Story and photos by Jensen Ching.
Laneway has always held a special place in my heart, ever since my first experience in 2013 (and the first one at The Meadows). In fact, it was my first music festival ever. Every year since then would be Januaries filled with a plethora of great-sounding bands and memorable experiences — I even made it one of my major music photographer goals to cover Laneway. In dizzying, breathlessly hectic fashion, I got the chance to do so last year.
A confession though: this year’s edition was a bit of a low-key affair to me. When the full line-up was announced, I saw nary a familiar name on the list apart from the local acts and Tycho (Nick Murphy who?). An initial lack of eagerness was evident whenever friends would ask the inevitable “Who are you looking forward to this year?” — and they’d be met with awkward silence and a shrug. I hope they still want to be friends.
It was only a few days before the big day out that my enthusiasm started to flare up; I realised I was in the uncommon position of heading into a top rated music festival — with a line-up I could only assume to be good — without having any knowledge of most of the acts. I was going in blind, so to speak, and that felt pretty intoxicating.
Artist discovery is one of the richest pleasures music can afford, and while past Laneways were amazing experiences in their own right, it felt thrilling to have the chance to listen to an artist for the first time and get my mind blown, live. So in that regard, Laneway 2017 delivered. And then some.
What this year’s outing also delivered was rain. Buckets and buckets of it. This year marked the return of Rainway, a moniker given to the OG edition of the festival that turned Fort Canning into a mud fort. From mid-afternoon to late evening, the downpour teased its conclusion but, alas, did not abate.
It helped that, unlike OG Rainway, the grounds’ well-kept astroturf held up admirably, leading to a non-muddy — and decidedly more pleasant — experience for everyone.
As is the case with a festival like this, I couldn’t cover the entire line-up, so I had to make compromises with which ones I could catch and which I had to ditch.
Some factors that affected my decision-making: artists that friends were hyped to see, local acts I had a duty to catch, and snippets of overheard conversations by people persuading their friends to accompany them to the other side of the festival grounds. The rain and the overall chill atmosphere did make me want to lounge about with a steaming bowl of ramen, and incidentally, that was what many, many others felt as well. Nothing like overpriced hot noodles in admittedly flavourful broth to keep the cold away.
It was great to see Singaporean acts take on the Laneway stage and deliver solid performances. From Sam Rui’s silky vocals to the return of shoegazers Astreal and the powerful, multi-textural sound of T-Rex, this year showcased the increasing diversity that is the local music landscape. Nothing else needs to be said, because if you’re not down with homegrown acts by now, you’re fucking missing out, son.
They were quantifiable elements for me though, considering I’ve watched them play multiple times over the years. So no big surprises by the talents on exhibit there. But everyone else — hoo boy. They absolutely blew me away.
Biggest revelation of this year’s line-up? Glass Animals, without a doubt. Yeah, yeah, I know they already have an established fan base, but this was the first time I was exposed to their stuff. Just my luck that they were also impressive live performers. The dynamism of their songs was a style reminiscent of Alt-J, but they had their own unique sound. The incredible stage presence of the band and their sheer fun combined to make one unforgettable introduction to their music and my most memorable act of Laneway 2017.
Talking about memorable: mid-afternoons at lengthy music festivals can hardly be called that. Between the lacklustre crowd and relatively smaller acts, a misstep in programming can make a festival feel like a marathon you need to endure to get to the end. But man, with the bad weather and gloominess settling in, I don’t believe anyone was prepared for the absurdly wonderful weirdness that Wednesday Campanella brought to Laneway that afternoon.
From the way she made her entrance perched on a ladder sporting colourful wings, to how she ended her set crowd-surfing (or rolling?) inside a giant inflatable ball, she stoked up an audience that had initially settled in for the slog of a rain-drenched festival day. Madcap partying abound when she came on stage accompanied by quirky visuals, large props, frenetic dance moves and some of the catchiest pop music I’ve ever heard.
On a totally different stage with a totally different vibe, KOHH provided the White Room with one of the most breathless sets of the day. The Japanese rapper had the crowd fired up for what seemed like an eternity as he blasted blistering verses non-stop. Essentially, KOHH was lit AF, fam (forgive my French).
One of the most talked-about timing clashes of Laneway this year was White Lung versus Whitney, whose sets both started at the same time. I still hadn’t decided on which one to catch, but I had the bright idea to quickly check out the reviews of their latest albums on Pitchfork — they turned out to be almost identical (also, there goes my street cred…).
In the end, I decided to go with the punk sound of White Lung and arrived at their sound check early enough to hear lead vocalist Mish Way telling the crew to “blast the guitars way up” on her monitors — a surefire sign that shit was gonna go down. The crowd was, unfortunately, a wee bit thin due to the set clash, but it didn’t matter because White Lung got every single one in attendance head-banging to their intoxicatingly dark and intense tunes. Personally, I cut my (photography) teeth shooting punk and hardcore shows, and I’ve always felt that punk rock is at its purest when experienced live.
I made a half-hearted attempt to catch Whitney on the other stage, but after half a song, I decided to go back for the end of White Lung’s set. Conclusion: Whitney sounds the same if I listened to them on iTunes, but the visceral power of White Lung’s music demanded I catch them in full, moshpit-inducing glory.
The universal truth for any large-scale festival is that you won’t be able to catch every single artist on the line-up. I simply ran out of time to fit in some of the acts I wanted to see, like Tash Sultana, Mick Jenkins and Aurora.
But I did manage to catch a couple more bands. Luca Brasi and Gang of Youths provided the guitar rock drive that remained a prominent part of Laneway, together with psychedelic rock brought by fan favourites King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard. Jagwar Ma’s eclectic set list and Tycho’s ambient soundscapes provided a good contrast to the other acts, and Nick Murphy alternately delighted and confounded fans of his former persona.
This year, more than any other Laneway I’ve attended, feels like a festival that’s able to mould itself into whatever each festival-goer is looking for. Never mind the lack of strong headliners or the inclement weather — at the end of the day, the festival showcased its trademark variety of top-notch artists to folks who may or may not be familiar with the music (and who may end up finding new favourites amidst the unknowns). It’s Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist IRL, and even as I sit at home reminiscing the weekend while listening to Glass Animals, I’m already looking forward to the next one.