Returning to its spiritual home of Melbourne, this year's Laneway comes blazing a trail of success. With other festivals rebranding and reorganising, Laneway has selected a lineup heavy on blog-love and therefore, in many cases, music made, mixed and reviewed in small rooms, that sounds great on headphones. Which raises the questions: can these acts cut it live? And, with festivals more a rite of summer for Triple J listeners than a gathering of fans of particular bands, does it matter?
Opening the day at the Dean Turner Stage are Kings of Convenience, a band made for small rooms if ever there was one. The gentleness of the music clashes beautifully with the loud, beery fun-lovers who have just poured in off the train. Held almost immediate silence by the lilting Norwegian harmonies of Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe, this is the first of many marvels Laneway unleashes today. Beginning as a duo, Mrs Cold and 24/25 captivate. Soon, a backing band is brought on for a rousing take of I Could Never Belong to You and the brilliant I’d Rather Dance With You, guaranteeing KoC to be the discovery of the day for many. Disco-folk shouldn't: a) exist or b) sound this good.
While Twerps are on typically blazing form, at the Eat Your Own Ears stage Brooklyn-based quartet The Men take churning garage rock, remove any gaps, overlay the results with endless guitar solos and punish it through Marshall stacks. Their wild, semi-naked drummer could be beamed in from Sunbury (suburb or festival) and is a total asset, occasionally pushing a Motorik rhythm beneath their non-stop southern-boogie, it's glorious, life-affirming stuff. Their set ends suddenly with a guitarist looking at his watch, taking off his guitar and leaving the stage, the others immediately following suit.
On the auspiciously named Future Classic stage, Julia Holter is building strange bubbling atmospheres with synth, drums, cello and a swimming pool's worth of reverb. The music is intriguing and is composed and arranged rather than felt, her talent enhanced not hidden by the filters and echoes. Despite this precision, many subtleties don't make it through the chattering crowd, most of whom are clustered beneath shady trees and talking over her bewitching tunes.
As the heat increases and shady spots become highly prized, the River Stage sees Perfume Genius suffer a similar fate; his music never reaching the heights it does on headphones. His weak voice is a cloudy, vaguely inert instrument, the reverb rendering his lyrics indecipherable and his symphonic electric piano and synth playing reduced to moody noodling. Though his backing band provides some energy, it all seems confused, and undoubtedly better in a small, dark venue.
Real Estate benefit from bringing dispositions to match the weather, and their bright chiming riffs and breezy harmonies go down nicely. Though they're not about to surprise you with distortion or anything, smartly made, tightly played songs like Suburban Dogs, Fake Blues and the crowd-rallying It's Real remind you why they're here, and why a large number of people are willing to be badly sunburned to see them.
Recasting memories of Real Estate as a mid-paced snoozefest, Cloud Nothings pull off one of the most relentless and intense sets of the day. Opening with a blistering Fall In, the pace never drops. Dylan Baldi’s harsh, ripped vocals wail atop bludgeoning bass and a drummer who rarely stops playing a fill. As their set plays out though, long, forceful yet indulgent instrumental sections in songs like Wasted Days and Separation eat up much of the set. Instead of playing pithy strokes of genius like Cut You and Stay Useless - which it sounds like it took five minutes to write – Baldi seems infatuated with the sound of chaos, which is face-meltingly awesome, it’s just not showing what the band can really do.
Nite Jewel (aka Ramona Gonzalez) shows exactly how to take the DIY tropes of 80s pop (cool reverb, shimmering guitars and spacey keyboards) and make it sound immediate, catchy and fresh. Gonzalez’s arresting stage presence helps songs like One Second of Love and She’s Always Watching You feel strange, engaging and genuinely new.
Despite the festival selling out, moving between stages is easy though keeping a spot in the shade less so. Back at Future Classic Stage mix-maestro Holy Other is pushing a womb-like mix of woolly bass, warm pulses, exhausted beats and snatches of vocal; if Burial has a wife and she were pregnant, this is probably what that zygote is bugging out to. It’s envelopes but never betrays pressure which is rare, as is a set that travels perfectly from dark club to sunny day; a fantastic atmospheric discovery.
Despite the unusual lineup of two drummers, a bassist, a lot of pedal-operated programming and a hyperkinetic jazz singer, Polica are surprisingly unremarkable. Though initially arresting, primarily due to Channy Leaneagh’s powerful voice, there is little variation in sounds, tempo or dynamics throughout their set. Opener The Maker, I See My Mother and single Dark Star are punchier, but their reliance on the same effects and sounds wears thin, and anyway, Of Monsters and Men are exerting some serious gravitational force.
Sounding about as Icelandic as a Big Mac, the biggest crowd pullers by some measure today are plying a trade in songs that sound a lot like but not exactly like some song by Edwin Sharpe, Mumford and Sons or a dozen other bands. The septet play a tight, rousing set; they know when to pull a trumpet out to drive a melody home, when to let the crowd take over and how to shout ‘hey!’. Mountain Sound and Little Talks get the biggest singalongs so far today, though the band have surprisingly weak vocals for such strong melodies.
As the (recyclable) rubbish piles up, the queues for the toilets and phone chargers grow, and sunburns become the norm, crowds surge toward the Eat Your Own Ears stage. Canadian duo Japandroids explode onto it in a flurry of volume and charisma and pretty much embody everything that's been missing so far today; brevity, showmanship, great songs and energy. The duo rarely let up in their quest for killer riffs and emphatic ‘whoah-oh’ choruses. Boasting more guitar amps than could be concievably feasible, every watt is used for opener Adrenaline Nightshift the gargantuan Night of Wine and Roses and ‘hit’ The House That Heaven Built. Here is a band whose New Jersey/Springsteen-style rock suits the backdrop of towering dockyard cranes and passing cargo trains and they make a powerful, triumphant sight.
Sacrificing Alt-J for Jessie Ware we are immediately rewarded with some hilarious banter, made even funnier for its incongruous setting between some sparkling neo-soul songs. Speaking in a strong Adele-like South London accent, Ware launches into the spellbinding title track from her Devotion LP. Her young, three-piece backing band wait while she tells us of St Kilda’s lobster rolls, bands we should see and apologises for her clumsy keyboard playing: ‘’onestly, these fingers o’ mine are like fuckin’ chipolatas today,’ she cackles before casting another glittering spell on us. Night Light, 110% and Wildest Moments are all glittering highlights of the day.
The taut, edgy rock of Divine Fits is fitting for music made from Spoon’s Britt Daniels and Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade. Though the guitar spirals and smears more than chops, deceptive simplicity is still their greatest asset. Winning over the crowd, the band’s 50s-rock in a post-punk framework proves surprisingly flexible, especially for a take on Rowland S Howard’s near-sacred Shivers, which they pull off nicely; all calamitous guitars and huge dynamic shifts.
The bizarre mixing skills of Nicholas Jaar gives audiences the only time they genuinely don't know what's going to happen next; genre, sound, rhythm, anything. A saxophone/pianist and guitarist flank Jaar, dressed in a cape, looming over a laptop issuing skinny pulses, occasional trouser-flapping basslines and meandering Rhodes chords. Completely unhurried, he teases and taunts us, forcing our attention on the textures and surprises that epitomize his journey, only occasionally hinting at a big beat payoff. It’s masterful.
Unable to stop smiling for her entire set, Natasha Khan (aka Bat for Lashes) seems happier than anyone to be here. Resplendent in a multi-coloured sparkly gypsy dress, she dances, swoons, laughs, claps and emotes her way through her rich trove of songs. With cello, Cocteau Twins-style guitar and busy electronic percussion and drums, Khan holds our attention almost as well as her striking album cover. Laura gets a predictably huge response, but later songs, the synth-driven dynamics of Marilyn and the closing Daniel allow her to stretch from epic longing to intimate revelations. It’s her smiling face, beaming down from the big screens that we see before turning to go, as the happily chattering masses surge through the streets to the station.