Elize Strydom gets friendly with Girl Talk, The Hold Steady and Architecture In Helsinki at the St Jeromes Laneway Festival in Brisbane.
I don’t think it’s possible to lose your posse at the St Jerome’s Laneway Festival. I just tried but then I bumped into them – literally – amongst the throng shuffling between No Age and the Temper Trap. The same thing happened during The Drones‘ set – I glanced behind to see who would be sharing the musical goodness with me and there they were. It’s just that kind of festival. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we’re squished into a few forgotten back streets behind Brisbane’s RNA showgrounds and not a barren ten acre field. I get the feeling that’s what Danny and Jerome had in mind for this fair little festival from the start. I don’t get the feeling they could have guessed what their baby would grow up to look like when they celebrated the first year of St Jerome’s Bar in Melbourne with a bangin’ street party for a group of discerning music lovers. Since then ‘Laneway’ has become a national event, this year adding Perth to the itinerary. It definitely has its own niche, more ’boutique’ than ‘big day out’, and you’re likely to catch bands you may have heard in name only. Most probably dropped in conversation by the coolest kid you know.
Bands like the John Steel Singers. Okay, okay, so I’m sure you’ve heard their fanciful falsettos by now, what with the triple j Unearthed Artist of the Year gong and all, but they haven’t been on the national scene for long. The aforementioned falsetto is one of the first sweet sounds I hear as I bustle through the festival gates.
‘Is that the John Steel Singers?’ asks my mate. ‘I think so. Are there ten of ‘em on stage?’ I reply. So there are six band members, not ten, but you get what I’m saying right? We head over to the Alexandria Street stage and there they are bouncing around, long locks flouncing around their heads as they belt out tunes featuring the wonderful Pete and his trombone, Ross on drums, Pat on bass and the others on whatever instrument they pick up. They’re having fun and it’s catching. Bodies are walking towards the stage as if being pulled by some magnetic force. Slowly their limbs start moving…are they? Yes people are dancing, what a wonderful world.
Safe in the knowledge that I’ve left the punters in good hands I bolt over to the Car Park Stage one song into Tame Impala‘s set. My expectations are high because, you know, these boys are obviously so hot right now. It takes two seconds to see why. Or should I say hear. Visually, they’re three barefoot boys wearing plain tees and old Nike sports shorts but aurally they’re taking me on a psychedelic journey and I feel like I’m being hypnotised and I can’t stop my eyes from closing and my sensory perception is overloading and what are you doing to me?! Maybe it’s Kevin’s languid phrasing or the guitar distortion or the way each song takes on a life of its own and goes exactly where I want it to go, but didn’t realise. Forty One Mosquitoes Flying in Formation, Skeleton Tiger and that cover of Blueboy’s Remember Me morph into long jams. That sort of thing has the tendency to come across as a little indulgent and, at times, a sure fire way to lose your audience, but not today. Jay, Dominic and Kevin launch into Desire Be, Desire Go and I realise the magic is coming to an end. I could have listened to them all day and looking around it’s clear I’m not the only one.
Back over on the Alexandria Street Stage Holly Throsby helps to break my fall. Her gentle, quiet and unassuming stage presence is like the cool relief that comes when the breeze blows through the trees and touches our sweat-damp faces. This girl has a little something that sets her apart from the multitude of sweet-voiced singer/songwriters. I think it’s because when she sings tunes like Making a Fire, Things Between People and A Heart Divided you know she’s telling the truth, both lyrically and in her performance. A diminutive soul, Holly doesn’t make a fuss and seems completely at ease strumming the guitar or sitting at the keyboard. Her bandmates – Bree and Jans aka the Hello Tigers – swap between the drums, accordion, glockenspiel and mandolin, cello and bass respectively. They fill out Holly’s subtle melodies and create a beautiful sense of simple delight.
The crowd strolls away and I spot dreamy smiles spread across glowing faces. Some look like they’re planning to take a little kip and reflect on the day so far. But then something catches their eye. Is that Jay, drummer from Tame Impala, sitting bare-chested on a platform above a tank full of water? Why, yes it is. This day’s going from strength to strength! I soon catch on that it’s one of those Hit ‘n’ Dunk games where punters peg a ball at a target and if they hit the bull’s eye the poor sod on the platform gets wet. There’s a list of ‘Dunk Times’ posted on the brick wall and I see that members of Cut Off Your Hands, the Temper Trap, Jay Reatard and Still Flyin’ will all take a seat on the Platform of Doom. Good sports huh? Plus all the money raised goes to charity. Everybody wins!
Indie darlings Yves Klein Blue aren’t on the list, they’re on stage. Slick hair, big hair, red hair – these poppy, punky, jazzy rockers have got it covered. Charles swaggers to the mic in his high wasted Ksubi’s with the arms of his button-up shirt rolled tightly over his biceps. He surveys the crowd and a huge grin spreads across his baby face before he counts in a rollicking yet-to-be released tune. They boys are treating us to a swag of new songs from their highly anticipated debut LP plus favourites like Silence in Distance and Polka. It’s obvious that despite the success they’ve achieved over the past few years they’re still as wide-eyed and appreciative as ever.
After Yves Klein Blue make a reluctant exit, the all hootin’, all hollerin’ Born Ruffians take to the stage. At first the Canadian trio remind me of Vampire Weekend but I soon hear distinct differences. There seems to be a real buzz surrounding these guys; a large crowd has gathered and there are even three girls in the front row dressed (and painted) in red, yellow and blue – the name of the band’s first long player. By the time they hit their strides with songs like Hummingbird and I Need a Life people are singing along with every word. To be honest, I’m a little surprised. What was I doing while everybody else was off getting into these rascals?
I think I was busy trying to figure out the Temper Trap. When these Melbourne lads dropped Sweet Disposition they had my full attention. But I didn’t want to declare my love too loudly ‘cos I got the feeling they were one of those bands who had been on the scene for years making outstanding records with a small but dedicated following. That’s kinda true but apparently the band has come in a few different forms and represented a diverse range of genres. As expected, a large crowd has gathered around the Car Park Stage to find out more about this mysterious five-piece. From the word go I was transfixed on Dougy, the enigmatic front man, and his captivating vocals. Throughout the set, singing duties are shared and soulful harmonies come as an unexpected delight. Sweet Disposition is the fourth song on the set list and I’m more than impressed. I get the feeling that I’m witnessing something special from a collective on the verge of something big. They close with a cover of Dancing in the Dark by none other than the Boss. What? Where did that come from?! It doesn’t matter, the Temper Trap can do no wrong.
Meanwhile there’s potential for things to go horribly wrong for New Zealanders Cut Off Your Hands. The security guards are setting up wheelie bins in the pit and filling them with water. Huh? As soon as the boys bound on stage it becomes clear: lead singer Nick likes to get close to his fans, either that or he’s just had a six-pack of Red Bull and needs to burn off a little energy. Which would be totally plausible; this is one fire-cracker of a guy! At this point I’m torn: I really want to stick around for songs like Happy As Can Be, Still Fond and Oh Girl but The Drones are about to start over in the Car Park.
The Drones win. I arrive halfway through the first number and am greeted by Gareth’s dark and dirty snarl. It took me a while to warm to the Melbourne rogues but now I won’t hear a bad word against them. Oh My and the Minotaur are clear standouts. The Drones seem to project a surly lawlessness and devil-may-care attitude which works in their favour on stage. Gareth literally spits his words and is so direct I feel that if I take my eyes off him I’ll suffer the frightening consequences. Like poor Michael who cops a snare drum to the head during one of the crazier moments of the set. Things seemed to take a turn at that point. Nothing wildly out of hand, just your garden variety of rock ‘n rollery, I guess. On the surface it doesn’t look like the band connect; it’s as if they’re all doing their own thing (especially Fiona who has her back to the audience for the majority of the set) but that must be a ruse because they couldn’t possibly produce such gold unless they were well and truly cohesive. The last few minutes are a wall of distortion that trails after the band as they stride off stage.
The next 40 minutes are spent darting back and forth between stages trying to catch snippets of Architecture in Helsinki and Brooklyn boys, The Hold Steady. Not the best way to experience what each group has to offer, I must say. I don’t feel I’m able to really sink my teeth into either of the sets.
That said, these two acts are strong contenders for the title of “Band that Has the Most Fun on Stage’– so who cares if I enjoy it or not! I haven’t seen AiH before but everybody talks up their live show….and I can see why. Still, I overhear a guy nearby say he’s seen them six times and this is by far their most subdued performance. Geez, if this is ‘subdued’ I’d like to see ‘on fire’! The Melbourne collective bound and bop and jump and hop all over the stage as they belt out newie That Beep as well as old favourites from their impressive back catalogue like Hold Music and Heart it Races. They swap instruments, take turns singing and generally dish out the good vibes in spades.
The Hold Steady are also on the good vibes train riding off the back of last year’s record, Stay Positive. How Craig Finn remembers the lyrics to all of his songs I will never know. These tunes are wordy. Don’t believe me? Try singing along. Musically it’s classic, riff-driven pop rock but lyrically it’s like a life story packed into three minutes and 30 seconds. That can be damn annoying but The Hold Steady has the chops to make it work. Even if the kids didn’t know all the words they certainly join in for numerous choruses, with gusto! Visually the band keeps us entertained. Finn is a fan of gesticulating and generally waving his spirit fingers about the place. He’s also a fan of yellow microphones. That’s lost on me. Maybe he explained it while I was over watching Architecture in Helsinki?
Okay, it’s time for Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis) and something is not quite right. The mood has changed. Sure, people are drunker but they seem angrier too. Not what I expected from punters about to enjoy a DJ (sorry, musician) who mashes Gwen Steffani, Jay-Z and Michael Jackson. They’re packed in and getting impatient. Phew, here he comes. Gillis runs on stage and does a few laps before whipping off his hoodie (no, it’s not the last item of clothing to go). He then takes his place behind a big desk and starts playing with all of his musical toys. And what’s this? A whole bunch of people fill the stage. It appears they’ve been hand-picked to bust some moves and create a party vibe but it seems all they’re doing is making everyone else jealous. Guys and girls make attempt after attempt to fend off the security guards and launch themselves up on to the stage to join the rent-a-crowd. Some make it, some don’t, and it’s entertaining but gets kinda distracting. I like the idea of Girl Talk, really, I do. It takes a lot of skill and persistence and talent to produce these mash-ups. They’re fun to listen to and I turn that stuff up when it comes on the radio, but something about Gillis’ is bugging me… or maybe it’s the drunk dude who just made it up to on stage and is proceeding to get the junk out of his trunk for all to see? Hmmm, I think it’s time to back away slowly then make a run for it in the hope of catching a little Augie March.
A little is right, like, the last line of the last song. But from all reports it was a mesmerizing set.
There’s a tap on my shoulder. Who do we have here? It’s my posse! I told you it’s impossible to lose them.
Review by: Elize Strydom