The 2024 Australian Open marked not only the return of tennis to Melbourne but also the return of the AO Finals Festival. Proudly presented by Untitled Group and the Australian Open, the AO Finals Festival was bigger and better this year, shifted from its Kia Arena origins a stone throw away to John Cain Arena for over three dates on the 25th, 27th, and 28th of January.
For AO Pride Day on Thursday the 25th of January, the line up consisted of DJ Luv You, Anesu, Djanaba, Tash Sultana, Peach PRC and Yaeji. Although the weather caused rain delays with the tennis that day, there were no such delays at AO Finals Festival, John Cain Arena’s roof closed to proceed with the music festivities.
The venue set-up at John Cain Arena was visually impressive with a gorgeous giant curved screen, utilised to introduce artists names and provide visually effects behind the performances, while also enhancing the festival experience for all. To celebrate AO Pride Day, patrons were given out rainbow AO Pride Day flags which many waved around in joy for the entirety of the event, all while dancing. The rain never dampened the energy in the venue during the first day of the 2024 music festival.
Stand out performances on this day included AO 2024 Pride Day Ambassador Tash Sultana who expertly displayed their musical prowess, wowing long-time and new fans alike with their ability to play almost any instrument which included the keyboard, drums, guitar, bass guitar, saxophone, piccolo flute and trumpet. The gender-fluid instrumentalist shared that it had been 5 years since she last played in their hometown and what a way to make their return! This was my first time seeing Tash Sultana live, I was in awe of their abilities. They really left me gobsmacked. Surely it should be criminal for one person to embody so many talents! Considering that Tash Sultana is a fellow Melburnian, it is a crime that it had taken me so long to see them live.
Korean American music artist Yaeji, brought her eccentric electronic dance music with bi-lingual vocals to the John Cain Arena stage. Accompanied with only once dancer, at times I felt I was in another place when watching Yaeji in her element. She was hypnotising and strange in all the right places. The most popular number of her festival set was her song ‘Raingurl’ made famous via TikTok. While I wasn’t as familiar with Yaeji’s music, her stage presence was undeniable, her voice was so cute and I loved some of her choreography, at one point looking she was playing soccer with her dancer. It was just so clever!
However, the highlight of the day was hands down Peach PRC and her festival set. Shedding her fairy persona, donning darker hair but keeping the love of pink in her veins, the Adelaide born and internationally beloved singer-songwriter wore a gorgeous pink outfit complete with a jewelled headdress that made her look like an Arabian princess. Clearly, in her Pink ‘Princess Jasmine’ era (that’s what I’m calling it), Peach PRC vocally impressed with her Paris Hilton ‘Stars Are Blind’ sampled ‘Perfect For You’, the iconic ‘God Is A Freak’, the lyrically cute ‘Loved You Before’, personal favourite ‘F U Goodbye’, and even an excellent cover of Wheatus’ ‘Teenage Dirtbag’.
If that wasn’t enough, Peach PRC’s set included a jaw dropping display of superhuman strength of Peach PRC doing pole dancing. Say what you want about Peach PRC but I’m convinced she can do anything. Plus seeing fans with drinks in hand, singing and dancing at the top of their lungs to ‘Forever Drunk’ collectively made for a perfect day for AO Finals Festival patrons. If anything, I believe Peach PRC should have been the headliner act for Day 1.
Day 2 of AO Finals Festival was the first day of the event that had the roof open, a historical feat for the arena as John Cain Arena has never had its roof open for live music before. The line up on Saturday the 27th of January consisted of the talents of Mell Hall, Tia Gostelow, The Jungle Giants, Ruel, and the DMA’S.
The highlights for Day 2 included DJ Mell Hall who brought the disco tunes to the forefront. Quietly confident, the Melbourne DJ appeared to be in her own zone, happy spinning iconic tunes and the John Cain Arena audience were loving every single song she played.
Brisbane indie rock band The Jungle Giants, a band who I’ve admittedly not heard of before but was so thoroughly impressed by them, song after song, I found myself pulling out my phone to follow them on Spotify long before their set was over. The Jungle Giants clearly have no bad songs and their stage presence is dynamic, exciting, and had the venue animated, with festival patrons passionately up on their feet and dancing (me included). We were all under their spell, giving into their music and having a damn good time.
Standout songs of their set included ‘Used To Be In Love’, ‘Feel the Way I Do’ and ‘Heavy Hearted’. The Jungle Giants’ frontman Sam Hales not only has smooth and powerful vocals but the way he interacted with the audience consistently throughout their set felt genuine, encouraging and endearing which only enhanced the experience of their festival set. I can also proudly share that their music has been on heavy rotation on my playlist ever since.
Sydney rock band DMA’S pulled the crowd in with their video visuals up on the big screens and their excellent music, perfect for a mega singalong. The entire floor of the John Cain Arena was covered and moving, filled with dancing patrons happy to see DMA’S live. Their set included ‘Silver’, ‘Tape Deck Sick’, ‘Lay Down’, and the super catchy ‘Everybody’s Saying Thursday’s the Weekend’. However, the crowd favourite song their set was the Triple J Like A Version cover of Cher’s ‘Believe’ which had the entire John Cain Arena crowd involved, waving their drinks in the air, some even getting up on the shoulders of others providing true festival vibes.
However, the standout of the day would be Ruel. The popular Sydney singer-songwriter has taken the world by storm with his honest songwriting and could easily sell out John Cain Arena alone with a full set and tour. Having released his debut studio album ‘4th Wall’ only last year, Ruel was an impressive delight with his commanding stage presence and effervescent personality. Super interactive with his passionate fans that nabbed tickets to AO Finals Festival just to see him, the venue filled up and became one giant chorus, happily singing and sometimes screaming along at the top of their lungs to his songs.
Whether he would be casually speaking to the crowd, showcasing his flawless and stunning falsetto, or showing off his skills for playing the guitar, Ruel was severely engaging and extremely entertaining. He even had patrons waving their arms and jumping around in unison. Among his songs that he performed including ‘Growing Up Is…’ and ‘Dazed & Confused’, Ruel also vocally impressed when he dished out a cover of Lenny Kravitz’s ‘It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over’. I’ve heard a lot about Ruel and let me tell you, the hype is real. This super talented artist deserves every recognition and praise.
On its final day, the AO Finals Festival line-up consisted of Melbourne based beloved DJ with Cerebral Palsy Cooper Smith who gleefully spins great tracks while demolishing stereotypes, Latifa Tee, the funky and mood uplifting Sunshine and Disco Faith Choir, Rudimental and Groove Armada.
I genuinely loved Cooper Smith’s DJ set. This talented DJ and music producer isn’t held back by his disability and has such great taste in music, spinning excellent beats while shaking up the norm. He has since become a growing festival circuit staple and rightly so.
Sunshine and Disco Faith Choir brought the energy, moves and colour with their disco takes of existing popular songs, all while adorned in blue and gold matching attire. Sunshine and Disco Faith Choir are exactly that, a DJ and a live choir combined to bring in the joy and dance vibes. Their set was so great to the point that I wondered why they hadn’t performed on AO Pride Day instead, as I believed that would have been more fitting for the mood and vibes of that day.
Groove Armada had an incredible pull, packing out the John Cain Arena filled with patrons that were keen to party. The English electronic duo dished out all their hits including their iconic anthem ‘I See You Baby’. I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen the John Cain Arena floor so packed in my life. It was an incredible sight to witness. You would be hard pressed to find someone in the venue without a smile on their face during their set.
However, the highlight for Day 3 was by far British drum and bass band Rudimental. With the set hosted by DJ Locksmith, the energy in the John Cain Arena venue quickly intensified the longer that Rudimental stayed on stage. Songs performed included ‘Feel the Love’ and the Ed Sheeran and Rudimental collaborative track ‘Bloodstream’. Their set had patrons singing and dancing along with a shared joy. It has been a while since Rudimental have visited Australia, let alone Melbourne, and we hope this isn’t the last time that the talented band visit our shores.
The only criticism that I have of the 2024 AO Finals Festival is that the merchandise was hidden around a bend in the John Cain Arena which wasn’t near any entrance into the festival floor and would only be found if patrons knew where to look. The merch itself was great, the t-shirts coming in a variety of colours with the names of the artists in the festival line-up displayed in the shirt design. There was even a cute cream coloured bucket hat with the logo on it! Perfect keepsakes for the avid music and music festival fan.
Overall, the 2024 AO Finals Festival was a massive success. Each day was carefully curated to provide a talented range of different artists both locally and internationally that provided different sounds and vibes from each other, cleverly catering to different music tastes. What I have loved and have noticed about Untitled Group productions are how inclusive their events are. For every artist performance to the left side of the stage, the event everyday had had a rotation of sign language interpreters. There was also an elevated platform at the back of the floor part of the venue for and with wheelchair access, as well as John Cain Arena already having many wheelchair accessible spots available for patrons to happily park and enjoy the performance with everyone else.
I daresay that the AO Finals Festival will only grow bigger and better if given the chance to become a permanent annual event at the Australian Open. Hopefully it stays at John Cain Arena and I personally can’t wait for the next one.
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Photography by Grant Alexander.