Review: Laneway Festival navigates a changing musical landscape

Australian music festivals are changing, and St Jerome’s Laneway Festival is moving with the times, writes Walter Marsh.

Once based on exploiting musical — and literal — niches, it’s been years since St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival could feasibly fit in a laneway. Filling the vacuum in a rapidly thinning national market, it’s grown over the years to become a millennial heir apparent to the Big Day Out. But there’s a distinct change on the Port River breeze this time around as the ever-upping antes of previous years have visibly eased in favour of a calmer, friendlier breed of youth music festival.

A musician-led campaign for greater safety, respect and equality in live music has dominated conversations this past year, culminating in Camp Cope’s seismic Falls Festival appearance where the Melbourne rock trio turned their platform back on the festival to question the gender disparity of its lineup.

Laneway has been quietly proactive in this respect, removing Kirin J Callinan from the bill after the provocative guitarist  briefly exposed himself at the ARIA Awards. It was the latest in a string of questionable moves by Callinan, all forensically critiqued in online takes and Twitter threads. The move, though officially unaddressed by festival organisers, sent a clear message.

It’s broached during the early afternoon set of Callinan’s regular collaborator Alex Cameron, whose recent album Forced Witness interrogates toxic masculinity through a string of pitiful macho character studies. Cameron too has received criticism for using a homophobic slur in one such track, and you might have expected him to omit Marlon Brando entirely after reading the proverbial room.

But, soon after a member of the crowd screams “Where’s Kirin?!”,  Cameron and band make it their finale. Before they do, he prefaces it with an explanation that makes the direction of his critique clear; Australia is home to a “beautiful diverse range of people”, he says, prizing “tolerance and acceptance”. In contrast, this song is about the “confused, straight white man”.

Over on the Future Classic stage Brighton via Iceland punks Dream Wife require no pre-song exegesis for their politics, screaming the catchy mantra “I am not my body I am somebody!” along with the crowd.

In their first Australian show the band make the crowd sweat under the Port Adelaide sun with tracks from their just-released debut album along with stories of avoiding arrest after climbing the fence of what they believed to be an inner-city Adelaide cemetery (actually Government House). Meanwhile to the side of the stage, a large sign advertises a text line and phone number for anyone feeling unsafe in the crowd, further driving home every crowd member’s right to feel like somebody.

Perhaps the “festival dickheads” got the memo. Long an uncomfortable staple of the Australian music scene, usually with arms outstretched, demanding reactions from whoever is around them and wearing some kind of makeshift cape, they seem either largely absent or far less visible this year.

The crushing crowds which proved the final straw for the festival’s original Adelaide location at the UniSA campus are also long gone. A rejigged and centralised site helps make bottlenecks and queues almost non-existent, making full use of the Hart’s Mill shed which makes for a pleasant reprieve from the sun. All in all, personal space seems to be a universally agreed upon good at this year’s Laneway — a rarity for any festival.

Perhaps though, it’s less to do the newfound wokeness of the triple j demographic and more of a commercial reality. Crowd numbers seem noticeably down on last year, perhaps due to a mainstage lineup lacking the big, zeitgeist-tapping draws like Lorde, Tame Impala or Chet Faker in previous years. Odesza and Bonobo work hard to get their sizeable and enthusiastic crowds going, but earlier highlights like The Internet and Mac Demarco played the very same stages just two years ago.

If you can judge the programming of a festival this wedded to triple j’s playlists by its correlation with the station’s Hottest 100, it’s little wonder numbers seem down this year – only Amy Shark made a significant dent on last week’s annual poll.

But in lieu of the crush and spectacle of a massive festival, this year’s Laneway shines with the kind of niche programming that only a touring roadshow can really pull off. Kiwi folk singer Aldous Harding plays to a small but dedicated crowd who hang off every expressively sung syllable. Harding is backed by a stark black and white portrait of late Mexican dancer José Limón, which suits the physicality of her performance; Harding’s face and body alternately grimaces, contorts and slouches through tracks from her excellent 2017 record Party.

Another revelation is Moses Sumney, a US singer whose album Aromanticism showcased the kind of incredible falsetto that could make the Jeff Buckley posthumous reissue industry pause to reconsider its options. A dizzying experience live, Sumney’s melodies dance up and down his register before each note even hits the audience’s ears.

Later in the night English shoegaze legends and cult favourites Slowdive make their first ever appearance in Adelaide 22 odd years after first disbanding. Unlike most reunited bands who often stick to the lucrative classic album experience, a hit 2017 comeback album has brought in a whole new wave of listeners which makes for a mixed crowd of dedicated fans.

Whether broader cultural changes or the headliner-light lineup are the cause, Laneway 2018 boasted a distinctly different feel to the kind of major festivals we’re used to seeing — in some ways a return to its humbler, more idiosyncratic roots. For the sake of both young music fans who want to jump around to defining bands of the summer, and the cult favourites that thrive on the outer stages, let’s hope that’s a good development.

St Jerome’s Laneway Festival played in Port Adelaide on Friday, February 1

Photography: Sia Duff

Correction: An earlier version of this review said that Slowdive are from Scotland, when the band is from Reading, England.

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.