Saturday was a nice night for Picnic at the Beck’s Festival Bar at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum here in Sydney. The Festival Bar is one of the main music venues for the massive Sydney Festival, which runs most of this month, and as such it’s got a very interesting lineup of gigs, including Gold Panda, Wire, Holy Fuck, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and a Mad Racket party featuring Octave One.

Picnic is an on-again off-again house music party run by DJ Kali, whom I happened to meet last week. Though I’m new on the scene in Sydney, I’ve already formed a favorable impression of Kali’s taste in music – both in her record selection and in the DJs she books for her parties.

Harvey is a legend all his own. A journeyman from the London scene, he’s been spinning records for a very long time indeed, and was one of the prime movers in the development of modern UK garage and house. He’s famed for his grungy disco re-edits and for the hard-to-find releases on his own label, cheekily named Black Cock. Lately this bearded geezer, known as quite a character, has been living part-time in the States and travelling the world, disseminating his brand of “Sarcastic Disco.”

When I saw that Harvey was to be joined on the decks by DJ Garth, a founder of the San Francisco scene that was such an influence on me back in the day, I figured Picnic was one not to miss on a hectic Festival schedule. And I was right.

When I arrived the Festival Bar was already crowded and I sensed an enthusiastic vibe – lots of activity and noise on the dancefloor. First of all I was completely psyched about the space itself. I’d been here once before last year, but I’d forgotten how superb this temporary venue is. The Barracks building – designed by convict architect Francis Greenway in 1818 to house, you guessed it, convicts – is an impressive brick structure, a living part of Sydney’s history and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The brick walls and courtyard of this edifice form a generous and even majestic setting for an event. Sweeping over part of the courtyard is a huge canopy – or, as I believe I’m supposed to refer to it now that I live in Australia, a marquee. Under the marquee is a wooden dancefloor that holds hundreds of people, fronted with a stage and DJ setup. The rest of the wide courtyard is a place to mingle and have drinks in the open air while being treated to views of the nearby park and Sydney’s cityscape – especially Centre Point Tower, the tallest building in Australia, which fairly looms right overhead. Elaborate video installations and light shows grace the grounds, including ghostly projections on the walls of the Barracks, and a fantastic writhing helix-shaped multihued flourescent light sculpture that overhangs the dancefloor. Kids, this is a great place to have a party.

A sign posted by the bar informed us that Harvey would be on for three hours. Nice; an epic in the making. Speaking of the bar, this brings me to my first complaint: only Beck’s beer was available. Listen, I’m cool with the evil corporate sponsorship thing so long as no one gets hurt, and I’ll drink Beck’s if I have to (and I did that night). But I don’t like pissy generic lager as a rule, and to have no other choice of beer is lame. So henceforth I’ll try to refrain from calling the bar by its proper corporate name; that’ll be my little revenge.

As for the  music: I’ve known about Harvey for a long time, I’m familiar with his records, and I’ve had friends who’ve known him and played with him. But for some reason all this time I’d managed to miss hearing him spin. Well, I was seriously impressed – and I’m hard to please, even by a legend.

It’s not easy to mix old disco and garage records – and by mix, I mean really mix. Plenty of good DJs with great taste in old tunes have a tricky time matching the beats of the live drummers, especially since those musicians didn’t follow well-worn (not to say boring) patterns and formulas the way dance producers do nowadays. Some famous and much-practised DJs don’t even really try to beatmatch a lot of the time – François K for example. But Harvey was smoothly mixing these old nuggets like nobody’s business. Maybe it’s because of all the bootleg edits he’s done for himself. Even better, he was throwing in a lot of new records too. And just when I was about to get tired of the signature popping basslines and tambourines of underground disco and garage, out comes a proper house classic, with synth bassline and crisp machine-produced drums. Or something much more electro and weird. It goes beyond being awed by his skills and the selection: at a certain point, you realize he’s making a statement about the unity of all music.

It’s fun to watch him, too: looking less like a DJ and more like a hippie roadie, he was clearly enjoying each of his tunes, singing and clapping along, sometimes stalking impishly around the stage.

Harvey kept the energy of the dancefloor going for a long time, and the punters really got into it, riding his long disco instrumentals, and clapping and cheering for the soulful call-and-response and soaring choruses of the vocals. This is was nice to see. I mean, Harvey’s big on the underground and all, but he ain’t exactly challenging Tiësto’s hold on the market. It’s great when someone – especially a geezer like him – can draw people in just by being himself and playing exactly what he pleases. And it was a good mix of people of many races and ages; my friend said she was relieved there were a few older people there, and I was too. Recently I’ve been at a couple of parties in Sydney where I’m clearly the oldest one by far, and it’s not fun.

After hours of obscure, grimy disco and spacey funk excursions, Harvey closed down his set with a murky bit of psychedelic rock, then lurched into Olivia Newton John’s “Magic” (from Xanadu, y’know), as if it was the most obvious thing, and somehow it was perfect. I wondered if he’d been looking through his record bag and saying, “There must be something Australian in here!” A great unpretentious touch. My friend went nuts.

Garth played some great tunes upon taking over the decks; but his mixing suffered by comparison, and my energy started to flag about the time about the time I noticed a lot of the remaining crowd were pretty drunk. (Too much Beck’s I guess.) Soon it was time to catch the last train across the bridge. But I’m looking forward to a couple of return trips to the mighty Festival Bar before they fold up the marquee.

There’s a modified version of this review on the Australia-wide dance music site inthemix, where I contribute regularly. I’m linking it here mainly because it’s accompanied by a nice photo set that shows a lot more of the venue, the great installations and light shows, and Harvey’s beard.