Laneway 2011 Sydney: 'The Windy Indies'
A.H. CAYLEY reports on transport difficulties, acid casualties and erratic weather at the St Jerome’s Laneway Festival at Sydney’s College of the Arts on February 6. Photos by ELIZE STRYDOM.
While a beautiful festival setting, the Sydney College of the Arts in Rozelle is not an easy place to get to. Most days the travel would be fine, but waiting at a Broadway bus stop among an impromptu gathering of young writers, radio announcers and budding PR reps – all of us surprisingly with some sort of connection to each other – two 440 buses drive straight past, full of Laneway attendees from earlier stops. Every cab is taken, and when a bus with just enough room finally stops for us, almost every handle is gripped by a wristbanded arm. It's a problem that will be multiplied at the end of the festival as the entire crowd exits onto Balmain Road to minimal bus services and fewer cabs, but we'll get to that when we get to it.
Walking past an old dude hawking sunnies near the entrance, we pass through the gates as Rat Vs Possum and recent Modular signings WIM end their sets on the Inner Sanctum and Car Park stages respectively. It's gorgeous in here. Among the sandstone and willows, young men in the food area hold up rudimentary cardboard signs advertising the sale of watermelon (“Watermelon! It's cold and it tastes llllllovely!”), which seems a treat under the mid-30 degree temperatures. It's boiling, the cool change yet to arrive.
The Holidays start up on the Car Park stage with a wonderful female backing singer and extra percussion. They've moved so far since that first self-titled EP, fairly typical indie pop as it was. Playing now in support of their debut album, Post-Paradise, synth lines are driven from beneath by jungle beats and a dub bassline, leaving little hint of the guitar rock band that filled nightclubs with young girls in 2008. An actual alarm clock is held to the mic for the intro to '6am' in a cute touch, but for all the energy they expend and the talent they show, they can only do so well in this timeslot. The sun is angry and no one's drunk enough to dance yet. Soon.
Standing by the Inner Sanctum stage to see New York's The Antlers, who play a glorious set elevated by Peter Silberman's azure, feminine vocals, my boyfriend is given an enormous running hug from an excited young woman who seems to know him well. As he searches his internal Rolodex for a name, she asks if we're both performing today. “No,” I laugh. “So, how do you two know each other?” “We don't!” she smiles, as he stops fearing the onset of Alzheimer's. “But isn't this nice? Everyone's so lovely!” Though it's only just after 1pm, her pupils are already like dinner plates and her face looks ready to tear apart from the manic expressions as she peaks. It seems someone swallowed her stash in one go at first sight of the police sniffer dogs at the entrance. Thankfully, I don't personally see any drug casualties throughout the day, though I don't see that young woman again either. With acid seemingly the drug de jour, a different approach to drug prevention needs to be taken. Any bulletproof kid would rather a comparatively brief freakout than a lasting criminal record, and too many lives are put at risk by a system that claims to be about protection. I'm not on or carrying anything, but even I still feel paranoid when passed by the golden retriever pups all day.
Opening the Clock Tower stage, World's End Press continues the '80s revival of the morning, the synth adding great colour to dance rock rhythms and singalong vocals, bolstered by John Parkinson's smooth voice, which cracks in all the right places. The decently-sized crowd really seems to be loving it, but it's over too soon. With the different stages timetabled at near exact times, there's not much to see before their set ends. It's a shame, as I'd have loved to hear more from their soon-to-be-released first album, Faithful, but with the brief indication I got, it's going to be something very worthwhile.
UK outfit Stornoway start on the Car Park stage. Brian Briggs is a great songwriter, penning everyday stories in underrated detail within sunny folk rock. Their round harmonies add an easy layer of depth to what could otherwise be boring indie choruses, and 'I Saw You Blink' was a lovely opener as the clouds started to form between the burning sun and the relatively shadeless festival grounds. With PVT and Violent Soho both starting soon, though, there's no chance to see much more.
I fear I may have missed the boat with PVT. I can appreciate the songwriting, and there's no doubt these are incredibly talented musicians both on record and live, but here, playing largely from last year's Church With No Magic, it seems a bit washed out. Having seen them at The Annandale earlier in the year, I was stunned, but today was left unamazed.
By stark stylistic contrast, Violent Soho play on the Clock Tower stage as the temperature starts its 20 degree descent, and the wind whips up dust clouds around the stage. Though they don't know it yet, moving hard as they are, the barely dressed summer crowd will soon be hugging their freezing arms to their chests and wearing sunglasses into the dark to save their eyes from the dust. Violent Soho may not have a particularly wide armoury, and it may not be all that new, but they do what they do real fucking well. It's hard and it's vulgar and it's filthy and it's perfect. If their set – a fantastic elaboration on their recorded work – doesn't sum it up, lead singer Luke Boerdam does in one line, asking for crowd participation: “If you've got any beer cans, throw 'em.”
The rain starts softly, and it gets real cold. Any exposed bodily crevice – ears, nostrils, cleavage – collects the dust, and it's all through my hair. I'll later find it in my eyebrows too. With clean, warm clothes on everyone's minds, a friend runs to the Lee tent, having seen on Twitter that he could win a pair of jeans just by singing a sea shanty. As naff as overt branding is, it's also a necessity to fund a commercial touring festival, so, you know, get over it, and don't grab a temporary Lee tattoo if you don't want one. There are far less appropriate brands for the festival to align with, too. If you're wearing one of their garments on your own body, what do you care that the name's on a wall? Unlimited free fairy floss before breakfast is a major plus too. Incidentally, he missed out on the prize.
On the Car Park stage, Jenny and Johnny receive the expected adoration from the crowd, though their nod to a Pavement malapropism (“Korea, Korea, Korea, Korea”) goes over a few heads. On the Inner Sanctum stage, Local Natives save themselves from standard indie folk pop with auxiliary percussion aiding a tribal beat that drives the set. Low-flying planes now seem a part of the show, coming in and out of vision above, screaming into their descent through the clouds and winds.
At lesser festivals, the cold and wind and dust would be enough to ruin the day; the timetable clashes would end it. Laneway's different. With consistently well-considered line-ups, it's got the feeling of a boutique festival to it, and on the whole, the crowd seems appreciative regardless. So many high quality acts are onstage today, and despite briefer windows (which could afford to be staggered next year), they can be seen without having to slog through the sort of gigantic affair most of the country's other touring festivals have become. The food is of a far higher quality than the usual festival fare (a soy chai from the delightfully named and chirpily run Tantric Turtle will be the perfect remedy as the temperatures drop further later on) and while initially confusing, the lay-out of the stages keeps it close but still comfortable. The sound is good and doesn't bleed between stages. On the whole it's good throughout the day, though it does have to battle the wind at some points.
The green lawn along the side of the festival boundaries is a great place to relax while the sun is still out, overlooking dog walkers in Callan Park. The Red Bull stage, set atop a bar and surrounded by weeping willows, is a nice little chill point – and certainly more sheltered than elsewhere – while a roster of DJs – from Levins to Toni Toni Lee and Jimmy Sing from GoodGod – play to a smaller section of the crowd. The weather is the worst part of the day. While certainly not under the promoters' control, perhaps considerations could be made for it in future? Somewhere to shelter without missing out on bands could make it so much better, and far less cancerous/sniffly.
We rush to catch Bear In Heaven's swirling electro psych morphing into an ominous, drum-heavy assault before Beach House's shoegazey chill is swept away in the wind. There are some considerable sound problems at the beginning, and despite the beautiful stage set up, it's not as exciting to watch as hoped. Victoria LeGrand's soaring vocals wash over the crowd and it's a beautiful moment, but it's not enough to hold a cold and windswept audience in its entirety.
Many make for the Inner Sanctum stage as Cloud Control's set sparks a mini stampede, with people running to the side entrance and screaming the chorus to 'There's Nothing In The Water We Can't Fight' as they do. A girl runs past shrieking at a friend about a pill she just shelved, before moving without pause into the “take me higher” refrain of the chorus. It may be the standard set they've played at their many festival appearances this summer, including the segue from 'Gold Canary' to the Butthole Surfers' 'Pepper', but when it draws such an exultant, joyous response from so many, there's clearly no need to change it yet. It's exciting and hopeful, and, once again rising above the hype, Cloud Control prove that all present and future success is truly deserved.
On the Clock Tower stage, Menomena play a really dramatic set, their sound leaping further than their records ever have. It's heavy, with tumbling, crashing melodies bouncing around the sandstone buildings. Remarkable. Conversely, Two Door Cinema Club are largely forgettable, while Warpaint and Blonde Redhead play at roughly the same time. The former plays a droney take on post-punk that leaves enough room for joyful vocals, repeated just enough to teach new listeners the words without feeling repetitive. The latter plays a set quite heavy on the less-appreciated new stuff from Penny Sparkle, the energy lulling somewhat between sparse tracks from clear favourite 23.
From here on, the timetabling clashes are most obvious. With Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Yeasayer and Les Savy Fav all playing at the same time, some choose to check out segments of each, while others chose their side and stick with it. Unfortunately, Ariel Pink lose out to the other two, the Inner Sanctum seeing its smallest crowd for the evening as the band plays a really energetic and fun glam punk set, seeming almost as a concept performance, the band looking as though they've rifled through the costume box of an amateur theatre company. On the Car Park stage, Yeasayer has the entire, massive crowd dancing and belting out the words to opener 'O.N.E.', while at the Clock Tower, the crowd for Les Savy Fav is tightly packed into the smaller space.
Les Savy Fav is a band that sounds good on record, but will forever be a live band. Lead singer Tim Harrington seems to spend more time offstage than on – whether he's rolling and bouncing around on a shade sail during 'Lips 'n' Stuff', waving a mop into the crowd or tackling and humping another man on the ground while orbiting the space. He's dyed his beard and what's left of his hair grey, and looks even less presentable than usual, shirt off, body jiggling, adored by all. At points, the only way to see him is to follow the direction in which the cameras and iPhones are pointing, while onstage, the rest of the band remains hard and tight, unfazed by the lack of attention they're getting. Though he may never miss a beat, Harrington's antics would count for little without the support he's lent by his comrades. They leave the crowd in awe, and I could easily leave now and still be happy.
Which is such a pity for Foals. On an earlier set they could have seemed great, but here they just seem anaemic. So too do Deerhunter, though it's certainly more polished and far more interesting. They play an almost back-to-back set of constant droning noise, barely interrupting to address the crowd, and while it captivates fans, it distances others who'd rather not stand in the cold to see a band they're not that interested in be not that interested in them.
Instead, they stand in the cold to see a band they're very interested in. Holy Fuck's tight instrumental set makes great use of works from their latest album, Latin, and the crowd is again moving. It's an urgent, frantic set that never loses its focus – driven, while still seeming erratic; intricate, while seeming perfectly easy. I spy the pill-shelver I overheard earlier, and can only wonder whether she shoved a dud, or if everyone else is just as high, moving as they are with the same passion and intensity as her.
With Cut Copy taking forever to come out on the Car Park stage, we swing into !!! at the Clock Tower as Nic Offer thrusts around and beyond the stage, before heading to Gotye. Opening with the marvellous 'Eyes Wide Open', it's a celebratory set to a relatively small crowd. Wally de Backer moves from behind his drums and around the stage at various points, always remaining the focus, some feat with the transfixing Tim Shiel (Faux Pas) having joined the touring band. Some newer stuff is given a run, and it holds up just as well with old favourites, like the spookily gorgeous 'Heart's a Mess' or the raucous 'Learnalilgivinanlovin.' It's fucking freezing though.
Twenty-five minutes after the set was supposed to begin, Cut Copy finally take to the stage, coming in through an illuminated door that we'll later see to be a screen. It's a good set, indicative of the direction they continue to move in as both musicians and performers, but it lacks much of the vibe of earlier shows. It could be easily explained (what kept them off so long? Technical difficulties?) and the weather is again a major mood hindrance, but it's really only in familiar moments, like 'Hearts on Fire' that it breaks into something extraordinary. The crowd, by now thoroughly frozen and aching, gradually peels off, leaving only the truly committed behind. It was close to beautiful, but nature wouldn't have it so.
Pouring out onto Balmain Road, the packed bus stop sees us once again passed by a full 440 to much groaning. Everyone gets the idea at once to walk to an earlier bus stop, therefore defeating the point. Spotting a 431 on Darling Street, we race between cars to reach the stop before it passes. We make it, we get on, and 10 minutes later after a stall and a black out, the bus finally starts up to a roar from its passengers. Feet may be sore and it may be cold; bed may still seem too far away, (and easier transport options are certainly something promoters will have to consider next year) but even in this moment of discomfort the experience feels worthwhile. We sit in solidarity with other weary travellers, who buzz around us recounting of the day, truly thankful.
REPORT: Laneway Melbourne.