Lush Festival 2019: Stellar music, sopping weather

Article and all photos by Ashton Kirsten.

It’s that time of year again – a chill in the night air, yellowing poplar trees, and an unending torrential downpour. Pull on your gumboots and grab that umbrella, because here’s my experience of a picturesque Easter weekend in Clarens for Lush Festival 2019.

The new festival venue, Noah’s Cheese, is nothing short of breathtaking. Festival-goers are treated to the farm’s rolling green pastures and ideal settlement at the base of the mountains: any view from the festival is a good one. Music-lovers could exhale the smog of big city life and inhale cool breaths of Free State air on a welcoming and well-marshalled cheese farm. The farm was kept immaculately clean by teams of friendly marshals and security guards could be found in every direction. Presumably having learned from recent developments in the South African music festival scene, Lush took pains to ensure people’s safety and peace of mind.

Raygun Royale were given the daunting task of opening the festival’s main stage and they stepped up to the occasion. Their set was full of energy and the band’s interaction with the crowd showed promise of an eventful, exciting festival – the stage was set and the band left big shoes to fill. The Tazers followed suit and delivered an impactful, strong performance that engaged the crowd with its psychedelic riffs and seemingly effortless delivery.

On Friday afternoon, relative newcomer, Refentse, drew crowds with his energetic medleys and authentic enjoyment of the content he and his ever-smiling band were producing. Tentative at first, crowds warmed to main stage to sing along and dance to the carefree air of the set. Refentse’s arrangement was truly a masterclass in how to arrange a festival set: equal parts genuine crowd engagement, heightened crowd familiarity with the presented content, and delivery of new, fresh music for the masses.

Nic Preen, of Al Bairre fame, delivered a nostalgic shoutout to the ridiculously popular band that once was and also played some of his solo content in an earnest and endearing set, complete with the playful inclusion of Little Ringo (whose set rained out). The intimate setting at the Kraal Bar lent an extended sense of familiarity and wistfulness to the performance.

Perhaps as a Pretoria girl, I am somewhat biased, but the real star in the crown of Lush was Desmond and the Tutus’ upbeat set. There is something about the energetic beats and tongue-in-cheek lyrics that turns crowds into laughing, bopping, buzzing collections of atoms. The band delivered a brilliant performance and kept the crowd chanting “We want ‘Pretoria Girls’” until they eventually delivered their smash hit at the conclusion of their set. It was, however, delivered with a twist in that it included verses from Drake’s ever-recognizable ‘Hotline Bling’ – this inclusion was intensely clever in that the crowd immediately recognized the song and didn’t miss a beat in singing along. It’s a far cry, but I’m holding thumbs that hopefully this version will exist somewhere in some far corner of the internet.

Something truly unique about Lush is the organizers’ timeliness and commitment to their pre-set schedule: all of the shows ran on time and you could set your watch by their line-up times, which, having been to my fair share of festivals, is no mean feat and is not to be taken lightly. Arranging sound checks, equipment, artists, crew, and crowds is not a job for the faint-hearted, and the Lush team navigated this with absolute ease.

The festival’s Achilles’ heel remains their management of logistics in terms of the elements. While no-one is expecting organizers to control the weather and ward off the rain, what is in their control is the planning of routes and roads for when Clarens’ inevitable April rains strike, and continue to strike for days on end. On Saturday afternoon we were lucky enough to come across two well-intentioned irrigation salesmen from Bethlehem who were willing to tow our small student-scale car through the stodgy mud that we were unable to brave.

Hundreds of festival-goers were left nothing short of trapped because they intended to leave on the Sunday, which was the official conclusion of the festival, and the mud was impossible for most cars (including 4x4s) to maneuver through. The roads in and out of the farm became decommissioned one after the other, with each new alternate route soon collapsing. By Sunday night, some people were still on the farm, having waited for hours on end but to no avail despite organizers’ attempts to collaborate with surrounding farmers, municipal workers, and emergency services. With minimal food and water supplies left by this point, many took to social media with the hashtag #flushlush to communicate their disdain towards the festival management.

Defendants of the festival compared this slushy experience to that of Woodstock in that there was mud, music, and relative chaos, and urged those who were trapped to make the most of the situation as they would probably remember it for years to come. Unfortunately, I think those who were stuck will remember this for all the wrong reasons. While Woodstock was iconic, I truly believe that everyone who bought tickets for this relatively small festival on the outskirts of a sleepy Free State town didn’t exactly sign up for the Woodstock experience.

Lush started off strong and delivered musically. The festival’s infrastructural breakdown at its conclusion may very well cost the festival; it served as a disappointing end to an otherwise stellar presentation of talent from South Africa and abroad.