St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, Melbourne (01/02/2009)

In 2009, St Jerome’s Laneway Festival became a much bigger festival, spanning far beyond its humble beginnings – gone are the days of the tiny festival crammed into Caledonian Lane. Off the back of last year’s expansion, organisers this year took the size issue even further. Instead of having a literal laneway for the Melbourne stint, Little Lonsdale Street took the place of Caledonian Lane – the new location acting as a second main stage. Of course, for those who attended this year, that second stage was the key to a fundamental error – we will get to that soon enough, though. With new stages and a lineup contending with the best of them, St Jerome’s Laneway Festival was both a success and a major, disappointment for many. How might one arrive at such a conclusion? Read on...

Let’s start right at the beginning. Hoards of excited ticket holders lined up alone each side of Swanston Street, but come midday and the expected starting time, nothing happened. Some bureaucratic BS, no doubt, meant that festival favourite and this year’s opener, Tame Impala were subjected to a shortened playing time and many punters were subjected to listening from behind the mesh covered fence line. The psychedelic jammers did their best to cool the tempers of an impatient line, though, but the rear end of Melbourne’s record breaking heat wave certainly wasn’t helping.

Yes, a temperature drop of ten degrees from the previous three days was an arctic equivalent, but there was no escaping the need to slip slop slap on Sunday. Of course, sweating like a fountain all day doesn’t help and climbing the stairs to the Lounge stage would solidify just how much of a sweaty affair this would be. Kitchen Knife Wife opened the stage and their rollicking, pop rock was certainly an apt antidote to the previous dramas. Their short set demonstrated a keen ability to perform catchy, toe-tapping melodies, complete with sharp hooks and harmonies alike. The fan-cooled Lounge seemed an obvious drawing card for punters, as did the venue’s offering of somewhere to sit and drink in comfort, which meant KKW became the only act that many had an opportunity to watch on the stage.

The Lounge campers had struck early and whilst no one could really blame them, it was certainly frustrating having to throw away the sights and sounds of acts that were to appear there. Sorry Yves Klein Blue and Pivot – at least we already know you’re both excellent.

Up to Little Lonsdale Street for the next stop of the day and lo and behold another irritation – the stage hear was at the top of a slope, which meant prolonged standing on toes became a vital skill. Moreover, the sound wasn’t all that flash and whilst there was sufficient space up back, it was a necessity to get right up close to really enjoy any of the acts. However, the disappointment of the stage was forgotten with the exciting pleasure of Still Flyin’ – a welcome remedy for neck-craning blues. The 11-piece army of a band was equipped with energy and dance as their weapon, not to mention the bevy of instruments on show. Radio favourite, Good Thing It’s a Ghost Town Around Here was a clear highlight, as was the sing along in Never Gonna Touch The Ground. Although there was no crowd surfing from the band like last year (on a surfboard, no less), it’s clear that Still Flyin’ seriously need to return and play more festivals here.

QV had a nice stage set up with astroturf and beanbags, and the free concerts there and outside the State Library were a hit for ticket holders and the general public alike. Briefly catching Emily Ulman inside QV, it was clear that this was the stage to take a seat and relax at, with the small crowd enjoying Ulman’s gentle voice and acoustic folk. Outside at the State Library Stage, Oh Mercy were providing similar pleasures for the public. The lawn looked like it does on that first warm day of the year – completely covered in seated patrons enjoying the sun – only with the addition of having a summer soundtrack to go along with it all. The free stages were a kind gift from organisers and, judging from the turnout at each, they were very much appreciated.

By mid afternoon (still very early on in the festival, actually) it became time to start having to choose. The timetable clashes were obvious and the option of running back and forth between the two main stages seemed like a wasted effort, especially later when it was such a trial to get back into Little Lonsdale. Having chosen Port O’Brien over Born Ruffians was the first of many such choices, but proved a worthy one, if only for their closer I Woke Up Today (aka the song off the Dulux ad). Hardly having to try, the band got the audience chanting along to each chorus and proved why they belong on any lineup.

Undeniably one of the best new musical assets of Melbourne, The Temper Trap continued delivering their juggernaut live act on the Lonsdale Street stage. With a popularity that continues to skyrocket and the home ground advantage, the local lads didn’t disappoint. Sweet Disposition and Resurrection were spectacularly delivered with Dougie’s unbeatable vocal and the whole band’s undeniable energy. In fact, to sum up how much the crowd loved Dougie’s voice, a simple request to the tech to turn up the vocal resulted in one of the biggest applause of the set. A Springsteen cover also made popped up, with the boys producing an odd rendition of Dancing In The Dark – a tough choice that seemed to take off.

By this stage, Little Lonsdale Street was a mess. From around 6pm, getting into the stage took at least 30 minutes and by the time The Drones were in full swing, entrance to the stage was plain ridiculous. Eager to claim a position for Girl Talk, punters were climbing off balconies in QV, whilst others, with even fewer brain cells (well, they all seemed pretty wasted) decided to climb construction ladders beside State Library. Yes, the police were called in and yes, the stage became an even harder place to get into. All the while, The Drones were tearing up the stage as usual. Even from way back – where the desired tinnitus-causing volume of The Drones was only a dream – Gareth Liddiard and Dan Luscombe could be spotted trashing about to a set list primarily made up of Havilah material.

‘I’m on a fucking holiday,’ remarked Glenn Richards. The man was certainly correct there and it wasn’t because he was enjoying himself. In fact, despite Richards pulling his usual tantrum tirade (to be fair it is not as usual anymore), the whole Augie March crew seemed bothered. Just Passing Through was a shambles, with members growling for levels to be fixed and Richards losing track of his vocal on more than one occasion plus giving glares that would bring any child to tears. The introduction of The Arnold Horns for a selection of tracks did pick things up considerably though, and Richards finally hit the vocal nail on the head with a terrific delivery of Lupus. It seemed that as the sun went down, the Augie standard went up. They were suddenly in their element and Brundisium and This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers were both stellar. One Crowded Hour finished the set with a big sing along, proving that it doesn’t matter if you’re a bogan (catching them at their Falls set) or an indie kid here at Laneway – this song is bound to delight.

By this stage organisers completely stopped people from getting into Little Lonsdale Street. Reports of Architecture In Helsinki were good, though they were apparently thankful for the punters up front amplifying Hold Music with chants of “Hey ah ah!” They covered Break My Stride, which seems a staple for their set nowadays and Like It Or Not, Wishbone and new song That Beep all featured. And what’s an appropriate means of dispersing punter? Closing the bar, of course – make them need to go elsewhere for booze. It was a pity such tactics didn’t really work.

Reports of Girl Talk were amusing, but considerable amounts of dangerous idiots kept the security busy for the hour he appeared. People climbing scaffolding and shop roofs were met with verbal abuse from Girl Talk, and a great mass of fans that couldn’t get into the laneway were left dancing all over the library lawn. It seems that organisers had assumed the festival goers would split 50/50 between the two main stages. They were wrong. Police were called in, but couldn’t really stop the trouble makers – with many a bin and sign destroyed and one unfortunate traffic light pole brought down to the ground.

All the while, a much safer performance was going down on Lonsdale Street, with Brooklyn lads, The Hold Steady returning to Laneway and providing a killer show to end the day. It proved an exceptionally appropriate fact that these guys have an album called Stay Positive, with Craig Finn grinning ear to ear for the entire set and running around, jumping and waving for the crowd to get as excited as he was. The band was a ballistic mass of energy from the outset, opening with Constructive Summer to a rapturous response while Franz Nicolay struggled to fix his keyboard. Soon enough, Nicolay became as energetic as Craig and the rest – busting out some great keyboard breaks alongside the great guitar work of his band mates. Chips Ahoy!, Sequestered In Memphis and Stay Positive were memorable titles on the setlist, the latter song leaving a grin on all the faces in Lonsdale Street. This was the kind of rock that makes hanging out in the sun, being covered in sweat and crammed like a sardine all day worthwhile. Thank you Hold Steady.

So there it is – another year of Laneway over and out. It seems that the brave expansion of the festival was a risk that didn’t work out as planned and it will be interesting to see how crowd control and sound issues in Little Lonsdale Street are handled next year. Or if there’s even a stage there next year. At least we can be thankful for our council allowing for such a unique festival to go ahead, right smack bang in the middle of the CBD.