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Live Review: Laneway Festival @ Sydney Showgrounds

6 February 2023 | 11:20 am | David James Young

After a long period of uncertainty surrounding Australian festivals' sustainability as a whole, Laneway feels hopeful.

Photo Credit: Peter Dovgan

Photo Credit: Peter Dovgan

More Tasman Keith More Tasman Keith

Striding out onto stage covered in white paint, donning a vest with CRB (Cemetery Road Bowraville) spray-painted on, this staunch and defiant image of Tasman Keith is what greets many early Laneway arrivals. It's a powerful tableau, accentuated even further by Keith's refusal to stay still – either on stage or within genre semantics. In the former department, Keith keeps the audience quite literally on its toes throughout, throwing in some of his own swivelling dance for good measure. In the latter, the multi-hyphenate showcases guttural rap, late-night rnb and technicolour pop within songs of one another. No matter which way he heads next, it's always worth keeping tabs on Keith's each and every move.

Elsewhere, UK post-punk debutantes Yard Act bring their sneering brand of Leeds cynicism to Australian audiences with pulsating energy and free-wheeling looseness. Though their heavily-hyped debut album The Overload hit shelves almost exactly a year prior, the band are still squeezing plenty of life out of it – see inspired takes on Dead Horse, Rich and its cage-rattling title track as proof. If that wasn't enough, the band also add an antipodean flavour to the middle of their set by letting loose an absolutely rip-snorting rendition of Eddy Current Suppression Ring's modern classic Which Way to Go. A set where the pros far, far outweigh the cons – mainly because the cons didn't bother showing.

Yard Act by Peter Dovgan

Auckland natives The Beths follow, who are in cheerful spirits despite the recent ravaging of their hometown through flash flooding. An intrinsic and ornate live outfit, the band match four-part harmonies with indie rock that happily verges on power-pop – largely coming down to a few chords and home truths, but never shying away from a shredding guitar solo care of Jonathan Pierce. Highlights from all three of their studio albums fly by in the 45-minute set, from the tender undercurrent swelling of Out Of Sight to the churning, explosive noise of Silence Is Golden. Pulling no punches and sparing no expense, The Beths are about as reliable a band as you could hope for.

By means of contrast, Julia Jacklin does not immediately get on the good foot. While the Blue Mountains dweller and her trusty backing band bring plenty of shine and soul, particularly when performing cuts from last year's Pre Pleasure like Lydia Wears A Cross, there are several instances throughout that have you pulling out the classic trope line: “It's quiet... too quiet”. While their heartfelt moments are indeed beautiful, they should ultimately be saved for headlining shows – here, they're talked over by punters who have lost interest. At least, there is a sensational one-two to close proceedings in the form of Body and Pressure To Party. It's a hell of a way to go out.

In 2019, girl in red made her Sydney debut with a packed, passionate show at The Lansdowne. She returns circa 2023 as an even bigger indie darling, taking to the main stage with confidence and the songs to back it up. Her queer-coded confessionals are pitch-perfect fodder for the post-Tumblr generation, with most of the front rows driving home this being a 16+ event rather than 18+. The audience howls along to Girls, Bad Idea and We Fell In Love In October, while said girl Marie Ringheim pays tribute to her home country's love of metal by initiating a wall of death during closer I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend. It feels like a true cult.

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“What can I see? Oh yeah! A bunch of cunts!” Ever the agent provocateur, slowthai wastes little time riling up his packed-out audience, who respond in kind by forming circle pits and moshing harder than most punk gigs. The UK rapper is gearing up to release his third studio album Ugly next month, but for now, he's just here to remind audiences of exactly who the fuck he is: He's hip-hop's Iggy Pop, all wiry frame and dangerous attitude, with a slathering of bravado dripping from every track. With his top-shelf Mura Masa collabs back-to-back – the snarling Deal Wiv It and Doorman – he's off in a blaze of dry ice. Can't quit him.

Slowthai by Peter Dovgan

As a man who's largely existed on phone screens and Spotify playlists over the last 18 months, lockdown saviour Fred again.. coming out on stage on the other side of the world is a joyous moment in and unto itself. It gets bigger, brighter and more beautiful from there – the beloved producer re-imagines his Actual Life trilogy with dazzling visuals and some deft finger-work on the GoPro'd MPC. With arguably the biggest audience of the entire day cheering him on, Fred then pulls off the ultimate miracle: Performing Madea (We've Lost Dancing) in front of a crowd that has euphorically found it once again. Beautiful, exploding festival perfection – easily the set of the day.

You've gotta imagine Laneway has at least some sense of humour: Immediately following this sweaty rave is Phoebe Bridgers. The comedown arrives quickly, with Bridgers' trembling emotive indie-rock seismically shifting the mood. Much like Jacklin earlier in the day, Bridgers and her impressive backing band play their set too close to a normal headliner, meaning many subtle touches are lost while anyone outside the immediate bubble of barricade-clinging obsessives looks for something to grab onto. To her credit, they get enough: The dazzling Scott Street, the trumpeting tragedy of Kyoto and an excellent top-and-tail in the form of opener Motion Sickness and perennial hellfire closer I Know The End. Right time? Unquestionably. Right place? Debatable.

Though most opt to stick around for a glimpse at honorary Aussie Joji, a devoted gathering are ready to finally see Fontaines D.C. in the flesh, three full years after they were supposed to play the festival. Though they're not the scrappy upstarts of Dogrel anymore, that also means they're a well-oiled precision machine after returning to the road throughout 2021 and 2022 – as exemplified by the thrashing Nabokov and the baggy bass chug of Televised Mind. Plus, they've still got that dogrel in them: Big is as urgent and violent as ever, while signature song Boys In The Better Land serves as a standout moment of the entire day. Long live Dublin's finest.

Fontaines D.C. by Peter Dovgan

That just leaves HAIM to see the day out. Let's be clear: If you're gonna finish on anything, it may as well be an hour of slick hits complete with choreography, sax solos, sing-alongs and enough additional toms to make it feel like the height of blog-era indie once again. The sisters' first-ever Australian tour was Laneway circa 2014, so it's a testament to their staying power that they're able to headline it nine years later. I Know Alone is a cracked, light-bearing joy, while the Lou Reed-borrowing Summer Girl brings the sunshine long after the actual one has set. Throw in a rowdy one-two of The Wire and The Steps, and those well-worn dancing feet can rest easy.

This feels like a new era for Sydney Laneway – not just on account of the unintended three-year hiatus since its last rainy expedition in The Domain. Its new home of Sydney Showgrounds provides both intimate close quarters and the grand scale of your usual outdoor festival, while the chance to be out of the sun for most of the day is enthusiastically welcomed – particularly on a sweltering 27-degree day. Slickly run, well executed and confidently putting its best foot forward after a long period of uncertainty surrounding Australian festivals' sustainability as a whole, Laneway feels hopeful. Not only can this be done, but it can also be done well – maybe even better than it's ever been. Watch this space.