Hard News by Russell Brown


Music: Three Festivals

Most music festival organisers, anywhere in the world, have some idea of cultural victory in their heads. They want not only to make money, but to have their shows stand for something.

You've probably seen one or both Fyre festival documentaries, which are an excruciating look at what happens when you crave a victory – albeit, in this case, a victory within a celebrity culture that's toxic to the heart of music itself – but lack the honesty, decency and dedication to actually achieve it.

The truth is, music festivals are really hard. You're responsible for ultimately uncontrollable spaces, answerable to both the authorities and the people who pay you money. And to really succeed, you rely on those people to embrace your event as part of their culture.

The annual Laneway festival is, by tradition, the home of bands and singers you probably haven't heard of yet. The bands and singers who are going to be big next year, or the year after: that's the brand. As the sole big urban festival (it briefly crossed over with the Big Day Out) it has also become the place where city kids show up and show off, sometimes in ways that don't have a whole lot to do with music.

Of course, Monday's 10th anniversary Laneway Auckland was headlined by the very-well-known-indeed Florence and the Machine (who, you may recall, played the first one, at Britomart). But, as Sam Flynn Scott put it in his review:

I’m pretty sure I used to be the target market for Laneway, but this year I barely know anyone on the lineup.

As a joke, my good friend Lukasz sent our group chat what we thought was the lineup, but was actually a list of food stalls. None of us even noticed. I’d happily watch Judge Bao live or get a glass of Rex Orange County. It’s all new to me.

Yeah, I did a double-take at that food banner too. I mean, it's plausible.

Our crew arrived at Albert Park about 3pm (missing what sounded like a pretty good crop at the bottom of the bill, per Graham Reid's review). There were dozens of discarded Lime scooter around the gate.

We headed over to hear Skegss at the Dr Marten's stage. They seem like an okay sort of garage rock band and they drew a crowd. But then they played this one song and the kids in the crowd went nuts and sang all the words. It was 2017's 'I Got on My Skateboard' and it's the one, presumably, that cracked the Spotify algorithim and got on playlists. Well, I guess: I mused for the rest of the day that I don't really know how people 30-odd years younger than me discover and consume music.

From there, we went over to the first act I really wanted to see: Bene. She turned out to be something of a victim of her own success. Alfred Street, the narrow lane that is the site of the Thunderdome stage, was rammed nearly all the way up – which presumably had something to do with the diabolical sound. For most of her set the bass was a loud mess and her vocals flew away on the wind. At one point, her mic cut out completely. Many of the people packed in there seemed keener on talking than listening, which also didn't help.

But again, it was the hits. Things took off when she played her first single, 'Tough Guy', and when she did her current single, 'Soaked', it seemed like every girl in the crowd knew every word and sang along and it was brilliant. As evidenced by its current No.1 position in the NZ artists singles chart, that's clearly her Spotify hit.

We walked back over to the Dr Marten's stage for something completely different: The Dead C, this year's strange and solitary example of a heritage act. Let's face it, no one ever expected to see Florence and The Dead C on the same bill, until it happened. We waited in the shade of the tree by the stage until they started – and then just stayed there when they did. I found their squalling free noise not only enjoyable, but oddly relaxing. The Dead C, it turns out, are a great festival act. They even had a fancy video backdrop!

From there, we took in some of A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie over at the Rotunda stage, which was where the hip hop and soul acts were scheduled. It was bangin', felt like it had a bit of a sound system vibe and it was fun to be in a big crowd set on having it large. Possibly a little too large: about 20 minutes in, the packed crowd in front of the stage parted and a stream of wide-eyed, overheated kids gushed past us in pursuit of shade, water or whatever. Stay hydrated, young people. And wear a hat.

It was time for Parquet Courts back at the Dr Marten's stage and I enjoyed their ability to sound like a different band with every song. A little punk rock, a little psych, and in the case of their singalong Spotify playlist killer, 'Wide Awake', quite a lot disco. I'm very much in favour of rock bands playing those rhythms.

In the course of all that, I missed Lontalius, which I regret now, but I'd been put off by my Thunderdome experience a couple of hours before.

We tried a bit of Jorja Smith, but, frankly, none of us could get into it. It just seemed pretty ordinary. So we went and sat down under another tree and relaxed. And this is where I really disagree with Graham Reid, who wrote:

And what became increasingly clear as the day wore on and people peeled off for shade and rehydration-by-beer was that in fact the music – for many there – was incidental to the event itself ...

Music festivals may have always been less about the music than the chance to hang out with friends, but I don't think so.

Sitting right at the back of a Sweetwaters on a hill, halfway down in front of a Big Day Out mainstage or even at previous Laneway festivals, it always seemed to me that people were there for the whole set.

This time I did not get that impression.

Music has become much less important in the lives of young people – we know that – but it seemed to me that this very well organised Laneway was an expensive way to catch up with friends.

I actually felt that this was the Laneway that delivered on what promoter Mark Kneebone said about the Albert Park site when the festival first moved there three years ago. It was a site where people could comfortably spend hours and, if necessary, get away from the music for a bit. Lie down, eat some good food, have a yarn.

It's not actually compulsory to shuttle from one stage to another like maniacs – it's just that Mt Smart Stadium and Silo Park, where there was no real escape, made it seem that way. I'd long made a habit of wheedling my way into the VIP bar at urban festivals, just to have some respite. I don't bother any more at Laneway. It's better out in the park.

Then it was time for Courtney Barnett, the only act we watched at the big Princes Street stage. She was all class. You know what you're getting – she never loses touch with her Oz rock roots – but she's authentically great at it. My friend's daughter joined us and she and I sang along loudly to 'Depreston'. We were happy.

That's when I really took account of something I've seen others mention: there were a lot of women at Laneway this year, and presumably the headliners had something to do with that. And not just young women, but groups of mums whose once-a-year MDMA was clearly coming on, old-school lesbian couples, all sorts. I think it made for a better festival.

In the first year at Albert Park, 2017, I was struck by how wasted a lot of kids were early in the day, to the extent of being stretchered out at 2pm. My guess at the time was that it was a combination of alcohol bingeing and some shitty cathinones masquerading as MDMA. I didn't see that this year.

There was bedlam at certain times and places, as you'd expect – that's part of the fun and you shouldn't go to a music festival if you don't want to be in a lively crowd. And while I saw a couple of young guys lose the plot – including one at Bene who inexplicably decided he wanted to fight the man next to him, and even, tragically, spat at the man before being guided away by his mate – the male dickishness seemed to be dialled down.

My friend Jean, who was subjected to really nasty harassment at the last Silo Park Laneway – thought so too. This is worth talking about: Laneway's promoters took what happened to Jean and others in 2016 very seriously. They didn't want that bad year to happen again. So Jean's shitty experience was a factor in the introduction of a women's safe area (the best toilets, Jean says) and an 0800 onsite emergency line. The promoters also granted her five years' free entry to the festival. This year, she chirped to me, men danced with her in the crowd and that was a lot better than being harassed.

(She also got quite a few kids coming up to tell her how great it was that old people come to festivals. You get that. Charlotte Ryan got that.)

It's a rule of festival production that the first year on a new site is always the hardest: after that, you can work out what your problems are and refine what you're doing. Laneway is getting pretty refined. I never had to queue too long at the bar or for a toilet and the wine bar area – to whence we repaired after Courtney – was just very pleasant. It had bean bags! None of us had any interest in seeing Florence, so we relaxed again, with a couple of glasses of rosé.

The only thing I really wanted to see – indeed, the artist I wanted to see more than anything else on the bill – was Jon Hopkins, so while we waited for him to come on at 9.30pm, my buddy and I sampled Denzel Curry (which just sounded like yet more 808 hip hop that I'm not into) and then found ourselves back at the Thunderdome for DJDS, who performed amusing and occasionally risible EDM to a small, frantic crowd.

We walked back past the Princes Street stage, where Florence was howling and groaning to a huge crowd. I mean, I'm glad she makes people happy – even Simon Sweetman – but I just want no part of it.

After another rest at the wine bar, we went over for Jon Hopkins and he did not disappoint. I had the dance I'd been craving all day and while my body moved, my head was working through what he was doing with those tones and those rhythms. It was wonderful, as good as techno gets in this kind of setting. I was elated by it. Jonah Merchant got some video of the title track from Singularity:

Yeah, the lights were really that bright.

After that, we waited for my friend's daughter and her boyfriend to finish up with Florence and then walked down the hill, expecting to catch an Outer Link bus back to my place, as I'd done in previous years. No dice. First, the usual (and in past years) bus stop was closed, with not really enough signage saying so. Fortunately, I noticed and we decamped to the temporary stop on the other side of Queen Street. There were no buses. It felt like the day's big production fail was not at the festival, but at the damn bus stop. Auckland Transport, do better.


I've been to a couple of other festivals this summer. Wondergarden on New Year's Eve was the first. The promoters got caned last time over the crazy bar queues, but they fixed that this time – partly by adding another bar, but mostly, I suspect, by managing to get people to not all arrive at once at 9pm. The stretched-out day also earned them quite a few family groups, which was cool.

But I found myself internally shouting at people to put some damned muffs over their small children's ears. The stages got a significant production upgrade this year and it was loud. Too loud, perhaps, for the Silo Park site. There were a few older punters cowering down by the kids' playground at times.

The big innovation was the setting up of a nightclub in the silos. It was a brilliant idea not so brilliantly executed. Fiona and I went in and had a nice dance for a while in one of the outer spaces – they each had their own PA stack – but it was kind of unpleasant eventually. Getting the sound right in a series of round concrete spaces was always going to be a challenge, and so it proved.

But the big problem was that at the same time as the festival sorted its event production, something went badly wrong with the stage production. We caught Avantdale Bowling Club, who were brilliant in front of a smallish crowd, and showed another side of themselves in a festival setting.  ("It's kinda nice to be in Auckland on New Year's Eve," Tom Scott observed from the stage. "Usually at this time of year we're in some zombie campground.") 'Home', which they play live with the long rap performed entirely a capella, just gets better every time I hear it.

From there, it seemed a long wait for local Instagram-R&B star Matthew Young. Who was fucking dreadful. I get that he has an audience, but a festival stage is not the place for his music – not until he can do something that's not as dreary and formulaic as what he dished up. I understand why he was booked – compiling festival bills is a matter of reaching different ticket-buying audiences – but it sucked. And did I mention it was really loud?

Katchafire were up next, after what seemed like another longish wait. They were, well, Katchafire. And that's where things seemed to go off the rails. Fiona and found bean bags to sit on and waited for Cut Off Your Hands. Forty five minutes after their scheduled set time, they came on. They were pretty cool and had a new thing going on – I loved their version of 'Pull Up to the Bumper'. But because of the delay, their scheduled 50-minute set wasn't even 30 minutes long. Ladi6's set – again, 45 minutes late – was also great and similarly truncated.

By then, Fiona was exhausted and I had a party to DJ at, so we headed home, missing the internationals Dam Funk and Nightmares on Wax. We'd had an decent enough time, heard some good music, but I feel like Wondergarden still hasn't found its sweet spot.

The other day out was Fat Freddy's Drop's festival lineup at Western Springs outer field – on a scorching day with little in the way of shade. This was the kind of show where families bring their folding chairs and relax. At times, it even felt a little too relaxed. If Wondergarden was a little too loud for its site, the Freddies show was a little the opposite. It was certainly quite different to the last time I saw them – their thunderous, intense Bays album launch show at Auckland Town Hall.

But what it was, was a lovely day out with dancing. And, as my friend Madeleine pointed out, one apparently devoid of dudes being jerks. ("It's like they've put something in the water!" she marvelled.) The consensus of a subsequent Twitter discussion was that that's a Freddies thing. They foster niceness. Long may they do so.


Seeing as this is a music post and not just a festival post, allow me to recommend the most delicious new dub album I've heard in years. Last week, Christoph El' Truento, the adventurous Auckland producer and DJ, released Peace Maker Dub to mark his own 30th birthday. It's finely-tooled, warm and basically the musical equivalent of a welcoming hug from a friend . Get your name on it while there's still plenty of summer to come.

You might also want to get onto this free download of a previously-unreleased John Morales remix of Candi Staton's 'Victim', while it's there.

And, finally, Massive Attack playing 'Teardrop' in Glasgow a few days ago. Oh my goodness ...

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