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The Falls Festival: A FOH Engineer’s Story

Henry Brister offers budding engineers and musos a personal, behind-the-scenes insight into what it’s actually like on the other side of the crowd barrier.

By

18 March 2005

My alarm clock woke me abruptly at 7am on the 30th of December 2004. It was an early start. It needed to be. I had a plan meticulously laid out for the morning. Things needed to run like clockwork.

Unfortunately, come 8am after I’d slept through at least three strikes of the snooze button my schedule needed a certain amount of readjustment.

Still buttoning up my shirt as I jumped aboard a tram into Melbourne town I realised I needed luck on my side. I was collecting a hire car that would transport me and my entourage to The Falls festival. People were waiting; gear was racked and road-cased ready to roll; and The Falls wasn’t going to wait.

I’ve been heading to The Falls near Lorne for eight years now – this year with Rocket Science, as their front of house engineer. That’s a lot of Falls under the belt, but, as they say, this time it was going to be different. The previous years I’d been on the production staff, and as the festival has gained in popularity, each year seemed to be madder and more frenetic that the last. But this year, my only gig was with Rocket Science; and the other difference was that this year I was to be accompanied by my fiancé, Sophie. This was going to be like a stroll on the beach compared to the previous years. I was also looking forward to my first experience of the Marion Bay Falls in Tasmania – Rocket Science were booked to play down there the following day.

Anyway, back to my hire car. On my list of to-dos I had to pick up Andy Stewart (AT’s beloved editor who was travelling down with us) from Elwood, and Roman Tucker (Rocket Science’s singer and organist) and his partner, Mimi, from Richmond, before high-tailing it back to Northcote. Time was tight, and the trip to Lorne would take several hours – especially given the New Year’s traffic and the inevitable food stop along the way.

I was already behind the eight-ball thanks to my extra snooze time and I didn’t factor in the demand for hire cars of the New Year period… Then of course there was everyone else who’d promised to be ready ‘n’ waiting on the footpath waiting for a drive-by pickup… Wouldn’t even need to slow down I was told.

Needless to say, no one was ready, but finally I had a full complement of passengers. We all piled into the car and headed back to Northcote at speed to load the van. Cursing just a little now, and solidly behind schedule, I turned right into Melville Road (after a few wrong turns here and there) only to be confronted by a column of stationary traffic banked up behind a tram. I was about to pull a full-throttle manoeuvre when Andy cautioned, “Don’t speed, man! I saw cops pulling people over around here yesterday.”

Too late, 100 metres past the next set of lights, a couple of ‘Victoria’s finest’ in an unmarked police car pulled me over and booked me for speeding, successfully ruining my weekend with a $200 fine. A great start to the Festival season we all agreed.

THE MAD SCRAMBLE

Finally, after the tram ride, the hire car debacle, a few wrong turns here and there, a speeding fine and all our gear and passengers packed into the two cars, we were off at a cracking pace. With Andy now driving after relieving me of further opportunities to boost government coffers, I could finally take a breath and contemplate the day ahead. We now had about three hours before Rocket Science would hit the stage in Lorne.

We stopped in Winchelsea and wolfed down the strangest chicken burgers we’d ever tasted, then drove the last leg through some amazing countryside – the rolling hills leading into the Otways dotted with hay rolled up in, er, rolls (yes, I’m from the city). Pretty soon we started to pass what looked suspiciously like ‘Falls Festival-bound’ cars, and soon after we were at the ‘back gate’ as Andy and I like to call it – the artist and guest checkpoint. Praise be… we’d made it.

With our credentials confirmed and stray passes collected, we continued on up the road to the festival site. Heavy machinery and the odd generator made the route to the back of stage a bit tricky, and our detour through the chai-sipping crowds of the market stalls wasn’t met with too much appreciation. We parked behind the stage, where Carus and the True Believers (WA) were setting up to play. No sooner had I put the car into park, Sophie bid me farewell and dissolved into the crowd for the full Falls experience.

BIG-TOP PA

The big-top stage was built with its back facing the apex of the hill. The slope of the site meant that my position at FOH was about two metres below the level of the base of the stage. Everyone agreed that the PA could have used some more power in the bottom end, but all in all, the ol’ JBL rig was loud enough to cover the crowd, while not interfering with the main stage down the hill – Missy Higgins was playing in the main arena and you could hear her clearly (courtesy of a Nexo GeoT line array) from the dressing-room tent.

MATINEE PERFORMANCE

Within half an hour of our arrival, the time had come to set up in earnest: the drum kit was almost ready, guitars were in good hands – all I had to do was set up the organ and edgily jockey our stuff near the stage without getting in the way of the other band’s exit – dropping a speaker box here, an amp there, to tighten up the changeover time. After a quick discussion with the monitor operator, we were all set to hit the stage.

And then it was time – rushing around trying to get all Carus’ stuff off safely, and our gear on in the right order, plugging in and checking instruments, positioning mics, etc, before doing a bolter for the FOH desk to start the show. With barely enough time to stop my legs moving, the guys ripped into the opener, and I had my hands full getting everything in line. The guys from dB Audio in Victoria were really competent (as always) and everything was pretty much where it needed to be – I just needed to reassign a few VCAs and auxes and it was all go, bar the odd tweak! As expected, the subs weren’t huge, but sufficient for my needs. The crowd was great, and soon the set was in full swing with Roman crowd surfing and plenty of thrashing about from both the audience and band. It was still only mid-afternoon, but I have to say those kids in Victoria make anytime ‘rock time’!

As the gig ended (to rapturous applause from the excitable crowd), I immediately set about packing the gear away, sorting the freight (that would be air-lifted to Tassie) from the stuff that was returning with us to Melbourne, and steeled myself for the drive through a river of people flowing back and forth between the site and the camping ground. Luckily for me, a smiling site worker stemmed the tide like a teenage Moses just long enough to allow me to get down to the back of the main stage. The Falls production had a charter flight taking the band gear to Hobart early in the morning – the idea being, we’d find our gear side-of-stage at Marion Bay in Tasmania when we arrived. So, after a dodgy backstage meal and a couple of hours chatting with a few mates, we all waved goodbye to the slightly perplexed looking gate attendant, challenged a gaggle of determined driveway-hangers to get out of the way of the car, and headed down the hill to Lorne.

Stage One… complete.

LORNE GREEN

In all my years of being at the Falls Festival I haven’t got down to Lorne all that often (being chock-o-block full of holidaymakers I prefer to drive in and out the back way), but even on an overcast day it’s quite stunning. Descending from Erskine Falls to the Great Ocean Road that night was breathtaking. As we left the Otway rainforest the clouds shifted from yellow to orange to mauve to red – a show we mere humans could only ever hope to emulate – truly awe-inspiring stuff.

With Andy still at the wheel (I just couldn’t get the car back off him after my run-in with the cops!) we drove through Lorne and headed towards Melbourne with the setting sun at our backs. I sat back and enjoyed the commentary… Of course, Andy has something to say about every part of the coast, being an avid surfer (and nutbag) – which had Sophie fascinated all the way to Bell’s Beach. The light ran out at Jan Juc. It had been a long day, but with New Year’s Eve in Tassie yet to come, we all passed out quite early, well aware that our journey was far from over.

The next morning we abandoned the hire vehicles at Tullamarine, and along with a few other bands on the flight, headed down to Hobart. The airport was a bit of a construction site and teeming with people. Which I think must have contributed to the confusion between myself, Billy Bragg and John Butler as to whose bag was whose – I don’t think Hobart airport had seen such an influx of people. It took us at least half an hour to get our cars (again!), but after a few wrong turns here and there, a causeway or two, and the Barilla Bay oyster shop, we found our way to the artists’ entrance of the festival site.

MARION BAY

Much flatter than the Erskine Falls site, and with a spectacular view of Marion Bay behind the stage, there was a more relaxed vibe about the Tassie leg. Plenty of folk were drinking in the sun and drinking a whole lot else besides in front of the main stage. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect – a few puffy clouds, and a fresh Tassie breeze coming off the sea – it was a great looking festival day!

I hopped off to front of house to familiarise myself with the layout of the PA and the site. Both the Falls sites are natural amphitheatres, and when I arrived at FOH the breeze didn’t seem to bother the PA too much at all, just an occasional gust knocking the cymbals around a bit. I stood and watched a few songs then went backstage to set up our stuff – but first a dreaded toilet stop. As it happens, the Falls management has taken the proactive step of installing a composting toilet system – a great idea, as the waste of 13,000 people can be thought of as a resource on a country farm, rather than a pollutant needing to be carted away. The big bonus of this is that there’s no big toilet blocks that need to be pumped out. Why is it that every time this occurs the prevailing wind is inevitably blowing the ensuing stench on stage? Stinky. Try singing and playing while the ripest pong ever is sharing your set, and then you’ll know what I mean. Full marks for the toilet idea! (But only 6 ½ out of 10 for the construction.)

THE MARION BAY GIG

The stage at Marion Bay was, like the day before, a one side off and on situation, so we had to arrange ourselves accordingly, squeezing into corners while trying to leave enough room for Missy Higgins to get off. Praise be to the gods of running times, because Billy Bragg was playing after us, solo, making the changeover afterwards much less of a stress. When Missy finished, it was all go – swapping drum risers (roll on, roll off), and jockeying the Leslie and keyboard onto stage. Ten minutes later, I performed the obligatory sprint to FOH to knock the desk into shape double-time. Nobody had brought any CDs, so I used a Fats Waller disc that my mum had given me – non-plussing most, but certainly entertaining Mr. Bragg, if no-one else!

As Rocket Science strolled on to loud applause, the wind gusted a bit stronger than before, forcing me to add some mids here and there, but everything was working well, and the gig ‘went off’. The EV X-Array was beefy and loud, the crowd got into it, and everything was going well… That is until the bass rig gave up the ghost, prompting Dave Gray to chuck his bass across stage in disgust! Luckily it was towards the end of the set. The band finished up in a cat’s chorus of feedback, which was still wailing away by the time I met them at side of stage.

Unlike the ‘punters’ perspective, that’s never the end of the day of course. Immediately Caleb Williams and I had to clear the stage of our gear (with the exception of Billy’s Fender Twin that Roman had used) and pack up as quickly as possible so the other acts could set up. But no sooner was my workday drawing to a close than I was roped into drum tech’ing for Veruca Salt. I actually managed to get the drum kit almost right, which means I must be learning something, but when Miley (Veruca Salt’s drummer) came up, he showed me that I needed to drop almost everything down: the snare; the seat, the kickdrum.

So we got the changeover done very quickly, and their show went quite well, with only a few drum mishaps – I wish I’d had more shotbags. I’ve not often seen someone put so much energy into it! It was fun to watch. Good band.

We packed up Veruca’s stuff as You Am I set themselves up. Suffice it to say that about that time I got a little distracted, and forgot to put the labels on our cases to go back to Melbourne (sorry, guys!). [For anyone who is unaware, You Am I’s set only lasted about four songs before Tim Rogers stormed off stage.] The ensuing chaos wasn’t pretty and a couple of my friends got quite upset, which was depressing. However, about that time we all decided to head back to Hobart.

The Hobart city one-way system mystified us for a while, but we eventually (after a few wrong turns here and there) found a bottle shop and the hotel, and retired to our rooms to relax and wind down. It may have been New Year’s Eve, but I was completely shagged, so declined the offer to hit the clubs.

Despite all the mishaps, close calls, and the few wrong turns here and there, it was the most relaxed Falls experience I’ve had… by far. I want to thank Simon and Naomi Daly, Buzz and all the Falls crew: Dave Allpress, Saul, Marty, Paul, Matt, and all the production crew in Lorne, Dylan and the production crew in Marion Bay who, with their superhuman efforts, made it all possible. Cheers.

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