It’s a tough one to nail down, is Laneway. St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival ’20, to give it its full, Sunday-best name, is more than just New Zealand’s leading music festival; it’s also, increasingly, just a fantastic day out, a relaxed, easy vibe—Albert Park, in central Auckland, is the perfect setting, Auckland Anniversary Day is reliably warm and sunny. And the music—the music covers some considerable ground, from the quite outstanding to the, to be frank, physically unpleasant.
The lesser-known acts kick off the day, but “lesser-known” needn’t equate to “less enjoyable.” Stella Donnelly, from Wales by way of Western Australia, was by far the most engaging personality on any of the four stages, grinning like she couldn’t quite believe how lucky she was to be playing Laneway. But her songs, barbed little slices of observation wrapped up in sweet, cheery melodies, suggest that she entirely deserved her place on the bill.
Perhaps the most egregious trousers on display were worn by bbno$, better known back in Vancouver as Alexander Gumuchian, whose on-stage energy, sadly, couldn’t quite make up for the fact that his set comprised mostly by-the-numbers sub-Beastie-Boys rap, even his “I give away a cookbook to the craziest audience member” bit unable to salvage it. A close challenger in the trouser stakes was Ruel, an Australian up-and-comer who appeared not quite to have realised that he was actually quite low down on the bill. His comfortable-fit pleated half-mast jeans contrasted with the green prison-looking uniforms with his name on them that his backing band wore, the same green as the big cubes on the stage bearing the message Ruel 2020; no matter how perfect his hair might have been (and it was, to be fair, perfect), this kind of hubris from a 17-year-old requires remarkable music to back it up, and, sadly, this Ruel lacks. The eagerness of young women at the barrier who’d snagged front-row positions from doors opening, and had stood for six hours to get a good view notwithstanding, there was little in Ruel’s rather bland blend of lightweight pop and insipid R&B to recommend him.
While his hair possibly wasn’t a perfect as Ruel’s, Omar Apollo was every bit as pretty, and his music was considerably more enjoyable, soul with an agreeable hint of funk and some extra spice courtesy of his Mexican heritage, and plenty of stage presence to make up for, ultimately, a lack of real substance or depth to his sound. For that you’d have wanted to give a listen to Hockey Dad of The Chats, Australians all and entirely more energetic performers. Hockey Dad’s summery pop-rock was perfect for a mid-afternoon set in front of a crowd that knew their songs and sang with them; The Chats were entirely more spiky and punky, but every bit as enjoyable.
Significantly less enjoyable was Earl Sweatshirt. Following the same template as bbno$ and Col3trane before him, Sweatshirt had a dj behind him standing at a desk doing dj things as he rapped. But Sweatshirt’s set started off odd, and became bad. For close to five minutes his dj stood at his desk, smoking and pouring himself drinks, as music played so loudly that anything—even things as heavy as full water bottles—placed on one of the speaker boxes in front of the stage danced to the beat. As each bass thump was resonating bodily, Sweatshirt walked onstage and started singing, singing so loudly and so oddly out of tune and caterwaulishly that I took a couple of photos and left. The bass was deep enough and loud enough to cause thoracic discomfort; the vocals were so Yoko Ono-ish in their screechiness as to cause ear distress.
But as the day progressed, the quality increased. Mahalia, from Leicester, sang soul with just a hint of blues and a lot of character. King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard were every bit as peculiar as they would clearly like you to imagine. You rarely see rock bands with two drummers; that they played as fast and as tight as they did, tricky rhythms in what looked and sounded like perfect unison, suggested that there was more musicianly skill than their somewhat gimmicky name might suggest. The big names came last, of course. Charli XCX announced after her first song that “I’m here to fuckin’ party,” but since she’d decided at the last minute (at least headliners The 1975 had told us that morning that we wouldn’t be shooting them) that photographers weren’t welcome, I decided to skip the platitudes and went to see Marlon Williams instead.
Drafted in at the last minute as a stand-in for Fontaines D.C., who decided a week before the event that recording new album was more important than playing at Laneway, Williams was the musical equivalent of slipping on a nice cosy pair of slippers and a warm cardigan at the end of they day. No need, here, to announce how bad-ass he might want to be perceived as; the man’s earned National Treasure status over the last couple of years. And deservedly so—his Laneway set was warm, charming, relaxed. Who else, let’s be fair, would think to write a song about the hoihoi, the winner of the New Zealand Bird Of The Year award for 2019? Williams has no need for the try-hard “I’m here to party” schtick of Charli XCX, or the backlit dancers supporting The 1975 on another stage. There’s no need for them when you can captivate an audience the way Williams did. While others did, indeed, clearly try hard, Williams made it look so very, very easy, and in the process walked away the best performer of a most enjoyable day.