This year’s Laneway Festival had some pretty big shoes to fill. From small beginnings in a Melbourne laneway in 2004, the festival has impressed. It’s since expanded: inter-state around Australia and inter-country to Singapore. The line-up drawpower has also exploded over the years, going from locals like The Presets and The Avalanches to global talents like Ariel Pink, Deerhunter and the xx. Now a ‘laneway’ festival in name only; increased capacity warranted venue changes, would the festival keep its indie cred under the pressures of increased popularity and notoriety? My vote is in for Laneway Festival holding onto the mantle of ‘Music Festival of the Year’.
On a sunny afternoon in early February, hordes of cool kids were spotted congregating in Rozelle. They were attired in their Sunday best – in this case, denim shorts and floral dresses. After spilling out from Sydney’s inner-city laneways in previous years, Laneway Festival has now taken up residence at the Sydney College of the Arts. The cluster of sandstone courtyards and labyrinths provided the perfect mix between indoor and outdoor spaces for showcase acts. Not to mention the extra thrill that stemmed from being inside the grounds of the former Lunatic Asylum for the Mentally and Criminally Insane.
There were plenty of tree-shaded grassy knolls to recline on should the discerning (or hung-over) festivalgoer desire a spot of relaxation between acts. No concrete car parks, dusty/muddy ovals or steel stadiums here. Lines for beer and the toilets were bearable, although the day was tainted for some by a one and a half hour wait for pizza. After a glut of rainy days, the weather pulled through to deliver a day ideal for late summer: sunny with a light breeze and none of the oppressive 35 degree humidity that Melbourne Laneway had copped the day before. Overall, the elements came together to create a pleasantly chilled out atmosphere.
The first electronic act of note for the day was South-African born, Sydney producer Jonti who’s recently been signed to Stones Throw. For now he’s just a one-man live show, which he told Pulse is “really scary”. Given this, he did a pretty impressive job translating his glitchy, otherworldly “pocket beat-symphonies” to a live environment. There was one instance when he seemed to have a few technical sound issues – as Jonti told the audience at the time – the laptop musician’s worst nightmare. But all in all, Jonti entertained with his unique soundscape, playing Firework Spraying Moon and Hornets Nest. Considering his debut Twirligig came out only last year, he drew a substantial crowd and got them seriously dancing in pogo-like jumping motions. A highlight included his trial of a new song. Shunning electronic gadgets, he used only a ukulele and his voice. Best contender for the next Gotye.
Pat Grossi, aka Active Child then drew a large crowd with his classical-infused melancholy love ballads. No dancing here – Grossi’s live harp playing and crystal vocals wove a spell of immobility on the awe-struck crowd. The power of Playing House live, which featured How to Dress Well on the record, was a highlight.
For the first time this year, Laneway featured two stages devoted to talent from the Young Turks label. Think of any exciting, mind-blowing, eardrum-electrifying new act and you can pretty much guarantee that they’re on Young Turks. We’re talking the xx, El Guincho, Sbtrkt, Glasser, Wavves, Chairlift, John Talabot and Bullion. Over at the “Eat Your Own Ears and Young Turks" stage, Twin Shadow was stepping up the pace. The influence from producer Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear was palpable on debut his Forget. Played live, his dreamy, danceable, synthy tunes were given a full-throttle electric charge by the intensity of a full band. Twin Shadow’s strong vocal presence and the tightness of the set drew in punters who may not have been that familiar with the act.
The vibe turned indie in the late afternoon with sizzling songstresses Feist and Anna Calvi and shoe gaze/post-punk groups Yuck, The Drums and The Horrors.
The electronic pop duo from Brooklyn, Cults showcased more aggressive versions of their twee hits Abducted and Go Outside with the help of three additional live members. Ultimately though, lead vocalist Madeline Follin’s vocals proved a little too sharp and piercing.
This writer’s one gripe with the festival organisers was the scheduling of the best electronic acts at the same time. As the sky got dusky and eyeballs became glazed, it was a choice between chill-wave godfather Toro Y Moi and UK master-turntabler of Rinse FM notoriety, Oneman. Those who chose Toro Y Moi were rewarded with a pleasant ambience; humming synths were suitable enough to encourage a limb-flailing wave or a bopping slow-dance. The man behind the nom de plume (which roughly translates as Bull and Me), Chaz Bundick was on the keyboard and mic simultaneously.
Bundick’s vocals; while passable, weren’t enough to blow anyone away. Rather, in the outdoor space they faltered and struggled to stand up on their own, drowned out by other sounds. It was debatable whether Toro Y Moi's live rendition could offer anything more than a listen to the record at home. While enjoyable enough, Bundick’s talent is showcased best on his recordings.
Over at the DJ stage; "Young Turks Sound System", Oneman was mixing things up with dubstep and heavy beats. The crowd was small, but those there were dancing like maniacs.
As the night wore on, there was a big question in the air: who to see for the final set? For those who’d bought tickets because they wanted to see Washed Out, M83 and Sbtrkt, the hour between 9pm and 10pm was spent either missing out on favourites or rushing between stages. Neither were ideal options. Despite the underground renown and indie cred of Ernest Greene’s project Washed Out, he’d drawn the short straw - he was always going to be the least well known. Although on the smaller side, the decent crowd who did gather at Washed Out were rewarded.
The chillwave genre has been given a bad rap recently, with the suggestion that many groups are “bedroom acts” who descend into little more than glorified karaoeke in the demands of a live setting. Ernest Greene however obviously has the experience and the talent to give his dreamy synth tracks the power they need to stand up in an outdoor setting. With the help of a live band, the set was tight, instruments were hard-hitting and tri-vocal harmonies were spot on. It was a pleasantly controlled and professional performance that showcased the best of last year’s Within and Without. I like to think that it is how my youth would have sounded if I had been cooler and hung out at the beach with boys more.
The remaining laneway-ers had split themselves into two groups. Commanding the main stage were French electro act M83, brainchild of Anthony Gonzalez. Last year’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was the sixth album released under the moniker. After a decade making music, too many groups descend into the banality of same-same, disappear into mainstream insignificance or try for ill-advised genre-crossovers. Not so Gonzalez whose efforts just keep getting better and better. M83’s performance was easily the festival highlight. It was charged with everything you could ask for in a finale: high-powered pop hooks, soaring synths, ethereal vocals from keyboardist Morgan Kibby, heavy beats from Loic Maurin and blue-glo Christmas lights.
The talented Gonzalez himself jumped between keyboard, guitar and vocals while brother Yann thrashed an electronic drum pad and climbed on top of speakers. Fans of older M83 material were kept sated with Kim & Jessie and Couleurs. Ending on a longer, instrumental version of Midnight City featuring a live sax solo saw the audience hit the (proverbial) roof.
For the remainder of the crowd who’d chosen to end with SBTRKT there was palpable disappointment in the air. The UK producer has gathered a substainal following from his dubstep/neo-garage self-titled debut. Unfortunately, at twenty minutes into his forty-minute set, the masked-man himself was yet to make an appearance. The audience were packed in tight and the unexpected wait was making everyone edgy. When he finally did come on, Stkrkt apologised for the delay, saying it was due to the amount of equipment that needed to be correctly assembled for his show. This might be the case, but with the delay mirrored in other cities, organisers should be well aware of this when it comes to scheduling times.
The futile wait suggested that SBTRKT’s show was best suited to an indoor side-show not an outdoor festival. The set itself was attention grabbing, with live instrumentation creating more of a textured percussive sound than on the record. SBTRKT himself was mostly on drums and jumped up at different times during the set to create electronic sounds or join on vocals. Vocalist Sampha’s voice was immense live; perfectly capable of commanding attention against the anarchic soundscape. At the same time, the sound was such that it jarred somewhat in the outdoor setting and would be better showcased by the sound capabilities of an indoor venue.
Despite the imperfect timetabling, Laneway Festival managed to impress big time, thanks largely to a vastly different collection of acts who were at their best when performing live. See you next year, Laneway.
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