The highs and lows of Falls Festival Byron Bay

Happy‘s Sam Bowmer headed to the recent Falls Festival at Byron Bay to see if it was a festival worth attending or skipping.

In many ways, Falls Festival Byron Bay 22/23 felt like half a Splendour in the Grass. That’s something I consider to be both for the better and for the worse.

The Byron leg of Falls takes place in the same location as Splendour, and is run by the same organisers, but the area taken up by Falls‘ stages and stalls is substantially smaller, with three main stages compared to Splendour‘s five.

Falls Festival Genesis Owusu
Amphitheatre hill crowds were noticeably thinner for Falls Festival than Splendour in the Grass (Credit: Falls Festival / Charlie Hardy)

Perhaps consequently, the turnout for Falls Festival also appeared much smaller. The main stage (called El Capitan for Falls) in particular highlighted this, with North Byron’s amphitheatre hill being noticeably less crowded for Falls than a comparable Splendour set.

For the most part, this was fantastic. The smaller crowds made just about every part of the festival experience of Falls easier: there were virtually zero wait times to get in or out of the festival, much smaller queues for food, drinks, and toilets, and finding a great spot to view sets became far easier than just about any other Aussie festival of comparable size.

Still, Falls‘ at-times sparse population did leave an underwhelming feeling in the air for many of the main stage’s earlier performances. Acts like Genesis Owusu – one of Australia’s finest artists and performers – put on an exhilarating set for the main stage that deserved a much denser crowd than what Falls provided, with the vast expanses of empty grass somewhat dulling the excitement factor of a set where Owusu himself did everything right.

Genesis Owusu Live
Genesis Owusu did everything right for his stunning Falls Festival set (Credit: Falls Festival / Joseph Mayers)

Thankfully, if the smaller crowds dimmed the spirits of the main stage performers it was impossible to tell. Every artist I managed to catch on El Capitan gave it their all, with Genesis Owusu, Chvrches, G Flip, Rico Nasty and PinkPantheress providing particularly great performances.

The main stage act that got everyone talking (and dancing) though was The Wiggles.

It should come as no surprise that a set list honed over three decades to engage and excite audiences of toddlers also goes down great with a slightly inebriated 18+ festival audience. The Wiggles’ set was an unironic masterclass in crowd interaction, with just about the entire audience singing and dancing along to classics like Hot Potato and Rock-a-Bye Your Bear.

The Wiggles Falls Festival
The Wiggles’ live set translated shockingly well to the 18+ festival environment (Credit: Falls Festival / Kurt Petersen)

Cynics and snobs may denounce The Wiggles’ newfound popularity with Australia’s teenagers and twenty-somethings as an ironic, nostalgia-coded joke, but the joy in the audience and the quality of the group’s set at Falls Festival was undeniable.

The crown for the best non-headliner set, however, has to go to Amyl and the Sniffers, who absolutely tore up El Capitan on the sunset of day three. The crowd went absolutely feral for the band, with the only moshing I witnessed all weekend kicking up enough dust to obscure parts of the stage at times. It was a blast.

Amyl and the Sniffers
Amyl and the Sniffers gave the most exciting performance from any non-headlining act for the weekend (Credit: Falls Festival / Charlie Hardy)

Over at the festival’s secondary Galaxy Tent stage, crowd densities were experiencing the opposite problem to El Capitan. The Galaxy tent itself was simply too small, and punters wishing to get out of the baking sun needed to pack themselves like sardines under it to achieve any sort of respite from the UV radiation. The result was the most packed crowds of the weekend, and the need to get to Galaxy Tent sets earlier than El Capitan sets, lest you get left out of the shade and without a view of the stage.

Thankfully getting to Galaxy early was well worth it, with consistently great performances from the stage’s line-up. May-A, Beddy Rays, and King Stingray in particular put in career-highlight sets, while Peach PRC gave us the weekend’s most wholesome moments with a clear and reciprocated love for her audience as they sang every lyric back to her.

Peach PRC live
Peach PRC provided the most wholesome moments of the weekend (Credit: Falls Festival / Joseph Mayers)

Last but certainly not least were the festival’s headliners.

Night one saw American rapper Lil Nas X take to the stage with what ended up being one of the best festival sets our humble island nation has witnessed in years.

Lil Nas X’s meticulously choreographed performance featured a full troupe of backup dancers, costume changes, and renditions of the artist’s hit songs that were remixed and reimagined with the express intention of giving them more oomph for the live stage. The set was nothing short of exhilarating from start to finish.

Lil Nas X’s set was nothing short of exhilarating from start to finish (Credit: Falls Festival / Charlie Hardy)

Night two closed with Jamie XX, which was an odd choice in my opinion. His performance for the main stage was a DJ set – a great DJ set, mind you – but a DJ set nonetheless, and there’s just no world where that can go toe-to-toe with full headlining sets from the likes of Lil Nas X.

Jamie XX’s performance felt better catered to the Festival’s EDM-focused Sugarloaf tent than the grandiose expanses of the amphitheatre hill, and I can’t help but feel that Jamie XX – one of the best producers of the modern era – was done a bit dirty by being placed on the same “main stage closer” pedestal as Lil Nas X and Arctic Monkeys.

Jamie XX Falls Festival
Jamie XX’s DJ set was great, but it couldn’t compete with Lil Nas X or Arctic Monkeys (Credit: Falls Festival / Charlie Hardy)

Speaking of Arctic Monkeys, the UK indie rockers closed out the festival with a phenomenal performance.

There’s a true star power and coolness to the band’s frontman Alex Turner that evokes the great rock and roll frontmen of old, and that star power was on full display for Falls Festival as the singer strutted his way around the stage.

The band’s set list was about as good as it gets for a headliner too. It was a true “best of” set covering all the hits from the Sheffield natives’ varied seven-album backlog, all the way from hits like I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor (2006), to Brianstorm (2007), to Crying Lightning (2009), to Don’t Sit down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair (2011), to Do I Wanna Know? (2013), to Four Out Of Five (2018) and most recently There’d Better Be a Mirrorball (2022).

Arctic Monkeys Falls Festival
Arctic Monkeys finished the weekend with a phenomenal set (Credit: Falls Festival / Joseph Mayers)

If there was any doubt in my mind that Falls Festival 22/23 was a worthwhile experience, the closing set from Arctic Monkeys buried it. Falls isn’t perfect, but what it loses in scope and certain staging it makes up for with great sets and a painless Festival experience. It’s a festival I hope we get for years to come and one I can happily recommend.