Man, it’s a hot one. In classic Melbourne summer festival fashion, Saturday February 11 is one of the warmest days of the year, with no cloud cover in sight.
It’s been three years since the last edition, and alas, St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival no longer takes place in anything resembling a laneway. Flemington Racecourse and its manicured lawns have less charm, but also less concrete – and more importantly, can accommodate what will become over 30,000 punters throughout the day. With a mix of beloved local and international acts, from indie rock and punk to dance and hyperpop, there’s truly something for everyone – yet the festival’s alternative, underdog identity still feels intact.
When NME arrives, seven inches from the midday sun, the vibe is very laid-back. The Beths and their melodic, affable indie rock are an ideal soundtrack to a sunny afternoon. Even as the band speeds up around her, frontwoman Elizabeth Stokes doesn’t break a sweat. Julia Jacklin follows, with a set on the opposite end of the indie spectrum; her country-tinged torch songs draw you in with her powerful, yet soothing wail.
Whether an intentional booking choice or not, that sense of odd juxtaposition recurs throughout the day’s 11 hours of music. The decision to put Sycco on the main stage, though she doesn’t even have debut album out, is an inspired one. The 21-year-old Brisbane singer’s brand of pop/R&B with hip-hop attitude is perfect for the setting, and she has the crowd in the palm of her hand regardless of whether they know her songs. She’ll no doubt be a mainstay of festivals for years to come.
Mallrat, though, feels almost like an accidental popstar. Last year’s ‘Butterfly Blue’ album showcased impeccable pop songwriting, but the hooks and her Auto-Tune-tinged vocals get lost in translation on a bigger stage. She’s clearly stoked to be there, but her extremely chilled-out energy doesn’t seem to convert anyone who’s not already a diehard.
By mid-afternoon, the crowd begins to swell as the line-up shifts from Australian to international acts. FINNEAS and Girl in Red make quite the double-bill of romantic singer-songwriters; the consummate gentleman versus the anxious lesbian. There’s nothing flashy about FINNEAS’ songs, but as he ends his set with ‘Let’s Fall in Love for the Night’, standing on the riser as as if he’s about to give a public proposal, it’s hard not to be charmed. The same goes for Girl in Red, who delivers one of the hardest-rocking sets so far – kicking down the notion that “sapphic pop” has to be soft, overly sensitive, or that it lacks broader appeal.
Back in the shade of the dance-music tent, it doesn’t get much weirder or queerer than 100 gecs. From a distance, their entire schtick seems like a pisstake – like blink-182 filtered through Auto-Tune, Eurodance, and two decades of internet-poisoned irony. But for the believers, gecs are truly sincere – there’s an almost childlike wonder to the zig-zags of their chaotic pop. “I got my tooth removed and I don’t wanna talk about it!” goes a ska-crazed highlight from their upcoming album.
Almost as absurd is a claim that NME hears through a series of whispers – that an unnamed industry figure has been comparing Fred again..’s current Australian tour to that of Nirvana’s in 1992. OK… but hyperbole aside, the British DJ and producer really does have the potential to be the biggest electronic crossover act in years.
However, he makes music for midnight-comedown confessions, and it feels off that he’s playing while the sun is still up. The subtleties of his softer songs get lost in the setting, but the bigger hits – especially ‘Rumble’ and ‘Delilah (pull me out of this)’ – get some of the most enraptured responses of the entire night. The next time he tours, he’ll be too big for anywhere but the headlining slot.
As the sun begins to set and the Fred devotees migrate away, Phoebe Bridgers takes the stage. It’s rare that an indie-folk singer-songwriter can draw such a huge festival crowd, but whether she’s crooning solo or delivering ‘Kyoto’ with her band, her set is utterly breathtaking from start to finish. Her songs are both contemplative and expansive, making space for our own feelings – and as you scan the crowd, people are having their own little emotional releases throughout. ‘I Know the End’ hits just as dusk falls; that perfect moment will stay with us for a long time.
You’d expect Joji’s music to have a similar emotional pull – and yet, his set is very, very strange. Both he and his hype man not only do lewd Filthy Frank-style bits between songs, they continually interject during them. Believe it or not, his tender, ARIA chart-topping piano ballad ‘Glimpse of Us’ is not improved by him yelling “MELBOURNE!” throughout. It suggests a lingering, macho insecurity around his sensitive music, despite having long since transitioned from YouTube prankster into a credible R&B crooner. Joji’s talent would speak for itself, if only he’d let it.
Closing out the side stage, Turnstile play to the crowd the right way. The American five-piece make hardcore punk fun, and inclusive, in a way that no other band has quite nailed before. Singer Brendan Yates even does Freddie Mercury’s iconic “a-yo!” call and response with the crowd – and it actually works. It feels like they’re on top of the world – and there’s nothing they can’t do in their music.
Finally, HAIM bring things full circle on the main stage. They’ve gotten wittier, looser, and funkier since they first graced Laneway in 2014, but are still the family band we know and love. Their earlier pop hits, ‘Forever’ and ‘The Wire,’ get the biggest response, but you can tell they’re having the most fun jamming and swapping instruments on their newer songs.
As the punters leave and crowd into the trains home, it feels like a blessing to be this exhausted by live music again. Laneway has outgrown its humble origins and outlasted its predecessors to become one of Australia’s largest city-based festivals – but when it’s this well-curated, who can complain?