Live Review: St Jerome's Laneway Festival

8 February 2016 | 12:48 pm | Roshan Clerke

"After all the talent we've seen in the last hour, Sydney-sider Harley Streten is a lacklustre headliner..."

More The Goon Sax More The Goon Sax

Laneway is still one of the most organised festivals in the country. The entry lines are almost nonexistent, sunscreen is readily available, and programs for the day are provided for free. Even the police seem relatively friendly. These may seem like little things, but they're the small considerations that other festivals persistently ignore at their own peril. They've even thoughtfully opened the doors to the air-conditioned convention centre foyer next to the Mistletone Stage this year, providing a welcome shelter from the confusing combination of sunlight and rain that we're currently experiencing.

It's here that we find local three-piece The Goon Sax serenading the early birds with their easy-going rock'n'roll. They're familiar in the best sense of the word, still finding ways to do new things with the same four chords. "I can't compete with you," Louis Forster sings while strumming his acoustic guitar, looking every bit as sensible and refined as his father in a dark turtleneck. Riley Jones adds harmonies from behind the drum kit during Boyfriend, and bass player James Harrison giggles as he sings about eating ice cream alone in his bedroom. They finish on an equally sentimental note, with Harrison singing, "I don't care about much, but one of the things I care about is you," during Sometimes Accidentally.

Over at the Future Classic Stage, things couldn't look more different. Melbourne artist Banoffee's playing time has thankfully been pushed back after the cancelling of Silicon's appearance at the festival, meaning we have the opportunity to witness her set in its fullness. She begins by paying her respects to the past, present, and future Indigenous owners of the land, looking like a narcoleptic space traveller in a cumbersome white outfit. She's brought her housemate and collaborator Oscar Key Sung along with her on this festival circuit, keeping her music in time while she murmurs and croons to the futuristic sounds. It's an uphill battle for this genre in the morning, although a mid-set duet with Key Sung for his own upbeat Brush well and truly establishes a dancing atmosphere for the rest of her performance as she finishes with Let's Go To The Beach, Ninja and With Her.

The main stage has been once again been split into two this year, and Brisbane four-piece Blank Realm aren't wasting any time. "I've got no views on it, it's just something that I do," Daniel Spencer joyfully spits, the full-bodied band flying around the stage in front of his drum kit. While we don't hear any songs from his sister Sarah Spencer, she adds harmonies on River Of Longing, Reach You On The Phone, and Palace Of Love, jamming out on her white keytar like it's nobody's business. They swap places for Dream Date, as Spencer takes some time to exercise his frontman moves. It's hard to believe that so much noise can be coming from the band; you've seen this line-up before, but have never heard the kind of sounds guitarist Luke Walsh is coaxing from his instrument during Falling Down The Stairs

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

We don't have to shuffle far to the right for a good view of the controversially-named Good, Better, Best Stage where Canadian duo Majical Cloudz have taken to the stage with their simple black and white aesthetic. Singer Devon Welsh looks wide-eyed and terrified as he nervously greets the crowd, moving the microphone stand to the side of the stage. There's nothing between us and him as he sings, "If this song is the last thing I do, I feel so good that I sang it," on This Is Magic with his eyes clenched shut. It's the closet we get to hearing Downtown, as the pair perform Are You Alone and Silver Car Crash from their recent album. Childhood's End, Savage, I Do Sing For You, and Bugs Don't Buzz make for heartbreaking selections from their debut album, before they finish with the haunting Silver Rings as hordes of emotionally-suppressed festival-goers push and shove their way through the crowd in anticipation for the next set.

If their music alone wasn't enough of a deterrent, the torrent of badly-dressed crowd members getting ready for obnoxious Sydney band DMA's is great motivation to head back over to the other side of the festival. They're probably nice guys when you get to know them, but their arrogant British persona is too much this afternoon. Thankfully, Toronto punk rockers Metz are the perfect outlet for all those pent up feelings of rage and insecurity, as the three-piece storm through Headache and Spit You Out like it's their last moments. Sweat pours from lead singer Alex Edkins' face, dripping down the thin grey strings of his guitar as he shreds along to the bass line from Chris Slorach during the opening to The Swimmer, before the riff-heavy Knife In The Water, Acetate and Kicking A Can Of Worms leave us feeling cleansed of all the bad feelings we arrived with.

However, Sydney garage rock band Royal Headache aren't done with exploiting the bad feelings, as energetic frontman Shogun ricochets between stories of love and loss back at the main stage. The four-piece are reaching across their two excellent albums for the track list, playing High, Carolina, Garbage, and Another World, from their recent record, and Really In Love, Psychotic Episode, and Girls from their brilliant debut. New song Strange Old Man features an instrumental break, and is the first respite from Shogun's distinctive singing. His shirt's off within the first three songs, and he's urging the band to play faster still as we head over the Future Classic tent to check in with another up and coming act.

American artist Shamir and his five-piece band are bathed in primary colours beneath the blue tent canopy. There's almost a Boiler Room feeling to the space as his drummer plays the live cowbell parts during On The Regular. The falsetto prince introduces Hot Mess as his unofficial autobiography, and by this stage not even the bass player's fedora can distract the crowd from busting out their sincerest dance moves. Older songs Demon and Sometimes A Man bring us into ballad territory as he sings, "If I'm the demon, baby, you're the beast that made me," before we find him once again relishing in his sassy revenge anthems."This time it's not my fault," he sings gleefully on Call It Off, before band finish with the euphoric Head In The Clouds.

Fellow American musician Thundercat's music requires a more grounded headspace to appreciate, as the bassist runs his fingers up and down the neck of his six-string instrument at lighting speed. He's accompanied by a drummer and keyboard player, whose musical interactions with each other seem to be taking place in another dimension. Lone Wolf And Cub is an early delight from his recent Where The Giants Roam album, while Tron Song from his Apocalypse album is a cosmic throwback. However, there's not much time to hang around for fans of Australian music, as the main stage is about to see a very special premiere.

Melbourne duo Big Scary are performing as a five-piece tonight, with a percussionist, bassist and saxophonist dressed in a rough appropriation of stage blacks standing behind Tom Iansek and Joanna Syme. The group open with Invest and Luck Now from their critically-acclaimed second album, sounding tight and looking genuinely excited to playing to large crowds once again. "Your life was new but you waited far too long," Iansek sings, as we're reminded what an enduring testament to the pair's music it is that he can skip between multiple projects and still return to any of them to perform for eager audiences. New songs feature plenty of saxophone, with one in particular even melding the instrument's sonorous sounds with a whistling melody. Slinky guitar grooves and angular rhythms recall early work from Talking Heads, before the band finish with a satisfying sequence of Gladiator, Twin Rivers and Belgian Blues.

The Smith Street Band have amassed a large crowd under the heavy clouds looming above the Mistletone Stage, the first drops of raining falling as Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Wanna Have Fun plays over the speakers. It's straight into the the band's cathartic brand of rock'n'roll from here, as the band pick up their instruments and launch straight into a fervent selection of live favourites, including I Don't Wanna Die Anymore, I Can't Feel My Face, Sunshine And Technology, Don't Fuck With Our Dreams, and Ducks Fly Together. "I'm not from around here, so I think with my mouth," Wil Wagner sings on the opening lines of Surrender, although he's made to feel more than welcome by the sweaty crowd as they shout his suburban poetry back at him at the top of their lungs. The band only grow louder and more desperate with each song, as they play It's Alright, I Understand, and I Love Life from their recent album, before finally railing against the indistinguishable red-brick fences of the world during Young Drunk.

Blue Mountains production duo Hermitude are fast becoming festival favourites, although it's not clear that Laneway is the type of festival that they're steering their image towards. There's more smoke, lights, and special effects than we've seen all day, as the two throw out clichéd ad-libs left, right and centre. Nonetheless, there's a well-structured arc to their set as they kick off with Hijinx and Ukiyo from their recent Dark Night Sweet Light album. The Lion Sleeps Tonight gets a brief look in before the HyperParadise drop hits, the crowd going wild with excitement. "Never have to worry," seems to be their philosophy as singles Speak Of The Devil and Searchlight follow soon afterwards.

Worry and concentration are however the key to Battles' music, as the American three-piece experimental rock group spend fierce amounts of energy locking into each other's mechanical grooves. Ice Cream is a scintillating opener from the band's Gloss Drop album, before Tyne Wear and Summer Simmer from their recent record have drummer John Stanier working overtime. There's a small crowd of musicians watching them from side of stage, equally as in awe as the rest of us as guitarist Ian Williams synchronises his guitar playing in time with his own delay. There's a sense of kinaesthesia about their whole performance, with Atlas from the band's Mirrored album making for an incredible and invigorating experience.

Local four-piece Violent Soho have been growing their audience with relentless festival appearances over the last few years, and it's made them a sight to behold. The whole undercover area in front of the main stage is packed full of fans, singing along to their new single Like Soda like it's been around for years. The latent aggression in lines like, "I don't mind, I don't care," finds the perfect outlet in their fiery riffs, the crowd moving as one long-haired mass. Saramona Said, Fur Eyes, and Covered In Chrome from the band's third album is as climatic as you would expect, making it almost too easy to miss a performance from one of last year's most acclaimed hip hop artists.

Californian rapper Vince Staples looks incredibly young but sounds experienced beyond belief as he delivers songs from his debut Summertime '06 album to a medium-sized gathering of listeners at the Future Classic Stage. There's none of the usual hip hop tropes regarding crowd interaction, as his sidekick Westside Ty keeps the beats coming steady while Staples takes us through his gritty childhood tales during Hang N' Bang, Birds & Bees and 3230. It's utterly enthralling for his fans, but probably remains at a distance for stray punters due to his laid-back and occasionally indecipherable performance.

Meanwhile, Canadian artist Grimes is attracting a growing number of bodies as she launches into the opening strains of Flesh Without Blood, playing the riff on a red cordless guitar while two dancers work tirelessly around her. She's brought Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist and singer HANA for the tour, who contributes backup vocals throughout the bouncing Realiti. Genesis sees the dancers twirling streamers through the air and receives some pre-recorded glockenspiel embellishments as Claire Boucher multi-tasks playing the synthesised harp melody, singing and fist-pumping. "There is harmony in everything," she sings on Butterfly, before launching into the rap verses of Scream and the fast-paced Venus Fly. She's out of breath between songs, puffing as she introduces a new version of her older track Be A Body, dancing every spare second. Go, Oblivion and Kill V Maim round out the spectacular performance, leaving us grasping at overused adjectives to describe what we just experienced.

One of the first things Lauren Mayberry from Scottish electronic band Chvrches comments on when she takes to the stage is how ridiculous following Grimes seems. Nonetheless, Mayberry and her two instrumentalists begin with Never Ending Circles, We Sink, Keep You On My Side, before hitting their mid-set peak with Empty Threat and Gun. "Did it make you feel so clever?" Mayberry sings in her idiosyncratic style, while Iain Cook and Martin Doherty bring the music to life. Doherty swaps places with Mayberry for one song, twisting and writhing his body to wring the most out of every phrase, but Chvrches has always been a one-woman show. Thankfully, Mayberry returns to the microphone to bring things home with a killer final sequence of songs, as she and the band power through Recover, Leave A Trace, Clearest Blue and The Mother We Share.

Rounding off the trilogy of great electronic acts on the line-up this evening, Canadian duo Purity Ring seem like they're in another world as they open with Stranger Than Earth. Producer Corin Roddick runs things from behind a forest of fairy lights, as he plays his custom tree-shaped instruments to drive both the sound and lighting. Megan James sashays around in front of him in the meantime, clad in a white shroud. "Hope it isn't repetition, though that's the only thing that keeps and takes you," she sings, the crowd wrapped around her little finger. Their set is jam packed with new songs, as Push Pull, Bodyache, Dust Hymn, and Heartsigh from their Another Eternity album are all played in full. The anatomically-themed Fineshrine is a treasured moment from the band's debut before they finish with the anthemic Begin Again, ending a spectacularly executed set. 

There's no real reason why Flume is finishing the night other than to coincide with festival-goers' highs. After all the talent we've seen in the last hour, Sydney-sider Harley Streten is a lacklustre headliner who has had the honour of closing the otherwise exciting festival bestowed upon him for no reasons other than the two facts that he is Australian and makes dance music that's simple enough to appreciate in semi-lucid states. On a more positive note, Streten is a marginally better performer than he was a few years ago. He's stopped relying on a hype-man or gimmicky infinity prism to engage his audience, acknowledges them occasionally (although with some uncomfortable hand-clapping interactions), and seems to be putting effort into mixing his songs live. Holdin' On, Sleepless and On Top are early crowd pleasers, before some new material fills the tent. Insane and Smoke & Retribution get a look in with some live vocals from Perth singer Kucka before he strays from original material with his remixes of Lorde, Rustie and Hermitude. It's another pleasant surprise when he brings out Canadian singer Kai for recent single Never Be Like You, with guest singers proving to be a step in the right direction for the fledgling producer. He inexplicably finishes the set with his remix of Disclosure's You & Me, hardly a strong closing statement from an artist with almost two albums behind him. With this small disappointment aside, it's been another great experience at Laneway Festival this year, and the future seems bright for the next incarnations of the event.