8 Feb 2009: Reiby Place Sydney, Australia
I twittered my way through the St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival this year. There were some others doing a similar thing, though I didn’t see them on the day. Laneway’s where you’d expect to find more of this sort of thing than larger summer festivals, I guess; the crowd was generally of that tech-forward, music-forward ilk. But, as usual for Laneway, there were plenty of external stimuli to draw eyes away from 640x480 color screens. A perfect day, hot in the sun but with a cool wind. In the time between sets, the PA played Jonathan Richman’s “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar” and yeah, things were pretty Friday night. Soon they ran out of CDs and began with Esau Mwamwaya’s mixtape, repeating it endlessly in between sets through the summer dusk. But to backtrack—
Laneway: Philly Grand Jury. Not too Serious; lucky, too, the stage is not too flimsy
12:49 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
Philadelphia Grand Jury are hungry for a larger stage but were content, for now, to just rock this one. They don’t even have a full-length album out, but have been solidifying a reputation, along with their friends the John Steel Singers, for incredibly fun live shows. At Laneway this year they had the exuberance of a group with nothing to lose. They caught the casual listener with fierce licks of retro-rock guitar and held them with a strong, quirky sense of irony. “Going to the casino, what could possibly go wrong?” they ask in their debut single, and answer—“Then it hits me, no-one’s in love with me.” Live, songs like “I Don’t Want to Party Party But I’m Going To Because She’s Fantastic” were as fun as they sound. They may be named after a Fiery Furnaces song, but this group’s outlook is entirely fun-generation.
Laneway: John Steel Singers. Their songs are tightly connected-up like a Curb yr Enthusiasm episode.
1:13 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
The John Steel Singers had already impressed with their opening sets, and in the bright sunshine of Reiby Place this young Brisbane band once again showed us why people are excited about them. If Panda Band is a poppier version of Sleepy Jackson, the John Steel Singers are a poppier version of the Panda Band—they’re all in this continuum of vaguely psychedelic pop. But the John Steel Singers’ songs are more intricately plotted than either of those other groups, and when all pieces spring together in the last section of “Luxembourg”, for example, you feel this warm pleasure—everything’s all right. Their music, however, sounds exceedingly familiar; the chords and melodies may not be completely new. But for their last song they brought out Yves Klein Blue and Philadelphia Grand Jury, and for the gaggle of audience it was a Party Party for real.
Laneway: today’s competition – find a girl at the festival who doesn’t have a tattoo
1:52 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
Although the festival had the air of a family picnic, especially throughout the early part of the afternoon, it was not without surprises such as an old woman who was sitting with her partner on a bench. We thought it was really nice that she’d wandered down and decided to come to this essentially indie-centric event. Then she rolled and lit a joint.
Laneway: Tame Impala. New Aussie buzz band is more interesting than expected, tight & behind a postrock/gazey curtain
3:07 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
The afternoon gave us a number of less well-known Australian acts that, while fine at what they were doing, weren’t really exciting. Papa vs. Pretty were, ok, pretty average. They know their blues licks, and they’ve got something of the necessary swagger, but when it came down to it the guitar-bass-keys-drum quartet seemed too young to own the songs they were playing. Tame Impala, who had a recent hit with “Half Full Glass of Wine”, started tight but ended up staggered in Wolfmother’s shadow, proggy and somewhat predictable. They weren’t helped by the sound of the Park Stage, which unless you were close to the stage and bisecting the speakers, seemed muted and somewhat drained. (The same problem plagued Stereolab later on.) In the band’s favor, they are patient, and there’s a sort of academicism to their stoic exploration of sound. It’s not new, but it can be powerful.
Laneway: Born Ruffians. Fun as ever, surprised ppl know their words. There’s fist pumping.
3:31 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
We left Tame Impala to their wandering guitars to catch the end of Born Ruffians. I always thought of the Canadian group as a fun, if somewhat minor, indie-pop act, but they turned out to be well rehearsed, confident, and generally entertaining onstage. The enthusiastic crowd, swelled by this point in the afternoon, sang along to the band’s hits. “Hedonistic Me”, which closed the set, reminded us again how catchy these guys can be.
The proportion of redheads here is unusually high.
3:46 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
We shuffled towards the front of the stage for No Age.
Guy setting up the stage for No Age is wearing an Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction t shirt.
3:50 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
Turns out that guy is No Age. And They’re awesome. Super loud.
4:09 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
Certainly one of the highlights of the day, No Age rumbled and blasted their noise-pop jams in the live setting. They were slightly out of tune but I liked it that way, and of course rawer in person than on Nouns, where the fuzz is a sort of friendly cipher for the group’s cascading melodies. The crowd was varied—
Laneway: first spotting of a girl wearing rabbit ear headband.
5:07 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
Yes, she was there—but the music left everyone in a similar stunned state. The enunciated, flat affect of “Teen Creeps”, and when they sprinted into “Eraser”, it felt like the stage was spinning backwards and we in the audience sprinting forwards to chase them. Something like that.
Laneway: the line is long; it’s 5:30 – everyone wants a sausage.
5:34 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
Though it was with some disappointment that we heard about a “proper” No Age show at a house party in Surry Hills the same night, we filed that with the “secret” incarnation of Wolfmother, White Feathers, playing at Oxford Art Factory as “opportunities missed due to something better,” and geared up for an evening of jostling for position among crowds that appeared from who knows where. I wrote this at the beginning of Four Tet’s set—
Laneway: Four Tet. Not sure if I get it
6:13 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
—but by the end was completely won over. He started all minimal-esque techno, all booming sound with little by way of a hook to sustain the casual listeners at the back of the alley, where we found ourselves. The bass may have been set too high, and the extraneous environment seemed too intrusive—a puddle snaking its way down the middle of the alley; people laughing and smoking on deck chairs, beneath umbrellas. Nobody except the hard core of dancers up front was really engaged. We left quickly to catch Stereolab.
Laneway: Stereolab. Not helped by the shit sound at the Park Stage, a band of science teachers.
6:48 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
This evaluation may have been a little harsh, but Tim Gane’s group, fronted by the relaxed and confident Laetitia Sadier, were never interested in selling themselves to anyone not already familiar with their music. The subtleties of their Krautrock/pop, recently buoyed up by splashes of Motown, were somewhat lost into the late summer atmosphere. At their own show with a decent sound system, the group could probably inspire fervently attuned listening; but unfortunately the Park Stage proved difficult as Sadier sang on, a bemused look on her face, while we struggled to find something exciting in what we heard.
So it was back to Four Tet, a good decision as it turned out. True to reputation as electronic shapeshifter, Kieran Hebden had moved away from the deep house of Ringer and into his more characteristic folktronica style. Reminiscent of Lemon Jelly, his final few songs rang with acoustic guitars, spliced in a fresh way over beats that seemed simple, but were not. Hebden’s music has an artless quality that suits summer, afternoons, and a slight buzz; but really appreciating his music requires more effort than most at Laneway were able to give. We snaked to the front, as the loops of Rounds’ melodies continued.
A couple is taking photographs. He grabs her hips, leans back, and gives – David Brent’s expression from “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”
7:09 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
After a short pause (more Esau Mwamwaya in the background), El Guincho jumped onto the stage in characteristic hyperactive glee.
Laneway: El Guincho’s playing some new stuff. Just as fun as ever—.
7:38 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
We swung past Architecture in Helsinki, catching Girl Talk, who ran onto the stage and, bafflingly, screamed his way through what appeared to be a Metallica song. It was not a highlight. The Aussie indie band seemed happy to be onstage, but didn’t have the manic determination to entertain that pervades their best gigs. Instead, they brought friends onstage to sing with them, and it was charming but a little amateur. There were cover songs and a slew of hits; but just around the corner there was something not worth missing.
Architecture in Helsinki take the collaboration approach to festival playing; the drones are whaling away.
8:18 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
My only other experience of the Drones live traumatized my eardrums, so I was a little hesitant to step into Reiby Place; but the group’s masterful album Havilah was a pretty strong argument to get over it. By this time the alley was so packed that it was impossible to get closer than halfway to the stage, too, so I guess there was little to worry about decibel-wise (something we could have done with later for Girl Talk). The band was fierce and on point, stepping forward to attack their instruments as Gareth Liddiard sang with his whole body. His voice is tortured with emotion, and despite the aggression of the music most of the crowd was pretty well locked into the music. When that line from “The Minotaur” came up, the whole alley shouted together like some desperate prison rally—“He spends all day looking at porn / Or playing fucking Halo 2.”
In the flux of people at the end of the set we were pushed closer to the stage and deeper into the crowd. We found ourselves, finally, at the left-hand barriers surrounded by people taller than us, as the stage crew trussed up amps in duct tape and wheeled out a computer desk covered in plastic. The excitement was pretty intense—it was clear this was the main reason a large proportion of the crowd was at Laneway at all. But this close to the stage there was a dangerous streak of aggressiveness. During Girl Talk’s set, hysteria turned violent at least twice around us, and people were dragged, kicking at imagined offenders, over the barrier by police and security guards. Girl Talk’s actual set was fun enough—and clearly everyone there was about as excited as you can be for a non-DJ mashup DJ set. But strangely, in the live setting, his songs aren’t lent a special impact or a deeper meaning. They vamp, longer than on record, as Gillis plays with the crowd’s expectations before dropping the longed-for a cappella. And Gillis himself is able to goad, determined for everyone to have a similar hyper-diaphoretic reaction to the pump of familiar bass. He even graces us with this: Jumping off the stage and sprinting up the side of the alleyway, slapping hands as he goes. I wasn’t ready for it and his sprint took me by surprise. So I got a sweaty Girl Talk elbow in my face, like Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly. How’s that for a souvenir?
Girl Talk – permanent hearing loss from incredible high end. The crowd was crazy.
10:06 PM Feb 8th from TwitterFon
On the stage were a twenty- or thirty-strong group of partiers who seemed carefully cast to play the “summer beach party” part. A pair of waxed, buffed guys (one with pierced nipples) were unselfconsciously hilarious—they wore sunglasses, and danced like they were at a rap concert, and when they took off their wifebeaters they whirled them around their heads.
As Girl Talk continues to grow as a legitimate star in his own right, sensible opposition to his music’s going to likewise accumulate. And if all Gillis is offering, eventually, are these frenzied and increasingly unsurprising combinations, he will not convince us that what he’s actually doing is creating some new, coherent statement. It’s still possible he could do it; but in the atmosphere of insistent and slightly belligerent fun having, that statement won’t be heard soon. This experience of the set may have been purely situational; friends, who were standing in a more peaceful part of the crowd, were entirely satisfied. But the combination of the atmosphere, my own reservations towards Gregg Gillis’ project, and the second-guessing of my decision to forego the Hold Steady was telling. I’d seen their side show earlier in the week, but still, those guys in the SO MUCH JOY T-shirts seemed completely elated after the festival; I just felt bruised, and with a serious case of tinnitus.
// Notes from the Road
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