St. Jerome’s Laneway
Albert Park, Auckland
Monday, January 28
It was my first time at the Laneway Festival since the very first time it hit Auckland. It’s been through some venue changes since then, logistics so often the issue – hot weather with no shade, no room for all the queues for food and the loos – but almost anyone you ask will tell you the new venue at Albert Park is a winner. People were even posting about how they had no interest in the line-up this year but loved the new venue.
I wonder if that has contributed to it as a hangout space – a place to be seen as much as to be seeing anything? I’m nearly 10 years out of the game in terms of seeing Laneway – and though I thought this line-up patchy at best, I was interested. I was hoping for it to be great – as you always hope when attending live music. And I was sure I’d find something, on a whim, to love. Something new or something I hadn’t figured would be as great as it actually was – and I guess that all came true.
But I was struck, instantly, that this version of Laneway – which is so obviously for a younger person than me – is as much about the hang. And the food. And the…vibe, man – as it is about the music. The music is in fact a background soundtrack. Which – for me – seems so wrong. But as I did a few laps of the track at various points in the day I saw groups gathered in lawn-clusters, a big-screen view of the main stage passing for any proof they were ever really “there”, or even that didn’t matter.
I saw BENE – and they/she were very good. I knew nothing about the buzzed Auckland band. But they have something. She is a star. And though the crew backing her were very good you get the feeling they’re irrelevant. It could be the lead singer with anyone. Which is not me trying to dismiss the musicians on stage – I thought they were great – just the reality I viewed. It’s happy pop with a bit of a playful indie-spirit. It’s most certainly not for me, but it was infectious-enough and just so pleased with its own energy that it triumphed.
The Dead C was always going to be ridiculous – and quite possibly a mega-triumph. Gladly, it was both. Michael Morley did his beamed-in-from-another-planet croon, Robbie Yeats stoically Mo Tuckered his way through as Morley and Dr. Bruce Russell ‘spoke’ over each other with guitar lines that didn’t just threaten to tug distortions of ‘pop songs’ back and forth but actually stomped all over them, building a new art from the shards. It had a few old heads nodding, some young kids bopping – it was a strange, mad triumph of festival booking. They were perhaps head-scratchingly bad to many in attendance. That was of course also a very good thing.
Mitski released one of my favourite albums from last year and her set, short, sharp, brilliantly – and quite simply – conceived had her punching through material from her 2016 record (Puberty 2) where she really started to get noticed as well as from across her career. The Bjork-meets-PJ Harvey grit, grunt and aesthetic of Be The Cowboy wasn’t quite there in the live show. And many seemed disappointed by that. But I liked that the live set was something different, something other. The band was terrific – and Mitski was a hypnotic presence. From her opening stage-pacing which made it look as much like she wanted to catch up with her Fitbit as to sing the song Francis Forever through to her “Tai Chi”-styled movements and one of the most winning sly smiles I’ve ever seen, letting the crowd know they were all in this together and all on side right at the very start of Me And My Husband.
Mitski was one of the reasons I wanted to attend Laneway this year. I was not disappointed.
Lontalius is a local act – though that’s almost not quite right. He has built his act and craft from overseas. He’s a clever musician – performing under more than one guise, creating music across several styles and platforms – but I was keen to check out the Lontalius songs. And though I only dropped by the stage for a couple of songs I was impressed. From the chrysalis of power-pop bursts a beautiful butterfly of a tune – just surprisingly off-kilter enough to always be interesting but never at the expense of a hook; never in the hope of being deemed weird, and already very close to always being pretty wonderful. He’s been in the one-to-watch category since he was an over-achieving teenager. But it’s still the case. His music very much still just bubbling under. It was great to see where he’s at and to imagine what’s to come.
There’s so much filler-fodder though – Australia’s Gang of Youths is just a young Powderfinger; they have their crowd singing along but the music has no strut, it is only plod, it’s all U2/Coldplay-type earnestness but dressed in footy-watching apparel. I do not approve. But then, I’m aware that I walked around the park all day with a “I do not approve” look on my face. I can’t help that.
Jorja Smith is someone I’ve spent far too much time trying to dig – on the surface there’s merely a surface. And not much more beneath. She’s an also-ran in a world of Jill Scotts and Erykah Badus. But is it a case of her being young enough and her sound being the right shade of cool that the super-young dig her without caring that she’s nowhere near as good as the original run of neo-soul divas? I am sure, after seeing the snippets of her live set, that’s absolutely the case. I tried so hard to like the album that bits of it nearly rubbed off on me, this all in the hope that a kickass set with a great live band might show the material really could pop. But no. A few years back I’d see three local singers at the Matterhorn in one week that were all better than Jorja Smith. And I fucking hate the Matterhorn like the Dude hates the Eagles.
Jorja Smith had the Rotunda stage packed. A chance to sway. To vape-in-time. To scrape a lighter through the air. Hers is a music to accessorise with – and at. A soundtrack hanging in the bliss you wish to associate it with. For me there was none.
So I checked out Courtney Barnett. And though I could say she is indie-pop’s current darling that sounds patronising. She is, arguably, a class act. There’s grit. There’s heart. She is the embodiment of an imagined Paul Kelly song finding itself wrapped in a dream and delivered for Patti Smith to whisper-scream some 25 years ago. That never got to happen so Courtney Barnett did instead. She’s good. Very good. But it’s one-trick. A great trick. All you need is one really good trick – and to be super good at it – after all. And it is good. And so is she. And though I enjoyed the chance to see her road-tight and stage-ready having conquered the world and adding a keyboardist/guitarist I just didn’t care much past the first few songs. It’s polished with just enough rugged charm still. It rocks. It bucks. But the monotone songs just don’t ever quite hit pay-dirt for me. I loved the earliest EPs and, yes, yes, I’m an old man telling the kids their music isn’t as good as it was back in my day…I had that feeling about myself mid-way through. So I bailed out.
I’m probably the only person that attended Barnett at Laneway and came away thinking So What.
So all of this is suggesting slim pickings really, which it was. I enjoyed bits and pieces of other things like The High Beams – a sorta not-as-clever, not-as-good Avantdale Bowling Club, but give it time eh…
And then Florence + The Machine was amazing. And I wasn’t necessarily expecting this. Hope was high, yes. But it could have gone either way.
She had been the headliner at the very first Laneway in Auckland. I was a fan then. She was a good draw. And I loved that set. I haven’t cared about her albums since, though her most recent returns me – if not her – to the sound of her debut. The songs have that wonderful lurch between aching balladry and urgent anthem. So too then does this set. And everything is perfect about it – the lighting, the players, the playing – that voice. It’s all exquisite actually. From the old stuff that is dramatic, anticipatory, almost breathtaking even (oops, pardon the pun, Between Two Lungs) through to Dog Days Are Over’s valedictorian charge. And the new songs have all of the hope and majesty of her finest early work. The opening brace of that new album’s opening brace (June, Hunger) might be as close to perfection as Laneway 2019 ever got.
But that’s just my side of it. And what would I know?
I mean Denzel Curry had the grounds around his stage heaving. It was the party-pill equivalent to when I used to listen to mid/late-90s Snoop Dogg albums I guess. He fired through his originals, sometimes quite melodic in and around the heavy boom-bapping (Cash Maniac, ULT) and all the usual tropes are still there to attract the white-girl dancing (from white girls and boys). But some trap snap too – including a cover of XXXTentacion’s Look at Me! I did. Until I couldn’t. Until I left. He probably accounted for more ticket sales than any other artist. Fucking hell!
I did alternate between seeing Florence and Jon Hopkins – because Hopkins is one of those rarities making dance music that’s not just for the feet, and making head-music that also has heart. You can listen to his constantly modulating, pulsing, alive and electric music in the context of being in a club – or nodding off to sleep. Not only that you can somehow damn-near do it with the same bloody tune. That’s clever. And he had the Dr Martens stage heaving to a final swell on a sweltering day that had calmed toward Auckland’s never-quite-there mist of almost-rain.
In a perfect world I’d have sat to drink in all of what Jon Hopkins had to offer. But it had been a long, frequently imperfect day. The vast depths of averageness taking their toll. It was time to stroll.
I made it through Laneway 2019. I loved the venue. Hated the crowd. Enjoyed some of the music. Thought the food, the flow, the amenities, the location of the venue, the idea behind it all close to brilliant. As good as a festival in New Zealand in 2019 in a city could get – in terms of set-up.
But is Laneway just Homegrown now with some internationals flown in to bolster it? I couldn’t shake that feeling. It is still best explained that I’m old. And that’s okay. I wasn’t the oldest there. And wouldn’t have cared if I was. I don’t want to get in the way of younger people having a good time. But I don’t believe a lot of it. Which is why I just by-passed the much hyped Parquet Courts. I saw them once previously. Didn’t believe a word or bar of it.
Many said they were great. And to many they probably were.
I think Laneway’s greatest trick this year was disguising a paper-thin line-up by having created enough of a party-atmosphere and by cannily selecting one or two big draws (Curry, Courtney, Florence).
So, I tried. It’d be nice, next year, if Laneway did too.
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