Graham Reid | | 8 min read
On the credit side of course there have been some exceptionally successful events, notably the Big Day Out (the Australians astutely figuring out that no one wanted to go camping so do an innercity fest) and latterly Laneway.
From awkward beginnings at Britomart and then Aotea Square, the St Jerome's Laneway Festival – which originated in Melbourne -- seems to have now found a permanent home at Silo Park (if three consecutive events can be considered permanent) and it has a lot going for it.
It is an easy and pleasant walk from Britomart and inner city suburbs like Grey Lynn and Ponsonby.
It is also, however, on an open-air carpark for the rest of the year and despite there being marginally more shade this year it was still a cauldron in the height of summer.
When I was filling my water bottle (for free, a big plus) at 11.50am yesterday the guy said, “Looks like it's going to be a scorcher, and still too. The top of the stage isn't fluttering. No breeze at all.”
And that was 10 minutes before the first act – Princess Chelsea – took the stage.
Within the hour people were huddled under the shade sails and by late afternoon I saw kids sitting in the shadow of the rubbish-filled bins.
It were a hot one and – despite free water and people slapping sunscreen on (and hats, more of them later) – it can be an increasingly uncomfortable day for many, especially kids enjoying their first few beers.
That much was apparent when Belle and Sebastian came on at 8pm. They seemed to officially announce the time for 18-year olds to be staggering, lighting cigarettes (I saw two attempt to light the filter end) and generally fall about.
Today's gonna be a rough recovery for some.
There is however no denying that Laneway is enormously – and I'd argue – increasingly successful as an event. Yesterday it was sold out (12,000) and I saw no trouble at all. So it was safe, ferociously hot, enjoyable and had excellent catering. Even the beer queues worked with relative ease.
The Cactus Cat stage is far too small to accommodate the audience for many of the acts – we'll get to Banks in a minute – but at its best it is also an intimate area, especially for the likes of Princess Chelsea whose albums I've liked . . . but live I found her curiously flat and possessing that studied naivety which makes her songs unthreateningly kidult. At her most interesting she sounded like a less worldy Nico, but much of her set was far too cute to be engrossing.
Still, people bayed like hounds when she tinkled a few notes on what might as well have been a kid's tinny xylophone.
Doesn't take much for some, I guess.
Princess Chelsea (again, I commend her recordings) broadcasts on a narrow emotional and musical frequency so after half an hour I went to see Tiny Ruins on a main stage.
Singer Holly Fullbrook has a rare and wonderful voice and now, encased in a band, she has a greater impact and reach. On a purely musical level they were terrific, but an outdoor audience demands much more from a performer: the ability to connect and project.
Fullbrook didn't project much – if anything -- in the way of personality, which was surprising given the amount of international touring she has done since I last saw her struggling to hold a crowd.
It's there in the songs, no argument on that score, but between times there's no Holly there.
Compare that with Connan Mockasin immediately after on the other main stage whose very appearance as they set up – while Tiny Ruins were still playing – elicited whoops of delight.
Given the high anticipation then, he seemed to squander it in a set which was sometimes compelling but too often morphed into shapeless lightlydelic dreampop-cum-noodling around.
To be fair however, they built a set which headed to an energetic climax (only to be undermined by a final minute of noodle). The elements were all there, the expected impact wasn't.
They seemed too pleased with themselves.
To see how it can be done you needed only to catch Angel Olsen who eyeballed her audience and delivered her economic post-New Wave, country-influenced slam-bang songs with sometimes thrilling intensity. That's how the big kids do it. And they have choruses.
As did Courtney Barnett whose reinvention from her folksy origins as a ballsy rocker now seems complete. She was exceptional, and loud.
It was only 3pm and the day had taken on an upward and energetic trajectory . . . to be nailed home by Jakob on that smaller stage, who confirmed their sonic density before an enormously appreciative crowd happy to have its collective chest battered.
If the end of the day erred towards electronica (FKA Twigs, St Vincent and Flying Lotus) there was just enough noisy rock before sunset. After Jakob, Royal Blood delivered a two-man Led Zeppelin/bass-driven blues-rock assault: two men, one wall of much enjoyed rocknoise.
They should have induced slam dancing down the front, but this a Laneway crowd and they aren't like that.
One of the more interesting aspects of a Laneway is to see how artists – many of whom have only played small rooms or theatres – cope with the different demands of an outdoor festival crowd.
For me the Jungle album sounds like something best enjoyed in a nightclub (preferably in Miami) with its disco/Bee Gees-cum-Chic tropes.
Against the odds then this British ensemble – hardly a visual act however – pulled it off. After a rousing welcome and a few songs from their sole but very familiar album which got the crowd moving they did hit a dull plateau of same-same in the middle but then almost imperceptibly just kept kicking it up notches for a thrilling finale.
Although you can't pick a “best act” – the best is the one you enjoyed the most – for me they were a revelation, as were Future Islands. Never thought I'd hear Roland Gift fronting Joy Division, or a growling Satanic-metal vocal over a dance beat. Frontman Sam Herring – slapping his face, pounding his chest, pulling imaginary butterflies from the air – got my vote as man of the match on the day.
And best of all – and rare on the day -- they laughed and looked like they were enjoying themselves.
As did Belle and Sebastian whose all-inclusive set was not just a 45 minute tour through their backpages but when they pulled dancers from the crowd onto the stage they broke that wall between band and audience. And the local string trio and trumpeter – who had only rehearsed with the band that morning – acquitted themselves well. B&S were a sophisticated pop-rock delight and their promise to come back and play their own three-hour show is one they should be held to.
Frankly I was also surprised pleasantly by Jon Hopkins whose only album I've heard left me underwhelmed. But on the day he delivered Eno+bpm which of course would have been more appropriate in clubland than under a cloudless sky and in 24 degree heat. But it worked.
The folk-rock/country thrash of Angus and Julia Stone is a taste I thought I would have acquired by now but – enjoyable though they were – my attention wandered, so did I. I went off to see Banks.
Of her however I can tell you very little. Such was the crowd to see her on the small Cactus Cat stage that they closed it off (“One out, one in apparently,” said a guy giving up).
On the screen she looked like a catwalk consumptive Spanish pop doyenne and rather nervous. She was all but inaudible from where I was so I left. I heard later she loosened up.
There is always a problem in allocating space to touring artists but clearly she deserved a main stage (which seemed entirely predictable to me) but the question would be: Who to shove off a main stage and into the smaller space?
Easy. The bloody awful Ariel Pink who were crap the last time they were here and have not improved a jot. They are self-indulgent twerps who are nowhere near as funny, interesting or as good as they think they are. That said they did serve a useful purpose.
People cleared out after the first two “things” they did. More fool me I stayed to see if they would improve (the last album had some decent stuff on it) but they didn't.
You can't see everyone at a day-long multi-act festival like this and I didn't: I only once went to the Thunderdome . . . and no one was playing.
I didn't "see" FKA Twigs either, but many didn't even if they were there, as I was. If you were more than 10 rows back she was a distant figure beyond girls on guys' shoulders, the people in wide-brimmed hats (it's dark now folks, observe concert protocol and take the view-blocking hat off), often shrouded in mist or moving at the back of the stage.
That said however she delivered a dramatically theatrical and musically compelling performance, and you'd love to see her in a sit-down show in a tiered venue where you could fully appreciate her physical art which was impressively sinuous . . . the little that I saw.
St Vincent on the small stage was also engrossing with her mannered appearance, and the scouring, discordant guitar attack over the frequently minimalist (but chest-shaking) beats. Another deserving of the space Ariel Pink occupied.
And to close the night for dancers and watchers, Flying Lotus (one man in black behind a desk with Jawa eyes) provided an exciting blend of beats and visuals.
Before he finished however most of the capacity crowd had filtered homeward: away from the warm hum of the toilets, the drunk skipping teen gals, the rehydrating and the sheer thrill of it all.
Laneway is not without its problems – food stores at a narrow access/egress to the main stage and consequent queues impeding passage seemed silly, the lack of shade, that too-small stage – but because of the economy of scale it actually works better than some of the capacity Big Day Out events did.
It is easier to negotiate, the calibre of this year's acts was appreciably higher than in previous years (and more of them seemed able to connect with the festival crowd) and the blue skies were an attraction in themselves.
And no one threw a tomato at any of the acts.
That said, I was just a little too far from Ariel Pink and I didn't want to come up short.
I apologise for the photos here. The excellent Garry Brandon (see his work here) was suddenly unavailable on the day so these are just shots from my phone.