Laneway 2012 @ RNA Showgrounds, 28.01.2012 – Part 3

Disappointingly Feist (6:20pm start) has decreed that there will be no photographers in the photo pit during her set. I would have liked to have photographed her but in protest go and see Twin Shadow instead. I do go back to catch the last couple of Feist’s songs and snipe a few last-minute photos from out in the crowd.

I only spend a couple of songs with Twin Shadow (6:25pm start) before heading to Toro Y Moi (6:40pm start) who end up running really late running. It’s now entered that phase of the festival where I’m feeling tired and am really over it. By the time the band start I don’t really want to be there any more. I photograph the first couple songs but then find my exit blocked by a security guard who won’t let anyone out of the photo pit until the end of the third song. It’s maddening as although there had been a big crowd for some of the acts earlier in the afternoon, Toro Y Moi haven’t exactly pulled a massive crowd and the way out from the photo pit is largely unhindered. Instead I have to wait at the side of the stage while the band play another lengthy piece before I can get out.

I saw and photographed The Horrors (7:40pm start) when they played at MBV’s ATP Nightmare Before Xmas. It was a nothing gig, which was a bit of a surprise as they played the week after winning NME’s Album of the Year award for Primary Colours. I’m not a bit fan of bands where the singer stands there leaning heavily on his microphone stand with his arms folded in front of his face, as last seen when The National played at Harvest. It just looks like you don’t really care and are bored. On top of that I was fairly surprised that Primary Colours won the award, or was even placed anywhere near the upper reaches of the list, as to me it was a pedestrian affair that was little more than the sum of the band’s influences.

It was frustrating to photograph them at ATP as they played with no front lighting and only occasional strobe back lighting. Armed with that knowledge, I’m expecting the worst from their Laneway appearance and get what I expected. Although there’s something to be gained by after-dark shows, in that however bad the lighting, there’s just something about the photos that makes them better than photos of sets during the daytime: there’s a mix of lighting effects and the drop off into darkness that you don’t get when there’s little difference in the daytime exposure over the whole stage area.  However, photographing The Horrors is still a frustrating experience, exasperated by the long day. For much of their set I feel that I’m just standing that glaring at the band, rather than taking photos; waiting for better lighting that never comes. Performance-wise, it’s the same as at ATP and a couple years on and with a new and very acclaimed album, I still don’t really get the fuss.

I don’t know what it is about The Drums (7:50pm start). They’re a band that’s so wrong and by right, and years of experience, I should loathe, and yet both times I’ve seen them, I’ve come away enamoured with them. As I wrote the first time I saw them at Splendour in 2010, “Can’t decide if I like The Drums or want to punch them in the face. There’s something so irritating about them, their image, their haircuts, and especially their OTT tambourine playing and yet their faux 80s, faux English indie sound and them just really wanting to be The Smiths just gets through to me. Maybe it’s nostalgia for 80s English indie bands and not having listened to The Smiths for a while“.

The funny/stupid/bizarre thing is that after each time I’ve seen them, I’ve gone straight out and bought their latest album but to huge disappointment. After Splendour I went out and bought their debut album, The Drums, and it wasn’t up to much. A few days after Laneway I go out and buy their second album, Portamento, and it’s worse than their first album. And yet the band manage to be so good live playing those same songs from the albums. I’m not quite sure how that works; just a band that works better live than it does on recordings, I guess. For some unknown reason, the sound seems slightly better when they play; I’m not sure if it actually is but they sound better than some of the previous acts on The Zoo & BIGSOUND Stage. On top of that, although the lighting is tricky to deal with, the photos I come away with are among my favourites from the whole day. That they put on a performance, and through it have a better aesthetic, could help explain why they come across so much better when they play live. Unlike a lot of the band playing today’s Laneway, they also have an advantage in that they have a singer in Jonathan Pierce who only sings and doesn’t get distracted playing an instrument and so can work the crowd (and the photographers) better than some of the other acts have.

All of which brings us to the day’s headliners and the clash to end all clashes, a four-stage epic pitting M83 (9pm start), Washed Out (9pm start), SBTRKT (8:55pm start) and John Talabot (9pm start) against each other for the audiences attention. There’s three reasons why I choose to photograph M83; first, I’ve liked what I’ve heard of them and their very 1980s synth pop, second, they’re playing the biggest stage, with the biggest lighting rig, which I’m hoping will benefit the quality of the photos and thirdly, with them playing on one of the three stages nearest to each other, the plan is to quickly photograph them, then go and photograph Washed Out and then John Talabot. Getting photos of four of the headline acts seems unlikely but I feel confident that covering three of the four should be do-able.

And of course, as has been well documented, M83 start 50 minutes late. I didn’t expect Kanye West’s festival lateness record from only six days ago to be broken so soon but it at least someone told us from the stage what the problem was (even if they were lying about Kanye starting being one minute away). At Laneway there is no communication at any point in those 50 minutes to tell us what’s wrong or when the band might actually start. Watching the stage from the photo pit, there’s little in the way of activity. A few stagehands come out and look to be fiddling with one of the lights but nothing much happens on stage in regards to the instruments. Maybe it’s another in-ear monitor issue as was hinted at for Kanye, but nobody tells us anything. Not even the usual chants of ‘bullshit, bullshit’ provoke anyone running the festival to communicate what the issue is and so everyone waits 50 minutes none-the-wiser. Of course when M83 do eventually start, they play in the dark for the two songs that I can be bothered to stick around for. Having started almost at the time when they were due to finish, by the time I’ve photographed a couple songs, all the other bands on the other stages have finished. In retrospect I should have gone and done what some of the other photographers ended up doing and gone to photograph the other headlining acts instead of waiting. By the time they’d done this and come back to the Windish Agency Stage, M83 still hadn’t started anyway. But instead I use the logic that as there’s little onstage activity and as there’s no communication to explain the delayed start, it can’t be going on much longer. Packing up my bag afterwards, I’m fuming at how the day has ended.

Laneway survives because it puts on a load of the last year’s newest and hippest acts; bands that have released their first album and gotten positive reviews from the likes of Pitchfork and generated some first-album hype. In that regard, there’ll always be a demand for a Laneway-type festival, even if you never hear much from ‘those’ acts ever again. A lot of the problems with the festival lie with the venue, which offers little other than the fact it’s a usable space. Nothing other than knocking down the corrugated cattle sheds and rebuilding them is ever going to improve the sound in the spaces that made up the majority of stages this year. That one of the outdoor stages moved inside this year due to the rain doesn’t help matters, but if you get slim pickings from promoters, and festivals are the only chance you have of seeing so many bands, making sure the experience is an enjoyable one is paramount; appalling sound is the ultimate insult. One observant photographer noticed the number of people wearing a certain music college’s t-shirts and questioned whether students of said college were doing the sound for the festival. It raises a number of questions as to what may have been done to help keep costs down and what impact this may have had on the poor sound and the slow changeovers and soundchecks over the course of the day that meant sets being truncated.

As with most of this year’s festivals, numbers at Laneway were down on last year. The main outdoor stage at last year’s event was much bigger than what would have been this year’s Alexandria Street stage if it hadn’t have been moved inside. You wonder if it had sold as well as last year whether the move inside would have been happened given the size of last year’s audience. There will always been a demand for the niche that Laneway serves so you’d expect it to be back again next year but it should probably focus its efforts on improving what it’s got and the potential that exists for the festival in its current form more than expanding it into new countries.

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