Words by Grace Hood-Edwards
Photographs supplied by David Watson
Thousands broached the baking Auckland heat on Monday to venture out for the 11th St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, a mass of kaleidoscopic colour and bare skin, lingering and lounging and lighting up the proverbial dancefloor throughout the afternoon and well into the night. Festivals are always an impromptu runway show for everyone’s best looks and, boy howdy, were people working it. Glitter was in abundance, from jewelled eyebrows to disco-shoes to sparkles wherever you could put them. Never have I ever seen so many patterned playsuits/co-ords gathered in one place! Although the makeup was bold and also sparkly, it was also nice to see good amount of people coming barefaced – simply feeling comfortable however they are in a variety of styles.
Maybe it was the heat or the combination of acts & fans, but the crowd were overwhelmingly pleasant – everyone excited to be there, chatty and helpful – which only enhanced the atmosphere that Laneway has come to be known for, particularly since it’s relocation to the beautiful Albert Park.
It was also nice to see that further steps had been taken since last year to emphasise crowd-care, with roaming pairs offering ‘Water Care’ (cups of water and refills) to those in need and the Women’s Space being the most impressive adjustments. Perhaps the Women’s Space could have been better advertised and signposted, however, because I heard it through the grapevine later on in the day and never figured out precisely where the station was.
Psychedelic Porn Crumpets
This Aussie act were a last minute addition to the Laneway bill, but rocked the stage at their first show in Aotearoa – rocked being the operative word. If they say that humans look like their pets, then these guys look like their music – with all sporting, at least, shoulder-length hair, perfect to catch the complete array of movement as they head-banged their way through their set. They let loose upon the Ranger Stage, really mashing their guitar and drum solos, to the delight of the audience. Each song seemed to end with a lengthy wail of feedback. The music was great, although the vocals were a little difficult to hear over the guitar, but the tunes more than made up for it. The moment the heavy bassline broke into the intro of ‘Marmalade March’ was stellar, with the crowd leaping and up and down furiously in time to the beat. With elements of Tame Impala, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and some mid-200s Brit-rock, Psychedelic Porn Crumpets were the perfect midday summer anthem.
Local star Benee has had a big year, releasing her debut EP and sweeping the NZMA’s in 2019. It was no wonder that the artist poised as the ‘Next Big Thing’ had graduated from her debut on the smaller Thunderdome Stage at last year’s Laneway to the Princes St. stage in 2020. (Side note: it is always a strange pleasure seeing the traditional Auckland uni thoroughfare be transformed into a bustling concert space). Benee wakes the crowd up by first screaming at them and having them scream back before launching into “a song (she) wrote about being lonely”. The crowd dances along as Benee “la la la(‘s)” herself across the stage, jumping up at points of emphasis in her music. Benee is a magnetic performer, drawing the eye in ways different but not dissimilar to Mitski – who graced the same stage at around the same time last year. She takes a break, bending over and announcing “I’m so fucking sweaty” – right before her appropriately titled top-40 single ‘Soaked’. Benee pleasantly surprised by performing the Te Reo version of ‘Soaked’ – ‘Kua Kore he Kupu’, to a large rising cheer from the audience. Benee continues with her comedic interludes and wryly states “the next song I wrote because I was scared of being kidnapped” before seguing into the groovy ‘Monsta’, doing a funky robot dance at the end – her quasi Cruella de Vil bob bouncing up and down.
‘Drifting’ features Benee’s gentle, breathy falsetto à la Billie Eilish, whilst the chorus dips into a soft, bouncy melody reminiscent of Lillie Allen. The crowd really grooves to this one, especially when Jack Berry the featured artist takes the second verse to provide deep backup vocals. This one is a dreamy, easy-listening summer groove. The crowd really seem to be enjoying themselves. As the funky bassline of ‘Find an Island’ comes in, a wave of arms and cheers go up. There’s a sweet burr to her voice, and with the carefree, joyous air of Snow White conducting an army of critters, Benee directs the mic at the audience and conducts them with wide swings of her arm. The crowd really start to dance to ‘Evil Spider’ as images of Benee’s roll on repeat in the background and the sun glints off the clouds.
There is a sweet burr to Benee’s voice, and with her fun onstage personality, it’s easy to summarise Benee in a word – charming. She closes her set with ‘Glitter’ an audience favourite, as many get hoisted up onto one another’s shoulders.
Clouds of smoke waft from Mahalia’s cloud, a nice atmospheric touch to the UK neo-soul singer’s set on the Rotunda Stage. Mahalia has been in the business for a long time, signing at a record label when she was 13. Now 21, she owns this stage with honeyed tones and swaying hips. Smiles come easy to her, as she grins out at the audience saying “You lot seem so lit, I’m so happy – it’s so nice to see so many smiling people.” She has a way of bringing joy to the crowd and setting them to ease, whilst they slowly groove with her.
Mahalia intros ‘Consistency’ by saying she wrote it about her mum because she “is her most favourite dance partner”. This dance track has elements of Latin to it, and the crowd really go for it – just as Mahalia does – when the saxophone comes out at the instrumental break. The mood slows and the crowd begins to writhe during ‘What You Did’ as Mahalia strides across the stage, her braids swinging from a high pony, with just a bassist (Charlie) and drummer (Samson) for accompaniment.
Mahalia has such presence on stage for such a young age, which makes sense considering 2020 marks her decade in the industry. Mahalia’s music is very enjoyable and she has such a lovely presence – clearly connecting with the audience. You could feel her authenticity plainly, and she showed her appreciation believing that “going somewhere for the first time is scary as hell, but to be here and see so many of you, and see so many of you looking at me in such a nice way – it means a lot to be here.”
Mahalia closes her set with ‘I Wish I Missed My Ex’, an immensely popular track if the huge cheers and the sound of the audience singing along are any indication. Before she sings this last song, she had a “few things” to say, stating that “anyone, any big dreamers out there who want to do this, or any big thing out there, hold on to it a little tighter. Wait a little bit longer, patience is key. And to my ladies, to my gal-den… never listen to anyone who says you need to wear a bra – no matter how big those titties are!”
A teenage dream, 17 year old Ruel – complete with blonde surfer haircut – graced the Princes St. Stage, buttressed by two green six-sided die. His voice seems like it belongs to a different genre to his music, a voice that would slip easily into a boy-band rather than the gentle alt-rock/chill pop arena. At one point he climbs up onto the pedestal at the back, shredding his guitar before leaping off in a kick-jump and falling onto his knees to keep playing his solo. There is a sense of earnestness to his performance, an almost desperation to be seen as he is, fighting against whatever his voice, or his looks, or his age may be saying for him. He echoes my own thoughts post-jump by saying “that jump was hard on the knees” before going on to introduce ‘Face to Face’ “a song about stalking people. On the internet” going on to ask the audience if they’d ever “just looked at people online and wished you could be with them?” – a relatable and highly Gen Z attitude to stalking. The song has threads of a crooning 50’s love song, emphasised by the grill Ruel puts on his voice. The funky keys solo is great.
Ruel has a condensed, passionate fan-base down the front, who erupt into screams every time he pauses. The rest of the crowd really begin to dance for ‘Don’t Tell Me’, Ruel’s first single, released when he was 14 and lauded by Elton John. Ruel’s voice has a smooth bassy tone when he leans into it, and the song itself has a good build to it and breaks down into a Flume-esque beat – complete with C02 cannon. The bridge is bass heavy and very fun! During ‘Free Time’, Ruel really pushes the raspiness in his soulful voice and is backed up by strong choral vocals that colour the tune. Again, the best bit of the song is when the bass line comes in strong – just as Ruel ends the song crowing up to the sky.
Flames illuminate the screen for ‘Golden Years’ and the crowd erupts into cheers as the beet drops and C02 cannons explode, whilst Ruel sashays across the stage. Ruel definitely has a wide array of styles and it’s pleasing to see the eclectic range he can pull off – yet his voice and performance style feel most at home when he pushes the rock element that feels stronger live than it does on his studio tracks.
This US rapper draws a large crowd. Wearing a blue-long sleeved shirt that feels at odds in the heat but true to his name, Earl walks up and down the edges of the stage, alone but for his DJ, whose input doesn’t feel as well-integrated as it should – in spite of the personal rapport between the two artists. A highlight was the bass-heavy ‘Head Heavy 2’, where you could feel the rawness of Earl Sweatshirt’s performance and the stirrings of energy in the wider crowd. Earl Sweatshirt’s tracks are lyrical and laden with sumptuous imagery, however the set felt very disjointed. The dedicated crowd packed in at the front – predominantly guys – were clearly having a good time, but that didn’t seem felt by the majority of the audience. It did not give off the same broadly enjoyable atmosphere that all the other acts had, and his energy could not compare. This didn’t feel like the right avenue for Earl Sweatshirt’s work, where a more intimate and introspective setting might feel more appropriate.
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
In complete paradox to Earl Sweatshirt, Aussie rock band King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard were raving back on the Princes St. stage. With apt psychedelic imagery playing on the back screen, the band rocked hard. They had the audience head-banging with ‘Perihelion’, a track from their most recent album. This thrashing tune was tons of fun, with an iconic melody. The audience is frenetic, the time of day not slowing them down, as King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard keep up a manic rhythm throughout their set. I believe the majority of the audience were expecting to hear tracks from previous albums, but KGATLW focused primarily on their chaotic singles from Infest the Rats’ Nest. The energy soared, and the band received perhaps the most Kiwi sign of approval I’ve ever seen – a single jandal being catapulted repeatedly into the air by the moshing crowd.
Drawing what seems like the largest crowd of the night, Charli XCX commands the centre of attention, flanked by two sets of stairs and bathed in an impressive and intense lighting rig. At one point she calls out to the crowd shouting “My name is Charli, and I like to fucking party!” She blasts through a high-energy set swinging from the tech-pop ballad ‘White Mercedes’ to the sharp, throbbing ‘Vroom Vroom’ – stage suffused in pink light for this grungy bop.
Wearing black pants and a crop top, with a connecting harness and dramatic shawl, Charli’s ponytail matches – long and dark – as it swishes back and forth in front of the large, luminescent cube at the back of the stage. She sways her hips to the fun dance track ‘Focus’, with the crowd erupting into screams as she takes the time to shake out some killer moves. At one point, she has the whole crowd “from the front to the back” crouch down and keeps us in suspension until everyone does, before the crowd explode upwards for the final moments of ‘Focus’.
An unexpected highlight is Charli XCX pulling out her cover of the Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’, a track she features on with Diplo and Herve Pagez. The crowd goes crazy for this steamy, reggaeton-esque cover, with groups of friends turning to one another to belt out the iconic chorus. The voice of the audience soars again on top of Charli XCX’s retro banger ‘Boys’. Charli XCX is an excellent performer and the crowd loves her. Speaking of another excellent performer, Charli then segues into ‘Blame it on Your Love’ her 2019 track with Lizzo. It is a powerful live performance of the track, with a blinding black-and-white lighting scheme. Charli includes Lizzo’s verses and performs a great dance routine to loud cheers.
In what seems to be her resounding call throughout the set, Charli once again cries out to the audience “My name is Charli XCX. Make some motherfucking noise!” And they do. The singer closes with ‘1999’, her top-40 collaboration with Troye Sivan, and the crowd is left hopping with excitement.
One of two final acts of the night (I’m so sorry Marlon Williams, the choice was killer!), British headliners The 1975 match the explosive screams of the audience at their entrance with the explosive screams of ‘People’, the opening single on their latest album. Chaotic images of the world – possums, fires, crash signs – flash in the background, and amidst the madness lead-singer Matty Healy languorously slips off his leather jacket and drops it on the floor of the stage, revealing his white, long-sleeve knitted sweater.
Crayon-colours light up the stage as the band swerves into ‘TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME’, a funky dance-track that has the audience moving. Healy is wearing a pearlescent multi-tiered choker necklace with a drop pendant that swings as he works it against the mic, his tongue hanging out as he grooves. Demonstrating their range, the band swing to another new single ‘Me & You Together’ a sugary, romantic song of sandbox love. As saxophone rings out, Healy dons a funny hat and backpack, matching the music video that plays on the screen, for the jazzy ‘Sincerity is Scary’. The track is very playful, and the mood carries over into the deceptively bouncy ‘It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)’ – a 2018 track that sounds like a love-song and is in fact apparently referencing drug addiction.
Healy takes a brief moment to apologise for not talking – “We’ve only got an hour, so no chatting. Just know how much we love you” – before launching into ‘Robbers’ an older, narrative-laden track from their self-titled debut album. Huge screams echo through the audience at the opening strains of ‘Somebody Else’ as a pink fluorescent rectangle – a throwback to their 2016 album cover – creates an awesome infinity illusion. Pink and blue lights collide onstage, and the whole song is a dreamy delight.
Healy then tells the audience to “listen”, and as members of the crowd begin shushing those next to them Healy continues by saying “we can talk, but we have to listen” as pixelated stock photos of the environment play on stage as a modulated version of Greta Thunberg delivers a speech above a simple orchestral score. This track entitled ‘The 1975’ is a great message, but doesn’t seem to reach everyone as this element of sober quiet isn’t exactly what boozy festival goers are expecting or accepting of. Healy waves at the crowd as the lights come up on the audience, and as Thunberg’s speech closes her raises his fist in the air – silhouetted. He keeps his fist up throughout the apocalyptic anthem ‘Love It If We Made It’, a broken-hearted technicolour declarative cry against the horrors of a modernity that “has failed us”. The dissonance between the upbeat, colourful song and its glimmers of hope against Healy’s impassioned vocals and bleak subject matter is striking. It likely feels intimately familiar to much of this young audience who are all too aware of the impending apocalypse we are facing, and is not dissimilar to an atmosphere Bastille attempted to elicit in their most recent album. The crowd clap and dance along.
The 1975 close Laneway out with the upbeat, get-up-and-dance track ‘The Sound’ as negative quotes from their critics flash up on the screen behind them. With an enormous crowd dancing along to their music, these criticisms feel flimsy and laughable – likely the big middle-finger effect the band are expecting. Even once the lights have come up and the band have left the stage, the crowd lingers as an encore chant starts up, not wanting the night to be over. Although The 1975 do not return, they have closed Laneway as it should be closed – with a giant dance-party in the middle of the street.