Playground Weekender is the cheeky, frolicking, finger-painting lovechild of the Sydney summer festival family. With its campsite nestled amongst the shrubbery on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, at the Del Rio Resort (2 hrs drive from Sydney), it has firmly cemented its reputation as one of the most relaxing, sociable and genuinely engaging music jamborees around. Serving up an eclectic smorgasbord of aural delights, wacky food and craft stalls, six stages and a fancy dress evening, now in its fifth year it caters to the whims of even the most jaded festivalgoer’s.

The battle, however, is making it into the site. If you were as unlucky as this writer and ended up arriving just in time to meet the Friday afternoon post-work stampede, then you also had to endure over four hours in the scorching sun waiting for the short ferry trip across the river. It didn’t help that the sounds of the bands we were missing wafted across the waters, teasingly.

Once inside, it was clear that the next three days would be defined by what techno don Sven Vath calls “die gute Laune”: German for “good, joyous vibes.” And joyous was one of the many words used to describe the beautiful gems served up by Caribou, as the folktronica troubadour’s voice serenaded the valley. Known as Daniel Snaith offstage, he has been playing shows with the likes of Four Tet as well as other electronic fringe dwellers on James Holden’s Border Community label and those electronic influences were clearly on display. Hebden’s performance was the weekend’s highlight for many of the revelers assembled, with his sound also wearing aspects of the border community imprint and verging on the deep house, techno end of town at times.

As evening fell on Friday, many of the punters who initially opted for Tricky’s set soon made their exodus over to the Big Top stage after it became clear the trip-hop veteran would be laying down a distinctly down-tempo vibe. Pearson, whose own set was as far from down-tempo as Venus is from Mars, treated those who made the journey across to a pumping mix of hard techno and deep house bangers. The Berlin-based DJ revealed that the city’s technical efficiency had rubbed off on him – with his clinical mixing producing a punchy, fast-paced set that made the Big Top heave. Held up by four colossal columns that may well have been pulled off the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and decorated with murals reminiscent of MC Escher geometric drawings, the arena swayed and jerked to the unmistakably Berlin-sounding mix.

The following morning’s respite was cut short by the hard trance some inconsiderate attendees decided to blare from the hectic sound systems their motor homes came equipped with. As the likelihood of further sleep diminished, many dived into the cool and – let’s be honest, manky – waters of the river for an invigorating swim before descending on the stalls for a feed.

Most of the acts don’t pick up instruments before mid-afternoon, so it was then onto the dress-up clothes box to see what could be rustled up for the evening’s flamboyant fancy dress competition. Playgrounder really does bring out the most imaginative – and at times, disturbing – notions that would otherwise lie dormant in revelers’ minds. The dance floor became home to: Tina Turner; Tiger Woods; Tron, complete with glowing helmet and lycra two-piece; a cardboard cut-out Pacman; two guys in full French Jacobin dress; and competition winner Optimus Prime who actually transformed on stage!

As the day wore on, your faithful reporter was one of the unfortunate masses crippled by heatstroke at some point during the festivus and a massive shout out is in order for the medical centre workers who plied me with isotonics and got me back on my feet in time to catch the Innervisions showcase from Dixon and Ame. The Berlin-based heavyweights gave Pulse some of their thoughts on how the festival circuit here compares to back home, before tearing shreds off the Big Top’s canvass roof with their epic beats assortment. “In Europe festivals are getting more and more popular; and just as the big ones get more popular, the smaller ones have been dying out. Our usual business is more playing in clubs,” said Ame’s Kristian Beyer. “Every country has [at least] two festivals, so over the course of the three summer months, every Friday and Saturday night there is a crazy good festival somewhere,” Steffen Berkhahn (aka Dixon) added.

The duo were mixing one-for-one style for almost three hours, melding sophisticated minimal-tech percussion with the swirling synths of deep house and nu-disco, as championed by their long-time collaborator Henrik Schwarz. Following some dark and brooding techno from Heidi, Damian Lazarus continued carving out the house and techno grooves, with his energetic stage presence igniting the crowds in time for the arrival of Norman Jay MBE.

Jay showed he wasn’t immune to the dubstep epidemic currently seizing the UK and its former colonies, kicking off his headlining set with several wobbly classics. From then on it was a genre-hopper’s delight, as the electronica stalwart treated punters to a generous helping of old school jungle drum and bass before launching into lengthy house and techno tangents. Some complained that the genre-straddling of the mix felt disjointed, but for the most part his mixing within each segment of the set was tighter than a nun’s. Jay must be one of the very few DJs to be granted the honour of membership to the British Order for services to culture and he proved himself worthy as he rounded out the performance with half an hour of relentless drum and bass rollers – this time more on the liquid side of the spectrum.

Playing their first Australian festival, fellow Britons Mock and Toof (aka Duncan Stump & Nick Woolfson) updated Pulse about their forthcoming second album and some of the trends gripping the UK, before launching into a well-crafted nu-disco and house set. “It’s been a short and sweet tour; it’s a long way to come but it’s been great, we’ve really enjoyed it,” said Nick Woolfson. The duo released their debut album last June and are working on their second full-length release. “We’ll probably have a single in June and maybe the album in autumn,” added Woolfson. “We’ve moved forward with our sound, it’s slightly different – a little more electronic, maybe slightly darker.” With dubstep elements finding there way into some of the more experimental pop releases recently, such as the much-lauded debut from James Blake, Mock and Toof don’t see the genre’s popularity waning anytime soon, saying it was “going from strength to strength.”

Representing some of the darker, more melancholic strands dubstep offers up, Lorn doesn’t so much “play” a set as he channels the energy of the bass lords from the sky and thrusts it upon the willing worshippers assembled before him. Dressed exclusively in black, and krumping furiously along to the music, he resembled a monk possessed as he delivered a thundering storm of dubstep over laden with hip-hop vocals.

As the sun set resplendently over the River Stage on the final day of the festival, Roska ushered in the night with a series of interesting percussive numbers and his trademark bass-heavy style. Taking in garage, two-step and the ever-elusive “UK funky” sound, Roska (aka Wayne Goodlit) delivered an emotionally diverse sonic arc, always underpinned by solid driving rhythms. Amidst the applause and the encore that followed the end of the set, LTJ Bukem – who had earlier played a chilled house set poolside in Club Tropicana – jokingly asked Goodlitt to jump off the decks so he could take the reins. Considered by many as one of the founding fathers of the jungle sound in the UK and renowned for sets drawing on influences from jazz, trip-hop and ambient, Bukem did indeed live up to the hype. He whipped up the crowd into a wild frenzy with some of the choicest contemporary cuts of melodic drum and bass, punctuated by subsonic bass heavies and the occasional hip-hop acapella.

Finishing up the evening on the main stage, trip-hop pioneers Lamb treated the remaining crowds to a delightful preview of some of the material from their forthcoming fifth album “5”. Andy Barlowe’s seemingly inexhaustible spring of energy, coupled with Lou Rhodes’ soulful crooning provided a luscious cap off to the surreal weekend adventure.

Miro Sandev

Photos courtesy of Playground Weekender photographers Luke Austin, Christopher Samuel, Wesley Nel (Hobogestapo) and Andy “Moses” Vermeulen (Hobogestapo).