debut album – is set to hit shelves this week, and with upbeat scorchers like "Every Day's The Weekend" and the title track sending Wollongong into a flurry of bouncing feet, it's without a doubt she'll have a handful of extra sales come Friday. The highlight of her set, however, came in a raucous cover of Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn", which, if we dare say, might just have eclipsed the original in terms of quality. Equally as poignant as Lahey's music was her character – "It's so great to be in Wollongong: the true capital of Australia," she cracks in an air of self-assured wit.
It was 3:30pm when Trophy Eyes vanquished the mainstage, and a combination of heat, alcohol and pent-up energy meant the Novocastrian emo kings were poised to trigger a breed of calamity that no festival of this caliber had ever bared witness to. Pits brewed like Spartan rampages, no cheek left un-elbowed and no torso left un-flykicked. Bodies toppled over the barrier in droves as frontman John Floreani spit pure ferocity, chunky, almost metalcore-ish guitars blaring in excess behind him. The setlist was borrowed entirely from last year's monumental Chemical Miracle – given the sheer enormity of every song on that LP, it made for a perfect fit on an afternoon that was, frankly, in need of a bit of violence.
Another late addition to the lineup were San Diego surf-punks Wavves. The last time they hit our shores was for the Falls festival in 2015, where the quartet threw a mainstage crowd of their feet with a chasm of raw, wailing riffs and searing yelps. A lot seems to have changed in two years, though, and... Not exactly for the better. The band sounded clumsy, guitars colliding in the mix and frontman Nathan Williams acutely off his game both with axe in hand and behind the mic. And though we could chalk it up to their wild stage antics taking precedence, there weren't that many of note to begin with. In a very un-Wavves turn of events, the group were depressingly lifeless in their performance.
Through no fault of their own, the slump of underperforming bands continued with The Preatures. Admittedly, the Sydney indie-rockers still played to their artistic strengths – Girlhood numbers like "Yanada" translated phenomenally to the stage with guitarist Jack Moffitt spewing out endless and endlessly suave rock'n'roll licks. But in the open-air festival setting, the elemental intimacy of The Preatures' slick, smoky atmosphere is lost. They're a band more suited to theatres, where their grandeur can flourish without impediment; here, theatrics are muddled by over-talkative punters sloshing drunkenly around in blow-up dinosaur onesies.
Perhaps it was by virtue of their nighttime billing, stage slathered in smoke or (unfairly) small crowd – for what seemed like the shortest 40 minutes in history, Bad//Dreems made Yours & Owls feel like a damp, sweaty punk bar. Alex Cameron's punchy guitar juts were faultless for the entire duration, but with his austere, dedicated antics dialled up to 11, frontman Ben Marwe completely stole the show. Where other bands use festivals to prove themselves to potential new fans, Bad//Dreems said, "F*** it" and just let loose – and in doing so, they almost certainly scored some new fans.
Likewise, Dune Rats were all over the f***ing place. The stoner-punks were sloppy, a little too far gone on the drinks and no less than incoherent on the banter front... And it was bloody perfect. Mindless shredding sent their full crowd into overdrive, pits brewing and swelling to the point of eruption with every loud, pseudo-melodic chorus belting from the mainstage. Gloriously cooked as he may have been, frontman Danny Beausa wielded lead vocals and the only guitar in the mix with a surprising amount of his shit together. There were still a few acts left to take the stage, but the most insane 45 minutes of the day to their name, Dune Rats virtually headlined the festival.
As for the actual headliners, we had admittedly low expectations for metalcore stalwarts Northlane. In the years since Marcus Bridge took the reins from former scream-lord Adrian Fitipaldes, the band have fluctuated between a vivid force to be reckoned with and a haphazard collision of lazy playing and embarrassing aesthetics. Recent tours had seen them hit a low point, but against all odds, they crushed it tonight. Riding the high of their palatial fifth album Mesmer, the quintet shone with mathy seven-string leads and thick, rumbling basslines. Bridge and rhythm guitarist Josh Smith wove together with particular fluidity, Bridge's crisp harmonies faultlessly complimenting Smith's brutality.
Shuffling out of the festival grounds was a chore: with calamitous moshes to Northlane, Trophy Eyes and WAAX defining the day, our feet were far beyond rescue. The sheer thought of doing it all again tomorrow is equal parts exciting and goddamn terrifying – may God have mercy on our soles.