Laneway Festival somehow always manages to score the most glorious of summer days. The nation's premier tastemaker pops up in one of Sydney's most beautiful and historic sites, among the sandstone buildings and courtyards of the Sydney College of the Arts campus at Rozelle, fusing the old with the new and forward-thinking. Now by default Australia's biggest touring summer festival, one of the last survivors of the country's recent music festival decline, Laneway remains as strong as ever -- perhaps even getting stronger, bringing a fusion of world-class talents and home-grown heroes on the alternative indie end of things. The festival's reputation for securing soon-to-be-big names before they blow up, and helping nurture younger Australian bands to better things, is secure after this year's stellar showing.
Rising stars Camp Cope, Julia Jacklin and Jess Kent flew the flag for Australian women early, drawing good lunchtime crowds despite being placed at the criminally early timeslot as people were still wandering in the gates, or still at home getting ready. Nonetheless these three acts are certified superstars in the making, and it won't be the last time we see them on big festival lineups.
But the early part of the day belonged to Brisbane trio Dune Rats, who contributed perhaps the loosest, silliest, sloppiest and most enjoyable sets Laneway has ever seen. Hitting the stage in 30-degree heat a day after their new album was released, the slacker punk band flubbed notes, sang out of key, attempted a sloppy cover or two... and the crowd lapped it up. Dune Rats are a band who know they're not the best band in the world, and aren't trying to be, instead seeming happy enough to get supplied free beers to goof around on stage and have fun. Their loose stoner-pop has been a staple of festivals and radio airwaves for some time, but their new album brings in a more refined, tight element drawing in more Nirvana and early Blink 182. It's fun and bright and goofy, exactly the sound you want at 3pm when the sun is blazing high overhead and the drinks are going down smooth. They bring out a few people to do a shoey contest on stage, one girl sculling a drink from her gumboot, as the crowd dance and sing and shout along and the trio look like they're having the best time in the world. Dune Rats are loose and carefree and immensely fun.
Three guitars. Two drum sets. Two sets of keyboards. A harmonica. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard are one of the most outright unconventional and bizarre bands on Triple J but somehow their insane psychedelic rock records translate just as well to the live arena. For most of their set they didn't take so much as a pause, each 10-minute spaced out weird epic melding uninterrupted into the next, like a live version of a DJ set. Driving guitar lines, tireless percussion and the ever present keyboard -- at some points creepy and haunting, others fun and bright and warm -- underpinned their 70s reminiscent sound. However, despite a large bubbling crowd to start, the punters soon scattered after their set-starting radio singles finished and their slot descended into a blur of shredding guitar lines, groaning warped vocals and synths. The hardcore fans at front kept dancing but toward the back of the park stage, people turned away, walked off or simply tuned out. King Gizz are a fantastic band, maybe more technically proficient and tight than any group on the lineup, but perhaps they suffer from the curse of being too good -- their songs blend together, barely a note is dropped, it's hard to distinguish one song from the next. A top live act, but perhaps needing an extra X-factor to become a top festival attraction.
American act Car Seat Headrest and Aussie favourites Gang of Youths split crowds in the mid-afternoon slot, both serving up heavy doses of driving, emotion-charged indie rock. The project of 23-year-old Will Toledo, Car Seat Headrest's tales of youth, drugs and awkward love have been some of the breakout rock tunes of the last year and a curious crowd gathered inside one of the actual laneways between stone buildings to see Toledo's solo act fleshed out with a live band accompanying him. Over on the main stage though, firm festival favourites Gang of Youths did what they've been doing to Australian stages for a few years now -- absolutely obliterating them with their anthemic, heartbreaking and heart-on-sleeve rock'n'roll. They own the large arenas, capturing the imagination with their over-the-top arena-sized singles as equally as with their more tender, fragile and delicate numbers. Gang of Youths are one of Australia's most beloved live acts at this point, and they're only on the way up.
Laneway Festival in Sydney has been at the same venue for some years now, and the site and setup hasn't changed much; they're happy with the formula they've got. What changes year to year are the stall options. This year you can get a famed Mary's burger, the equally famous barbecue of Porteno, Belle's Hot Chicken and more, or kick back with a drink from Aussie craft breweries, or sponsored bars serving champagne, cocktails or cider. The food and drinks corner has grown to a sprawling mini-festival in its own right, with DJs pumping out dancefloor fillers and a thriving ecosystem of hipster-friendly, highly Instagram-able treats. Back in a laneway, however, the most important set of the day from maybe the most important current Australian act was about to happen.
Indigenous rap outfit A.B Original started their set with dancers on stage, decked in body paint and clad in traditional dress, just after their American DJ played a quick warm-up set of club bangers. "It's a pretty serious song but it f**king bangs," Briggs says into the second song of the set. That's the tone of A.B Original, the unmissable performance of the day. After smashing through incendiary, blockbusting single '2 Black 2 Strong', getting the almost solely white crowd to raise their fist in a solidarity salute without even knowing it, the duo crash through an electrifying and eye-opening party starting set of incendiary anthems equally as home as party starters as political firecrackers. It's a week after they made the Triple J Hottest 100, at #16, and shook up the January 26 countdown perhaps forever. They're enjoying the show immensely, swaggering through their politically-charged anthems of race and justice and social outcomes, and brought up some friends to join the party in Triple J host Hauie and indigenous songstress Thelma Plum. Their celebrated cover of Paul Kelly's 'Dumb Things' would have blown the roof off, if there was a roof, inspiring a massive singalong and sparking a chaotic moshpit.
"You may not wanna hear it but we came to your f**king party and we turned sh*t up", Briggs roared as their inevitable set-closer arrived. 'January 26', a song all about changing the date of Australia Day, was smashed out as the traditional dancers came back on stage, and Trials performed with an Australian flag draped over his shoulders as a cape. It was a heroes farewell as the troupe walked off, warm in the knowledge that they'd done their job -- put their messages about indigenous disadvantage and issues in front of an overwhelmingly white, middle-class and privileged crowd, and not just been well-received, but had those messages shouted back at them with gusto. A.B Original have sparked conversations in the younger generations which have been all but flat-out refuted by older generations, and when the date of Australia Day does change, we'll know that Briggs and Trials played some small part in making it happen.
New name but (mostly) the same show. Nick Murphy, formerly known as Chet Faker, took over the main arena as the sun finally went down. Armed with the tunes that made him famous under his former stage name, the man with the beard and the ginger locks took centre stage in front of a full band. Hits 'Gold', 'Talk Is Cheap' and '1998' came early, maybe as a sign to fans that the new name didn't mean a total reinvention. The songs seemed more upbeat than the tender and sometimes fragile sound they had on record, infused with a little more disco-style beats, and despite the crowd warmly lapping it up, it felt a little lacking. The album most of the set was drawn from is now nearly three years old, and after countless tours around the country, there wasn't a lot we hadn't seen many times before. The crowd enjoyed it, but there was a tangible feeling of "what else you got?"
In an oversize white shirt, Murphy seemed ill at ease in until recent collaborator Marcus Marr came on stage so Murphy himself could step away from the guitar and take proper frontman duties. The Marr collaboration "The Trouble With Us", itself even a year-and-a half old, was the highlight of the set, a proper dancefloor hit bursting with funky guitars, bright synths, popping percussion. Murphy tonight seemed far more comfortable as frontman than band leader, jiving in front of the mircophone rather than trying to inspire the full band. Marcus gave him new confidence, new poise, that pushed the set into new interesting realms. If the pair continue to work together, working toward a new Chet Faker (sorry, Nick Murphy) release, we look forward to the results.
Laneway photo gallery below:
Then it was time for the big one. Tame Impala, world-conquering heroes, return home for what might be their last tour on latest album 'Currents'. Seemingly every punter at the festival crammed into the bowl of the main stage, for a set of new and old Tame classics -- 'Elephant', 'Eventually', 'Apocalypse Dreams' and more, belted out to a bulging main arena. An out-of-this-world trippy light show played behind them as they barrelled through their set of psychedelic indie hits, leader Kevin Parker at ease and serene as he conducted an entire festival's worth of punters to sing along. This band from humble beginnings, the long-haired rock weirdos playing the sort of songs popular 30 years before their home, return home as champions, and this homecoming was just the type they deserved.
Laneway is arguably the best-run, most consistently great and interesting festival going around; enough of the chart-toppers to have mainstream appeal, but committed to unearthing and promoting great rising talent. They straddle that line better than maybe any other Australian festival has ever done, and managed to bring in the sort of commercial aspects the regular festival punter demands -- branded bars, good food, market stalls -- without it seeming crass. Laneway is at the top of its game right now, and 2017 just backed that up.