Following three years of venue changes and the minor teething issues that ensue, St Jerome’s Laneway Festival confidently returned to its newly expanded home at Auckland’s Silo Park for its 2013 event, boasting more shade and an additional ‘Red Bull Thunderdome’ stage for the DJ-inclined. No doubt aided by the beautiful, scorching weather — and perhaps the loss of the more mainstream Big Day Out — the festival turned out a capacity crowd that occasionally stretched the limits of the facilities while soaking up the sun and some of the best indie artists around. The line-up and performances may not have been quite as across-the-board amazing as last year’s festival, but superlative headliners Bat For Lashes and Tame Impala were worth the price of admission alone, while Cloud Nothings, Jessie Ware and A Place to Bury Strangers were all standouts. With its admirable focus on up-and-coming musical talent and pleasant vibes over big names and wasted audiences, Laneway remains the best music festival that New Zealand has to offer and my most anticipated summer event.
Minnesotan electro-explorers Poliça — aka Bon Iver’s favourite band — got the day off to a great start with their unique sound. Channy Leaneagh’s Auto-tuned vocals soared over the propulsive backing provided by her dexterous band — which incorporates live and electronic instruments, including two drummers — and their performance was surprisingly powerful compared to the relatively subdued studio recordings. The set included several standouts from last year’s Give You the Ghost LP, including ‘Lay Your Cards Out’ and ‘Wandering Star’.
Cleveland indie-rock flag-bearers Cloud Nothings followed-up with an intense, completely antithetical set on the main stage consisting of highlights from Attack on Memory — one of the best albums of last year. Despite occupying an unusually early spot for such a loud band, frontman Dylan Baldi and co. still managed to inspire some moshing/chanting with singles ‘Fall In’ and ‘Stay Useless’, not to mention on a jammed-out rendition of ‘Wasted Days’ — the standout of the set — and an even screamier ‘No Sentiment’, which may well be the most hardcore moment in Laneway history. The group’s no-nonsense, all-intensity set recalled Nirvana’s most punk-influenced and unhinged moments, and it was quite something to behold.
New Jersey indie-dreamers Real Estate returned to our shores for the second time in 12 months, this time performing to a more sizeable crowd than the Kings Arms Tavern. Still touring behind their superb 2011 LP Days, the group provided an ideal, serene soundtrack to the exhaustingly hot summer day — with many taking the opportunity to enjoy a cold cider or beer and watch from afar — but some of the unenlightened audience seemed to grow restless with the slow pace. ‘It’s Real’ was clearly the standout with its catchy sing-a-long chorus, and fans were also treated to a new song that they were allegedly performing for the first time (unexpectedly sung by guitarist Matt Mondanile).
New York noise-rock trio A Place To Bury Strangers were an unknown entity to most Auckland festival-goers, but following their blitzkrieg debut performance on the smaller ‘Cactus Cat’ stage, they undoubtedly earned a small legion of new fans (including Cloud Nothings, who watched with admiration from the side of the stage). Led by Oliver Ackermann — the pioneer behind effects pedal company Death by Audio — these guys must be the noisiest three-piece since Dinosaur Jr. (by way of My Bloody Valentine and Joy Division), launching a feedback-drenched aural assault right from the start and rarely letting up. For a casual fan, the songs were largely undistinguishable from each other — one assumes the setlist was populated by tracks from their latest LP, Worship — although no less bracing as a result. Kiwi expat Dion Lunadon displayed some of the best rock star antics this festival has ever seen, demolishing two basses during their 40-minute set and getting intimidatingly close to the front row of the crowd. Let’s hope these guys come back soon (and that I remember to bring earplugs).
UK soul siren Jessie Ware seemed like somewhat of an odd fit for this largely indie-focussed festival, but her presence was welcome nonetheless, especially if the beyond-capacity crowd uncomfortably squished around the Cactus Cat stage was any indication. She was clearly happy to be in New Zealand for the first time, beaming about her beautiful boat ride over from Mission Bay and cracking cheeky jokes throughout in a thick British accent. Backed by a three-piece band and an array of samples, Ware belted out such Devotion highlights as ‘Still Love Me’, ‘Night Light’, ‘If You’re Never Gonna Move’ (formerly ‘110%’), ‘Sweet Talk’ and the smash single ‘Wildest Moments’. Her voice was every bit as huge and incredible as expected, and I couldn’t help but feel that she belonged on the main stage (as Florence + the Machine were four years ago). I’m looking forward to seeing Ware again down the line, with the full backing band and vocalists she deserves.
2012 breakouts and Mercury Prize winners Alt-J have been riding high on a wave of buzz ahead of their Laneway appearance, and they drew the biggest crowd of the afternoon on the main stage. The group’s debut LP An Awesome Wave earned them much acclaim in Britain and an ever-growing international following, but nothing about it connected with me and I couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing sounded like a cynically engineered, bro-accessible version of “experimental” music. Despite this sentiment, I was open to the possibility that the band could change my mind with their live show, but that did not happen. If anything their live sound was considerably less impressive than their busy album tracks, but the increasingly drunken/sun-stricken audience didn’t seem mind one bit, especially during singles ‘Tesselate’ and ‘Breezeblocks’.
Indie supergroup Divine Fits took awhile to warm up on the main stage, opening with solid — if a little lacklustre — run-throughs of ‘Flaggin a Ride’ and ‘The Salton Sea’ from last year’s debut LP A Thing Called Divine Fits. Things picked up about half-way through with Dan Boeckner’s (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs) stomping synth-pop single ‘My Love is Real’, and Britt Daniel’s (Spoon) rocking number ‘Would That Not Be Nice’. The set ended on an impressive high point with a charged cover of Roland S. Howard’s ‘Shivers’ (most famously sung by Nick Cave back when he fronted The Boys Next Door), and the majority of the initially reluctant audience appeared to have been won over by the close, while those arriving late from Japandroids were left wondering what they missed.
Brooklyn psych-poppers Yeasayer were here just two years ago, riding high on the success of their sophomore LP Odd Blood and delivering one of the most enjoyable performances of the 2011 festival. This time around the group was touring behind their disappointing third album Fragrant World, and their set could only be described as underwhelming, lacking the energy that made their last visit so much fun. It could be that they were jetlagged — Chris Keating explained that they had only just arrived from Singapore — or simply that the new songs are uninspiring, but the bored audience didn’t seem to connect with the performance at all. Proceedings livened up a little for their hit single ‘O.N.E.’, and the crowed finally started feeling it during the somewhat stronger finale of ‘Ambling Alp’ and ‘Wait for the Summer’, but by then it was rather too late to save this mediocre set.
Over seven years into her stellar career, Bat For Lashes finally made her NZ debut at Laneway, sauntering out onto the stage in a dazzling red dress with an eclectic backing band clad entirely in white. Opening with ‘Sleep Alone’ from 2009’s beloved Two Suns, it was immediately apparent that we were witnessing something magical and Natasha Khan had us under her spell. Following an obligatory, but no less splendid, ‘What’s a Girl to Do?’, Khan proceeded to take us on a mesmerising tour through her underrated new LP The Haunted Man. This included a markedly more epic version ‘Lilies’, some elegant dance moves during ‘Oh Yeah’ (after a false start), the gorgeous balladry of ‘Marilyn’, upbeat single ‘All Your Gold’, and an absolutely breathtaking ‘Laura’, showcasing Khan’s astonishing voice with only a pianist accompanying her. Employing a theremin at times, sitting down at the keys for ‘Horse and I’, often shaking a maraca and nearly always dancing, Khan’s boundless energy and impeccable delivery was awe-inspiring. Somehow she inexplicably manages to sound even better live — and look more stunning — and several of the songs came alive in a way I didn’t anticipate when listening to the albums. By the time she triumphantly closed with Two Suns‘ favourites ‘Pearl’s Dream’ and ‘Daniel’, her amazing performance was right up there with such luminaries PJ Harvey and Björk in my book, and certainly the best of the festival. I could have done with at least another hour.
Perhaps the most feverishly anticipated act of the day, Perth psych-rockers Tame Impala casually took the stage in a most unaffected manner, almost as if they weren’t aware of their headline status or the swarming crowd breathlessly awaiting their debut Auckland show (they made their NZ debut at Rhythm & Vines in Gisborne last month). With the reverb cranked all the way up, frontman Kevin Parker took us on a hazy trip through the group’s young and yet remarkably accomplished catalogue, including Lonerism cuts ‘Enders Toi’ and ‘Apocalypse Dreams’, as well as Innerspeaker single ‘Expectation’. Each song was jammed out into a ’70s-rock-influenced extended psych-groove, reaching sublime, hypnotic levels while wisely never crossing over into self-indulgent territory. Parker occasionally tried to speak, but the echo on the microphone made it almost impossible to decipher exactly what he was saying. The set reached its apex with the one-two punch of recent singles ‘Elephant’ and ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’, arguably their best songs yet. With its chugging riff, stonerish solos and headbanging mosh, the former evoked the experience of a Queens of the Stone Age show at its best, while the latter was perhaps the most transcendent moment of the festival in all its reverb-drenched glory. Closing with ‘Half Full Glass of Wine’ from their debut EP, Tame Impala left the adoring crowd gagging for more as they exited the stage with their guitars still wailing feedback, which is as sure a sign as any of a job well done.
Unlike last year’s super busy line-up, the schedule had few major clashes this year, with the exception of American-Chilean electronic-adventurer Nicolas Jaar who was unfortunately playing on the Cactus Cat stage at the same time as Tame Impala. I would have loved to have seen some of his set — and I heard later on that he was particularly good — but them’s the breaks at a festival of this calibre, so I’ll just have to hope he comes back soon. The extra shade provided some much needed respite from the harsh sun this year, but I think they could still work on adding more seating around the premises for our aching feet. Once again the range and accessibility of food and drink options was pretty decent, especially compared to what the Big Day Out used to offer, and there were no significant sound issues or stage delays this time around. I heard several grumblings about one of the bars being closed after 6pm, but in my opinion if you’re coming to a serious music festival like Laneway just to drink (and queue) all day, you are probably in the wrong place and should consider something like R&V instead. I certainly noticed an increase in boorish, drunken morons this year which was unpleasant, as the atmosphere has always been relaxed and friendly in past years. I couldn’t believe that I actually had to ask two obnoxious groups to stop chattering over the performance during both Jessie Ware and Bat For Lashes’ sets! Minor gripes aside, Auckland’s 2013 Laneway Festival was another immensely enjoyable success and I tip my hat to the folks behind it for their impeccable taste and organisation skills. See you again next year!