Kamasi Washington’s band had unleashed on us for at least an hour when Patrice Quinn finally belted “I’m here,” the final line of The Rhythm Changes. The sun tucked itself behind the Meredith Supernatural Amphitheatre’s stage, and Washington launched into a final tenor-saxophone solo, joined by trombonist Ryan Porter. Without hesitation, I removed my dusty right white Vans Classic and thrust it above my head.
I looked around. My friend Ellie held up a flip flop; her husband, Mark, lifted a running shoe. Dozens of others around us were doing the same. This phenomenon – “the boot” – is a time-honoured tradition here at the Golden Plains Festival, held each March about 100 kilometres west of Melbourne: The festival’s organizers politely request that attendees hoist a piece of footwear high during their favourite moments.
To visiting performers and Canadian guests such as me who’ve infiltrated the amphitheatre, the practice at first seems preposterous. But it’s in keeping with Golden Plains’s communal nature, reminding visitors in the heat of the moment that they’re part of an intense shared experience. “The boot” first began in 2007, at the festival’s debut edition, when a man saw fit to hoist his white boots in the air during a guitar breakdown by the band Comets on Fire; within moments, hundreds of others were doing the same.
To give in to the boot’s absurdity, though, is to be distracted from the festival’s broader sense of inclusivity. Its most basic rules are inscribed on the wristbands given to the 10,000 or so attendees each year: There’ll be no glass, no fires and no tolerance of people who selfishly ruin the festival for others, be it by stage diving, blocking views of the bands or more serious aggressive behaviour.
It is proudly non-commercial and deliberately local-focused – a model that has garnered global interest in its dozen years of existence, and one that more North American festivals might want to emulate. Many of the artists and food vendors come from nearby, and unlike most sponsorship-jammed North American festivals, you are not forced to drink a single multinational brewer’s overpriced beer. You can, in fact, bring your own booze – provided it’s not in glass containers, of course. To police any mess made from the free imbibing of so many cans, festival organizers regularly remind attendees to clean up around them, each time blasting Bananarama’s Venus through the site’s sound system.
Golden Plains isn’t just BYOB – it’s also BYOC: bring your own couch. As fans gather close to the stage for sets by local artists like Wet Lips, Jen Cloher and the Avalanches – plus global artists such as Mogwai, the Black Angels and King Krule – friends who’d prefer to hang back can watch from rows of couches lining the natural amphitheatre’s upper rim. Hundreds of them wind up nestled among the giant ghost gum trees each year, all brought from festivalgoers’ homes. On these, strangers mix and mingle; through one old pal from Melbourne, my two Canadian friends and I wound up carousing with a party of 20 locals throughout the weekend, on an old orange couch serving as our base of operations.
These new friends were extremely helpful, too, in assisting my adjustment to the oppressive Australian heat. As the Los Angeles bassist Thundercat played in the 4 p.m. Saturday sun, my fourth layer of SPF-50 stopped working, and I could feel my forehead burning in real time – until my new pal Georgia came and draped a water-soaked towel over the both of us.
The sun coming down revealed its own version of the festival’s friendliness. As thousands gathered farther from the stage to watch the sun set over the namesake golden plains, one man held his child skyward from the hilltop, as if he were The Lion King’s Simba. Another felt comfortable enough to get naked and do back flips.
When darkness fell, people crammed back into the amphitheatre for sets by Grizzly Bear, Baker Boy and then, finally, Big Boi. Cycling through his enormous catalogue – OutKast smashes such as Ms. Jackson, booming solo hits including In the South – the Atlanta rapper, one of the world’s finest technicians, held the crowd in his hand thousands of miles from his home and mine. The local-focused festival showed just how global great music can be. During B.O.B., I looked down and remembered I’d changed into a different pair of shoes – Australian-made boots, in fact – and decided it was worth hoisting one of them, too. I thrust it into the air.
Golden Plains Festival is held each year in March in the province of Victoria. Tickets are in the $400 range and are available through a ballot system, which will open in late September for the 2019 edition.