Johnny rolls past in a taxi at the crack of dawn. I scramble out my front door and collapse into the cab. In due course the taxi stretches out, sprouts wings and floats over the clouds to the North, taking us from Melbourne to sunny Brisbane. We climb into the hire vehicle – a big black imposing Dodge 4WD – and find our way to the showgrounds, where marquees, big tops, stalls and speaker arrays sit quietly in wait.
It’s here we meet up with Pete and Nick, who we’re going to be flitting around the country with, playing Pete’s songs. The backstage area is in a building marked “Dairy Goats” but contains a network of tents, astroturf, colourful decorations, food and drinks. We settle in, orally exploring the beverages and casually spying the faces that float among the tents, uncannily familiar from video clips and websites and magazines.
Our curtain call approaches: we play early (midday), to a fairly small but seemingly appreciative crowd. Two fellers want Pete to do a “shoey” with them after the set which seems to involve drinking a beer out of a crusty old boot; Pete regretfully declines. The first act I catch properly is ANGEL OLSEN in one of the huge tents. I’ve never known her music well but it feels immediately comforting, like an old friend. Stylistically it’s mostly-mellow, pared-back rock and roll adorned with Angel’s captivating vocal that more recalls nimble-throated folk singer-songwriters of bygone generations than anything you’d typically layer over distorted guitars and drums. Along with alternately swampy and sanguine rhythms it’s an engaging/warmly trance-inducing set, and when the storm clouds that have been gathering overhead finally open up releasing a pitter-patter sonic backdrop, it feels just right.
Before the day’s out I catch POND (who Nick also plays with and who I’ll return to) and FUTURE ISLANDS. The Islands’ songs don’t really butter my toast to be honest – I’m reminded of early The Killers and their ilk, but their delivery, heart and quirk does put them in a different league. Capital-F frontman Samuel T. Herring croons and moves with a rare zealous intensity – there are a bunch of death metal growls for good measure, too, and a set of potentially forgettable ‘schmindie’ arena pop-rock becomes pretty memorable in its own skewed way.
Before the night is through we retreat to the motel. We lock ourselves out of our room and, infinitely knackered, I pass out on the Pond boys’ couch though somehow wake up in my bed again when it’s time to rise at four in the morning. The bed downgrades itself to an aeroplane seat and, a hazy stretch later, we’re in Sydney at the Sydney College of the Arts.
The scene is beautiful; 19th century sandstone buildings that once housed a lunatic asylum, now an institute for art-making, and encircled by seemingly endless trees and grassy knolls. We play to a bunch more people today, which is heartening, and then watch NZ twang-pop weirdo genius CONNAN MOCKASIN and his remarkable band, who deliver beautiful and eccentric music with a freewheeling spirit and a careful touch. Local enfant terrible KIRIN J CALLINAN joins them onstage, becoming an impromptu hype man/percussionist and hoisting Connan onto his shoulders. Sycaruse’s PERFECT PUSSY provide a face-blistering set of noise punk: abrasive high-energy hurtle fittingly adorned with Meredith Graves’ urgent vocal, communal sweat, and plenty of synth cacophony.
COURTNEY BARNETT’s funny, poignant, vernacular rock poetry charms and energises a thick crowd out on the rolling grassy slopes, before perennial cheekster MAC DE MARCO whips up a riot with his unassumingly complex, laconic lo-fi hits. His keen musicality and sweet melodies make strange but happy bedfellows with a ridiculous stage show: ciggies, outrageous banter, crowdsurfing and a drawn-out smooch with Connan Mockasin.
Exhausted but warm of heart, I get a few days to gather my marbles back in Melbourne before we return to Sydney to open Pond’s sideshow at the Oxford Art Factory. It’s a blast, but no time to linger: Adelaide comes into view the next morning, and feeling crustier than a Brisbaner’s boot, we approach the Port where the festival is brewing. Today I catch DUNE RATS, who seem to make loose and unoriginal (but harmless) stoner garage punk; ANDY BULL who peddles crisp and vogueish indie songcraft; and JUNGLE who – despite some generic JJJ-friendly vocal parts – are underpinned by an incredible funk sensibility, fusing Madchester-style dance energy with eclectic percussion and disco ball guitar/bass interplay. And yet again I watch POND, who I thought i’d surely neglect after a viewings in favour of less readily available acts, but they’re too damn good. Whittled down to a four-piece, they’re somehow sounding huger than ever, grounded by Jamie Terry’s juggernaut synth bass and drenched in thick, processed, awe-inspiring guitar. The set revolves around tracks from new LP “Man, It Feels Like Space Again” (‘Sitting Up On Our Crane’ and the chameleonic title track are whopper highlights) but also revives vintage tunes like the driving ‘Don’t Look At The Sun Or You’ll Go Blind.’ The set’s refreshingly varied and dynamic but with a consistent soul, and the perfect balance of irony, earnestness, businesslike expertise and larrikin theatrics. Really unreal.
Over in Melbourne we’re in and out in a heartbeat, but back west on the verdant Fremantle Esplanade, we finally have a whole day to let the line-up soak in. The air is sizzling and everyone’s skin glistening with sweat, but moods are high. Local harmony-driven dream pop wonders DIANAS kick things off, showcasing amazing new songs that expand beyond the established limits of their winning sound to tread even more intriguing compositional territory. LITTLE DRAGON forge a wild avant-pop vibe in the deep afternoon, not long before hallowed indie dance heroes CARIBOU carry us away on a luminous magic carpet of haunting synth melodics, plaintive vocals, textural noise and euphoria-inducing rhythms. By comparison, the pace and mood of FKA TWIGS’ set seems somewhat moribund, but fans would not have a gripe. Twigs (aka Tahlia Barnett) has a presence that is second to none: commanding the stage with a deadly stare, impeccable rhythmic motion and a pitch-perfect, stratospheric voice that can scarcely be believed, she is perhaps one of the most impressive singular performers around in 2015. Gliding over her sparse yet perplexingly intricate beats and concrete-style arrangements performed live by three different electronic pads-players, the set is a mystifying self-contained world of reimagined RnB signifiers, ambitious holistic vision and darkly simmering sexuality presented in a distinctly contemporary way.
If anyone was going to hotly contest the “most impressive singular performer” title it was always going to be Annie Clark, better known as ST VINCENT. Joined by three astronomically skilled band mates variously handling extra keys, guitar and drums, Clark present a surreal, life-affirming and limitlessly considered set. It’s awesome to hear inventive songs like ‘Surgeon,’ ‘Cheerleader’ and ‘Digital Witness’ blaring live, but all the more gratifying to see Clark’s unique and mind blowing guitar playing in the flesh, experience her flawless vocal, absorb the subtle but incredibly effective band choreography. Live, St. Vincent feels all the more like the natural heir to Talking Heads’ throne; accessible but wildly experimental pop, with no stone left unturned.
Conspicuously absent from my Laneway my experience so far had been one man, one performance: the legendary FLYING LOTUS. Having had to leave to early at each date so far, I’m giddy to finally catch him at Fremantle in the balmy night air. The performance only affirms FlyLo, aka Steven Ellison, as chief trailblazer of the electronic/hip hop production world in my mind. The vast array of tunes drawing from countless genres are hallucinatory in themselves, and hearing Ellison sing and rap in his “Captain Murphy” guise is a bonus treat. But, not content with an aural avalanche, FlyLo’s enlisted artist Strangeloop (aka David Wexler) to realize a mind bending 3D visual show called “Layer 3” to accompany it. Far from mere gimmick, this tightly integrated visual onslaught lifts the set to new heights, with FlyLo’s silhouette visible between two screens boasting kaleidoscopic (often Death-themed, in light of new album “You’re Dead!”) projected images. The effect is a sort of immersive optical illusion that makes the whole affair a truly transportative experience.
That evening, Nick got a terrible blood nose, Pete sprained (maybe broke) his ankle, and Johnny vanished into the night. But we were stoked. We made it to the end, we had a freakishly good time. We got to meet some heroes and stare at others in wide-eyed wonderment while they did their thing. The privilege of a behind-the-scenes insight didn’t reveal any bloated egos or industry nastiness to me: indeed, it only bolstered my respect for Laneway as an institution that respects its artists and wants to foster a positive international community of innovative musicians. I might never get to do a circuit like this again, but the last couple of weeks have provided inspiration and hearty vibes to last me a long while.