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Very few newcomer Australian festivals have caused a stir like Sydney City Limits. Brought to us by the same minds behind the colossal Splendour in the Grass and Falls Festivals, the hype was electric upon the event’s unveiling. Due in no part to a stacked lineup.

Last weekend we saw the realisation of that excitement, as a cohort of world-class musicians landed in Sydney’s Centennial Park. It was baby steps for Sydney City Limits, sure, but they undoubtedly hit the ground running.

Finding its feet with a tremendous inaugural lineup, Sydney City Limits was not without its hiccups. That said, I dare you to find me another festival with such a powerful first incarnation.

In the early stages of the festival, it was the Australian cohort who commanded the attention. Stella Donnelly, Tkay Maidza and Winston Surfshirt all brought the crowds and the energy pre-3pm, when the fly-ins began to take over.

Not to mention the early birds were the only artists to suffer the dreaded half-hour slot, and Sydney City Limits needs a pat on the back for keeping the playing times nice and lengthy as the day went on. Post-Car Seat Headrest (“IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIIIIIIIISS”) every set was at least 45 minutes, which I have to say was very nice indeed.

Gang of Youths suffered from the curse of the Sydney decibel limit unfortunately. Doing their best to keep the energy up, sadly not much could be done when the seventh row could barely hear the vocals. Despite it all, Dave remained his saucy self for the nosebleed section.

Next I caught The Avalanches, who had improved tenfold from their headline slot at Splendour in the Grass 2016 (when their MC had to read lyrics to Frankie Sinatra off his phone). Their live set was an eclectic wonderland, calling in the bigger cuts from Wildflower as well as crowd-pleasing throwbacks Since I Left You and Frontier Psychiatrist.

sydney city limits grace jones

Photo: Ian Laidlaw

I stuck around the Park Stage for Grace Jones, who arrived 15 minutes late for her sunset slot. You could almost be annoyed at her, if she wasn’t Grace fucking Jones.

At 69, she was the festival’s oldest performer, and also happened to be the most naked. Clothed in nothing but a mask, shawl, underwear and head to toe tribal body paint, she stole the stage like only she could. I caught disco burner Nightclubbing and My Jamaican Guy after a costume change, utterly flawed by both numbers.

Moving over to the side-by-side House and Harbour stages, I settled into a decent spot to catch the last 20 minutes of Beck and the full onslaught of Justice. The former was surrounded by one of the day’s tightest and most extensive stage bands, dancing around in his usual, genre-bending flurry.

Beck’s a world-class performer no doubt, and the decades he’s spent on the trail shone through. However as his set warmed down and a bright cross began to illuminate the stage next door, I have to say he was overshadowed by dance monstrosities Justice.

Sydney City Limits justice live set

Photo: Mitch Lowe

Making full use of their 120-minute set, the French duo performed at a level few artists can dream of. Enwreathed by a circle of synths, Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay paid no heed to the fragility of their audience’s minds, the speakers snarling with each drop, mash-up and rare pause.

Opening with an extended version of Safe and Sound (teasing a D.A.N.C.E sample while they were at it), the set was a finely sewn tapestry of their work to date. Festival bangers Genesis and DVNO amped the crowd to critical levels, while their gnarlier cuts Stress and Waters of Nazareth were almost to hot to handle.

All in all Sydney City Limits ran as smoothly as can be expected for a festival in its premiere year. When 2019 rolls around and they team have ironed out the few kinks SCL version one ran into, you can be sure we’re in for another classic.

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February 27, 2018

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