St Jerome’s Laneway Festival @ RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane (1/2/2013)

JODY MACGREGOR gets pummelled by Japandroids and dazzled by Bat For Lashes at the first Laneway Festival in Brisbane.

“But we don’t HAVE laneways!”

My friend is baffled by our version of the St Jerome’s Laneway Festival Brisbane does have a couple of lanes, but that’s irrelevant because Laneway is being held at the RNA Showgrounds, just like it was last year. The Showgrounds are where the agricultural exhibition happens, as far from urban backstreet cafe-land as you can get in the city, but on the other hand while making your way from stage to stage you can get plenty of mileage out of jokes about the signs that say “Please give way to horses.”

It’s managed to stop raining and is hot for most of the day. The Eat Your Own Ears stage at the end of Alexandria Street is in full sunshine, but that doesn’t stop people from enjoying Snakadaktal’s bright indie pop, a bunch of fans even adopting the Golden Plains tradition of “the boot” – holding sneakers and green wellies aloft in approval as the band finish their set.

They’re followed by El-P, the day’s only hip-hop act. He’s energetic and friendly, encouraging the crowd to keep joining in by shouting, “You sound great, do that again!” Like too many rappers he falls into the trap of trying to put on a rock show though, cranking up the volume insanely high – he’s the loudest thing I hear all day – to the point where the clarity of his dense, multi-layered rhymes are lost and if I didn’t know the words I wouldn’t have a clue what he’s saying. And in El-P’s wordplay-rich rap the words are especially important.

For an experimental pop band Alt-J have done well, drawing a crowd who look like they are here for a diferent festival, a bunch of people who I’m surprised to hear singing along to a song called ‘Tesselate’ and whose comprehension of analogies about geometry I’d like to test with a short quiz. Alt-J seem happy to be here but mainly stick to playing the songs rather than doing anything fancy. They replicate those songs so crisply it doesn’t matter – if it weren’t for the pauses so we can sing along to bits of their big numbers like ‘Breezeblocks’ you could think you’re listening to it at home, which is a festival rarity.

A bunch of the crowd leave immediately after ‘Breezeblocks’ and maybe they were just here for that one song or maybe they knew how hard it would be to get near the Zoo Stage for MS MR. It’s the New Yorkers’ first show in Australia, and ‘Hurricane’ sounds great, from outside the building at least.

Japandroids are another band brought out for their first Australian show by Laneway. The sound quality may not be 100 per cent but they make up for it with quantity, breathlessy speeding through the banter so they can cram in as many songs as possible. They obviously enjoy rocking out too much to waste time on anything else. They start on ‘Adrenaline Nightshift’, with its line about “waiting for a generation’s bonfire to begin” perfect for them, because if there’s a single rock band right now who could lay claim to being the voice of a generation it’s Japandroids. All of their songs are inclusive anthems where every other line is about “us” except for when they’re singing about “we” or “you and me”. Sure, they sound like The Thermals but The Thermals are amazing too, so right now I don’t care.

After a day full of people in simple, hot-weather outfits (El-P: “Jeans were a bad idea!”), Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes is wearing a multi-coloured outfit of shimmering pleats like plumage. She’s a cellophane phoenix, circling through ‘Lilies’ while on fire. ‘What’s a Girl To Do’ follows, with the ‘Be My Baby’ drumbeat cut out, the song instead beginning with her spooky spoken opening: “We walked arm in arm, but I didn’t feel his touch”, she intones before the instruments crash in. It’s not easy to create your own personal mood at a festival where people are coming and going, where they’ve still got somebody else’s songs in their heads and a few beers in their stomachs. Bat For Lashes pulls it off, making the darkened RNA Showgrounds feel solemn and ghostly all the way through ‘Glass’ (after which she ditches half the outfit due to the heat).

There’s an incongruous moment when an inflatable turtle gets lobbed overhead and bounces around the crowd while most of the band leaves so it’s just Khan and her pianist performing ‘Laura’; its melancholy simplicity is not really an inflatable crowd-toy moment. While melancholy, her set never feels sad. With Khan’s playful dancing around the stage and her constant grin, it couldn’t be anything but joyous. Any worry that this would be a comedown finale is washed away when she finishes with ‘Daniel’, which may be full of yearning and homesickness but right now is a synth-pop saga and the absolute highlight of the day.

Should have saved your boots for this, people.