The St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival, a not-quite-boutique event that now traipses through four cities around Australia, has been buoyed in recent years by increased press attention and a more laid-back, welcoming attitude than some of the country’s larger, summer festivals. It is generally more civilized, and boasts the kinds of smaller indie bands that appeal to a slightly older crowd. Mimicking the urban setting of the original Melbourne location, the setup of the festival is a series of narrow stages placed around one slightly larger Park Stage. None of it is large by any means: maybe that’s why there was a half-hour line to get to the underground stage for the more popular acts. As the sparse late morning crowd began to multiply on Sunday—manifesting itself in longer bathroom lines—the prospect of seeing Feist, Broken Social Scene, and Stars attested to the growth of the festival. Still, it wasn’t too difficult to find decent vantage points for most of the bands, and acts national and international proved their mettle.
Playing the 11:30am spot is not easy for any band. This exuberant Melbourne-based guitar-guitar-drums trio has been around for a long time, but has only recently been exposed to a wider audience thanks to one of its members, Wally de Backer, hitting it big with his solo act, Gotye. (In a nice bit of bookending, Gotye actually closed out the festival this year.) But the Basics themselves were a perfect start to the day. “Rattle My Chain”, one of the group’s singles, was tight and polished—a slice of enjoyable, easygoing ska-tinged rock. A song about swimming lessons, it sounded like a more relaxed Holy Ghost. We’re lucky that de Backer, who plays drums, has been so stringent on insisting the group plays on all his bills—even if there weren’t as many people there as they deserved.
Signed to the hip Modular Records, Ghostwood’s muscular, effects-laden rock degenerated into abrasive waves of dissonance in the live setting. The group had a disinterested-rock-star thing going on, which didn’t work so well in an early slot at a mainly indie-oriented festival. But hey, they’re young, and you get the feeling that the group, as it matures, will find its own inner star and stop imitating others. Ghostwood’s songs were proggy and repetitive and frequently sidestepped the huge chorus; they would have been more effective with a mix that emphasized vocals over the sludgy low-end of the guitars.
Devastations’ latest album Yes U should win the group some new fans with its sophisticated, dark-romantic ballads. Given their oeuvre, it should have been difficult for the band to shine in the mid-afternoon sun. But these three Aussies unleashed a storm of fuzzy chaos that dissolved in a pinch into disco-infused gothic grooves. Gyrating throughout, bass-playing singer Conrad Standish exuded sexuality. “This is a medium-sized-festival song,” Standish said, introducing “Mistakes” as the band grew tighter and more on point. Live, the songs had a floating atonality where vocal and guitar lines seemed to exist in alternate spaces until—bang—everything locked into place. “The Pest”, their new album’s centerpiece, was such a song. “Rosa”, which closed the set, built gloriously from a Nick Cave-styled ballad to a full freak-out: the first real rock group of the day.
This fairly new Atlanta-based band has built some buzz on the back of the 2007 re-release of their 2006 debut I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child. Their recordings hold a few charms, adding organ to an otherwise straightforward alternative rock sound. Somehow I had gotten the impression that they were somewhat Arcade Fire-esque with orchestral arrangements. It turns out the live show was just as unsurprising as the recording. At least frontman Andy Hull radiated goodwill, and the band was tight. The group put its all into its short, punchy songs—which suited the flitting festivalgoers’ attention span, I suppose. When they slowed things down, however, they struggled to hold the crowd’s attention. It was as the group was playing a slower song that I turned around to see a guy wearing exactly the same sunglasses as me (they’d been my grandfather’s, and retro, so I was surprised). But he was also wearing a rug on his shoulders, and my friend said, “Never trust a man wearing a rug.” I then decided to re-think those sunglasses. Did I mention that Manchester Orchestra struggled to hold the crowd’s attention in that slow song? It’s unfortunate, because in snatches, I got the feeling that it could have been a compelling one.
Winners of last year’s J Award for best Australian album, the Panics are often referred to as the nicest guys in the Aussie music industry. Trouble is, sometimes the group seems to ride the wave of pleasant, atmospheric pop without the backbone of melody that could make one of their songs season-defining.
Nevertheless, the band members are consummate professionals, and their set on the Park Stage bobbed along from hit to hit (albeit slightly hampered by a mix buried in too much bass, not enough vocals). The Panics have moved on from the country guitar-tinged older material, which had a certain charm, to more mainstream song structures that still rely on that breezy guitar sound you hear so often from West Australian indie pop acts. The group’s newer material is almost apologetically easy-going, but it has become quite popular. “Don’t Fight It” is now ubiquitous, and its horn loop is instantly recognizable. They could be the next Powderfinger.
Probably the best band all day, Okkervil River was incredibly tight, jetting through tried and tested songs with enough feeling that the crowd was blown away. Although I only caught half the set, the band upped the tempo on familiar songs from The Stage Names, which suited the festival setting. “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” was rousing, while “For Real” and “Plus Ones” were absolute highlights. Ending with the older track “Westfall”, Will Sheff and company worked themselves up into an awesome, Pixies-inspired fury.
If the vibe of the Reiby Place Stage was generally upbeat rock, the Park Stage continued its unhurried good-time feeling with Stars. The first of the one-two-three Canadian collective lineup (Stars, Broken Social Scene, and Feist), Stars were both powerful and smolderingly beautiful. Frontman Torquil Campbell was full of unbridled energy, pumping up the crowd with a heartfelt delivery that more than made up for his imperfect voice. In contrast, frontwoman Amy Millan was surprisingly fragile, her voice reticently floating over the layers of synths. Of course, “Ageless Beauty” was beautiful, but the highlight of the set was “Take Me to the Riot”, its oddly combative lyrics subsumed by the full band’s surging wall of sound.
I have been aching to see Baltimore electro wizard Dan Deacon play since reports first surfaced of his sweaty, inclusive, and ecstatic live performances. Having seen him with my own eyes, I can definitively say that everything I’ve read is true. He babbled about Ethan Hawke and Gattaca, got us to sing to a couple of onlookers in the window of a nearby Japanese restaurant, and made us dance through an arch of people. One guy even crowdsurfed for what must have been five minutes straight. It’s a wonder I’m able to remember any of this, as I was too busy dancing to take notes.
Throughout the festival itself and in the days leading up to it, the anticipation for this super-young Aussie group was palpable. Bridezilla is a quintet of high schoolers (the drummer is the only guy) with a reputation for being genuinely cooler than you. And in their vintage (and I mean Jane Austen vintage) dresses, the group certainly projects cool. The guitar-guitar-saxophone-violin-drums setup is certainly more ambitious than most high school bands, and the layered, unconventional songs are also quite sophisticated. The star of the group is Daisy Tulley, the violinist, whose blank porcelain doll visage belies a dervish of virtuosity. She’s as likely to perform around the corner, with her back to the audience, or off in her own world, but it’s completely compelling.
There’s no way you were going to get a good spot to see Feist. I caught a glimpse of her only once or twice, but that was enough. The Canadian singer-songwriter was as charming singing her own confluent pop as jamming on her guitar with Broken Social Scene, and even the young, macho Aussie guys were bouncing and singing along to “1, 2, 3, 4”. A continuing problem on the Park Stage meant that, from my position towards the back of the crowd at least, the sound was a bit muddy—nobody seemed to mind, though. Apart from the obvious hits, it was “Sea Lion Woman”, performed with a crowd of Canadian friends, that stood out most. The bouncing reinterpretation of Nina Simone’s classic built up to a hectic climax of reckless goodwill.
The festival closed with a difficult choice—Gotye or the Presets. Though the sound of the Presets’ growling electro and the crazed chant of the crowd during “All My People” were tempting, I wasn’t sorry that I chose to end the festival watching the same musician I’d seen almost twelve hours earlier. Wally de Backer—who also plays drums in the Basics—always puts on a good show. Combining synchronized lights with videos run off his MacBook Pro, he jumped between a number of drum sets and keyboards, even a piano. Following the crowded love-in of Feist’s set with essentially a one-man show was a difficult task, and I occasionally felt like I was watching Gotye karaoke, since the electronic portions of the songs were all pre-programmed. (The musician has toured with a full band in the past, which I think would have greatly added to this show.) Nevertheless, de Backer’s good-natured approach and impeccable voice—I thought he might have been lip synching, he was so in tune—made it impossible to grumble. The graceful re-workings of familiar songs from 2006’s Like Drawing Blood provided a loungey, relaxing end to the evening. “Thanks for Your Time”, with its accompanying video, was funny and compelling, and “Heart’s a Mess” reminded us again why this guy’s such a hot prospect.
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