Review: Laneway Festival – Rock and roll is dead. God bless.

25 February 2020

St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, known affectionately as ‘Laneway’, made the move from the concrete jungle of Footscray’s Community Arts Centre to the luscious wonderland of Footscray Park in 2019. The name celebrates the event’s roots as a boutique inner-city festival born in the back alleys of Lonsdale Street, but the 2020 rendition of Laneway Melbourne was a far cry from its modest beginnings. 

If you take a look back in time through Laneway Melbourne’s headline acts you’ll see a shortlist of the biggest names in Australian/NZ music from the last decade: Gotye, Lorde, Vance Joy, Flight Facilities, Flume, the list goes on. Although in recent years the line-up has boasted an impressive mix of international acts, Australian acts are almost always at the top of the bill.

Breaking with tradition, this year the festival was headlined by international acts Charli XCX and The 1975. These two titanic, international acts were a huge drawcard for the festival and pulled a different, less indie crowd than seen in past years. Although the triple j crowd attended in full force, younger fans outside of that demographic were well represented too. 

Laneway Melbourne 2020 felt significantly less packed than my previous experiences in 2017 and 2019. My experience of Footscray Community Arts Centre was a hellscape – it felt too crowded, dangerous, difficult to navigate and I always seemed to be ten kilometres away from a portaloo. 

The venue change in 2019 was a welcome one, and there is something truly enchanting about Footscray Park as a venue. If you stand in just the right spot as the sun sets it feels like a mythical, music-filled clearing in the depths of a rainforest. 

Last year I did find myself fighting through crowds to reach a different stage, waiting 40 minutes for food (Smith & Daughters souva – worth it) and constantly at risk of stepping on people’s hands, feet and faces as they lounged on the grass, but the atmosphere overrode these small inconveniences.

I didn’t encounter any of these issues at Laneway Melbourne this year. Crowds flocked to acts from the peak of the day until the evening and every set I saw was packed with exalting fans, but it was notably less packed. It was nice to have a little more space to spread out and relax between sets. 

My day was highlighted by the effervescent, leotard and ‘dancing tights’-clad Stella Donnelly whose charismatic stage presence and frankly perfect vocal performance cast a spell on us all. She took us from mimicking a ridiculous dance number to her ‘EDM track’ ‘Die’ to swaying and sobbing through ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, an incredibly affecting and at times visceral song from her first EP she continues to handle with empathy, class and grace. 

The evening was a double-bill of ground-shaking intensity from Charli XCX and The 1975. First up was Charli XCX and Footscray Park’s green oasis was transformed into a sweaty, underground nightclub – kind of. I would challenge any Charli XCX fan to resist a passionate scream-along to her 2012 co-written track ‘I Love It’.  Although it’s not strictly from her discography, as the second song in her set it started the party with a bang.

She did a great job of sandwiching hits like ‘Boys’ and a cover/remix of the Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’ between popular numbers from her 2019, self-titled and collaboration-heavy album. Despite Charli’s slick, unrelenting performance, there was something missing for me. I was pretty far removed from the stage, but positioned right by the sound tent, I didn’t think I’d miss much. I get the feeling that Charli XCX’s music would knock the air out of you in a more intimate setting, like the Laneway Melbourne after-party at the Night Cat, and maybe a little of her magic got caught in the wind.

The final act of the night was The 1975. Their set burst into action with gritty, punky protest song ‘People’, accented by front-man Matt Healy and huge words on the screen behind him mirroring the lyrics. The set included tracks from their 2018 and 2016 albums as well as latest single ‘Me and You Together Song’ in a combination that showcased their musical breadth and message and kept fans happy. I was under the misled impression that they didn’t play songs from their 2013 debut album any more, so was shocked and EXTREMELY happy to hear the opening bars of ‘Chocolate’ and later ‘Sex’.

A hush fell over the crowd as Matt requested we all be quiet for a few minutes while they played a six minute spoken-word collaboration with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Six minutes is a lot of time to listen and think in the middle of a set. At the centre of my musings was that if you’re going to use the carbon it takes to roll out an international tour (air travel being the worst offender for greenhouse gas emissions) some might consider it a moral obligation to use some of the time you have a captive audience for to make a difference in other ways.

The set wrapped up with ‘Love It If We Made It’. It’s a sombre note, with the lyrics ‘modernity has failed us’ repeated and the overarching message that basically, everything’s fucked but it’d be great if we could find a way to change the course. The 1975’s set wasn’t just food for thought, it was a call to action. 

With the final words emblazoned across the screen, ‘Rock and roll is dead. God bless’ burned onto the back of my eyes, I stumbled away to Footscray station and caught a super-inflated Uber home, thinking about CO2 emissions, Greta Thunberg and the fact that I spent $40 on a Ruel bucket hat.

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