It's nice to ring in a new year - even a new decade - with new experiences, and none better than trawling through Albert Park in Auckland, NZ to savour Laneway 2020. There's admittedly a fear of the unknown in the mix; my prior festival experience emphasises the "none" in "second to none", and Laneway seems to be in an unenviable tug-of-war, balancing national intimacy with international expectations. In the end, any extra context or controversy tends to wash away in the blazing heat, no matter how hard you try to stay hydrated - so you might as well enjoy it while it lasts.
Speaking of Kiwi intimacy, Wellington's Mermaidens got swampy in the sunshine to kick off the day. Those familiar with their post-punky rhythms and preference for odd time signatures had their love validated with a solid set, save for concerns of quiet mixing on the guitars. As an opener it’s a double-edged sword, having a smaller (albeit more passionate) turnout versus the benefit of exploring the show afterwards - but Mermaiden’s fans know how to share the love around. An alternative triumph on a traditionally pop-heavy stage.
Having a break between acts I was interested in left plenty of time to explore Albert Park and sample the atmosphere. Amidst Soaked Oats' sludge pop and Col3trane's trap-tinged crooning, you could see people indiscriminately vibing in all directions, snacking their way through various pricey food stalls. A lot more communal than I was expecting, with a lot of friendly strangers and good friends popping in and out through the day.
Australian songwriter Stella Donnelly left a strong impression when she opened for Maggie Rogers at the Powerstation last May, so bias aside, seeing her perform a full set with a full band was an opportunity to properly evaluate her chops. She’s still ridiculously funny, hurling out Pilates dance moves to the beat of Die and wholesome Dido covers in a snap. However, Donnelly’s motley misfit backing band fleshed out her scathing lyricism and twinkly indie-pop songwriting exactly how I imagined they would, capturing the dynamic range of her albums. Lunch’s ascension from sparse acoustics to explosive keys is reason enough to fall in love with Donnelly’s sound; the fact that it’s just the centrepiece is even more. Another stellar performance.
Missing your most anticipated act is a festival inevitability, but what I could see of Australian shed punks The Chats was was a glorious mess. The Princes Street stage was exceptionally loud compared to the others, and you could hear Eamon Sandwith’s youthful accent snarling all the way from the merchandise booth. No one else on the lineup would dare to chest bump each other, full speed from each side of the stage, and it's this exuberant energy that sets the band above other pub feeders of their ilk.
Last-minute news of JID’s cancellation had me heartbroken, so I was banking on The Beths to patch up my soul with their brand of summer-singed power-pop tunes. They did not disappoint, with the beautiful harmonies and powerful 90s-esque melodies of Future Me Hates Me punching through Princes Street. Nonetheless, it was around this point that fatigue set in; lyrics and tones started to become indistinguishable, dancing to the ideas of songs instead of the songs themselves. Security guards with squirt guns added a bit of levity to the proceedings, but it couldn’t stop the encroaching exhaustion.
From sweeping the VNZMA's to topping the charts, Benee's meteoric rise is mirrored in the impenetrable crowd of fans, stretching back hundreds of metres. She commands the stage like she dominates the radio, with dignified confidence and smooth vocal tones. What surprised me was the lack of backing tracks, letting a live band put a twist on the flashy hooks of Monster and Supalonely. I've heard complaints that the overall lineup seemed weaker compared to previous years, but in the midst of a powerfully popular local artist, any concerns breeze by. It’s all relative, honestly.
What’s less relative is the sense of urgency to Laneway - in both set time and breaks between acts - that causes people to rush, and negates a full impression of an artist. Earl Sweatshirt suffers this way, in that his introspective lyricism and intricate beat work require more attention than an open field can provide. His lethargic flows and poetic style, while excellent, also feel like an antithesis to the hook-laden hype men earlier in the schedule - a come-down rather than a come-up. I was pleased overall, and he seemed pleased despite the less-than-enthusiastic crowd - but it’s an interesting dilemma.
Julia Jacklin jangles through slow-burning time bombs of emotion, dependable without being showy and humorous without being overwhelming. Broken strings and broken hearts can't stop this songstress from waltzing her way into the heart of the crowd. She’s like your musician’s favourite musician, not one people will always be bobbing their heads to, but one they’ll always been enjoying. Having Stella Donnelly in the crowd cheering her on is proof enough of that theory - and on that note, having artists roam the grounds and support one another is a nice occurrence that you don’t normally get to see in solo shows.
It may be a subconscious bias, but I tend to disconnect from big name pop, and seek a more intimate setting in the genre. Charli XCX set out to prove me wrong, with her PC Music aesthetic and futuristic synth work. Even through a giant screen, the breath control and vocal gymnastics of tracks like I Love It and White Mercedes won me over slightly - even when the underlying beats felt underwhelming compared to Charli's charisma. At this point, any energy I might have had left was seeping rapidly, so maybe with a fresher mind, I’d be more open next time.
I missed my chance to see The 1975 at the Spark Arena last September, so their grand finale set was a glorified catch-up as much as it was provocative pop on top of its game. There was a clear disparity between them and the rest of the fest, judging by their use of visual accompaniment and back-up dancers. There was also an appropriate amount of variety given the band's genre-hopping tendencies, from the desert rock of People to the unadulterated sugary sweet balladry of Somebody Else. In any case, it's nice to finally view the band as pure humans, wiggling to their own rhythms and demanding excellence.
As naive as it may sound, it's melancholic to have the privilege to view all this and not be completely in awe. At the same time, there’s as much to miss as there is to see; my own exit from Laneway was admittedly halfway through The 1975’s set, letting the triumphant sadness of I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes) lead me through the exit gates. The amount of stellar Australasian acts - and international pop artists like Ruel skewed towards a younger demographic - might not appeal to everyone’s standards, but the whole felt greater than the sum of its parts. And at the end of the day, sometimes you just want an anthem to carry you home.
Radio 13 thanks and credits Chony Musson for all the images featured in this article.