Report: Laneway Festival, Brisbane 2013
RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane
Friday 1st February 2013
Every year, there’s a curveball. Early on in the Winn Street years it was the ferocious, inescapable heat that the city likes to turn on in the weeks following Christmas. More recently, it’s been the wet – something you imagine will be the bigger problem in the longer term, given the festival takes place during Brisbane’s rainy season.
But despite all that, in 2013 Laneway finally seems to be getting its groove on. The website happily warns you to apply sunscreen before you come to the festival, but you could almost not bother, given how much of it is actually held undercover. And Brisbane’s RNA Showgrounds feel like where it should be held, the organisers carefully utilising the generous space that’s on offer.
It’s not perfect – there will turn out to be imbalances this year in the amenities available, while any festival involves the attendance of a crowd and a certain percentage of any crowd is comprised of fuckheads – but Rogers and business partner Jerome Borazio are ever so close to claiming the honours for promoting the country’s best festival.
12:50pm: Finding a park at a Brisbane train station on a weekday is like sifting salt from sugar. Add to this the fact that Brisbane train stations are a great place to get stuck in a conversation with a guy who probably walked straight over the tracks to come talk to you, and you start to wonder why you ever left home. We squeeze past one such stranger to swipe on at the station, and he gives us a look like we just did a wee in his eye. Thankfully the train slides to a stop right then. This has nothing to do with Laneway. Apologies.
1:10: Collecting tickets at Laneway 2013 is blessedly simple. I even find out that eight years ago the ticket lady was at the opening of the worst Brisbane club in living memory. It’s funny, because I was there too.
1:15: Time to get our bearings. This year’s Laneway is so simple it makes the supplied map seem complicated. Heading through the gates on Alexandria St, directly in front of us is the Eat Your Own Ears stage. Off to the left is a fenced walkway which leads inside to the Future Classic Stage or—as one punter politely calls it—“that fucking dungeon.”
To our right is the main complex of exhibition halls. It’s more commonly occupied by livestock, but today features bars, markets and the rather appropriately named Zoo Stage (it also features the Outpost Lounge, but one look at that place and you know it’s for losers – this shall be both the first and last time you read about it). Beyond the halls is a short series of slightly overpriced, slightly understaffed food stalls. More importantly, though, it’s where you’ll also find the Carpark Stage, home to some of the biggest acts for the day.
Greatest opening artist award: Henry Wagons and the Unwelcome Company, who kick off at the Zoo stage at 1:10pm. Wagons is worth more than this slot, really – his whacky brand of off-the-wall outlaw country music makes him one of the best local performers – but he’s also a man made for a hootenanny, and gets the party started with a bracing bunch of tunes from his creepily named mini-album, Expecting Company?
1:30: Wagons has Mel Tickle of Little Scout up onstage, the two of them whipping through ‘Give Me a Kiss’. Henry strums theatrically, Tickle strokes some high notes, the place swoons.1:35: Next up is a song by Wanda Jackson, who once knew Elvis, or something. Whatever: we’ll pay a bit more attention in a moment. First, though, the day’s betting markets:
Man gets penis out: 2 to 1
Artist expresses genuine surprise at Brisbane’s summer climate: 3 to 5
The German Sausage Hut is in attendance: 6 to 1
Patience Hodgson makes an appearance with Wagons: You really want to bet against this happening? The odds could be…
1:42: Shazam! Patience bounds out of nowhere, cartwheels about the stage and launches into ‘A Hangman’s Work is Never Done’. Wagons almost can’t keep up, but nails home the song’s crashing choruses. It’s a fine moment, and made all the sweeter when Wagons goes method, pretending to hang himself with his own mic cord. Everyone laughs.
1:46: Now Wagons is racing through the crowd, cajoling them into giving their own take on a blood-curdling scream of death. Most happily oblige. It’s a great reminder of the guy’s ability with a crowd, but Wagons also possesses the musicality to back-up his hi-jinks. He’s a special artist.
1:55: Real Estate aren’t nearly as good at working a crowd, but let their musicality come to the fore as they take over the Carpark Stage. It’s best exemplified on their first song for the day, the seven minute ‘All the Same’, which weirdly enough is the closing track from 2011 LP, Days. The song’s beautiful, angular coda captures the attention of many in the crowd, but the band don’t quite maintain the rage throughout their entire 40-minute: much like their albums, one Real Estate song can easily drift into the next.
2:13: I make a note of how Real Estate guitarist Matt Mondanile resembles a young Steve Malkmus, and my phone impresses me by auto-completing ‘Malkmus’ (stay hungry, stay foolish); this is followed by a comment on how keyboardist Jonah Maurer taps away with all the passion of a fast food attendant. Still, while Real Estate may not be pushing the paradigm of popular music, their easy shtick washes over the crowd. I look forward to one day seeing them in a club.
2:45: We’re looking to catch the Rubens but have 20 minutes up our sleeve, so head over to the dungeon to check out Julia Holter. Holter’s onstage playing her keyboard, with just a drummer and cellist for company. It’s intense stuff for this time of day, but brought together with the cool, darkened vibe of the stage it makes for an intimate and engaging performance. We stay long enough to catch ‘Our Sorrow’, and I’m almost reluctant to head back out into the throng.
Rude punter award: Laneway’s meant to be civilised. And for the most part it is – there’s little in the way of steroids and bared bolt-ons. But you still get your fuckfaces. The girl who careens around the corner and shoves straight into us, before reeling back and blowing us a juicy raspberry, spittle dancing off her fluttering tongue, is one such.
3:00: The Rubens are arguably one of the outliers at this year’s festival. Over the past year the Menangle four-piece (plus bass player today) have well and truly blown up, the readiness of their soul-inflected rock and momentum of early single ‘My Gun’ sucking them straight into the major label system. They’re almost boringly conventional, but also a band that pretty much everyone can agree on, so have attracted one of the biggest crowds I’ll see all day to the Carpark Stage.
3:04: And they deliver. Perhaps it’s hard not to, when you start with the stamping ‘The Day You Went Away’, Elliot Margin’s keys driving the audience into an early frenzy. The band organise their set well, plumbing the harder numbers from their recent debut album before settling into a cavalcade of audience favourites, including ‘Never be the Same’, ‘Lay it Down’ and of course ‘My Gun’, which frontman Sam Margin invites everyone to sing along with him. They’re a fine live band, although I come away from the performance still not entirely convinced they’ve reached their songwriting potential.
Worst Hair Award: I think I’m being impossibly vacuous but can’t stop myself from jotting this down the fact that Rubens guitarist Zaac Margin's limp locks give him the appearance of a 13-years-old. Incidentally, Margin’s Swiss cheese jeans mean he also takes out the Worst Pants Award. All of this combined with his stripy shirt create a look that could be best described as ‘Able Seaman’. Good thing he’s a great guitarist.
4:00: Ostensibly, we have a choice to make: Of Monsters and Men or El-P. The general discussion revolves around whether we want to see a song that just last weekend almost topped the national youth broadcaster’s Hottest 100, or a song about domestic abuse and murderous revenge. We choose the latter.
Overheard: On our way to Eat Your Own Ears we spot Robert Forster. He’s sweating it up like everyone else here, but otherwise in possession of his renowned stateliness. Then this:
Vintage Dress Girl: Omigod, check out that old guy with the tote bag!
Girl in Leather Shorts (giggling, hand over mouth): Did someone’s parents show up?Pattern: How embarrassing. Leather: Let’s go. Monsters are starting…
4:06: Eat Your Own Ears is the best stage at the festival in terms of layout, funnelling punters onto Alexandria St between two exhibition halls. But at this time of the day it’s also brutal, the sun blazing into our eyes as we walk towards the security barriers. Maybe that’s why there are worryingly few people here to see El-P, a guy who had a major hand in two of the best rap albums of 2012.
4:12: A couple of minutes late, Phil Collin’s ‘In the Air’ (the most-used rap show intro in history? Discuss) starts up over the PA, and all of a sudden – thankfully – there are people gathering around us.
4:15: El-P is on. The audience erupts and weed smoke begins pluming through the air. The 37-year-old rapper wastes little time, going industrial strength straightaway with ‘Request Denied’, the spiralling, paranoid intro from last year’s Cancer 4 Cure, before flipping ‘The Full Retard’ – its sampled hook ‘So you should pump this shit like they do in the future’ being screamed back by the audience – definitely one of the highlights of the day.
4:24: ‘Drones Over Brooklyn’, ‘Works Every Time’, ‘True Story’, and of course ‘For My Upstairs Neighbour (Mum’s the Word)’ all follow in quick succession. You might think El-P’s impact would be lessened away from the dystopian sonics of his albums, but onstage he gives it his all: there’s a desperate, instinctual snarl to his performance, breaths are gasped and beads of sweat pop from his forehead; he sells every couplet that flies out of his mouth. It’s exhilarating, and a little bit frightening. Helping enormously is a brace of crack backing musicians and a ferocious hype man. El-P’s set finally finishes in a maelstrom of noise, and we walk away, safe in the knowledge that most people at Laneway missed one of the festival’s best performances.
Band that I missed and were probably amazing award: We can only stay for a few minutes of Poliça, but they sound phenomenal, filling the Zoo Stage’s cavernous space with great gluts of electric pop. Channy Leaneagh’s spectral vocals almost command you to listen. It’s a bummer we’ve got places to be.
5:23: The festival’s now full, and so too it seems is the drinks line. It takes us almost six and a half minutes to get a beer. Not that the bars are understaffed, mind. More that it’s a question of timing – as we’ll find out later.
5:28: Not that we really care that much about beer prices right now, because Shlohmo just started in the dungeon and is absolutely delivering. The LA-based producer has masterminded some stunning moments in bass music over the last year and a half, and he proceeds to drop most of them during what’s essentially a 50-minute DJ set, utilising just a laptop, mixer and fader board. Remixes abound, including Shlohmo’s own ferocious take on Jeremih’s ‘Fuck You All the Time’, his mournful, glitchy version of LOL Boys’ ‘Changes’, and a screwed down flip of Electric Guest’s ‘The Bait’. But plenty of originals are included also, most notably the serene ‘Say Goodbye’, which triggers a sharpening in tempo towards the end of the set. Throughout, the man himself is fascinating to watch, all arms, head-nods and silent sing-alongs, while his studied, peculiar brand of electronic music draws in many more strangers than it drives away. Also, everyone loves it when he drops ‘Genie in a Bottle’.
Overheard: “Yeah, Dan Boeckner. He used to be in Fur Patrol.”
6:25: Grab another beer. This time there’s absolutely no one around. It takes a whopping sixteen seconds.
6:35: We take a break to wolf down some food ($9 gyoza – delicious, if overpriced) and then head back inside to check out Jessie Ware. The British soul-singer is putting on a propulsive performance, dipping into ‘If You Love Me’ – her collaboration with Japanese production duo BenZel – as well as ‘Sweet Talk’ and ‘Swang Song’, both taken from her debut LP, Devotion. The last cut is particularly good, building into a powerful guitar-driven finale. We’d like to stay for more, but Alpine at the Zoo beckon.
Trending: Man, there are a lot of moustaches at this festival. And I’m not just talking about your Copstash Standard, either. The mo is on the move: I see everything from the Dali right through to the Fu Manchu – all un-ironic, all covered in spittle and beer and food. It’s fascinating, and a bit gross. Time for that Deadwood feature film, perhaps.
7:17: Jumpsuits! That’s my first thought when Alpine take to the stage, Phoebe Baker in a full length number, Lou James sporting a metallic red-shorted variation. “She looks like Liza Minnelli!” someone says of James. That could be a complement. I’m not sure.
7:27: This is my first time seeing Alpine live and after a couple of songs it seems there's an imbalance going on in their performance. Baker and James take far too much of the weight, singing at each other, sashaying across the stage, wiggling, flicking hair. It’s weird, because the drama of their climbing vocal interplay is already enough; combined with the theatre it dominates, making them the stars while the rest of the band look like Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. There’s a bunch of great moments – the double hit of ‘Lovers 1’ and ‘Lovers 2’, ‘Too Safe’ and ‘Hands’ – but not enough to stop us from decamping halfway through for Yeasayer.
Laneway suggestion box: Implement a recycling scheme. It’s now blessedly dark outside, a westerly breeze blowing in to help massage away the heat, but it means you can’t see the piles of rubbish lying around everywhere. Instead, you just stumble into it, tripping, getting it stuck under your shoes. There are bins everywhere; this problem confuses me.
7:39: There aren’t as many people waiting at the Carpark Stage for Yeasayer as I was perhaps expecting, but this has become something of a theme for the day. As one of my cohort suggests, the line-up’s so good and there are so many clashes everywhere, that people tend stay for one act as long as possible before decamping to the next.
7:41: Some of the festival acts have been running a little late, but that more or less ends when Yeasayer appear. And it’s the first live setup of significant scale that we encounter, strobes illuminating the crowd (and the surfeit of trash) to the opening synths of ‘Henrietta’.
7:48: Bizarrely – and painfully – a shoe appears out of nowhere and clocks us in the head, bouncing and knocking some poor guy’s glasses off. He desperately drops to his knees to retrieve them. I make a mental note to keep an eye out for a guy with only one shoe and beat the shit out of him.
7:50: Yeasayer are a curious band live. I’ve seen them once before and Chris Keating seemed to struggle as a frontman. A few years on, though, and they’re better, measuring out the tunes in long grooves as Keating and guitarist Anand Wilder share the heavy lifting of leading the music. New tunes ‘Longevity’ and ‘Devil and the Deed’ are both wholeheartedly received by the audience, but most of the passion is saved for older material: 2010’s ‘Ambling Alp’ and ‘O.N.E.’, and breakthrough 2007 hit ‘2080’. By the time the Brooklyn four-piece finish on a muscular take on ‘Wait for the Summer’ – orange lights recreating a burnished sunset – the crowd has swollen considerably. In the end, eight tunes hardly seems enough.
8:32: The time has come to pick the last act of four acts for the night, and Laneway’s not making it any easier: Bat for Lashes, Twerps, Nicholas Jaar, or Divine Fits.
8:38: It takes us surprisingly little time to settle on the muscular Fits, who are just finishing setting up their equipment as we arrive back at Eat Your Own Ears. There’s a short break, and then one of the finer live performances I’ve witnessed in some time.
8:40: Divine Fits were essentially created on the back of a relationship breakdown, and their show tonight ends up seeming like a form of travelling therapy, guitarist Dan Boeckner generally singing about how everything went to shit with his former wife and musical partner, Alexei Perry. But this is far from a Boeckner show: he shares singing duties with bassist Britt Daniel – better known as the frontman of Texas rockers, Spoon – and the combination works like magic.
8:41: Right from the get-go they’re slick and professional, unfussy and not afraid to share instruments, cover each other and just generally have a good time together. The set starts on a groove, using ‘Neopolitans’ to warm up, before flipping into the double punch of ‘Baby Get Worse’ and ‘Flaggin’ a Ride’. The charging ‘What Gets You Alone’ is quickly dispensed with before the band spark off a spontaneous handclap on the swinging ‘Would That Not be Nice’. As the set rolls on, the songs tend to get tougher and tougher, a highlight being Boecker dropping his guitar and going pure frontman for ‘My Love is Real’.
Overheard: The crowd’s politely churning to Divine Fits, except for one guy near us who’s busy getting up in the grill of a girl next to him. Eventually she turns around:
Girl: “Would you just calm the fuck down?”
Dude is blank, shocked.
Girl: “I’ve fucking had enough. Just chill out!”
This might not seem like much, but for every munted person at this festival there’s somebody who’s relatively sober, and so you continually get people tearing shreds off those who couldn’t tell you what day it is. It’s pretty funny.9:15: Daniel takes a greater number of songs towards the end of the set, pulling keyboardist Alex Fischel onto guitar to help with the bluesy ‘Like Ice Cream’, before closing with a monumental cover of Australian Roland S. Howard’s ‘Shivers’. It’s a brilliant way to end the night and the crowd respond, whooping and hollering with delight. I look to my right and one poor lucky guy, obviously only half there, stares at the band enraptured, as if he’s about to cry.
Divine Fits are perhaps representative of Laneway as a whole. There’s something engagingly no-nonsense about the event: security is laidback but efficient, drink tickets non-existent, and everything is run in a decidedly simple manner.
Overheard: “Yeah, Japandroids were shithouse!”
As we walk back to the train, we consider what might be wrong with Laneway. The answer is, not much: there’s the urban setting – you wouldn’t trade the exhibition grounds for a muddy field, but having a festival in pre-existing buildings does create occasional logistical problems – and its small size limits the number of food vendors on hand (no German Sausage Hut, I’m afraid). Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is something nobody can control and nobody is going to change: the time of year. Laneway might be a summer party in the southern capitals, but in Brisbane it would be better suited to the temperate winter.
But then Laneway suits Brisbane in other ways. It’s become part of a greater push to re-engage with the city’s urban areas, even if it’s just on a cultural level. And the festival itself runs in its own lane (ha), sourcing talent from around the world that would struggle to be accommodated on many other bills. This you suspect is partly down to the fact that the festival has until this point, perhaps been a secondary concern for both Danny Rogers and Jerome Borazio – a labour of love more than a mining for dollars.
Laneway in 2013 is inching closer to becoming the perfect event. It’s done what modern operators need to do, marking out a specific corner in Australia’s busy live music sector. Now that corner seems to be growing.
Matt Shea (@mrmatches)
(Photos: Justin Edwards)