St Jerome’s Laneway Festival @ Footscray Community Arts Centre, Melbourne (03/02/2013)

From panoramic views to rock ‘n’ roll carparks, EDWARD SHARP-PAUL discovers the simple pleasures of Melbourne’s Laneway Festival.

St Jeromes’ Laneway Festival returned to its home-in-exile at the Footscray Community Arts Centre, a location that feels more right every year. The festival outgrew the laneway of its birth long ago, but now it has just about outgrown the hipsters, too. While still very much present, the moustache-and-plimsolls crowd was just one group among a crowd of music fans from all across the spectrum. This change was reflected in the programming, which saw Pitchfork-y types alongside triple j favourites.

Laneway 2013 was a story of four stages: Blessed with rose bushes, panoramic views and a gently sloping lawn, the River Stage played host to many of the day’s more mellow offerings; at the other end of the site, there was a survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere predominating at the Eat Your Own Ears Car Park Stage, which served as a sort of rock ‘n’ roll quarantine zone; the Future Classic stage was nestled agreeably among trees and pop-up shops, forming a safe-haven for some of the more niche acts on the bill; the Dean Turner Stage, on the other hand, was all about mass appeal.

Eat Your Own Ears Stage (aka the Rock ‘n’ Roll Car Park)

Over at the ends of the earth The Men seemed to be employing a test of faith: if you survived their interminable opening two-chord jam, you were rewarded with a blistering set of some seriously loud rock ‘n’ roll. The Men come from a parallel universe where sincerity is awesome, and there’s no such thing as subgenres. Ben Greenberg may exhibit an alarmingly cavalier attitude to actually playing his bass, but his energy lies at the heart of all that is good with The Men.

Cloud Nothings attempted a similar trick, but came off more angry than passionate. It still worked rather well, but it was becoming clear that the Eat Your Own Ears Stage was to be something of an endurance test, thanks to the piercing frequencies bouncing off the buildings that overlooked the car park.

Japandroids were a big hit with roughly half the audience, while the other half struggled to find a foothold amongst the messy, exultant noise. As my companion observed, if you’re not down with their recorded output, it’s pretty freakin’ hard to figure out what’s going on. They brimmed with conviction though, and they did as well as two dudes in a car park (albeit a rock ‘n’ roll car park) can be expected to do. These guys were clearly built for small, sweaty clubs, however – so when guitarist Brian King announced that a small, sweaty club tour was planned for later in the year, it felt right.

Divine Fits struck a blow for the veterans on an exceptionally young bill, proving that pedigree can put up an honest fight against fresh-faced enthusiasm. As well as the quality of their songs and the musicianship, there was the added bonus of seeing indie rock’s greatest bromance unfolding onstage. Dan Boeckner and Britt Daniel swapped instruments, vocals and goofy grins.

Even the sizable contingent watching from the Napier Street bridge were won over. As Divine Fits closed with a bang-on cover of the Boys Next Door’s ‘Shivers’, though, the mood started to palpably change: The Flume influx was commencing, and the rock ‘n’ roll car-park was about to turn into a rave-up.

Future Classic Stage

Neither rock ‘n’ roll nor rave, the Future Classic stage was all about the misfits and the oddballs. Julia Holter ’s Ekstasis was one of 2012’s great surprises, a meditative, fully-formed debut by a distinctive new voice. I wasn’t confident of how well it would translate live, but I sure didn’t expect the underwhelming fare that was offered up at the Future Classic stage. Setting up with a cellist and a drummer, any momentum that the set threatened to develop was disrupted not only by the entirely forgivable technical issues, but by the lengthy side-stage discussions that accompanied these issues, and by the singer’s sullen demeanour. When it finally came together, as on ‘Our Sorrows’, Holter was spellbinding, but these moments were fleeting. The set was cut short: Holter pleaded for one more song, didn’t get it, and wandered offstage without so much as a word or a wave. It was a fittingly anticlimactic end.

Holy Other ’s slow-burning set required investment that quite clearly paid off for the blessed-out punters by the barrier. It also made for pleasant music to browse the pop-up markets to. Jessie Ware was one of the day’s purest pop practitioners, which made her modest audience and stage allocation a little surprising.

El-P was representing for hip-hop, and came up with one of the sets of the festival. Longer-term fans would have been a little miffed at the Cancer For Cure -heavy setlist, but it was hard to complain about the entertainment value. EL-P was part MC, part ringleader as he took the crowd on a journey through the mind of one seriously paranoid Brooklynite. The fact that his squelching beats were actually being generated live – by two multi-instrumentalists and a second MC – made a huge difference.

The River Stage

Perfume Genius ’ kitschy torch songs constantly threatened to evaporate into the air, but from a sun-drenched lawn with river views and the city skyline looming in the distance, this didn’t really seem like a problem. Mike Hadreas knows his strengths: his words and his vulnerability. He ensured that both were on full display.

Polica ’s wintry, auto-tuned electro-pop was an unlikely candidate for late-arvo party-starter, but that’s exactly how it was panning out on the River Stage. Between Channy Laneagh’s enthusiastic shape-pulling and the sheer kinetic energy of the dual-drummer set-up, they turned the lawn into an impromptu dance floor. Throughout, material from last year’s debut Give You The Ghost revealed new dimensions – having shaken off the cloud of reverb that followed her all over said album, Laneagh stepped into the light, figuratively and literally. ‘Amongster’ shed its claustrophobia, and its climactic drum-off was even more unhinged than on record. ‘Wandering Star’ was simply beautiful.

The Dean Turner Stage

A large proportion of the action on the Dean Turner Stage, aka the main stage, was all about new sensations. Ok, so the venerable Kings Of Convenience kicked things off, but the mid-late afternoon slots were a barrage of first-album triple j success stories. It was here that the sense of Laneway’s ever-expanding populist streak was most keenly felt.

  • The Rubens* sturdy brand of rock ‘n’ soul mightn’t be particularly flashy, but it’s all about Sam Margin’s golden trachea, and his bandmates know not to get in the way. An ambitious cover of ‘The Seed 2.0’ stood alongside ‘My Gun’ as obvious standouts.

    Of Monsters And Men aim squarely for the middle, and judging by the singalong on ‘Little Talks,’ they hit it. For all their obvious skill, it’s hard not to think of the lineage of their sound – all the twee outsiders that came before them, and all the rough edges that have been sanded off en route. But then, 5-ish on the main stage at Laneway is no time for rough edges.

    On the subject of mass appeal, Alt-J really are unlikely candidates: the pointillist arrangements, the anti-anthems, the ADHD song structures, none of it seems designed with a moment like this in mind. Joe Newman’s voice is still a bit of a hard sell, but it’s hard to deny Alt-J’s magnetism when witnessing first-hand their effect on a lathered-up audience. There’s something wonderful about watching a seething crowd that wants to dance but doesn’t quite know how, trying to get their heads around the sputtering rhythms of ‘Fitzpleasure’ not once, but twice (their first attempt was cut short by a “wanker” falling out of a tree and requiring medical attention). Pink-haired drummer Thom Green revealed himself as the band’s secret weapon (and sartorial weak link), managing the tangled rhythms of An Awesome Wave with an improbable ease.

    Whether down to the type or the sheer number of people that it attracts, The Dean Turner Stage tends to have a strange vibe all day. It might be the dehumanising effect of forcing all those people into what is essentially a long, narrow concrete cage, or it might be the mere fact that you’re bound to be a little crabby when you have to start pushing through people from 200 metres back – before you’ve even clapped eyes on the stage. Either way, the main-stage layout is the most “laneway-ish” element of the festival, and it might be time to quietly accept that it could do with a re-think.

    Due to the unusually early Sunday finish, only the final acts performed under darkened skies, and Natasha ” Bat For Lashes ” Khan made full use of the possibilities. She emerged among lanterns and great piles of smoke, looking like a metallic rainbow mermaid, if you can picture such a thing. Plenty of people opted to close things out with Flume (who drew possibly the single biggest crowd of the day) or Alpine, and a few less opted for Nicolas Jaar, but Khan’s commanding performance was that of a proper headliner. Her mix of baroque flourishes and electronica wasn’t so much brought to life as faithfully re-created by her crack backing band – but it was Khan herself, as much as her music, that was the attraction. Her melodramatic lyrics and mystical stylings might be a tad overdone on record at times, but her sensuous physicality and her quavering, impassioned alto were nigh-on irresistible in the flesh.

    The highlight was always going to be ‘Laura’, and so it proved. Initial pindrop silence slowly gave way to an epic sing-a-long. When you looked around and saw faces with eyes closed, listening with grim intent, you saw just how much a song can mean to people. Only the special ones are capable of that.

    With the highest of cathartic highs having been delivered, Bat For Lashes moved into (slightly broody) party mode, with ‘Oh Yeah’, ‘Prescilla’ and, inevitably, ‘Daniel’ rounding out a near-perfect set. There was nothing left but to run the concrete gauntlet one more time, before bidding the Footscray Riviera a weary, affectionate farewell for another year.