I’ve recently come to realise that my taste in live music is closely aligned to my taste in cuisines. You see, when it comes to a meal out, I’d much prefer a feast with friends at an Indian restaurant or a tapas spread at a Spanish joint – or if I’m feeling lavish, a degustation – to one great main meal and maybe an entrée. If I’m going to eat out, I want to get to try a bit of everything, to briefly pretend I’m a feudal lord gorging on every dish possible (as opposed to, say, a really fantastic steak).
This might explain my preference for music festivals over a traditional single-headliner-and-couple-supports concert. While the latter might allow a band or artist to really get into their deep cuts and even create an emotional narrative over the night, I find myself drawn to music festivals where I can – much like a ten-course degustation – sample a range of flavours. Of course a great degustation is as much about the composition of the menu as the talents of the chef, and many music festivals nowadays aren’t especially creative in this regard, pairing a few traditional dishes (bands with huge fan bases, in case my overstretching of the metaphor is confusing) with some cheap off-cut options.
Not so St Jerome’s Laneway Festival who, over the last decade, have consistently delivered innovative, imaginative line-ups. Laneway’s programmers are masters at identifying the best seasonal ingredients, selecting bands right on the cusp of a popular explosion (Tame Impala in 2009, Florence and the Machine and Mumford & Sons in 2010, Alt-J and Chet Faker in 2013). Perhaps more importantly, they focus on overall quality over a couple flashy headliners; this year’s slate is deep, featuring FKA Twigs, St Vincent, Courtney Barnett, Future Islands, Royal Blood and, honestly, enough great bands to fill two days of live music. Yes, there’s no big draw card, per se, but again I’d argue that festivals are best calibrated for tasting a bit of everything – those big dishes can be saved for single shows.
The 2015 Brisbane Laneway gig earned my respect months before it began, thanks to: (a) its aforementioned impressive line-up, and (b) the fact that they didn’t saddle Brisbane with a Friday show again – a frustrating decision for those in careers that lack flexible annual leave. The Saturday scheduling allowed me and my wife to turn up in the middle of the day ready to dig in rather than arriving mid-afternoon when so much of the buffet has already been emptied.
The festival began with a selection of aperitifs. Perfect Pussy well and truly cleansed the palette with their committed, volcanic performance in the harsh sunlight bearing down on the Mistletone stage; shortly afterwards, at the main stage, Eagulls provided a more robust taste, a traditional take on ‘70s post-punk that was engaging if derivative. The distance between the bands was further than I’ve become accustomed to at Laneway, but thankfully easy to traverse. While the festival has shifted far enough into the RNA Showgrounds that its name is now entirely inaccurate, It may have lost an element of charm in its migration, but with the larger area allowing for easier movement, I wasn’t complaining.
The afternoon continued with a selection of Raury – who were practically a degustation in of themselves, opening with a raucous rock tune before experimenting with an energizing mix of genres, from funk to pop and pretty much everything else besides. Sohn delivered a forgettable array of indie electro (seriously, I’ve forgotten it completely and it was only yesterday), but it was Adelaide dynamo Tkay Maidza – a teenager fresh off performing at Triple J’s Beat the Drum celebration in Sydney – who provided the real entrée to the festival.
Maidza was a late addition to the festival, replacing Lykke Li, but if she was nervous about stepping in she sure didn’t show it. Her set of high-octane hip-hop was executed with a bounding, boundless energy. She didn’t have much of a stage show – just herself, clad in what appeared to be an oversized white T-shirt, plus her DJ – and only three singles to her name… but her energy was infectious, and I soon found myself dancing around like a madman (or a brontosaurus, perhaps) to her engaging performance. It was good enough that I immediately made a bee-line to the merch tent, picking up her T-shirt to serve as a memento of a memorable show.
Her inheritor to the main stage, Andy Bull, proved somewhat of a disappointment. I’m quite enamoured of young Andy’s brand of sad-pop, but there was some kind of spark missing from his show that left me deflated after Tkay Maidza’s invigorating efforts (Full disclosure: I only half-heard his strongest song, “Baby I Am Nobody Now” from the bar line, but a set should not live or die on the strength of one track).
The trend of ladies impressing and dudes disappointing would continue throughout the day. I don’t mean to impugn the work of Benjamin Booker, who produced an entirely adequate set of alt-bluegrass rock, but I’m not going to hold back directing any scorn at Vic Mensa, who delivered easily the worst show of the day. I’m only familiar with the guy from the single “Down on My Luck”, which received pretty heavy rotation on 2014. The dismalness of Mensa’s performance was best encapsulated by his performance of that song, which followed an ill-advised and truncated “Seven Nation Army” cover. You see, the best thing about “Down on My Luck” is the breakneck vocal performance…so when Mensa simply played the vocals as a backing track intermittently interrupted by yelling out single lines, I couldn’t have been more disappointed.
The main courses of the evening kicked off as the sun began its descent around six pm. Clashes were inevitable with such a smorgasbord of options, but the first big decision was between Courtney Barnett, Royal Blood and Seekae. Having seen Barnett at Splendour in the Grass last year and not really in the mood for Royal Blood’s black-light hard rock, I elected for the Aussie indie electronica trio. Seekae delivered an entirely pleasant set – mixing their music live, which is always appreciated in the genre – which I enjoyed without it really knocking my socks off. It certainly impressed one young audience member towards the stage, who stripped off her top for the three Sydneysiders. I guess if you’re going to flash your boobs at a band, why not pick an outré choice like Seekae? The boys were either unimpressed or unaware, continuing to produce their beats like electronica automatons.
After swinging by to catch the end of Ms Barnett’s show – a rousing rendition of “Avant Gardner” and her new single “Pedestrian at Best” that skewed far closer to rock star than her charming, low-key vibe at Splendour – we made our way towards Pond (yes, at the expense of the inexplicably popular Mac DeMarco). It’s hard to talk about these Perth psych-rockers without mentioning Tame Impala, given they share a bunch of members, so here goes: I like Pond better than Tame Impala. Tame Impala’s EP Innerspeaker perfectly balanced psychedelia and guitar pop but their subsequent work has skewed too close to psych for my tastes; Pond, on the other hand, have an inviting mix of hard(ish) rock and psych that’s right up my alley. Their set – back at the Mistletone stage – was sparsely-attended and accompanied by the orange glow of the sunrise, which seemed entirely apropos.
We hung around the Mistletone stage to drink fruit slushies, inform randoms that Campbell Newman had just lost his seat to Kate Jones, and wait for Future Islands’ performance. Like Courtney Barnett, I’d seen the charismatic synth-rockers at Splendour in 2014, but I chose to see them again (over appetizing alternatives like Banks and Little Dragon) because they had been so good at Splendour. I regret that decision. It’s not they were bad or anything, but they lacked the incandescent energy that had lit up the stage last year (and lead singer Samuel T. Herring broke out his trademark metal voice way too few times for my liking). It was like returning to a restaurant and ordering your favourite dish; your expectations are so high that even a good meal is disappointing – even if the Seasoning (Waiting On You) is as good as ever.
After a couple palate-cleansing songs from Jungle (who were okay, I suppose), we were treated to the delightful delicacy that was St Vincent. I’m a very casual fan of St Vincent, if I’m being honest; I’m primarily familiar with her two latest albums (is it her? Or is St Vincent the name of the band, not Annie Lennox? You see what I mean about being a very casual fan?). I could only name a half-dozen of her songs of the top of her head. All of which meant I was the perfect audience for a concise but captivating assortment of her finest songs – “Rattlesnake”, “Cheerleader”, “Cruel” and “Birth in Reverse” – delivered with a wonderfully off-kilter aesthetic. Her band performance synchronised dance moves, somewhere between Madonna’s “Vogue” and Blue Man Group while her get-up brought to mind Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was fantastic, and left a dumb grin on my face.
Remember what I said about ladies impressing? That was certainly true of FKA Twigs, who dominated the main stage with a spare yet radiant stage show. In many ways, her performance resembled that of traditional female pop singers, but stripped back and refined. Silhouetted until a couple songs into the set, she stalked the stage like a lioness and contorted herself with serpentine, sinuous dance moves. Where so many female pop performances smack of supplication, FKA Twigs dominated with an intimidating physicality and flawless musicality. While I think Tkay Maidza remains my highlight of the festival proper, “Two Weeks” was probably the best song I saw on the day.
We finished the evening with a small taste of Flying Lotus’s show. His light show was undeniably impressive, a kaleidoscopic setpiece framing FlyLo between two transparent screens, with often only his illuminated goggles visible in a sea of psychedelic, fractal imagery. Hypnotic though it was, it became clear fairly quickly that, visualisation aside, it was mostly a press-play-on-the-next-track type deal. Having feasted ourselves on a delicious sampling of modern music, we left the festival satiated and satisfied; til next year.