Trying to capture the entirety of a weekend-long festival in a single write-up always seems a ridiculous task. Trying to capture the Cape Town leg of Synergy Live 2013 approaches Sisyphean. Synergy was riddled with problems from start to finish. Even before the start, actually. Some of those problems were really quite catastrophic. And yet there didn’t seem to be very many people present who didn’t enjoy themselves. It was kind of like the response received from the risk-averse when getting off one of the festival’s more exhilarating carnival-type rides: sure, it was fun, but can you explain why?
This was Synergy’s 6th year of existence in its current form, and was meant to be its biggest. Four overseas acts were brought down (the same number as the country’s biggest festivals, Oppikoppi and Rocking the Daisies, managed) and a line-up sampling some of South Africa’s best talent – past, present and future. As it turned out, it was one of the lowest turn-outs they’ve had in years. Exact figures aren’t available (for what are probably pretty obvious reasons), but suffice it to say that the festival area was considerably downsized from previous years and it still never felt close to full. There are a few possible explanations for this. First is that they threw the festival the same weekend as Plett Rage, and so the festival took the ballsy but ultimately misguided decision to think that 18 year old kids, strapped with mom and dad’s cash, would choose to come to this over the institution that is Plett Rage. The second is that it happened the same weekend as Kinky Disco, whose attendees would usually be expected to populate the Mainstay Beach Bar for much of the weekend. The third and most obvious is that they simply didn’t do enough beforehand to convince people that the experience as a whole would be worth the R550 ticket price.
Beatenberg opened the main stage on Friday afternoon. With the success of their single ‘Chelsea Blakemore’ and the name they’ve been building for themselves, one might have expected them to pull a large audience, and considering their time slot they did eventually end up with quite a few people present. They’ve very quickly and with seemingly little effort settled into the ‘hip’ pop niche. Their set was great, with Matthew Field’s falsetto particularly impressive. Ross Dorkin goofed around, all knees, on bass guitar and Robin Brink was a standout on the drums. Other Friday highlights included Gateway Drugs, who redeemed their Rocking the Daisies technical mess-up with a wonderfully energetic performance which had their devoted audience singing along, even to the unreleased songs off the upcoming 6-track, Hearts Break, and The Plastics, who showed why they’re still such an exciting act, with last year’s hit ‘Stereo Kids’ going down particularly well.
Saturday afternoon saw The Aztec Sapphire play at their first major festival. It was the last time they were performing their current set, and as usual they knocked it out the park, in spite of some pretty awful technical problems, with their trio of singles, ‘Visitors’, ‘Conflicted’, and ‘The Instinct of Boyhood’ getting a particularly good response. On the electro stage, Daddy Warbucks drew a diverse crowd and had all of them dancing, and he was followed by Headphase, who impressed too. On the main stage, Al Bairre and Shortstraw played back-to-back in possibly the funnest two hours of the main stage. Al Bairre’s frontman Nick Preen proved why he’s one of the most entertaining front men in the country, getting up to all sorts of ridiculous antics, including putting guitarist Kyle Davis on his shoulders for longer than one would think possible and looking up the ‘skirt’ of Assembly Radio’s Dylan Lazarus’ owl costume.
The run-up to the festival did represent a major coup for Kyle Brinkman’s (Das Kapital) Cape Town-based label, Do Work Records. They managed to get three of their artists – RVWR, Leechi and Das Kapital himself – playing back-to-back in prime slots on Saturday night at the Red Bull stage. They labeled the three-hour-long period the ‘#DoWorkTakeover’, and it was a chance for them to make a serious splash and statement. But rather than relying on their own abilities behind the decks, they saw fit to incorporate additional elements to their show, including dancers, a saxophonist and an MC. It was a bold move, and one that, unfortunately, really, really didn’t work. It is incredibly difficult for four dancers on stage during an electro performance not to look awkward, and it doesn’t help at all when it appears that just about zero choreography work went in beforehand. They came on stage repeatedly throughout the period and it turned out to be about as awkward as it could have been. But if that was slightly cringe-worthy, the MC was downright awful. He took it upon himself to shout ‘DO WORK TAKEOVER’ and ‘OH MY GOSH’ and other such aphorisms in a kind of British half-patois over pretty much every single track that all three of the DJs laid out. Not only did the MC add absolutely nothing to the show (except perhaps a crude attempt at brainwash-by-repetition), he actively detracted and near-on ruined three very exciting DJ’s performances. Only the saxophonist, who featured prominently during Leechi’s set, came off right, as he performed his powerful riffs to a receptive audience. It’s a shame that it might not be remembered in the aftermath of the Do Work MC’s destruction.
Back on the main stage, Everything Everything were set to play. It always seems unfair to harp on about technical problems or other unfortunate act-of-God occurrences at festivals, but the hour that it took to get Everything Everything ready really was abysmal. Nowhere was the low turn-out more noticeable than during this set, and the technical problems didn’t help at all. This is the kind of internationally relevant band that festivals should be looking to bring out and it’s a shame that more people didn’t get to witness their set, which was as polished, professional and entertaining as you could hope for from your Saturday night headlining act. With bands like this, there is a definite need, not only for festival promoters, but also radio stations and other conduits through which the event is publicised, to make sure the audience actually knows who the artists are. It sorely exposed the lack of structure within the SA music scene as a whole, or at the very least, Synergy’s place within that structure.
Foreign Beggars’ presence at the festival brought up, once more, the tricky question of foreign acts playing ‘DJ sets’. And nowhere was the issue more dichotomous than with them, as they played a very enjoyable set to a large audience at the Red Bull stage. But as much fun as they were, there’s still no denying it: this wasn’t Foreign Beggars. Not really. They didn’t even play all the best Foreign Beggars tracks, going so far as to slip some Danny Brown and others into their set. The simple truth is that, if we are to start really moving forward as a music scene, then festivals and events need to stop booking bands to play DJ sets. It’s disrespectful to the fans of the music, and it’s disrespectful to the artists they share the stage with, who give their everything to put on the best show they possibly can.
The Sunday, as most Sundays at festivals, was lazy, as attendees wound down. It was especially noticeable at Synergy, however, as there weren’t too many people there to begin with. Diamond Thug did, however, play to a reasonably-sized audience who soaked up the sounds of Chantel Van T’s sultry voice and Danilo Queiros’ bass riffs. It’s not entirely clear why Mix n Blend played on the Sunday, but it was a waste of a great and established act’s talents.
So what’s the verdict on Synergy? There are obviously some things that you can’t control at festivals, and some things, like the weather, will simply always go wrong, but there’s simply no running away from it: Synergy Live 2013 was a mess. A beautiful mess, perhaps, but a mess all the same. Which is a shame – not because the people who attended were unhappy or the experience was ultimately negative – but because it endangers one of South Africa’s foremost music festivals and it threatens to rob us of a great platform for bands to gain new fans and fans to find new bands. It’s unclear what will happen going into the future, but at least for the sake of South African music, this festival shouldn’t be allowed to die.
All Photographs: Alan Phair – ItsNot Phair Photography