Sydney Laneway Festival Review: At The Top Of Its Game

13/02/2016 6:13 AM AEDT | Updated February 13, 2016 06:13
Zak Kaczmarek via Getty Images

With the demise of its fellow summer festival brethren in Big Day Out, Future Music and Soundwave, Laneway Festival has by default become the biggest and hottest touring concert in Australia. Boasting arguably the biggest lineup in its short and storied history, the indie music festival couldn't have picked a better day to take over Sydney's College of the Arts -- blue skies, blazing sunlight and barely a whisper of wind breathed through the sandstone buildings and courtyards of the Rozelle campus.

This reviewer's last Laneway was 2012, and while the venue has remained the same, everything else has changed. Where once the festival eschewed over-corporatisation by keeping the garish branded installations and market stalls to a minimum, with a focus on the music and music alone, the "experience" factor has now come into play: the Budweiser beer truck; the Jameson mobile drink service; the huge park of food trucks; market alley, selling everything from temporary tattoos to expensive jewellery; and branded tents for most alcohol brands you could name. It shows the growing stature of the festival, or perhaps the now less-crowded festival circuit; brands want to splash their cash where young people can see it.

Sydney indie rockers DMAs seemed the sartorial touch point for much of the attendees. As the Oasis-worshipping five-piece got to work on the main stage in the scorching sunlight, earlybird festival-goers danced around in artfully mismatched thrift shop pieces, with as much clash between fabrics and textures and colours as possible. Massively baggy Cosby shirts, dad-style baseball caps and speed dealer sunglasses were the ticket of the day, on stage and off. DMAs' brand of Oasis-aping Britpop was perfect in the sunshine poking its way through the early cloud cover, four guitars (including an acoustic) washing over in a haze on the park stage. Anthemic, thundering single "Lay Down" ignited the early crowd, squalling guitars and booming rhythm blasting the crowd awake as lead guitarist Mason stood alone in the centre of stage; their brand of modern Britpop, so familiar yet infused with a new groove; harder, more grit, attitude.

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The fashion of DMAs

Californian skate-punks FIDLAR were next up, launching into a slew of songs from their breakout debut album which whipped the sun-drenched crowd into frenzy -- a beer-spraying, crowd-surfing, mosh-pitting, shouting mess. Their simple, thrashy tunes are the sound of California's Venice beach, teenage rebellion in a beach town; what young Sydney-siders dream of. Booming drums and percussion, screaming droning guitars and groaned vocals of the aftermath of big nights; it's summer on a soundtrack, but underpinned by darker lyrics of addiction and alcoholism and relapse that get skimmed over on the surface. "40oz On Repeat," their big breakout tune on Triple J last year, was an early contender for singalong of the day. Finishing off with epic droning number 'Cocaine' -- complete with instructions for the crowd to sit down and featuring two of three members of Aussie lads Dune Rats bouncing around on stage -- and pulsing slacker anthem (and defacto band ethos) 'Wake Bake Skate,' the FIDLAR set was a chaotic highlight of the day.

[On a side note: people throwing beers at the band and on stage -- why? A supposed mark of affection, but as a touring band, a flying unexpected projectile may as well be a missile or bomb. Don't throw stuff at the band. It's not funny. Plus you're wasting the $9 you spent on a mid-strength tasteless beer after lining up for 20 minutes. Nobody wins. Don't do it.]

Sydney rock was back on the menu with rock'n'rollers Royal Headache. Two songs in, in the baking heat, frontman Shogun tells the crowd "I need a body double. That was 45 minutes right?" The acclaimed four-piece, blending rock and punk and soul and blues, packed out the courtyard Mistletone stage with a crowd of interested onlookers taking in their unique blend. The opening, blaring guitar lines of standout recent single 'Carolina' signalled the start of the set proper, Shogun shedding the shirt and bellowing into the microphone as Australiana rhythms rang out through the yard. In terms of appearance, Royal Headache were one of the least stylish acts of the day; but on musical terms, they blew most others out of the water.

A few keyboards, a bass guitar and drum set was all needed for r'n'b-styled Odd Future offshoot The Internet to turn a crowd of rock and indie lovers into a funkified pit. Smooth jazz rhythms fused with hip-hop sensibilities was a potent combination for the LA outfit, former Odd Future DJ Syd commanding the crowd as hype-woman and frontwoman combined. Interesting and varied, but after a while became very same-y; standard background jazz muzak like in a smoky club or elevator music. A welcome point of difference on the lineup but a little derivative.

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The Internet

The Smith Street Band came out to a full crowd and a hero's welcome. Decked in a Kendrick Lamar shirt, frontman Wil Wagner poured his heart out in front of several thousand fans in the form of Smith Street's broken hearted, heart on sleeve lyrics. More suited to late night drunken whispered confessions, Wagner's punk-poet lyrics of love, loss and heartbreak have become anthems for daylight festival sets as of late; cathartic and shouty, full of heartbreak confessionals followed by "screw you, I love life" declarations, it's an emotional ride, led by Ringmaster Wagner, giving his sermons as personal tales. The sort of stories whispered late at night or poured out after a few drinks, become raucous festival anthems. Guys crowdsurf and yell; girls jump on shoulders and shout back; and the band themselves still look like they can't believe their luck that they've gotten as far as they have. One of the most eye-opening and honest acts going around in Australia today.

Brisbane rockers Violent Soho, full of promise as they gear up to release a new album, pulled out a sadly well-worn set for their early evening slot. Packing in hit after hit from their 2013 breakthrough 'Hungry Ghost,' it was a setlist the band likely know off by heart by now. They should; they've been playing almost the same set since the album dropped. It's hard to fault them for giving the crowd what they want -- 'Dope Calypso,' 'Lowbrow' and 'Neighbour Neighbour' still draw the same moshpit they always did -- and lead single from new album 'Like Soda' saw the crowd singalong drown out the band's frontman, the double time chorus coming as the sun truly started to dip and crowd could let loose without fear of sweat and sunburn. The little handful of singles from the new album went across a treat but it was a tried set list from the rock champions. But, again, when you get a reaction like with big hit 'Covered In Chrome,' it's hard to fault the boys.

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The crowd for Violent Soho

U.S. indie-pop princess Grimes was beaten to the stage by an interpretive dancer, who came on first to bust moves to the entrance music. As Grimes herself wandered on, straight into new single 'Heart Without Flesh,' she held the microphone in hand as she strummed on guitar behind the keyboard and synthesiser she intermittently played on. It was a frenetic energy from the Canadian, a proper one-woman show, as though she couldn't decide what instrument she wanted to focus on -- vocals, guitar or keys. Wandering stage as front woman as she had guitar slung behind her neck, two dancers and a backup singer were the only others on stage. All the rest was backing track and Claire Boucher herself. Massive tunes as she strummed guitar, tinkled keys and bashed synths. A stadium-esque light show was the accompaniment, as she delighted the crowd with her off-kilter, genuinely boundary-pushing electro-pop.

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Grimes

U.S. mathrock band Battles filled up an interested courtyard with their complex instrumental tunes while rising star rapper Vince Staples got the crowd pulsing over on a rammed courtyard stage, but the late evening was reserved for hometown hero Flume. An overspilling garden and hill quivered in anticipation as the producer/DJ strode on stage amid a flood of blue light and thick smoke, perching behind his strobe-lit podium to launch into his patented twisted brand of electronica, trap and hip-hop. Longtime favourite 'Holding On' kickstarted the set proper, followed by rap-styled Flume staple 'On Top.' It was there that the set got away from him.

"I've got some new music to play. Some of it you'll get. Some of it, you won't," he says earnestly. An admission that the sort of arena-filling, Triple J-dominating electronica he is best known for, isn't he stuff he always wants to play. It's a bold admission for a guy who cracked the pop music code on his first try and could live comfortably for the foreseeable future on the fruits of his labour, but clearly wants to push past the obvious and easy to find something new and interesting to occupy his time. It's bold. It's ballsy. It might or might not pay off -- we have to wait for the album to drop -- but from the reactions to the new tunes, it might not.

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Flume

Gone is the immensely groovy, dancefloor-filler tunes of his debut. The shuddering bass and earth-shaking percussion is still on board, but it is a more wordly sound, owing more to European deep house or U.S.-style ambient trance than hip-hop or rap. Fewer genre-defining bangers, more upmarket background music at a trendy club; not the sort of stuff from the first album, which paved the way for the likes of Safia, Rufus, Chet Faker and this recent wave of house-tinged electronic rock. The new tunes sound like generic fillers between the older bangers, more along the lines of the dreamy 'Go Insane' than the booming dance tunes. The new ones are more measured, smooth, palatable, serene; in an interview on Triple J this week, he conceded the new ones are "not festival, it's more headphone music" and admitted "some [fans] really got it and were really into, some were a bit confused." He knows this won't please everyone -- so full marks for bravery.

A new song featuring Vince Staples, 'Smoke And Retribution,' is the closest we get to "old Flume". Staples lights up the stage at a point where the stage show was starting to feel lacking, just Flume and a few LCD screens, over a beat that would have slayed on the first album -- but that's the problem with the new tunes: the ones that most excite the crowd are the ones that sound like offcuts or extras from his debut. The proper new tunes, taking a new direction from the tried and tried, just don't hit the mark. They're fine, they're good, but just aren't finding the same sort of uncharted territory the debut did.

Laneway 2016 was one of the more varied and successful iterations ever. Now at the top of its game, straddling the line between being a true taste-maker festival and still having mainstream appeal, it will be interesting to see Laneway's next move. Does it go bigger? Does it stay true to its roots? We'll know soon.

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