Laneway festival review – the 1975, Charli XCX offer something to hope for

Footscray Park, Melbourne
Now more Big Day Out than boutique, the travelling festival proves rock’n’roll is undergoing constant regeneration

“Rock’n’roll is dead. God bless.”

When the 1975 project this sardonic statement on towering screens during their headline slot at the Melbourne leg of St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, it’s bold and funny and – after the brilliant set they’d just played – patently untrue.

The lineup for this year’s travelling festival more than proved that rock’n’roll is undergoing constant reinvention and regeneration as new artists get their hands on it and throw it in a blender with dashes of psychedelia, folk and Brit-pop. The nature of the festival means that rising indie four-piece Lazy Eyes, bluesy band Ocean Alley and viral singer-songwriter Ruel brush up against psych heroes King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and alt-rockers Hockey Dad.

“Shed-rock” trio the Chats had their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks as they tore through songs about contracting gonorrhoea and the Ross River virus, but there’s no joke in how tight and rehearsed they were; it takes a lot of work to sound so loose.

They played on the Future Classic stage in the afternoon, just a few hours after west-coast jangle band Spacey Jane proved that an artist full of potential when a festival books them can outgrow their spot exponentially by the time they actually make it to the stage. With the powerful co-sign of Triple J behind them and clear-eyed garage-pop sensibilities infused in every chord, they’re more than ready to graduate to the bigger stages and later slots.

I’ve been in a festival crowd reacting in collective euphoria as DMA’s pluck the opening notes of Delete before, and was certain nothing could match the vast contrast of such raucous enthusiasm to a tender ballad. As the sun bore down and reflected off the Maribyrnong River on Saturday afternoon, I was proved wrong: the Laneway audience reserved that same energy for the searching, sorrowful new single, Silver. It’s only been played live a handful of times and is already an anthem.

The crowd at St Jerome’s Laneway Festival in Melbourne
St Jerome’s Laneway Festival 2020 - far from the inner-city alleys of its origin. Photograph: Martin Philbey/Redferns

With the move, last year, from Footscray Community Arts Centre to Footscray Park, Laneway Festival has fully divested from its origins – the literal CBD laneways in the periphery of the long-dead St Jerome’s bar where it first took place. The experience is all the better for it. For years, the previous site seemed to pack more and more punters into longer and narrower spaces until the band at the end of it was rendered invisible and it became impossible to hop from stage to stage, so bottlenecked did the skinny lanes get.

With a layout more reminiscent of mega-festivals like the Big Day Out – two main stages at either end of the park, with food stalls and bars in between – Laneway is implicitly encouraging attendees to see more and stay longer, especially if they do so at one of the omniscient and often obnoxious brand activations that only seem to multiply every year.

The humid day was punctuated by young and clever women wielding their voices to crowds eager to hear from them. Early on it was soul star on the rise Kaiit, avant-electro producer KUČKA, and New Zealand’s BENEE, whose two recent EPs – Fire on Marzz and Stella & Steve – provided some of 2019’s best pop soundtracks.

A dedicated crowd at the Fishbowl stage bore witness to the tiny powerhouse Stella Donnelly, whose clever and cutting song Old Man lays a threatening portrait of lecherous masculinity over a sugary singalong. It’s lovely and has a truly rotten core. As if determined to miss the point and sour the taste, a man walking out of the crowd soon after commented to his mates, not bothering to keep his voice down, “She’s much more attractive than I imagined.”

For all the necessary and exhausting work artists like Donnelly do at every show on all five legs of this tour, for all the noise made about the hotline the festival implemented a couple of years ago to offer punters a way to report gender violence on-site (was 1800-LANEWAY even active this year?), this still remains an event reflecting the trends of a radio station whose annual listener poll was just won by a female artist for the first time in its 30-year history, a festival whose stacked first lineup announcement featured just 11 acts comprising women or non-binary people.

Charli XCX at the festival in Melbourne
Charli XCX at the festival in Melbourne. Photograph: Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images

And of those, only one was a true headliner. Charli XCX pulled out everything from her bag of tricks: viral hits like I Love It and Boys were sandwiched between Gone and White Mercedes, highlights from her 2019 release. But for all her efforts to invigorate a teeming crowd, the sound got caught in the wind as it left the speakers. Charli XCX came of age in underground clubs, and sadly it took a perfect evening slot at an open-air festival to suggest her music is still best-suited to places with walls.

After Charli, all that was left was the 1975. In preparation for the festival, a friend who adores the band had described them to me by saying, “They’re the same age as us and are also damaged by the internet.” It’s a sentiment I couldn’t ignore as their set glitched and gurgled to life with the brutal protest song People. Wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Too fast to live / Too young to die”, frontman Matty Healy was sleepy-eyed and perpetually pouting, but his lyrics are designed to grab his fans by the shoulders and shake hard. Lyrics and messages blasted across the screen for an hour warning of the lure of self-medicating with drugs and technology, and everyone in the crowd rushed to raise their phones to capture them for posterity, feeding the endless cycle.

The band’s backing dancers, the Jaiy twins, joined them intermittently, but otherwise it was all about Healy. He does this frontman thing in a way only Brits can: he’s as bombastic and performative as he is self-deprecating, and you could tell he enjoyed every moment of the way the visuals for finale track The Sound ripped into him.

Matthew Healy on stage at the festival
Matthew Healy: doing the frontman thing in a way only Brits can. Photograph: Martin Philbey/Redferns

At a time when celebrities are desperately trying to attach themselves to relevant causes to earn airtime, Healy holds the attention of millions in his palm and uses it to broadcast what matters. When he told the crowd to “be quiet for a few minutes”, they dutifully complied – for the most part. The stage went dark as visuals of global climate disaster blare across the screens, alongside captions for Greta Thunberg’s recent collaboration with the band. “Ah, fuckin’ Greta,” a kid near me complained when he heard her voice. When no-one laughs or moans in agreement, he changed course: “Greta’s actually good for the world.” Someone a foot away responds: “Yeah, ScoMo’s not.”

“Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this,” Thunberg’s voice implores, and it was chilling to watch the words emblazoned on a screen underneath a moon tinted brown with dust and smoke, as so many in Australia have been this summer.

Her words faded out and Healy was back on stage, fist raised, for Love it if We Made It, a song about drug addiction and capitalism and racism. But ultimately it’s a song Healy once described as a “gem of hope amongst the rubble”. The sky’s still smoky and the water levels are rising elsewhere in the country, and so we need to have hope in the fact that thousands of cooked teenagers stood still and listened to a plea for action for a few minutes. At least it’s something to cling to.


Brodie Lancaster

The GuardianTramp

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