Live Review: St Jerome's Laneway Festival

3 February 2020 | 1:57 pm | Mick Radojkovic

"[W]ith steam starting to rise from the sea of people, Australia’s next big thing took to the stage."

St Jerome's Laneway Festival @The Domain. Photo by Simone Fisher.

St Jerome's Laneway Festival @The Domain. Photo by Simone Fisher.

There were a number of firsts at the 2020 Sydney edition of St Jerome's Laneway Festival. Firstly, having moved to The Domain, gone are the pokey back stages (with bad acoustics) and hectic bottlenecks of the well-loved, but outgrown, Sydney College Of The Arts. Also, with the age restriction dropping to be 16+, how would the vibe of the much-loved alternative festival change? Oh, and phone reception that works after 2pm is a bloody good first as well.

The first thing we noticed on entry are the two main stages. If you’ve been to any concert at The Domain, they’ll look familiar, particularly if you remember the Homebake years. The other two stages were cleverly placed under the trees on either side of the main arena. Well designed and, as we would discover later, ingenious for shade and cover.

100 are a band that deserve your early arrival at a festival. The triple j Unearthed winners started the day on the Garden Stage and had heads bopping casually along with their Aussie-infused post-punk drawl. It's always exciting to see a band opening a festival knowing that next time they'll be much further up the bill. Colby McQueen's bass drove the band as the guitarists danced over the top and Rowen Tucker cut through with his scathing vocals. The melody ranged from psych to alt-country and everything in between. One to watch – get in early.

100 @ St Jerome's Laneway Festival. Photo by Simone Fisher.

KUČKA's vibe encouraged early arrivals to look for shade to chill out in. Playing a mix of old tunes and a couple of new tracks, her voice was a good tonic after a big night - smooth and crisp above glitchy and woozy production. Her collab tracks, Walk With Me (Cosmo's Midnight) and Voices (Flume), brought out a bunch of dance moves in the crowd before she finished with the dark and swoony Drowning

KUČKA @ St Jerome's Laneway Festival. Photo by Simone Fisher.

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The speedy upward trajectory of Spacey Jane was put to the test in an early Laneway set. The crowd flooded in, particularly the now-permitted underage set, and it was immediately obvious that the younger crowd meant a larger early festival presence. The four-piece from Fremantle seemed ecstatic to be there and made the most of it, belting out their tracks to a bouncing crowd, particularly Feeding The Family and Good Grief, which both received a big pop, with many a crowd member singing along. 

Spacey Jane @ St Jerome's Laneway Festival. Photo by Simone Fisher.

The Lazy Eyes were supposed to play at the Future Classic Stage early, but if you had turned up on the time you would have missed them. The 1975 had to cancel in Brisbane due to illness there's been some schedule shifts in case they couldn't make it today either. This caused more than a few headaches throughout the day.

The Lazy Eyes @ St Jerome's Laneway Festival. Photo by Simone Fisher.

It was ok though, because it meant you could catch Pist Idiots instead. Our disappointment was quickly appeased by the attention-grabbing Western Sydney group. Their raucous, melodic suburban rock - including the very singable 99 Bottles - had the crowd in raptures, with a lot of very sweaty people spotted in the band's signature yellow Ts.

As we walked past the Park Stage, something strange was happening. A guy with a bowl cut was singing some a weird mix of rock, ska and electronic music with a massive crowd in attendance. He was encouraging a lot of arm-waving and inspiring huge roars. It turns out that Oliver Tree is more than just a meme - and despite a huge amount of people having no idea who he was, his set was one of the most buzzed on the day.

Then it was over to Alley Stage to catch JessB. The Auckland artist brought some desperately lacking hip hop to Laneway. Energetic on stage with solid beats and a live drummer, Jess Bourke had no trouble getting the smallish crowd moving. Some new tracks gave us a hint of exciting things to come in 2020.

JessB @ St Jerome's Laneway Festival. Photo by Simone Fisher.

The sheer joy of BENEE’s music and her electric stage presence are infectious. She spins around the stage like a top and smiles with such positivity that even when she's singing songs like Supalonely, you can’t help but smile back. Hugely popular track Soaked was a massive highlight, everyone belting out the lyrics. It was also, as it turned out, a sign of things to come.

BENEE @ St Jerome's Laneway Festival. Photo by Simone Fisher.

A schedule change saw The Chats perform earlier than planned at the Future Classic Stage. It seemed that enough people got the memo, even though the app hadn't updated on everyone's phones. They were in fine form, killing it throughout with short, punchy songs and ripping out hilarious yarns in between tracks. Meanwhile, a couple of punters, ignoring the 'climbers will be evicted' signs, started scaling the sizeable tree in front of the stage. At the same time, Crocodylus jumped up for an impromptu Chats cover and all hell broke loose, The Chats stage diving to their own song. It was mayhem. "Let him live!" screamed The Chats frontman Eamon Sandwith as a tree climber was hauled away by the police and the crowd booed. "Sorry about all the blood," he cheekily declared as they dove into Pub Feed and the joyous crowd screamed along.

The Chats @ St Jerome's Laneway Festival. Photo by Simone Fisher.

A sizeable crowd flowed into the main stage area for Tones & I and it was a slow-burner of a set. There was a mix of known, new, and different, but not everyone was patient, hanging for the big hits. Her version of Flume and Nick Murphy’s Drop The Game transformed it into a slow groove. It's a great homage, but still we were teased. Between songs, Toni Watson was chatty, discussing her inspiration behind songs, including a Beverly Hills party that prompted her to write new track, You're So Fucking Cool. Her Like A Version of Forever Young prompted a massive singalong. And then, the moment arrived. People flooded in from all corners of the site as the opening keys of Dance Monkey echoed around The Domain. Three minutes of communal ecstasy followed. Watching so many people synchronise to one song was quite the occasion.

Tones & I @ St Jerome's Laneway Festival. Photo by Simone Fisher.

Somehow more people appeared for the next main stage act, Hockey Dad. The Windang duo added a live bassist and were on form, playing through a mix of hits from their 2018 album, Blend Inn, as well as older material, before hinting at newer stuff to come this year. "This is really one of the biggest crowds we've ever fucking played to!" admitted guitarist and singer Zach Stephenson before I Wanna Be Everybody. Finishing off with recent Hottest 100 entry I Missed Out, Homely Feeling and Seaweed, their set was solid, tight and a whole lot of fun.

Hockey Dad @ St Jerome's Laneway Festival. Photo by Simone Fisher.

Local favourites DMA'S are no strangers to big festival crowds and there was no break in their permanent chill when the Sydney trio took the Park Stage as a live six-piece. They bypassed the banter to simply play their catalogue of hits. Even when playing new track Life Is A Game Of Changing, there was no fanfare, just the kick-drum leading into a slightly poppier-than-usual track. Delete remained a unifying and beautiful song.

DMA'S @ St Jerome's Laneway Festival. Photo by Simone Fisher.

And then the rain came. It wasn’t just a shower, it was a full-blown downpour and people started scrambling for cover. It was hard to complain when we’ve been begging for rain for so long, but did it have to arrive just as Ruel was about to start? On the Garden Stage, with steam starting to rise from the sea of people, Australia’s next big thing took to the stage.

Even in the pouring rain, the crowd up front weren't going anywhere. Ruel continued with his full band, and an impressive visual backdrop, to deliver his dynamic brand of pop. Another artist to recently collab with Cosmo's Midnight, we were treated to Ruel's the very fresh Down For You - it was only days old but the punters already knew the lyrics. Painkiller, recently voted at #22 in the Hottest 100, had the crowd's arms in the air. His voice was clear and strong, his crowd work mature and skilled; he's an artist with a huge future ahead of him.

Ruel @ St Jerome's Laneway Festival. Photo by Simone Fisher.

A quick scramble over to the Future Classic Stage was well worth the muddy shoes as the smooth, velvety voice of Mahalia warmed the soggy crowd. Slick dancing in the crowd and a band that oozed soul made us forget we were wet and dirty. What You Did's bass-heavy track gave Mahalia the chance to flit gracefully over the top with her astounding voice. Though the set was shortened by the weather, she declared that she'd be back real soon. We can only hope.

As the rain returned in full force, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard dove into their set. Suitably the crowd formed circle pits in front of the stage for their newer, metal-heavy material - protective sheets on the ground prevented anyone disappearing into the mud. Their psych-rock was the perfect accompaniment to the rain and when lightning flashed during Gamma Knife, it felt like a set directed by the Almighty.

There was a very different vibe over at the Alley Stage with Stella Donnelly. The amiable singer-songwriter's set was an antidote if your day hadn't been going too well. We danced, smiled and appreciated the good things about the deluge, like putting fires out. The coordinated dance moves in Die were so sweet, we forgot all about our saturated feet.

The last-minute addition of Cub Sport in case The 1975 hadn't played resulted in a lot of angst caused by the revised set times at the Future Classic Stage. Those that made their set, however, were treated to another surprise with Mallrat joining them for their song Video

The rain had further delayed things at the Future Classic Stage, such that JID came out a quarter of an hour late, but it also meant that, by then, the rain had slowed up for a minute to give the American rapper a decent and semi-dry crowd. He kicked in with an oldie, Never. He then jumped quickly into EdEddnEddy and the bounce was off the charts. His style meant that things didn't stop, rolling from track to track at pace before it was time to squelch back to the main stage for one of the big headliners, Charli XCX.

The exclusive appearance of the superstar Charli XCX was enough to keep excited people waiting at the stage and she didn't disappoint with an early hit, albeit one written for another group, Icona Pop's I Love It. Spicy, her cover of Spice Girls' Wannabe with Diplo and Herve Pagez, was treated to a remix and ran straight into her huge hit, Boys. The crowd was enthralled by Charli XCX's moves and light display, screaming out lyrics and generally grooving, but the repetitive nature of Blame It On Your Love meant it was a good time to head over to a side-stage to see rising star Kaiit. 

The Alley Stage held a small but dedicated group ready to hear Kaiit's epic voice. Starting with Natural Woman, she brought the soulful groove straight away. Unreleased track 'Lemonade' was a hell of a jam and something to anticipate this year. It was a joyful way to wind down after a hectic day and the small stage was just the right size, tucked away in the trees away from the main stage.

Passing The 1975 on the way back to the Future Classic Stage was not hugely inspiring, but it was definitely during one of their quieter songs. They’d get another chance later. First, it was Earl Sweatshirt time - but the mood was decidedly downbeat there as well. Had the rain dampened everyone's spirits that much? The Mint brought the crowd to voice and Sweatshirt called for more during Grief, but asked that we skip the N-word when we sang it: "It's the challenge of the night!" The crowd must have listened because they behaved and sang the track well, prompting him to grin and say, "You did it. I didn't think you’d get through it. Make some noise for discipline and self-control!"

His raps were clear and he riffed with ease over the jazzy and funk-infused beats. It was a seemingly loose performance, but he was relaxed and enjoying himself. The tight crowd were soaking it up, obviously not wet enough yet!

The 1975 continued with their somewhat low-key set, perhaps because of lead singer Matt Healy’s illness, but the crowd were singing along passionately to I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes). Their self-titled track, featuring audio of Greta Thunberg, sparked a comforting cheer, but as the rain continued to fall, it felt like a good time to make for the exit, despite the likelihood that the band would click into another gear for the second half of their set.

The festival, having made the transition to a new, bigger site, didn’t quite reach the heights that it has in the past as far as line-ups go, but they have ensured their future with a successful event, despite the bad weather. 

The underage crowd meant that licensed areas were split from the main thoroughfare so you couldn’t carry a drink to the front of the stage, which is an unfortunate by-product. However, the change meant that a whole new crowd would get to experience the stellar Laneway Festival experience. 

It may not have felt like the Laneway of old, but everything changes and there were plenty of positives to take away. Food options were plentiful, drink queues were decent (toilet queues were not) and the audio quality was solid, although maybe a little on the soft side. The placement of the stages was great and utilising natural shade was an unexpected bonus.

It’s not easy to maintain your place in the hierarchy of the Australian festival calendar, but Laneway has proven that you can change it up and still stay on top of your game.