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Splashy Fen 2009: The Weekend The Earth Stood Still

2009-04-14 11:43
Splashy Fen 2009

Followed by a R60 donut through Mooi River and two unnecessary hours at the mercy of Average Speed Enforcement. Altogether, it took us five and half hours to get to Splashy – which cuts twice as deep when the trip up from Durban’s an easy two and a half, with change. In the end, it mattered like a new flat peak to a guy with no ears. Because Splashy Fen 20, just like the nineteen before it, was always going to be the weekend the earth stood still (and stupid).

When I turned 20, I "borrowed" my dad's car, had too much to drink and crashed into a barrier – good times. Splashy Fen, on the other hand, wasn't interested in any post-teenage, pre-adolescent shenanigans for their big two-o. No siree. Coaxing old dogs like Squeal, Sugardrive and US legend Shawn Phillips out of the woodwork, booking mainstream acts like Watershed, Chris Chameleon, Spoonfeedas and Goldfish, and lovingly paying tribute to silver foxes like Tony Cox, Steve Fataar and The Patron Saint of Splashy Fen himself, Syd Kitchen, Splashy Fen 20 was a festival dedicated to "legends" – imagine if they’d gone all out and rebuilt The Rainbow Hippy Village, resuscitated Lithium, Arapaho, Amersham and BOO!, flown in Just Jinger and got Barney Simon to MC.

But like any institutional annual music fest, Splashy Fen's more than just a lineup of bands in a glossy program. It's a quarter-year escape from the world. A no-questions-asked opportunity to just untie, unplug and go feral. It’s an adventure. And that’s why people like Mark Theunissen fly in from London and Calkie Wayne drive nonstop from PE, every year. Even though this year, they both thought the lineup "Kinda sucked." "It's what I do," said Wayne, driving a Black Label draught off into the twilight, giggling like a schoolgirl at an aKING show. "The Rudimentals and City Bowl Mizers, that's about it for me," added Mark.

Bouncing from all-star '80s cover band Hairlip, to out of tune 11-year-old kid band Customized, to midday song intros like, "This song was originally written in 1928," I definitely felt the void of an aKING, Kidofdoom, New Academics, or Desmond and the Tutus (or anything metal) on Saturday afternoon. With a Blunt stage and a lineup featuring Fokofpolisiekar, 7th Son, Lark, The Dirty Skirts, Diesel Whores, Impropriety, The Hellphones and The Rudies, Splashy Fen 2006 was probably about as out there and alternative as the festival ever went – the year before featured Fuzigish, Hog Hoggidy Hog, New Academics, 340ml, Sibling Rivalry, The Narrow, and The Rudies (The Rudimentals have played four out five Splashys since 2005).

Among all the mellow jams and repeat performances, the likes of Fruits & Veggies, Tree Houses On the Sea, Wrestlerish and Haggis and Bong all did pulse with the excitement of new life. And like Mark predicted, The Rudies and City Bowl were two of the standouts.

But by the time Joburg's The Shadowclub rocked 'n rolled around on Saturday night, drunk ears had been starved of distortion far too long. And a rabble of rock-hungry Splashy Fenners burst through the barriers in front of the tiny Splashy Fen Stage, momentarily crazed by the pure essence of rock 'n roll: loud guitars, driving bass and fast, skull-bashing drums.

When the dust had settled (in the form of a dark ring around my bath tub), I spoke to the marrying man himself, Durban folk legend Syd Kitchen. Opening his set with a re-enactment of his recent Valentine’s Day wedding, Syd's 20th Splashy was a special one. His Dr. Seuss, "wheels on the bus go round and round" style "wash your socks" sing-along’s a bit weird – part of the Splashy mythology I guess – but Syd's guest star-riddled set coursed with energy and a kind of Bob Dylan-esque majesty. And despite a broken nail, he killed it, "I wasn’t totally comfortable. I broke a nail on the very first song and had to play the whole set with it. Which is very significant because of the way I play."

What about this year's lineup?

Syd: "Splashy's been through some loops and changes. At the moment, Pedro's (Carlo) getting it reasonably right. Watershed’s pretty radio rock, pretty mainstream pop – I think they started off well but petered out – but there was some nice alternative stuff. Those bagpipe guys (Haggis and Bong) were cool. They're from Pretoria, so there’s some wacky synergy going on there, with the bagpipes and Celtic thing and their Afrikaans blood. Jack Mantis was good as well. Really tight. Reminded me of Audience from the '70s. And of course, Rudies were amazing. Goldfish were a bit fucking hectic this year."

How did it compare to the original?

Syd: "There were a lot more cops at the first Splashy – ¬I think there were about 700 people and 700 cops. But they realised they’d have to arrest the whole crowd if they wanted to do anything, and people just smoked dope out in the open. It was also freezing. The stage was down by the river and really high up. That wind just cut right through you."

Did anyone else on this year's lineup play Splashy 1, besides you and Tony Cox?

Maybe some of the Hairy Legged Lentil Eaters. From the old Folk Club days, before they were called Hairy Legged Lentil Eaters. Brian Benningfield? But Tony and I were the headliners. It was nice to see Tony back.

And what was it like getting married on stage?

It was a bit odd, but it was cool. A lot of people wanted to be at our marriage but they couldn't. It was fun, my granddaughter had a blast.

Looking through the 1990 to 2008 lineups in the history section on the Splashy website is a complete who’s who of South African music. And over the years, the festival has dabbled with cutting edge and experimental – last year’s lineup included Cape Town flavours like Love On Rollerskates, New Loud Rockets, Magic of Pegasus, The Beams, The Rudies and Captain Stu, edgy Durbanites like Sibling Rivalry, Go! Go! Bronco and Crossingpoint, Pretoria's Kidofdoom and Joburg's Your Name In Neon. This year, Splashy went back to its roots, focussing on family entertainment, folk music, old legends and big game party starters. And even though Splashy Fen means different things to different people, from going down to the river, drinking Black Label draughts and forgetting your own name, to dropping the kids off at the Childrens’ tent and relaxing to the classic folk of Shawn Phillips, to screaming your heard off at your favourite rugby team, there’s a common thread to our escapism.

And in a lot of ways, Splashy Fen reminds you what's really important in life – pancakes.

Rounding the corner into Harrismith, I knew something was up. The scenery hadn't looked right for a long time and suddenly, clarity poured in like a bottle of Windex.

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