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[Review] ST. JEROME’S LANEWAY FESTIVAL Auckland 2012

Beloved Melbourne indie event St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival returned to Auckland last week, taking place on Auckland Anniversary Day at the recently-completed Silo Park in the Wynard Quarter – which became the festival’s third venue in as many years. Boasting its most impressive line-up so far, the 2012 festival was the biggest and best Auckland has seen, with at least half a dozen superb performances. Unfortunately exciting UK indie rockers WU LYF pulled out a few weeks before the event without providing a proper explanation, but that in no way diminished the amazing line-up (they were replaced by local group Sherpa). A near sell-out crowd of 6500 people turned up to enjoy the diverse range of alternative music in the occasionally harsh sunshine, and the picturesque new waterfront venue proved ideal with its expansive space, a new third stage, and mostly great sound with only a couple of technical difficulties. In fact, there was so much good music on display that there was no down time to rest, which is surely the best kind of problem for a music festival.

          EMA's closing number 'California' was an early highlight

Arriving just in time for California’s EMA (an unexpectedly long entry queue had me running late), the dark drone-folk sounds of ‘Marked’ opened her set to the small crowd gathered in front of the main stage. The early afternoon, summery waterfront setting hardly seemed ideal for Erika M. Anderson’s grim tales of abuse and physical horror, but she won over much of the crowd with an energetic half-hour performance that included most of the highlights from her excellent debut LP Past Life Martyred Saints. At one point she asked, “Is anyone here from Gore?”, alluding to her childhood home town. Although her hit single ‘Milkman’ was sorely missed (she deserved a 45 min set), EMA provided an early festival highlight by closing with the awesome and disturbing ramble of ‘California’, putting aside her guitar to work the stage like Karen O.

      Austra's Katie Stelmanis impressed with her unique voice

Next up on the main stage were Canadian electro-pop outfit Austra. Lead singer Katie Stelmanis impressed many of the growing audience with her unique voice, especially on Feel It Break‘s biggest single, ‘Lose It’. The curious dance moves of Stelmanis’ two back-up singers/dancers had the crowd grinning and swaying along with beers in hand, and the electric single ‘The Beat and the Pulse’ provided another early highlight.

Cults drew the biggest early afternoon crowd (via COT)

New York indie-pop group Cults attracted the biggest crowd of the afternoon so far, hot on the trails of some serious buzz that has them pegged as the next Sleigh Bells. Madeline Follin, Brian Oblivion and co. delivered an upbeat set made up of cuts from their great 2011 self-titled debut, including ‘Bumper’, ‘Never Saw the Point’ and hit singles ‘Go Outside’ and ‘Abducted’. I thought both Follin and Oblivion’s vocals needed to be stronger, but aside from that it was a fun performance and my personal highlight was the super-catchy ’60s-influenced number ‘You Know What I Mean’.

Girls raised the bar with a brilliant performance (via NZH)

After a tediously long soundcheck, San Francisco indie-rockers Girls finally took to the main stage and delivered the first truly great set of the day, with numerous highlights from their brilliant sophomore LP Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Opening track ‘Honey Bunny’ got the crowd moving, as did early singles ‘Lust for Life’ and ‘Laura’, but it was the slower numbers later on that slayed me. The beautifully-jaded ‘Myma’ and riff-heavy ‘Die’ provided the most awe-inspiring guitar work of the day, and frontman Christopher Owens (reminiscent of Kurt Cobain at his most drug-addled) delivered a wonderfully tender rendition of ‘Love Life’. The group closed with my favourite track of theirs, ‘Vomit’, before apologising for being out of time. It was easily the highlight of the day so far and would be damn difficult to top.

Unfortunately by the time Girls finished the main stage was running about 15 minutes late, which caused me to miss the second half of Glasser‘s set on the smaller Park Lane stage. From what I heard she performed with a DJ and was good fun, playing several Ring highlights including ‘Apply’ and ‘Mirrorage’.

Laura Marling charmed with her lovely voice (via NZH)

Following a brief break, during which Mayor Len Brown gave another of his desparately earnest and awkward speeches, folk starlet and English Rose Laura Marling took to the main stage and charmed the crowd with her lovely Joni Mitchell-esque voice and soft-spoken, polite demeanour. She performed a set mostly made up of material from her third LP A Creature I Don’t Know, but also included some earlier fan favourites such as Alas, I Cannot Swim single ‘Ghosts’. I very much liked what I saw of Marling’s set, but about 20 minutes in I had to get a move on to Park Lane for The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart rocked the smaller Park Lane stage

New York indie-rock band The Pains of Being Pure at Heart were relegated to the smaller Park Lane stage and unfortunately clashed with Laura Marling and Yuck, but that didn’t stop their fans from turning up en masse (including an excited John Campbell) and quickly filling up the grassy bank in front of the silos. The group delivered an enjoyable run-through of fan favourites from both of their albums, including my favourite track from last year’s Belong‘Heart in Your Heartbreak’.

Yuck's Daniel Blumberg won the thinnest frontman comp (via UTR)

Following Laura Marling on the main stage were London retro-rockers Yuck. Their self-titled debut was one of the most exciting indie rock albums of 2011, fondly recalling the likes of alt-rock heroes Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. The group appeared on stage oddly decked out denim (seemingly taking the whole retro thing a bit too far) and they delivered a solid, if somewhat lacklustre, set made up of cuts from Yuck. Frontman Daniel Blumberg looked painfully thin, even compared to pin-legged Laneway compatriots Christopher Owens, Kip Berman and Faris Badwan. The obvious set highlight was their J. Mascis-esque single ‘Get Away’.

Anna Calvi won legions of new fans with a blistering performance

Mercury Prize-nominated Londoner Anna Calvi was a relative unknown for most of the Auckland audience, but as soon as she was done with her opening instrumental number, ‘Rider to the Sea’, I could tell she had already won hundreds of new fans with her terrific guitar prowess. She continued to impress the growing audience at the Park Lane stage with standout tracks from her self-titled debut, such as ‘Blackout’, ‘Suzanne and I’ and ‘Desire’. The highlight for me however was her amazing cover of TV on the Radio’s ‘Wolf Like Me’, which she cleverly reinvents to the point where no one I spoke to in the audience afterwards recognised the track. Calvi’s performance was easily one of the high points of the day, and I hope she comes back soon.

Washed Out inspired the first crowd dance of the day (via UTR)

Following Neil Finn’s Pajama Club on the main stage was Washed Out (aka Ernest Greene), who along with Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi is a leading figure of the American chillwave sound. Greene and his touring band managed to faithfully replicate the ’80s-inspired electro coolness of last year’s impressive debut LP Within and Without, inspiring some of the first proper crowd dances of the day, but their set could have done with a little more excitement and without the unfortunate stray into white-boy reggae territory. Recent singles ‘Eyes Be Closed’ and ‘Amor Fati’ were worthy highlights, but early single (and Portlandia theme track) ‘Feel It All Around’ was sadly missed.

Toro Y Moi struggled with sound problems on the Park Lane stage

Fellow chillwave pioneer Toro Y Moi (aka Chazwick Bundick) ended up with the misfortune of being scheduled on the Park Lane stage and clashing with Washed Out and Twin Shadow. Nevertheless, by the time I reached the Park Lane stage to catch the start of Toro’s set the place was packed and I couldn’t get close enough to really see or hear properly. Bundick and co. opened with ‘New Beat’, the catchy lead single from last year’s great sophomore LP Underneath the Pine. They sounded fun even from afar, but unfortunate technical difficulties forced the group to stop before their second number while Bundick’s gear was attended to. I would’ve liked to have stayed and seen more, but with the sound being as problematic as it was from a distance I made the decision to trek back to the main stage for Twin Shadow’s set.

Twin Shadow impressed with a surprisingly great live band

Following Washed Out on the main stage was another ’80s-inspired act: Twin Shadow (aka George Lewis Jr.). His debut LP, Forget, was one of the best albums of 2010 and Lewis Jr. and his touring band impressed the swelling audience with a surprisingly rocking set of new wave-influenced numbers. Both ‘When We’re Dancing’ and ‘Slow’ were awesome set highlights, and with their confident musicianship and Lewis Jr’s charismatic delivery, Twin Shadow no doubt converted a few of the fans who were clearly only waiting for headliner Feist to take the stage.

Feist delivered a truly awesome set, despite some sound issues

In her long-overdue first visit to New Zealand, beloved Canadian singer-songwriter Feist did not disappoint, performing a diverse and surprisingly rocking set heavy on tracks from her recent LP Metals, with a stellar backing band featuring the curiously-dressed folk-trio Mountain Man. Opening with the unexpected ‘A Commotion’, Feist commanded the stage with her small frame and huge voice. She quickly segued into her 2006 smash hit ‘My Moon, My Man’, which induced some of the loudest sing-a-longs of the day. Feist dedicated ‘Howcome You Never Go There’ to New Zealand, but during the song’s intro she lost all power to her guitar and mic. Instead of being the epic fail it could have been, Leslie turned it into something hilarious, launching into a faux-cabaret lip synch while her backing band carried on (pictured above). It was one of the day’s most enjoyable moments, as well as further evidence of what a thoroughly talented and entertaining performer she is. More Metals numbers followed, including ‘Graveyard’ and ‘The Undiscovered First’, but perhaps the most rewarding track was set closer ‘I Feel It All’. Feist’s set was truly awesome but nowhere near long enough, so let’s hope she enjoyed it as much as we did and decides to “go there” again very soon.

Scheduled between Feist and The Horrors over on the Park Lane stage was UK electronic producer/DJ SBTRKT, whose self-titled debut LP was one of the most hyped albums of last year. I very much wanted to check out his set, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave the great headline acts. From what I heard he delivered a fun, uptempo set that got people moving and included ‘Wildfire’, the standout track from SBTRKT.

The Horrors were typically difficult and thrilling (via NZH)

In an abrupt change of mood from Feist, English goth-rockers turned shoegaze-synth-rockers The Horrors delivered a typically gloomy set, alternately difficult and thrilling in much the same way their Big Day Out 2010 performance was (fans should know by now not to expect anything from their explosive debut album Strange House, which the group chooses to ignore). The setlist was made up mostly of cuts from their decent third LP Skying, with mixed results – ‘Changing the Rain’ and lovely single ‘Still Life’ went down well, but ‘Endless Blue’ and ‘I Can See Through You’ especially bordered on repetitive and lackadaisical. A few Primary Colours numbers broke up set nicely – the crowd enjoyed ‘Mirror’s Image’, and the terrific extended jam of ‘Sea Within a Sea’ provided one of the day’s high points. The group seemingly has little to no regard for the audience – frontman Faris Badwan rarely speaks, and they end with a 10-minute jam of ‘Moving Further Away’ – which certainly makes them a divisive act for a festival. I enjoyed the majority of their set and I don’t mind when an act doesn’t pander to festival expectations, but I could understand why others seemed frustrated.

M83 delivered one of the best Laneway performances ever (via NZH)

Genre-defying French outfit M83 secured a headlining slot on the strength and continuing success of their stunning 2011 double-LP, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Anthony Gonzalez and co. may seem like relative newcomers to us, but they’ve been around for over a decade now and have the chops to prove it. I had a hunch that M83 would be the highlight of the day following their awesome Fallon appearance, and their consummately professional, impeccable-sounding and genuinely exciting set was not only the best of the day, but one of the best in Laneway’s brief history here – if not The Best (certainly rivalling Florence + the Machine’s epic 2010 performance and last year’s incendiary set by Foals). Their expansive, dreamy sounds elicited the most excitable and fevered reactions of the day as the entire crowd went wild. Aptly opening with ‘Intro’, it was evident right from the start that we were witnessing something special as the call-and-response vocals, layers of hazy smoke, and best lighting display of the evening washed over us and created a mesmerising, celebratory mood. Further Hurry Up highlights followed, including ‘Reunion’, ‘New Map’ and ‘Steve McQueen’, as well as two standout tracks from 2009’s Saturdays=Youth (‘Kim and Jessie’ and ‘We Own the Sky’). Each track was flawless, and watching mastermind Gonzalez alternately working his synthesizer, guitar and the crowd was totally captivating. Their triumphant 2011 hit ‘Midnight City’ was the obvious high point of both their set and the entire festival; it made my night and I’m certain I wasn’t the only one.

Belgian-born, Australian-based artist Gotye was the final headliner of the night, and I don’t think anybody would envy having to follow M83. I pretty much already knew before the festival that Gotye’s music wasn’t for me, and his opening song confirmed my suspicions. Exhausted from the long day with no break from standing or sunshine, I called it a day, leaving immensely satisfied.

Silo Park provided the best Auckland venue for Laneway to date

With the recent loss of Auckland’s Big Day Out festival still fresh in many music lovers minds, it was wonderful to see Laneway attract their biggest crowd yet. I have to tip my hat to the organisers – moving venues each year can’t be easy, but they pulled it off in style. There was no sound bleeding between the stages, things ran more efficiently than they have in previous years, the facilities were adequate, the wide range of delicious food and drink was impressive (cupcakes! wood-fired pizza!), and aside from some long drinks queues (EFTPOS died at one point) there was very little to complain about. Sure, there were a couple of sound issues during the day which is par for the course at any festival, and there could have been more seats and shelter provided from the harsh sun, but otherwise this was a very effectively run day with one of the best indie line-ups I could imagine. I can’t wait to do it all again next year.

[All photographs Copyright Dominic Pink unless otherwise stated]

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  1. Mickisaway

    Hey great review. Just saw Perth Laneway and was blown away. Yuck where a standout for me. First time I had seen or heard ( I know WTF) awesome. M83 rocked the place. I missed a few bands which was a bummer but stoked with the show. Laneway ROCKS!! Have posted my blog also on the Laneway page. Mick

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