Report: Laneway Melbourne 2013
With a new stage adding to the overload of options, Laneway Melbourne runs the risk of cannibalising itself in its fourth year in Footscray. But a strong and deceptively diverse roster minimises clashes and maximises options, finds DOUG WALLEN. Photos by KATIE FAIRSERVICE.
There’s a bit of déjà vu to Laneway this year, between Yeasayer reappearing on the same stage two years after they last occupied it and four Australian bands (Pond, Chet Faker, Twerps, Snakadaktal) having played Meredith less than two months earlier. But there are differences too: more pronounced signage and the expanding of the electronic-leaning tent into a proper fourth stage (Future Classic Stage). That means pushing the car park stage (this year dubbed Eat Your Own Ears) further away from the rest of the action, adding to the constant commutes. Yet those two stages offer more exciting fare than the more centrally located River Stage and Dean Turner Stage, making up for the extra walking.
Some things are harder to change, like long lines for the ATMs and bar (and increasingly the toilets) and the relative lack of shade on a cooler day that still packs a long-lasting hit of direct sun overhead. Four stages means even more conflicts for a festival that appears to have a narrow range as it is, but that winds up being much less of a problem than anticipated. In fact, the riverside Footscray Community Arts Centre provides a festival-going experience that’s mellow rather than hectic, with more interesting programming choices than a glance at the line-up would immediately reveal. It also helps that it balances sure draws (Chet Faker, Flume, Of Monsters & Men) with lesser-known greats (El-P, Julia Holter, Perfume Genius, The Men) and counterintuitive choices (um, Henry Wagons).
Call Kings of Convenience the reverse headliners of the day: playing first on the Dean Turner stage, they’re more prominent than many of the morning acts. The Norwegian cult favourites colour their soft-sung tunes – think Chad & Jeremy or Simon & Garfunkel, given a certain Europop edge – with an increasing level of funk flair, and frontman Erlend Øye dances quite a lot for the last song.
The Men somehow remind me of Mission of Burma, in that they wring such intensity from those same familiar rock instruments without ever getting stuck in a corner. As much garage and post-punk is in there as classic rock, plus ripping Kraut-like jams. They’re a four-piece demolition crew with three singers and a powerhouse rhythm section, to say nothing of the focused, flinty guitar work. They’re also, notably, not a retro proposition. They’re just an intense rock band like we don’t have nearly enough of these days. For all that intensity, the lyrics are quite heartfelt when you pay attention, and not just on the Creedence-esque softie ‘Candy’. Despite being under direct sun in just the second hour of the afternoon, their set is one of many impressive rock experiences on this stage (see also: Cloud Nothings, Pond, Japandroids, Divine Fits). Despite being further away than in past years, the stage consistently yields the day’s best vantage points.
Buds and past touring partners Twerps and Real Estate are on back-to-back. Their lackadaisical threadings go over well in the mellow early afternoon, but the sun is still driving many to seek shade in the sidelines. Real Estate come off pluckier than on record, with a very definite bounce driving along their tunes. Down at the river stage, High Highs also exude a sun-friendly lightness, which makes for a nice brush but not too a convincing push to stay watching.
“There is a town in North Ontario…” Perfume Genius’s set is already pretty magical before he launches into that first line of Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’. His drummer and synth player hunched down for a breather, Mike Hadreas tackles the song solo on his Nord piano. It’s a perfect fit for his wavering, achy voice. His fragile presence is an odd partner to the harsh sunlight, and on the next song he clutches his side as if bodily wounded. Fingernails painted red, he does a polite curtsy when the song finishes, a funny little touch that belies its gutsy impact.
The Rubens don’t have the most character of our recent overnight successes, but their songs are irritatingly catchy once they’ve entered your bloodstream. The obligatory ‘My Gun’ is a case in point here. Later I stumble on Of Monsters & Men during their own signature hit, ‘Little Talks’. As much as The Rubens don’t do much for me, they’re infinitely more welcome than a folk Arcade Fire.
Henry Wagons with a full band is basically Wagons – the same guys are even in the band. But here Wagons focuses on last year’s duets-y solo album Expecting Company?, and his backing band – rechristened Unexpected Company after a song about a rat plague in London – includes all three ladies from Melbourne’s a cappella unit The Nymphs. Bassist Mark Dawson fills in for Robert Forster on ‘I Still Can’t Find Her’, and ‘Give Things a Chance to Mend’ is dedicated to a couple in matching straw hats that Wagons decides must be on a date. (Their union is doomed, he tells them – repeatedly). Wagons is an odd inclusion on this Pitchfork/zeitgeist-centred festival, but his boot-kicking country goes down just fine. And while the man is never likely to tone down the sheer shtick of what he does, his banter with and at the audience is always more entertaining than the muttered jokes most bands offer up as comic relief.
Cloud Nothings are at once volcanic and frayed, feeling beamed in directly from the height of ’90s alt-rock. It’s gnashing, pummelling, screamed exorcism, including big bouts of jamming. Sensory-smashing, Mars Volta-worthy stuff.
Gearing up for this year’s dubiously titled LP Hobo Rocket, Pond are even daggier than at Meredith, complete with pelvic thrusts from elfin Nick Allbrook. Still altogether crusty and blown-out, they make their vintage psych inhabitations more miraculous with just how goofy and un-jaded they are. They’re like schoolboys playing cosmonaut at a sleepover. New tune ‘Giant Tortoise’ edges close to Wolfmother territory in its strutting riff parade, but Pond are too blasé and comic-minded to ever truly tap the frat-y side of classic rock (thank fuck).
Canadian duo Japandroids are one of the day’s most talked-up acts, equally before and after their early evening set. With drummer David Prowse right up the front alongside guitarist Brian King and contributing his fair share of vocals, he’s more vital and visible than most drummers ever get to be live. The call-and-response, punk-ancestry shouts between them are infectious pretty immediately, and their “hit” – as King qualifies it beforehand – ‘The House that Heaven Built’ drives the devoted crowd into an energised love-in of clapping and shouting along. King announces that the reason they’re not doing sideshows is that they’re planning a proper tour here later in the year, in dark and sweaty venues with all the songs fans want to hear. Even though we’re watching them already, right here and now, he manages to make that prospect sound very appealing.
This is Chet Faker’s redemption set in a way, after his Meredith appearance was hobbled by technical difficulties, a broken foot and a diffuse crowd. Here the whole area is mobbed, and Faker and band stick to their strengths: crackling electronics, sex-minded soul sermons and that world-weary whisper of a drawl.
Then there’s that part of the day when you realise the guy from Spoon is on stage somewhere – right this minute. Divine Fits are an easy proposition, oozing lean post-punk cool while trafficking in the eerily well-suited rasps of Britt Daniel and Wolf Parade’s sunscreen-stained Dan Boeckner. The wiry, synth-spiked quartet are decidedly no-frills, and their set is fun but not flooring. Their closing cover of Rowland S Howard’s ‘Shivers’ is a giant step up, though, not just for its closeness to Melbourne’s heart but for Daniel’s knowing, thirsty delivery, cracking open exactly the fevered young desperation Howard bottled therein.
The Future Classic stage hosts the day’s least established but most interesting sets. Not all of them come off as well as on record – Julia Holter’s lovely work threatens to dissipate in the early-day momentum immediately following The Men, and Jessie Ware’s future-minded R&B feels stolid somehow – but Holy Other’s unshowy shuffling of intangibles has a total tractor-beam effect. I miss Shlohmo but hear rave reviews, while Nite Jewel’s Ramona Gonzalez and band amiably brighten their guitar-pop with twinkle-twinkle synths; it’s likeable enough, but feels safe compared to the rest. Later Nicolas Jaar gets off to an incredibly slow start for a headliner, even one chosen as a brainy and low-key counter to Flume’s behemoth accessibility. (It’s ironic that an act signed to Future Classic is overshadowing an act playing on the Future Classic stage.) Although smouldering with noir-ish sax and guitar, Jaar and company aren’t enough to keep me from heading up to catch the core of Bat for Lashes’ set.
Best of all on that new stage is Company Flow legend El-P. He throws his weight around like a onetime prizefighter, swaggering and shuffling as he slams out those brash, holler-like rhymes of his. He’s funny and gracious too, ripping through last year’s Cancer for Cure. Even delivered into the outdoors during lovely daytime weather, his persistently paranoid/sinister themes and smashed production palette translate better than expected. He makes one flub, addressing the crowd as Sydney instead of Melbourne, but this is still a mind-blowing set. Backed with a rapping sideman and two busy multi-instrumentalists, El-P makes live hip-hop feel like it can be a powerful band experience rather than a strictly press-play affair. He’s rewarded for that with a modest but rapturous audience, lurching to the cracked bass swells and agitated refrains as if in the hold of hypnosis.
As for the headliners, Alpine prove their unique mettle right away. Their songs are all herky-jerky confection, with those breathy-to-the-point-of-vaporous twin lead vocals crisscrossed every which way by sharp and excited lines of instrumentation. Just as those vocals get too twee or too similar to Blonde Redhead, the brightly garbed Phoebe Baker and Lou James clear the air with a crazed giddiness. The only downside: after the soaring exhilaration of the first few songs, the rest seem to repeat the same tricks without much variation.
It’s almost unbelievable, if not altogether surprising, just how many people stream into the one corner of the festival for the start of Flume. His great levelling does just that, so bassy and poppy at the same time and just hugely swooning. Later on in the set, couples are locked in embrace left and right. The Otis Redding-sampling ‘Holdin On’ inspires some to break into a dash from towards the direction of where Alpine’s crowd is beginning to disperse post-set.
Bat for Lashes is the thinking person’s pop idol. Or at least, it feels that way here. Holding her ground with radiant confidence, Natasha Khan nurtures the mercurial songs that are mostly as subtly augmented as they are on last year’s The Haunted Man. Her past whimsy in check, she commands an audience that’s thin for the headlining slot on the top stage. That just means I can get closer to the front, though. ‘Laura’ is the song everyone’s waiting for, and they join in at the chorus-time lift as if they’ve been practising in the mirror for months. Khan takes to autoharp for the older ‘Prescilla’, but the set leans expectedly on the stark meditations of The Haunted Man (no complaints there).
As a headlining set, this is much more of a exhaling comedown than a breathless build-up. The showdown between Bat for Lashes, Alpine, Flume and Nicolas Jaar is maddening on paper – at 9pm literally all four are playing at once – but it works out fine to catch the first chunk of Alpine, check in on Flume twice and absorb the slinky, inky beginning of Jaar before ending with Bat for Lashes.
Likewise, a lot of perceived clashes throughout the day drop away once something quickly either wins you over or doesn’t. And the best stuff – The Men, El-P, the opening burst of Alpine, Divine Fits doing ‘Shivers’, Perfume Genius doing ‘Helpless’ – makes me feel like I made all the right decisions anyway.