The third annual Laneway festival took place on Auckland Anniversary day at its third venue in as many years with the vendors hoping that the Wynyard Quarter location is permanent after previously trying the Britomart Quarter and Aotea Centre. The festival is certainly growing with an estimated 6,500 attending this year relative to around 2,000 for the first two versions. And with the recent demise of the Big Day Out, the city certainly needs it to be a success so as to maintain at least one international class music festival in the city.
2012 also saw the use of a second stage area allowing time and space for 22 bands to demonstrate their wares. With such an abundance of choice, there really was something for everyone as well as an almost cast-iron certainty that you will discover a great new band at Laneway. Indeed, in the internet age where no-one listens to radio to discover new bands, festivals are rapidly becoming one of the most important expositions of your future favourite bands. With the pervasiveness of YouTube, the ability to perform on stage is becoming a critical element in a bands’ success. In the Nevstar’s humble opinion, this is undoubtedly a good thing.
Perhaps part of the reason for the demise of the Big Day Out was that it lost its core alternative audience. The headline acts increasingly became nostalgic rather than cutting edge (Iggy, Metallica, Soundgarden, Neil Young et al). Laneway has a different perspective which I hope they stay true to. They aim to deliver the bands that are just starting to make a name for themselves particularly in a live context. In keeping with this modus operandi, much of what follows is an introduction to a whole lot of bands you may not have heard of as much as a concert review. However, the fact that they played Laneway at all suggests that they are probably worth paying attention to.
The first band that the Nevstar saw were Canadian electronica band Austra. I was implored by a friend to get there early to see them because the lead singer was “really hot”. Admittedly this is rather a shallow marketing strategy to garner audiences attention but it certainly never did Blondie any harm. Having survived the ½ hour queue for beer tokens (which soon lengthened to an hour), we arrived near stage to take in the efforts of our first band of the day. Austra’s debut album, Feel It Break was released last year and it met with fawning critics reviews and landed on several “Best of 2011” lists. To call them electronic is perhaps a small dis-service actually. My main impression was that the music sounded like 60s influenced dance music with some 80s synths thrown in (a common theme for the day). The band set up is unusual as well with three female progeny of the tie-dye, flower power generation on vocals parading around the stage as if they were playing Woodstock. Behind them sit yet another female on drums. They are supported by a male bassist wearing standard band attire of jeans and a t-shirt but also by another guy on the synthesiser who was wearing only tight black shorts and a black vest.
Lead singer, Katie Stelmanis, (who for the official record is definitely smoking hot) has a terrific voice and she was in fine form parading around the stage dancing in her Maid Marionish outfit. She was supported by the other two vocalists in producing hippy music updated for a new generation. The music moves over you in ethereal waves of electronic rhythms yet is spliced with meaty hooks and synthesised melodies. Indeed, our feet were tapping throughout the show and it didn’t take us long to find the first band that we had never heard of that we really liked.
Next up was the New York duo known as the Cults. Describing the Cults is relatively easy. Firstly, they are absolutely nothing like The Cult. Instead they are simply about playing infectiously joyous and simple pop songs which are irritatingly sweet and seductive. Think of the Tings Tings but with better lyrics! Unfortunately they suffered a little from “left stage” issues. The main stage area had two main stages side by sides with the acts alternating on each side. Unfortunately, the left hand stage suffered from poor sound quality all day, possibly because of the wind direction. Getting the perfect sound at concerts is always tricky but this was certainly one of the gripes of the day particularly after the near perfect sound at Aotea Square last year.
However it was a minor distraction with both Brian Oblivion (guitar) and Madeline Follin (vocals) launching into their work with gusto, precision and a whole, whole lot of hair! Both possess quite impressive black manes which they proceeded to fling around with joyous gay abandon throughout their entire set. I possess their eponymous debut album and enjoyed it without loving it, but they were absolutely terrific live. Brian introduced themselves by saying that they were “here to bring you some good old American rock and roll” and they sure did. The songs have a childhood innocence about them which is equal measures sugary and sparkling. Undoubted highlight of the set was the incriminatingly catchy Go Outside which features an intro played on a xylophone. Yes, a xylophone. The same instrument you give to your 3 year old niece. A more apt metaphor for the band is hard to imagine.
Next up were one of the must-sees for the Nevstar in Girls who have produced two sensational albums in Album and Father Son Holy Ghost. I wrote extensively about the latter in the previous Nevstar Music Guide as it was my number one album of 2011 so it was fair to say that I was a wee bit excited as they strode onstage. You knew it was a band called Girls up next as every microphone stand had a bunch of flowers attached to it (and everyone knows Girls love flowers).
They appeared onstage to enthusiastic applause and then did nothing but sound check their instruments for the next ten minutes! Grrrrr. I normally applaud perfectionism in musicians but this was definitely an example where it was ill-considered. A festival needs to run to time with all the acts back to back, and the sound is never ever going to be perfect given the limited set up time each band has. I think I would rather have had the extra ten minutes of them playing rather than exact right amount of treble.
Anyway, they finally launched into their show and it was a delight. Sampling from both of their albums, Girls played a ripping set, alternating evenly between their sunny California pop songs, and the shadowy, mysterious prog rock efforts flowing from their darker side. While they were slow to start playing, they certainly made up for it during the set as you could see and feel the unadulterated joy with which they were playing their music live. The crowd reaction was a bit of a dichotomy though. Some up the front were enraptured but it must be said that quite a few others drifted away over time to check out the other stage (or join the ever lengthening beer queue). I was definitely one of the former group however and felt their live prowess easily matched their exquisite song-writing skills. It was also interesting to note that a sizeable contingent of their fellow musicians from the other bands were 3-4 deep backstage enjoying their set. Bands that are favourites of other bands are always intriguing.
The final track was the immaculate Vomit which was absolutely note perfect. The plaintive, melancholic vocals were interspersed with messianic bouts of maniacal instrumentation. A triumph which left me for the first time that day a jabbering idiot post-show. However, it was fair to say that my erstwhile companions were not so enamoured when I asked them their thoughts. Perhaps intense familiarity with the content was required to fully appreciate the show. But no matter, adjudging quality of music is ultimately subjective and your pleasure should not be contingent on others. Suffice to say that I loved it and was definitely one of the highlights of the day for me.
After three bands in a row, I was getting a little foot weary. Perhaps the major downside of the new site was that the two main stages were located in the central car park for the Wynyard Quarter. As such, you are standing on hot tarmac pretty much the entire time you are watching bands playing the main stage. There is no grass, virtually no seating, and no shade. As you can imagine, spending inordinate amounts of time standing in a car park is not generally the first place I would elect to spend my holiday afternoons so I’m afraid Laura Marling suffered as a result. Following the conclusion of Girls, I made a dash for a beverage and some shade. Due to the inordinately long beer queues, I only made it back for her last couple of songs so am not really able to pass judgement.
For the record, Laura is a singer song-writer who alternatively sits or stands at the front of the stage gently strumming her acoustic guitar and singing plaintive, heartfelt folk ballads like a dreamy blonde Joan Baez. My companions who watched the entire slot said that she was pretty good although she front-loaded her best songs at the start of her set. One to check out if you like that sort of thing.
Pains of Being Pure At Heart
Next up were the delightfully titled Pains of Being Pure At Heart who won the prize for the longest name of the day (indeed forcing the organisers to use much smaller font for their name in the programme). They were playing on the Park Lane stage which was the (much) smaller stage off towards the western waters edge of Wynyard Quarter. The upside of the location was its intimacy and the grass beneath your feet. The downside was that the space for fans was way too small. It was very full for POBPAH who are barely known and then absolutely jam-packed to the point of discomfort for some of the later bands. I think the general idea of two stages was a winner, and there was no problem with sound overlapping the two stages, but the second site was simply too small for the majority of the acts that played on the back stage. One side effect of the location was that the backdrop to the stage was two giant super yachts moored behind the canopy. Quite a surreal framing for a rock band touring the world playing obscure festivals in out of the way locations while struggling to eek out an existence doing what they love.
No matter, POBPAH played an absolutely fantastic set. As my companion at the time noted, there always has been and always will be a place for immaculate, guitar infused jangly pop. They reminded him of Ash whereas I thought they were more descendants of Teenage Fanclub bloodlines. Regardless; they were outstanding, bringing an edgy verve and enthusiasm to their great collection of powerful and poignant pop songs. They have obviously been playing a bit together as well because musically they were extremely tight with absolutely precise timing and execution. A very enjoyable show. Check out their 2011 album Belong which is a great listen and perfect for summer BBQ playlists.
The Pajama Club is Neil Finn’s latest band and consist of Neil and his wife plus their two neighbours. When their two kids (Liam and Elroy) left home, the Finns built a music room in their house and just started jamming away together (presumably in their pajamas) before being joined by their (obviously musical) neighbours. The jam sessions led to a selection of songs which were soon recorded onto a self-titled debut album in 2011.
As befitting the rather random story of their formation, their musical output is also rather random. It tends more towards the funky than any Enz or Crowded House material with most of the songs accompanied by pretty groovy bass lines. Probably only fitting that, having mastered virtually all other musical genres, Neil has now devoted himself to Southern boogie. That said, a couple of the tracks also had a bit of a reggae feel to them which perfectly suited the summery, Caribbean feel the crowd felt in the hot sun. Then they brought a huge smile to my face upon launching into a stonking version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity which was, I think, the only cover played all day!. Great song and a great cover version.
All good fun. It didn’t blow you away or leave you aching for more, but it was a fun show to watch and provided even more evidence, if such was ever needed, that Neil Finn is really a living freaking genius with any musical instrument in his hand.
On reflecting back on my entire day, my one regret was that I probably focused too much of my attention on seeing all the bands that I already knew a bit about and very little on the days other attractions. This is obviously pretty standard behaviour for most festival goers but the very intimacy of Laneways coupled with its kaleidoscopic array of musical talent really implores you to stretch outside your comfort zone and take in the offerings from those you don’t know.
I say this now because the only two bands that I saw which I knew nothing about prior to the day was Austra and Washed Out. And both absolutely rocked! The lesson as always, is that I’m an idiot.
How to describe Washed Out? Hmmm. Well I was struggling on the day so perhaps the indispensable All Music Guide can assist some writer’s block. Their website describes them as “drowsy, distorted, dance influenced, pop music’. WTF? See what I mean?! On reading that, you wonder how on earth can music be ‘drowsy’? But, indisputably, it was. Their first track of the day had the sounds of the sea washing over the audience as a soon to be dominant club beat slowly but irredeemably started jacking up the intensity. The hypnotic beats continue to rise and fall, interspersed with lashings of pop sensibilities and iced with some irretrievably eerie dance deck supplemented samples. Wash, rinse, and repeat. Over and over. Under and out. Calming and hypnotic but absolutely catchy as hell.
If you need a marker, at times, they reminded me of the classic space rock track Oxygene 2 by Jean-Michael Jarre. Every song is distinct, but part of an overriding theme of chilled out resolutions of life’s larger mysteries. A truly epic performance of some quality sounds and had me checking them out on YouTube as soon as I got home.
Perhaps the headline act of the entire Laneway 2012 festival was the musical superstar Leslie Feist. While she was undoubtedly the biggest act of the day, the organisers made the correct decision to put her on just as the sun started to descend towards the horizon. It was the perfect call as the entire stadium fell under the spell of her seductive collection of sensuous compilations in the quiet hour as dusk started to fall.
Feist leapt to public consciousness as the voice behind the ubiquitous 1-2-3-4 track which Apple licensed for the initial marketing of the iPod. But she is much more than a one hit wonder. She was an early collaborator in Canadian super group Broken Social Scene who produced a number of top albums including the incredible 2003 release "You Forgot It In People”. She has since released several stellar solo albums culminating in last years Metals which is simply outstanding and was right near the top of the Nevstar’s Top Ten of 2011. So, I was getting pretty excited as she strode onto the stage.
My first impressions of seeing her for the first time live was simply how comfortable she seems on stage. She has a relaxed, inimitable style encouraging of audience participation and simultaneously supremely confident of her ability to entertain. She is complemented by an excellent band from the three nerdy looking back-up vocalists to the extremely professional piano/synth and bass players. The sound (on the right hand stage this time) was extremely good which was quite important given the layered nature of most of her songs.
Feist sampled her back catalogue extensively but the biggest cheers were reserved for the best tracks of her latest album and she soon had the entire crowd singing along to her perfect pop masterpieces. The show never lagged and was mesmerising throughout. The music somehow occupies a knife-edge between sentiment and sentimentality. Never sappy but somehow still sweet. Best track for me was probably the incredible Graveyard but their was barely a weak song throughout the nearly hour long set. Definitely one of the highlights of the day.
Several of my companions had SBTRKT at the top of their Must See list. I personally wasn’t that familiar with them but they were well to the fore in several "Best Of" lists in 2011 that I read so I wandered over to see what the fuss was all about.
However, the moments leading up to the concert were somewhat bizarre. According to my “Double The Monney” correspondents who were present nice and early, there were only about 15 – 20 people waiting for the show five minutes before the start. The band members quietly went about their preparations probably cursing their decision to come to Laneway in the first place. However, that decision was soon vindicated when a good-sized crowd soon rocked up right on the stroke of 7.40pm and which soon expanded to a stadium threatening sized crowd five minutes later. (I think perhaps a lot of punters watched as much as they could of Feist before dashing over to see SBTRKT).
From the moment they started, you could see that SBTRKT were going to go all out to reward those who had turned up. The resplendent joy they must have felt in playing to a packed crowd was self-evident. They launched into their show and soon had the crowd thrashing away to their agglomeration of dance, funk, dub and bass.
I am a little ashamed to say that I did leave after the first track (in order to see more Feist) but it wasn’t because they weren’t any good (I also hate being jammed up like a sardine in concert crowds nowadays and find people smoking right next to me in such scenarios just a tad off-putting). So I am relying on second-hand accounts in writing this review. But by those same accounts, and each were verified independently by your faithful correspondent, SBTRKT were one of the show-stopping highlights of the day. Rather than read anymore about them, do yourself a favour and take in some of their antics on stage courtesy of the good people at YouTube. Their album is also one for anyone who likes drum n bass of the likes of Basement Jaxx or Underworld.
One of the performances I was most looking forward to was The Horrors. I saw them in 2009 play a brilliant set at the Big Day Out just following the release of their superb sophomore album Primary Colours which I wrote extensively about in an earlier Nevstar Music Guide. They followed that with a 2011 album entitled Skying which was only slightly less than excellent as they successfully modified their gothish sounding rock and roll introducing more levity and melody. As such, I was eager to hear their new work live and revel once again in the exigencies flowing from their dispassionate disposition.
Unfortunately, they were really quite rubbish. Their previous modus operandi when playing live was an absolutely acute non-recognition of the audience as they belted out their domineering derivative of guitar based rock. Dressed all in black, their ambivalence to the paying audience somehow accentuated the intensity of the live performance. Such passion required their full attention and thus demanded yours. No effort was wasted in superfluous crowd pleasing antics. Supreme confidence in the quality of the delivery seemed to require, nay demand the audience listen just as assertively.
But at Laneway, that was all missing and it was too their detriment. Now, they dress in a variety of colours, interact with the crowd but fail to excite, and jump randomly around the stage as if that alone is sufficient to inspire adulation. But it is not. Artists must command and demand your attention through their magnetic presence. Some do this through boundless energy and enthusiasm (think Iggy, Flaming Lips or Eddie Vedder) while others demand it through the sheer will of their musical performance (Led Zep, Neil Young, or Jack White). Unfortunately, The Horrors now seemed alternatively to be either going through the motions of entertaining, or attempting to be what they are not. They rolled through their set and I hummed along to a couple of the tunes which I liked, but I was bored halfway through the show. Very disappointing and the low point of the whole day for the Nevstar. Fortunately, the high point was shortly to follow.
As darkness fell on the Laneway concert stage, the long day started to take its toll on the concertgoers. I had a couple of mini-breaks during the day but was considering calling it a night after 8 hours or so and the disappointment of The Horrors. Festivals are a, ahem, big day out and it is very hard to maintain your passion and intensity throughout the whole day.
However, I now know the perfect cure. When you are feeling a bit down and out, worn and weary, just put on some M83 and they will instantly re-energise and reinvigorate you. There is no other way to put it. M83 were simply epic. From the moment they walked on stage, let alone played a note, they commanded and demanded your attention. Following The Horrors, it was like seing the amateurs being replaced by the professionals as M83 put on a showcase spectacular of how to perform live. From the conviction of the two lead singers, to the energy of the performers, the amped up nature of the crowd, this was a show to remember from the start and will not soon be forgotten by the Nevstar. For the first time all day, you felt the beat rather than heard it. You were part of the show rather than merely watching. M83 elevated you to that magical concert netherworld where the music is a mere backdrop to the outer body experience of simultaneously being right there and up in the sky.
The music of M83, on record, is pretty standard dance music fare. It has pop sensibilities and derives much of its charm from repeated loops of catchy codas and riffs. But exposure to a couple of their albums did nothing to prepare me for seeing them live. What a show. It was exhausting yet exhilarating, tiring yet tremendous. They tried to slow down the crowd at one point to play one of their slow songs, and even that ended up being a cathartic anthem which everyone sang along to. And it worked perfectly too as you need to be low before they can take you higher. The final track they played was their monster single Midnight City which was absolutely outstanding and had the entire crowd transfigured into an amorphous mass of dancing humanity.
The age of the digital music is seeing record companies die and much wailing from the entrenched interests that there will soon not be a recorded music industry. C'est la vie. To me, music is about seeing great bands perform great deeds on great stages. Music is not to be merely listened to, it is to be experienced. Playing it on your iPod merely reminds you of the time you saw the band live and were at one with them. Music is not dying, music is thriving. You absolutely cannot, nor ever will, be able to pirate a concert experience. Bands that can perform live are drawing ever greater crowds because the record buying public are after experiences, not digital files. What we are losing, in reality, are the soporific pre-packaged pop acts who cant sing but have a great marketing department. Good riddance. The future (just like the past) belongs to those musicians who not merely play their music to you, but giving you a memory that lasts a lifetime. M83 is such a band. Go and see them as soon as you can. I’m still shaking as I write this recalling it.
And that was it for me. Gotye were the last band on stage but I decided that it is always best to leave on a high. Why M83 weren’t the last act was one final question for the organisers (along with exactly how many beer outlets are needed for 6,500 thirsty concert-goers? Answer; a phuqen lot more than you had!).
So that was my Laneway experience. In total I saw exactly half of the 22 bands on offer. Of the bands I missed, Anna Calvi and Twin Shadow were reportedly the best and warrant further investigation. Overall, Laneway was a pretty good day out. As above, I perhaps regret focusing most of my attention on bands I already knew but that is a lesson learned. The new venue had its issues (long beer queues, insufficient grass/shade and a second stage area that was far too small), but overall it delivered what it promised. We saw a wide range of sparkling musical talent perform their deeds live on stage which makes Laneway each year a day to be savoured. I’m already looking forward to next years and so should you.
If you were also at Laneway, leave a comment detailing some of your experiences particularly the bands you thought made the most impression on you.
Until next month.