31 Jan 2017

Review: Laneway Festival 2017

11:35 am on 31 January 2017

Laneway makes a case for evolution, not creationism, in music festivals.


Stu Mackenzie of Australian psychedelic rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard

Stu Mackenzie of Australian psychedelic rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard Photo: Luke McPake

I’ll stop keeping you in suspense: The switch to from Silo Park to Albert Park was a success.

With significantly more space, shade and grass, the experience of spending a very, very hot day confined to one area with a bunch of drunk youths was massively improved. With an insane record of good weather, this year was a scorcher once again and a perfect day for Laneway to showcase their latest incarnation.

Sure there were little glitches here and there - sound cut offs delayed a set by Aurora and interrupted that of Clams Casino, frustrating for both audiences and performers, while visibility became a bit of an issue at the Thunderdome situated down narrow Alfred Street - but these were minor.

In fact, with so many new variables, organisationally things went surprisingly smoothly, and my favourite moment of the day was observing a very reasonable exchange between a security guard and a fence jumper that concluded with the pair shaking hands and the intruder hopping back over from whence he came.

Conor McCabe of Melbourne duo Fortunes

Conor McCabe of Melbourne duo Fortunes Photo: Luke McPake

Hanging over the event, of course, was the dark cloud of the political climate and, after a day refreshing social media in perpetual and growing horror, it felt odd and even glib to be in this space of fun and frivolity.   

When the occasional act chose allude to it - rapper Mick Jenkins’ performance of Spread Love saw him have the crowd chant the phrase repeatedly, while Swedish hardcore punk band Refused urged the crowd to consider music and art as rebellion rather than paid entertainment - it was like breaking a spell, but wonderfully so.

Kiwi post-punk band Cut Off Your Hands

Kiwi post-punk band Cut Off Your Hands Photo: Luke McPake

In fact, for a band that might have felt niche at an event like Laneway, Refused’s performance proved to be a highlight. With the kind of presence and showmanship that quickly transcended genre in a music festival environment, frontman Dennis Lyxzén waded into the crowd more than once, sweating fabulously profusely. What’s more, having already labelled the political climate a “shitstorm”, he punctuated the set with another, more pointed, critique:

"There are 66 men on the bill, 11 women, and one non-binary person”, he told the crowd (I counted too and wow, he’s right).

“That's not good enough ... As men, we are part of a structure of rape, abuse, and violence. We are reproducing ideas that make half the population scared of us. Dudes, guys, men: we need to get our shit together."

In 2017, this should hardly be a radical stance but, as I watched the two young men in front of me shake their heads in disgust and walk off, it felt truly uplifting.

Jimmy Vallance of Canadian electronic duo Bob Moses

Jimmy Vallance of Canadian electronic duo Bob Moses Photo: Luke McPake

Since arriving in New Zealand eight years ago, Laneway has changed dramatically not just in terms of venue and organisation, but as a concept. As such, 2017’s festival could perhaps only be faulted for a certain awkwardness detectable in this transition, one felt most clearly in the line-up.

As a showcase for young acts often on the cusp of, if not success then cult status, the onus for Laneway is not so much to provide performers that audiences will recognise so much as ones that will be worth knowing in the future.

Unfortunately, not many acts stuck this year, and with only two rap performers, and a lot of indie boy bands, the homogeneity of the line-up dulled the impact overall.

Nick Johnston of Cut Off Your Hands

Nick Johnston of Cut Off Your Hands Photo: Luke McPake

With their accessible psychedelic alt-pop, Tame Impala remain enduringly popular: yet one also wonders why, having already headlined the festival in 2013 and performing a headlining show towards the end of 2015, they were brought back in the starring role again for 2017.

The lack of female and non-binary representation - as pointed out by my new favourite woke Swedes - was also a problem.

It would be unfair to pin this problem solely on Laneway: music events the world over seem to struggle repeatedly with addressing gender imbalance (Beyoncé, for instance, will this year be the first female headliner at Coachella in a decade) and the root cause is almost certainly a problem far more insidious than mere unwillingness.

Julien Ehrlich of American indie-rock band Whitney

Julien Ehrlich of American indie-rock band Whitney Photo: Luke McPake

Still, with so many young white male indie bands performing at peak times, it was the acts that deviated from this formula - Nao, Mick Jenkins, White Lung - that easily stood out as some of the most substantial and exciting artists at the festival.

For similar reasons, the New Zealand contingent also stood out as particularly strong this year with Fazerdaze, Purple Pilgrims, Nikolai and Yukon Era all giving original, spirited and memorable performances. Purple Pilgrims in particular, with their haunting, witchy vocals and eerie choreography, had a presence not matched by a lot of the international performers.

Purple Pilgrims

Purple Pilgrims Photo: Luke McPake

Yet, with a nicer and more accommodating new venue, these flaws were not nearly as destabilising as they may have been at the festival’s former home. With expanses of grass on which to lounge and more personal space in which to do so, the focus was shifted ever so slightly, and rather than a utilitarian exercise in seeing as many bands as possible it seemed that many attendees were happy to just hang on the lawn and soak in the atmosphere.

As New Zealand’s most successful music festival, Laneway has the luxury of time, which really is all it needs to hone its vision and become what it needs to be.

Laneway is a festival in transition, experiencing not so much an identity crisis as an evolution. Though at times this is frustrating, it is also necessary and organic, and as a clearer focus emerges, so too can the line-up become more eclectic and coherent.