Laneway Festival

February 1, 2010

Britomart Square, Auckland

Last week our Melbourne friends told us that the Laneway Festival is one of the least respected festivals in Australia, we were surprised, but it meant we entered the first Auckland Laneway festival with a hint of scepticism. We’d been told stories of forty minute-queues to see bands, poor facilities and an even poorer location, but on first inspection of the Britomart Square set-up it seemed to be very well laid out. There was plenty of room for fans to access both stages; the toilets seemed aplenty and food stalls appeared to be well situated through the area. It all seemed very different from the description we’d been told of the Melbourne event.

As we entered, twenty minutes after the official opening time, Auckland band Street Chant had already taken the stage, jumping around like spastic children high on adrenalin and sugar. They seemed to be relishing their opportunity on the main stage, smiling and laughing at their friends and pounding through a raucous set. The only noticeable defect was a few on stage sound issues, which seemed to be a common problem throughout the afternoon with Surf City, The Phoenix Foundation and The Dirty Three all displaying minor moments of discomfort. Out front the sound was good, despite the blustery winds and intermittent rain.

Dear Time’s Waste were first up on the smaller ‘Red Bull’ stage, sending the crowd into an instant swoon with their beautifully executed dream pop. The band rarely has an off day and again they showed why they have been labelled one of the country’s hottest up-and-coming bands and easily justified their recent signing to Australian label Speak N Spell.

Surf City was the next band on the main stage to prove they were worthy of international hype. Recently hailed as one the highlights of New York’s CMJ Festival 2009, they had an expectation to deliver upon. And they did, providing an early highlight with their songs ‘Dickshakers Union’ and ‘Headin’ Inside’, which became the first catchy songs of the day.

Bachelorette, a late inclusion to the festival, replacing US band Hockey, fitted in well, but after Surf City lacked the energy to keep the crowd enthused. Her glum facial expression and nervous looking persona made her look lonely on stage and made it difficult to draw any emotion from her inter-dimensional pop music.

On the main stage The Phoenix Foundation travelled through a restless set that saw Luke Buda and Sam Flynn Scott addressing the crowd at regular intervals. Unfortunately a lot of their jibba jabba seemed lost on the audience and their songs often dragged, but when they got it right they were brilliant, like on ‘Nest Egg’ and ‘Cars Of Eden’. The performance also farewelled their long-time bassist Warner Emery, who after seven years in the band has decided to move on.

The XX were the first international band to take the stage and instantly you could feel the festival step up a gear. Their sound was polished and you could tell the band has spent the last six months consistently on the road playing night after night. Their music wasn’t particularly complex and it showed up even more so live than it does on record, but despite that it had an airy quality and a sexiness in the vocal melodies to make it float and work in the large festival environment.

What happened next was both beautiful and embarrassing. The much-loved folk singer Daniel Johnston, slightly awkward and timid, played a tear-jerking set that had fans and even those not accustomed to his music in awe. The crowd was hushed between songs, applauding when appropriate and showing Johnston complete respect. His shyness was obvious, apologising when the wind blew his sheet music and when it occasionally dropped to the floor, but his music was so wonderfully delivered that it took nothing away from his performance. His voice, somewhat childlike, and his rugged guitar playing was charming, melting hearts and fulfilled fans, some of whom had bought tickets to the festival just to see him play.

Johnston’s set was unfortunately marred by an embarrassing decision to start Cut Off Your Hands on the main stage before Johnston had finished. The deafening echo of bass and drums overcrowded Johnston’s acoustic set and it was obvious Johnston was affected by the noise coming from less than twenty metres away. It is unlikely Cut Off Your Hands made the decision to play over the top of Johnston, but it left many fans filthy and talk around the square suggested COYH were being blamed.

After a performance by The Black Lips, whose reputation seems to be more for their stage antics than their music, The Dirty Three were welcomed on to the stage by one of the Australian festival promoters. Warren Ellis, the band’s charismatic front man then set about deconstructing the audience’s ideas of instrumental music, explaining the meaning behind each song (which seemed to be made up on the spot to suit the situation). Plucking his violin and kicking the air furiously, Ellis entertained and inspired the crowd to let go of themselves and enjoy life, complimented by the masterful Mick Turner (bass) and Jim White (drums). After the sour ending to Daniel Johnston’s set The Dirty Three brought the Laneway Festival back to life.

While waiting in line to get a punnet of hot chips (one of very few options available to vegetarians), Chris Knox and The Nothing played a short set accompanied by Shane Carter (Dimmer, The Straitjacket Fits). Knox’s recovery from his recent stroke had advanced a little further since his last performance and it was a delight to see him on stage enjoying himself.

Still in line for chips (it was twenty metres long when we started and it took an hour to get to the front), it was becoming infuriating as Echo and the Bunnymen sounded electrifying on the main stage. The sun had just gone down and the stage lights looked spectacular around singer Ian McCulloch. When we finally got within sight of the stage the band belted out their classic single ‘The Killing Moon’ which sounded ethereal and breathtaking and their reputation as one of the most consistent live acts from the ’80s was truly recognised.

The 3D’s switched time slots with Echo and The Bunnymen and it worked in everybody’s favour. By now the first Auckland Laneway Festival had exceeded its expectations and there were still three bands yet to play. It was The 3D’s who delivered my favourite performance of the festival; part noise, part rhythm, all tight as hell. With much of the Flying Nun back catalogue being lost over the past decade, The 3D’s is a band that our generation has been starved of, but that was put to rest last night. Playing classics like ‘Hey Suesss’ and ‘The Golden Groove’, David Mitchell, Denise Roughan and David Saunders shared vocal duties and their guitar shredding and rhythmic lashings painted the night green.

Someone commented to me at the end of the festival saying that if Florence And The Machine had played Big Day Out and The Horrors had played Laneway then the two festivals would have had the perfect balance. It seemed to be the general consensus amongst the crowd that Florence And The Machine was a little too poppy for their liking, myself included, but her performance was definitely not to be missed. She jumped about the stage and never missed a note with her siren-esque voice; her long red hair flailing in the wind and her cape stretching out behind her. She played ‘Kiss With A Fist’ very early on which was a little surprising, but her more recent hits ‘You Got The Love’ and ‘Hurricane Drunk’ gave the crowd what they were waiting for later in her set.

Enter NASA and it seemed that half the crowd had been waiting all day for Florence And The Machine and had decided to go home. Despite having their power cut when the clock struck 11.30pm, NASA DJs Sam Spiegel and Ze Gonzales ended the festival with a dance party, mashing up The Beastie Boys, Pink Flyod, The Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash. Along with a visual collage and aliens dancing on stage, they were by far the most fun, interactive act of the night and they even brought Ras Congo all the way from Jamaica to sing on their song ‘Money’. It was a shame it all had to be cut short by the council curfew, but it’s understandable when you consider the festival promoters already had an extension on their 10.30pm curfew granted earlier in the evening.

More Auckland Laneway Festival Photos

Posted by Nick Fulton under Auckland, New Zealand
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