One of the compelling aspects of the Big Day Out USED to be the showcasing of bands who are on the pathway to greatness rather than ones that used to be. Now, it seems, the organisers seem more focused on trying to ensure the continuing success by scheduling popular acts rather than risky ones. As is undoubtedly their prerogative. However, the Laneways line-up this year, in stark contrast, contained very few well-known bands, but targeted those currently garnering critical acclaim for their live and recorded work. It thus seems to be targeting those seeking out new and interesting material rather than those simply looking for an excuse to get smashed.
It was thus very noticeable straight away that its a different crowd at Laneways than the Big Day Out. So it was an older, bohemian, even slightly hippyish group that joined me in Aotea Square. And there was nowhere near the same amount of drunk and wasted people. Plus marauding hordes of shirts-off teenage boys were thankfully absent.
So with a pen and a 10 cent notebook in hand (I kid you not, Back to School specials are amazing these days!), here are some of my thoughts and notes from a great day out (as opposed to big!).
An Emerald City
Named, in all likelihood, after the mythical capital city in the Land of Oz, An Emerald City are a kiwi band now based in Berlin trying to live their rock and roll dream. Opening a festival must be one of the harder jobs in pursuit of that rock and roll dream though as the clock had barely nudged 12.45pm when they struck their first note in anger with barely a dozen in attendance in front of the stage. Still they did a good job with their intoxicating Wall-of-Sound instrumentals featuring a wide range of instruments including violins, maracas and something that sounded like a sitar.
The songs, bereft of lyrics, contain a heavy rumbling sound like an ominous oncoming thunderstorm. The air is thick with expectation and anticipation as their moody and melodramatic sounds sate our appetite for the main courses to follow later in the day. An interesting opening.
Destroying the previously instilled chilled atmosphere so delicately spun by An Emerald City, The Children's Hour, emerged onto stage and immediately shocked and invaded our private space both internal and external. The first lyrics of the day were spat at us with vitriol and passion as they embarked on a frenetic, punky 45 minute set. Children's Hour are a reformed band who originally played in NZ during the early 80s and who morphed into the more famous Headless Chickens following the suicide of their bassist.
Not for the last time, the scheduling is the problem here as they wouldve suited a later slot. They play a driving, hardcore Iggyish fare which amps up in intensity throughout the set finishing with an almost death metallish crescendo to finish. However, its far too early in the day for that sort of thing. The songs got louder and faster with one ear-splitting shriek late in the set visibly shocking and scaring most of the crowd.
So not all that impressed although may have a different view given different time or place. Certainly from what I saw, they are an ill-named band who should be kept away from children no matter what the hour!
Lawrence ArabiaAaahhhh, now thats better. Silver Scroll winner Lawrence Arabia pushed the reset button and quickly restored the chillout zone established with such care by An Emerald City. Right on cue, two songs into the set, I caught the first whiff of weed in the air.
Lawrence Arabia is one of those careful, quiet artists, not requiring any embellishment to his carefully constructed sonical poems. The songs are simultaneously measured and complete yet infinite in their horizons. At one point, he reminded me of Simon & Garfunkel with some inspired folky lyrics combining with aching harmonies and melancholy humming. Not bad company to keep to be sure.
Drawing the first reasonable sized crowd of the day, the set veered at the end down some more experimental avenues. Firstly there was a prog rock era effort with a delightful instrumental followed quickly by a cracking step backwards into a Joy Division rip-off with its heavy synths accompanied by twirling pianos and ambient horns. Delightful. Very talented individual and good to see he is extending himself unlike a certain compatriot of his who would follow later in the day.
Well, how to describe these madmen. They were unreal. Another reviewer said they were a more manic, amped up Chemical Brothers. I think thats too gentle! They are a shimmering LSD-addled mind-space fuck! Its danceable psychosis like watching a cacophany of stars exploding. Does that not make any sense? Great, you now know what I felt like at the end of their set!
First and foremost however we should pay kudos to the sound guys who somehow managed to turn the urban landscape of the Aotea Square into a sonically perfect concert hall. Throughout the day, regardless of where you were in the crowd, the vocals are clear and concise and the instrumentation distinct and sharp. And its extremely important because a band like Holy Fuck would sound like a bad headache with the wrong mixing. But here the feedback and fuzzy electronics are triumphant. Its a wonderful march across the wide traverse of a sonical rainbow led by these microphone-eating madmen. Each song consists of numerous ridiculously catching and driving riffs which follow each other in quick succession. There are enough ideas in each song to populate a whole album. Then the next song starts, and they are at it again.
So without doubt the early highlight of the day was provided by these four geeks pounding their instruments into submission and spewing out massive beats and sounds which were then amplified and echoed off all the nearby buildings to such an extent that it prompted the noise control officers to turn up.
And yes, you read that right. Holy Fuck caused Noise Control to turn up at a music festival! Surely a world first. Only in Auckland can Noise Control Officers turn up to a festival event hosted by a council owned entity on council run space with the mayor in attendance. Incredible.
Ariel Pink Haunted Graffiti
Well, um. What to say. I am really at a loss for words trying to describe Ariel Pink Haunted Grafitti. Lots has been said about this band, but I will add little to it. Sound unaccompanied by rhythm is not music. Music unattached to melody is simply noise and thats the main issue here. Think they must be graduates of the Mars Volta school of individualised mayhem. For the undiscerning only. Seemed most of the crowd agreed with me as most of the mob that Holy Fuck had gathered soon disappeared off to sate their thirst for food and drink.
It does allow me to comment on the organisation at Laneways though. Each but the last two acts were allotted 45 minutes only so there was never long before the next band was due on stage. Also the changeover between bands was very quick leaving little downtime. The whole festival ran to an exact timetable which was a notable and comment worthy achievement.
From the moment the setlist was announced, I was always likely to get to Laneways simply to ensure that I saw Blonde Redhead who are one of my favourite bands and released the stunning album "23" in 2007. They are an unconventional band preferring to change up their approach every album rather than churn out paint-by-numbers repeats of past glories.
Surreal and dreamy are the two words that spring to mind when you see or hear them for the first time. Its lush, atmospheric pop music played alternatively as the soundtrack to your dreams and nightmares. Lead singer, Kazu Makino has an amazing voice which defies comprehension given her slim petite stature. Its quiet ethereal and you gaze in astonishment as if its not physically or humanly possible for such sounds to be emerging from her tiny frame. Its delicate, loud and forceful at the same time and not easily forgotten even if it's hard to describe.
They played two tracks from the aforementioned "23", the magical title track (one of my all time favourite songs) along with the similarly magnificent "Looking at You Now". The sensation while watching these tracks is somewhat off-putting though as all band members show a complete lack of interest in their surroundings or the crowd. I cant remember even a "Hello Auckland" during the entire set. Feigned indifference perhaps or maybe an attitude inspired by a feckless fealty paid to the rock gods.
Anyway, its the music we come for and this is music to accompany your ascent to an enlightened state on the pathway to heaven. And then, just to surprise us one last time, they finished with a rampaging jam more suitable to accompany your descent into an eternal hell!
Dazed and confused indeed.
Far be it for me, humble reviewer, to criticise the artist line-up but we could easily have done without Ladyhawke at Laneways 2011. The overall motif of undiscovered yet emerging indie-alternative bands was ruined somewhat by the appearance of a local artist who has probably had her moment. She was also not flattered by the later starting time due to a schedule change.
To her credit, she did debut a couple of new songs but these seemed to follow the direction set by her first album. Im not bemoaning her talent for 80s style hooks nor her competence in playing them, but the trouble with being part of a fad is that you need to move on quickly before you get typecast for life. Ladyhawke seems stuck in the 80s with lots of "Do Do Do Do's" , "Sha la la's", and "Nah nahs". But of course. It was like watching an episode of the Cosby Show over and over. It starts out sweet, soon becomes sickly sweet, and eventually you just feel like getting a drink. So I did.
Phuq me. Arent you supposed to be good looking to be a rock star? Dont you have to sign some pact protecting the integrity of the beautiful people with no soul? Deerhunter are the worst looking band I have ever seen. Thank God they can play rock and roll; and play it really, really well.
Honestly, the lead singer looked like a librarian and the rhythm guitarist a financial advisor, neither who would be the first you would invite to dinner for six. And then the bassist; MY GOD! He maintains, at all times, that look of bored indifference you get from a government worker at the Department of Motor Vehicles. What is more disturbing and offputting though is that he is unfailingly polite! Who ever heard of a polite rock star! Manners have no place in rock and roll. Did Mick ever bow to an audience, or Bowie or Iggy?
But bassist Josh Fauver, following each and every song, gently bows to the crowd in thanks. One audience member tried to rile him up by giving him the finger boldly and visibly throughout an entire song. His response was simply to sheepishly smile and then bow at the end of the song before walking away to start playing another mind bending, mesmerising track of unfiltered, evisceral rock and roll without any adornment or attitude. Its as refreshing as it is offputting!
It finally took a burst of unscheduled feedback to knock them from their unhurried, straightforward delivery of glorious, georgia rock with a drawl. Not the first band today to employ a Wall-of-Sound technique but they do a better job than others due to being blessed with a lead singer who has range, power and passion. Even if he does look like a librarian.
Very, very enjoyable set. For those interested, check out their latest album Halcyon Digest which is a neo-psychedelic classic.
Who knew? As if I needed any more reminder that Im out of touch with the youth of today, the biggest crowd of the day turned out for a band that I'd never heard of before the artist list was announced. Yeasayer are a four piece band out of Brooklyn described by All Music Guide as "an eclectic, genre-bending journey into pop, rock, Middle Eastern and African musics, folk, and dub." If you say so.
I just found them weird. Really weird. The songs seemed unformed full of seemingly random electronic beeps, chirps and unattributed sampled snippets. I can best describe it as listening to snatches of conversation from the group next to you in a bar. You can hear and understand bits without understanding the overall context or tone. At times they are a bit Happy Mondayish; well Happy Mondays without the great drugs which is not necessarily a good thing.
Still, you cant love every band in the world. Unlike the lead singer of Yeasayer who at one point complimented the Laneways organisers by noting that every band playing was "like his favourite band in the world". Whatever.
The penultimate act of the festival was Beach House, purveyors of one of the albums of 2010 in Teenage Dream. It was at this point that night fell which was excellent from an atmospheric point of view but decidedly inconvenient for your diligent note-taking roving reporter. I either needed to be in the VIP section (an expensive option) or invest in one of those cool pens with a light on it (somewhat cheaper especially with Back to School specials at Whitcoulls!).
Anyway, I didnt write much, but everything I did write was dripping with superlatives. The duo from Baltimore play timeless, melancholic, understated pop songs, as touching as they are gorgeous. Its all played at an unhurried, leisurely, languid pace that somehow causes you heart rate to drop but your neck hairs to rise.
Beach House were originally due to play earlier in the day but due to !!! (chk chk chk) being delayed out of Singapore (thanks Jetstar!!!), they moved to a semi-headline position. But like a rookie major leaguer, they smashed it out of the park. The entire set consisted of wave after wave of lush, luxuriant pop gems washing over you; the aural equivalent of sinking into a hot bubble bath with your favourite book.
Early on they described themselves as playing "songs to break up to" but that's a gross misdirection. They were delicate, quiet and lovely. Delicacy should never go out of fashion or be beyond our mood. Its a spirit that can be felt at any time. Just when everyone was ready to ramp it up, they quietened us down and made us thankful for it.
With shimmering, sparkling octahedrons hanging from the stage, they played their entire Teenage Dream album (albeit not in order). It was absolutely perfect; a fantastic finish to the day for the Nevstar and well, well worth the price of admission alone.
And on that note, I left. Foals were the headline act but I really didnt think anything could top Beach House and I didnt want anyone to try. I've listened to Foals a little bit and never really been that enamoured so made the executive decision to leave on a high. Your memory of an event is always better that way!
Overall, I really enjoyed Laneways. The Aotea Square proved to be a great venue. A large grass area to sit down and chill out to, but easy access to the stages when you wanted to move forward. It was quite an experience chilling out with your friends while the music plays in the background. All the problems of last year were more than adequately addressed. The sound was fantastic. There were barely any queues for food or drink and the range was extremely impressive. The queue for the toilets was even tolerable.
As for the artist list, they could perhaps work on managing the order the bands played in (some of this was beyond their control), but overall the list of bands probably couldnt be faulted. There were bands I loved, bands I really liked, bands that I tolerated and bands that I could have done without. But thats the beauty of a festival. You pay for the total experience and once you're in the marginal cost of being exposed to one more new band is nil. Also, there were no clashes as the bands all played one after another. There hasnt been a Big Day Out yet where I havent had to miss one "Cant Miss" band because there are four stages going simultaneously.
I'm comparing Laneways to Big Day Out a lot and for this I make no apologies as they are now competing for my yearly budget allocation to "Summer Festivals". Well, after my experience at Laneways in 2011, the Big Day Out is going to have to work hard to secure my attendance any year from now on because an afternoon / evening in the sun with friends, drinks and a succession of great bands is an experience I will want to repeat year after year.