If you can’t find music you like at Laneway, you’re really not trying very hard. Twenty-nine acts across four stages over ten hours is an exhausting but very, very enjoyable day out.
Local band Daffodils opened my Laneway experience this year with some refreshingly jangly, engagingly entertaining pop-rock that suggests that they could be a band to watch over the next few years. Following them on the Thunderdome stage were Middle Kids, a Sydney four-piece ploughing a not entirely dissimilar furrow but putting their own slightly edgier stamp on their sound. Across Albert Park on the Dr. Martens stage a couple of punk-tinged impressed. Skeggss played some quite straightforward skate punk with a pleasing degree of energy and wide-eyed enthusiasm, contrasting nicely with Parquet Courts’ slightly more sophisticated, but no less enjoyable, post-punk, Austin Brown looking very much like a man who wants to know when he will be called for his audition for The Doors.
There were, of course, mis-steps. The Princes Street stage, the main showcase of the event, was perhaps the wrong venue for Clairo, whose lo-fi soul was just a little stripped back for this setting. Maybe she might have fared better on a smaller stage later in the evening, but on the main stage in the middle of the afternoon she came across as insubstantial and a little unengaged. There can be no denying the energy Denzel Curry, who closed the night out on the Rotunda stage, brought to his performance, but while I’m told that “sound card rap” is what we’re supposed to call singing over pre-recorded backing tracks, I’m old enough to remember when that was just called karaoke. Jorja Smith should have been outstanding, a young British singer whose looks and voice evoke comparisons ranging from Sade to Amy Winehouse, with a sprinkling of Adele just to round things out. And while she is, at the age of 21, a confident performer with a voice lesser singers would willingly harm for, her Laneway performance didn’t quite work. She was clearly unhappy with the sound balance in her ears; certainly for the audience, her voice was indistinct for much of the first few songs in her short set, and — I could be wrong here, but this is what it sounded like to me — she appeared to forget the words to her second song, Teenage Fantasy. I was told later, by a self-described diehard fan in the audience, that her show was wonderful; it was good, but flawed.
But the standout oddity of the day was, surely, Mitski. On paper she’s a fascinating woman, a half-Japanese, half-American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who’s gained lavish praise from people like Lorde and Iggy Pop, people who, you’d think, would know better. But even if Iggy thinks she’s “the most talented living American songwriter,” her Laneway performance was simply a rather strange thing. She spent the entire of her first song pacing back and forth across the front of the stage like she was about to have a panic attack. Next came exaggerated, over-mannered ballet-ish posing with what looked like an attempt to be sultry and seductive but which made her look like the assistant manager of a small local bank branch trying to convince her staff she’s really quite fun after all. When she sat on a folding metal chair which she had unfolded ever so carefully and deliberately, and opened her legs wide, the effect was meant, perhaps to be shocking, or provocative, or maybe to evoke some kind of dodgy Danish cabaret, but it simply felt like she desperately wanted to be barking mad but couldn’t quite figure out how to do it. It’s a shame — it all felt far too forced and mannered, while behind her some interesting, angular and slightly edgy indie-rock was being performed. And when she sang, and you could look beyond the sub-Björk and wannabe-Kate Bush mannerisms, there was an intriguing voice to be heard, but it all got lost in the pretension.
But there was also some truly good music to be enjoyed. Yellow Days — George van den Broek to his mates — is possibly not quite ready for the big stage yet, but on the Dr. Martens stage he showed that there is a talent beyond his nineteen years. I’m still not sure about an English white boy affecting Black American English, but beyond that, his music, described in the Laneway promo materials as “psycho-pop,” shows a lot of promise. There’s a very strong late-60s flavour to his sound, faintly Hammond-y keyboards over almost crunchy guitar lines, that makes for engaging listening. Courtney Barnett, the penultimate performer on the main Princes Street stage, was one of the major standout acts of the day. Her music is, at first glance, quite simple and straightforward — guitar-driven pop-rock with a hint of quirk. But live, she was quite remarkable, the fire in her music burning through strongly as she worked her way through material from her new album, Tell Me How U Really Feel. On record, her voice is understated, her singing occasionally close to speaking. But put her on a stage, in front of a large and appreciative audience, and her songs find new dimensions of power and force, the result so effective that you’ll even be willing to forgive her when her guitar solos don’t quit hit the spot.
But the highpoint of Laneway 2019 has to be Gang Of Youths. As impassioned and energetic a performance as any I saw yesterday, they played their slightly Springsteen-inflected rock with passion and fury, frontman David Le’aupepe working the audience with ease. Songs like The Heart Is A Muscle, from 2017’s Go Farther In Lightness, while perfectly enjoyable on record, transform into guitar-and-drum workouts on stage that are propelled by Donnie Borzestowski’s intense, immense drum sound and which Le’aupepe’s voice finishes off into outstanding pieces of music. And while it might seem that Aussies ran the show at Auckland’s Laneway Festival — like Courtney Barnett, Gang Of Youths are notionally a Sydney outfit — they wear their Pacific identities on their sleeves. Le’aupepe talked about his Samoan ancestry, and his family’s NZ connections, while guitarist Joji Malani had the flag of his native Fiji draped across his amplifier. They were, without doubt, the standout act of the festival, and one I shall enjoy investigating further.
Laneway is becoming a major part of the Auckland music calendar. This was the third year the festival has been held at Albert Park, and the experience the organisers have developed in running the event shows. It’s a fantastic day out, a very well-run show. Auckland Anniversary Day is invariably one of the hottest of the year, and the venue, in a park filled with old, shady trees, is ideal. The stages are well-enough spaced out, as are the timings of the acts, that each performer sounded great, no matter what else was going on. The food and drink, while inevitably overpriced — it alway is at turnouts like this — was plentiful and varied, and water, and it’s impossible to overstate how important this is, was available freely and everywhere. Laneway has established itself as New Zealand’s leading music festival. I can’t wait for next year’s.
Were you at Laneway 2019? Tell us what you thought of the day in the comments section below the photos!
Gang Of Youths