Never trust anyone over 30 (to review a music festival). Known for our persnickety gripes, misanthropic snipes and general nitpickery often we can’t see the wood (the music) for the trees (the irritations). The task is handled better by breezy early-20-somethings to whom those perennial festival agitations (lack of dunnies, shade, cheap booze and nice food; glut of dickheads, schedule clashes, short sets and clusterfucks) make barely a blip on the radar. To counterbalance my years, I decide to go all in for Sydney’s Laneway Festival figuring that if frustrations arise I’ll self-soothe by catching a chillwave act.
My positive attitude and I arrive early at the “Kirkbride” sandstone complex of Sydney College of the Arts. The day is supernaturally glorious: dry air, hot sun, a cloudless blue sky and grass that’s green and springy from months of rain. Originally built as a fancy mental hospital, Kirkbride was named after an American advocate for the insane who preached the curative powers of pleasant surroundings. Although it’s reclaimed today for a music festival, the stately colonial charm of the college is undiminished. Pebbles grind crisply under my heels. Sandstone edifices stand gallantly to attention. I half expect to happen upon a First Fleet role play at every turn.
Four-piece indie pop/rock band Sures are all slim youthful necks and puppy fat with the lead singer’s backwards cap completing the highschool band tableau. Sures won the triple j competition to play at Laneway and they exude the kind of unabashed exuberance that is pretty damn heart-warming to witness. “This is our first festival that we’ve played,” gushes the singer in a jumble of pronouns before covering Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of my Head’. Sures are a nice entree but offer little of the “low-fi surf sound” promised on the Laneway website.
We crunch our way to the Car Park stage to see ’80s ballad revivalist Geoffrey O’Connor. The crowds haven’t arrived yet so it’s just mellow early-comers pooling together in patches of shade.
Cicadas drone and aeroplanes spear soundlessly through the perfect blue sky. We haven’t had a day this sublime in Sydney for months and people seem a little blissed out.
Last time I saw O’Connor he materialised in a wizardly billow of smoke and lasers. A tough trick in broad daylight so for today’s dramatic entry he waits unseen until the opening synth of ‘Idle Lover’ runs its course, then saunters out of the shadows and starts singing – right on cue. We sprout fond smiles as tiny, tear-shaped Jacaranda leaves confetti down on our shoulders.
“I was going to ask why you’re all in the shade but that’s obvious,” O’Connor lisps, his guitar draped Springsteen-style from his shoulder. “Or are you all on dates so you want to get closer in the shade? This one goes out to everyone who wishes they were on a date right now. It’s called ‘Have Your Way With Me’.” It’s not. It’s called ‘Have your Way’. But those two words at the end make it clear the song is about sexual surrender and it’s telling that he adds them. Live, O’Connor sparks pleasures more profound than his songs. The coy, gender-neutral permissiveness he embodies so delicately is something we need to believe still exists in a world where sexuality is sandblasted by porn, fake tits, and “manzilians”. O’Connor sings about sex but he’s the antithesis of explicit. One imagines he still practices the bygone arts of seduction like making eyes.
When Laneway organisers said, “We can’t wait to see DZ Deathrays’ face-melting live show” I’m sure they meant it figuratively. Yet the Venetian clock tower casts no shadows at the Eat Your Own Ears stage as the sun blazes down malevolently from above. The two-piece Brisbane band, much vaunted for their nutso live shows, are a tangle of sweat, fuzzy hair and noise. They verge on Lightning Bolt-heavy but with catchy lyrics and pop hooks. The guitarist uses a dozen pedals, an amp and a bass rig to cook up a frequency-spanning tone that makes me wonder where the other guitarists are hiding.
But I can only spare time for a two songs even though I left Geoffrey O’Connor early. Most of the Australian acts I want to see are squashed back-to-back or overlapping in the early part of the day. Whatever the reason is, it appears to be getting the bothersome Aussie stuff out of the way early so the festival can move on to bigger and better things.
Total Control scorch through their allotted 30 minutes with singer Daniel Stewart seeming to draw on some deep-seated fury. It’s oddly confronting considering he doesn’t address the crowd and spends most of the set side-on. But the fury is on his face, it’s in his voice, it’s all around him. Without the delay used on his vocals on last year’s ‘Henge Beat‘ Stewart’s voice is raw and pure punk. I’m taken aback by their force and by how unambiguous my gut response is. I nod my head furiously. There seems to be little else to do. ‘No Bibs’ is dedicated to zine writer Brendon Annesley, who passed away over the weekend, and it’s like a blast in the face from a furnace. Any hint of seedy humour planted in ‘Carpet Rash’ on record is gone when Total Control deliver it live. “Eating your breakfast in shower stalls” doesn’t seem funny at all; it just seems desperate. With his customary scowl and polo shirt, Mikey Young steams away on guitar in a shaft of sunlight. As always, he’s mesmerising to watch. Total Control wrap up at 1.30pm and 10 minutes later I’m slugging the first beer I’ve had in eight months.
I forgot how dismantling good punk rock can be.
The beer is downed in the P.I.P-only zone. P.I.P stands for “pretty important people” (who are not quite important enough to avoid queuing for 25 minutes to pee). But I’ve resolved not to let that crap bother me. So far the sound at all stages has been great. Win some, lose some. Besides, I enjoy the beer in the glow of relief you get when you see something mind-blowing early in the day. I’ve been to festivals where all the gears grind – see the wrong band, hightail it to catch another instead, can’t get past the crowd, repeat. The stakes getting higher for each act you chance. The disappointment getting sharper.
He of the Grecian nose, Jontti, follows Total Control on the Windish Agency stage. Effusing boyish charm, Jontti is clearly aware that although he’s only got 30 minutes with the conch, it’s still a long time to keep a sweaty crowd dialled in when you’re just one dude fiddle-faddling with knobs. His cuts from effervescent 2011 record Twirligig are fanciful and fresh but seem to be over before they begin. Then again, Total Control’s ‘Retiree’ is still clanging around in my head, a track that clocks in at under two minutes but needs not a nanosecond more to make its point. Even Jontti’s undeniably likeable title track, ‘Twirligig’, with its washes of vintage DJ Shadow, wraps up before I journey anywhere. What I’m going to have for lunch? I should re-apply my sunscreen. I wonder what my friends are seeing right now? The crowd seem happy, though, and in response to their cheers Jontti offers up little prayers of thanks like a gringo Thai waiter. Kinda cute, frankly!
“What does failure taste like? To me, it tastes like dirt. I’m begging you to please look away.” I’m cruising by the Red Bull DJ space when a woman with a harsh American accent blurts this out over the speakers. It sounds like someone from the 12-step program has bumrushed the stage for some sharing time. Maybe she needs context but I can’t face E.M.A spilling her guts when it’s this sunny. Though I hear from those who loved her record ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’ that it’s a great show. Apparently, she borrows a guitar from Mikey Young when hers breaks and squeals: “Oh wow! This is just like the guitar I played when I was 14!”
Canadian act Austra is my gamble for the day. Fronted by opera trained singer, Katie Stelmanis, Austra make dark pulsating dance reminiscent of electroclash bands like Ladytron and Fisherspooner but sparing us the ice queen vocals. With the right mix, tracks like ‘Beat & The Pulse’ and ‘Lose It’ have the potential to be genuinely fearsome and if Austra hit their target, I want to be there to witness it.
We muscle up the front as Stelmanis and her identical twin back-up singers emerge – one in an art deco leotard; one in a denim pinafore; both with guileless blue eyes open wide like gumnut babies.
It’s gripping from that moment forth and when Stelmanis’ voice soars on beams of synthesiser and it all breaks over us loud – like, really loud – it’s celestial. It’s the kind of volume sound dudes can only risk outdoors; the kind of volume that teleports me back to all the other festival moments like it. Breeze on skin, sun on face, body drenched in vibration. It’s 3pm on a hot day but as Stelmanis kills it onstage and the twins flap their graceful arms like angles, or fairies, waves of goosebumps wash over me.
But my festival bubble starts to deflate as I realise barely anybody is moving. They’re applauding like punters possessed in between songs but the enthusiasm doesn’t make the crossover to their bodies. I’m standing directly behind two beefy men with their Havianas planted staunchly in the grass. It’s like peeping out from behind a brick wall of human flesh. And there’s hundreds like them. I edge sideways into an isolated pocket of dancers.
We hustle back to the Windish stage to see Active Child. I’m eager to push past the ambivalent chatterers up the back, anticipating Active Child’s harp and falsetto won’t mingle well with the eggy-voiced lads who are increasingly piling up around the fringes of the stages. Progress is slow. Although Givers finished 20 minutes ago, people are still pushing outwards. By the time we squeeze into the open stage area we realise too late that it’s too crowded. We’re so far back we can’t hear much of note, let alone see. Retreat! We battle back towards the narrow opening but progress stops completely. Many, like us, are leaving but many more are still pouring inwards. Others have decided to break all the goddamn rules, stop where they are, and watch from a distance. Without even getting the chance to avoid it, we’re suddenly deep in the guts of the world’s biggest clusterfuck.
What’s worse is that Active Child is playing ‘Hanging On’, the angelic single from ‘You Are Are All I See’ and instead of enjoying it, I’m jammed between the sticky, sunburnt skin of strangers. And going nowhere.
Twenty minutes later we burst free of the tangle of bodies, gasping. And zooming straight for the PIP for a refreshing cocktail.
Until Twin Shadow frontman George Lewis Jr lays one on me, I never knew how devastating a smile from a handsome chanteur could be. It’s 5pm back at the Eat Your Own Ears stage and the sun has finally dipped behind the sandstone. I’ve been listening to Twin Shadow’s record ‘Forget’ all week and I’m ready to fall into the embrace of songs with all the cheesy pleasures of a Molly Ringwald movie soundtrack (with some Howard Jones lobbed in for maximum effect). But Twin Shadow is in full band mode and the subtle touches are crushed under a rockier live sound. His flawless voice even has an “on the road” rasp. But then he smiles and a tidal wave of charm bowls me over. Even though the drummer has a high pony and the band is too blokey-sounding for the tunes, with the promise of more smiles like that, I’m not going anywhere. Who said looks don’t matter? And, although the intricacies are lost, we’ve still got Lewis’ heart-swelling choruses. When he summons Morrissey in ‘I Can’t Wait’ it’s goosebump time again. “I don’t wanna, believe, but be, in love/I don’t wanna, be, believe, in love.”
Feist swaggers onto the Car Park stage wearing all white and radiating charisma. It’s charisma of the real kind, the shape-fitting kind, not of the phoney kind that prompts musicians to holler showbiz standards like: “You’ve got such a beautiful city!” Truthfully, until I spent some quality time with her 2011 record, ‘Metals’, I wasn’t a fan. Even now, I’m dubious that she’ll hold my attention since I tend to be a bit suspicious of music that’s so tastefully orchestrated. But Feist plays her cards with the kind of professionalism you can’t help but admire. Aware that it’s a short set, she rips into ‘A Commotion’, breaking forward from the mic and baring her teeth as she sings. Again, the mix is superb, even half-way back. Ever-eloquent, Feist tells us we’re going to channel the “great triumvirate” of crowd singalongs: Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses and Aerosmith for the yearning, soaring wonder of ‘Graveyard’. Meanwhile, I can’t help but be intrigued by her three back-up singers. While she’s luminescent in sheeny whites, they wear puffy matching frocks of navy, maroon and rusty brown. Adding to the dowdiness are the small, grey koalas they wear pinned to their dresses. Has Feist gone all Bridezilla? Dressing her bridesmaids down so they don’t show her up?
The crowd’s still lacklustre. A pack of girls behind me spend the whole gig shrieking over self-portraits on their iPhones and Feist actually packs it in early. Maybe it’s the sun, maybe it’s the Sunday. Or maybe they’re all just waiting for M83.
We beeline it up the front as soon as Feist ends and stake a third row position for The Horrors. It’s funny to recall that in 2007, before seeing The Horrors at The Annandale, I managed to work myself into a mini-fright after watching YouTube videos of the scary-spider antics of singer, Faris Badwan. With The Horrors playing “real songs” now, not snarling glam-punk, and the crowd this limp, I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t stay the melee myself.
I paw myself a little clear patch on the dance floor and wait.
Dressed in the skinniest of black skinny jeans, The Horrors slink out to their spots. It’s serious business – and a long way away from 2007. The roadies have even placed folded white towels at each of their “stations” so they can wipe their brows free of perspiration. But what The Horrors have lost in rawness and speed they’ve gained in craft. Except for ‘Still Life’ (the single from Skying which just kinda drags on) their set is blisteringly good. All I want to hear, though, is ‘Moving Further Away’ and I chalk up yet another “best festival moment ever” when Badwan introduces it as their last track. It’s many of my favourite things rolled into an epic 12 minutes: krautrock, stoner rock, metal, noise and sheets of gorgeous guitar raining down. “That was ‘Three Days’ kind of epic,” says my husband.
I’m spent. Soaked to the bone in the day’s music and unable to absorb another drop. There’s a gluttony involved in line-ups as good as Laneway’s and the aftermath is always going to be feeling too full. In search of some ambient barbiturate, we head over to see chillwave poster kid Washed Out (Ernest Greene). But unexpectedly Greene has a real drum kit and is serving up a dense sound I just can’t cop. The festival is ratcheting up the BPMs for its finales across all the stages, with M83 at the Car Park stage and SBTRKT at Eat Your Own Ears. There’s no safehouse for sonic asylum seekers like me. Except home.
Mess+Noise version here.