Laneway festival review – Haim, Phoebe Bridgers and Fred Again try out new Sydney venue, with mixed results

It’s been well over a decade since Laneway festival resembled the Melbourne street party it began as back in 2005. Now a six-stop tour across Australia and New Zealand, its Sydney iteration has most recently (and consistently) been held at the beautiful but bottleneck-inducing sandstone buildings at Rozelle’s Callan Park. But this year’s move to Sydney Showgrounds in Homebush was its most jarring yet: about as far as you could get conceptually from an inner-city laneway.

Recent festivals have dealt with bigger problems, of course: from the industry decimation wrought by the pandemic, to a spate of cancellations thanks to extreme weather – a fate that befell this year’s Auckland edition of Laneway. But a question loomed above the crowd: could the barren, grey Olympics wasteland, now home of the Royal Easter Show, retain a vibe?

First impressions weren’t great: police and sniffer dogs lined the walls as the mid-afternoon crowd funnelled in, hidden until you’d already entered, pulling people aside for strip-searches. Their presence inside, thankfully, was less overbearing.

The Showgrounds might not be as cinematic as Callan Park, but it is more functional: jumping between the four stages was fast and easy, and everything, for the most part, just worked. The three stages inside dark exhibition halls weren’t exactly picturesque, but the convenience (and shade) made up for what was lost in charm. It might be the most laneway-free Laneway yet (and nary a vintage pop-up or jewellery boutique in sight!), but the lineup itself – which hits Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth this weekend – is a trademark eclectic mix of genres, including festival favourites (Haim, Fontaines DC, Julia Jacklin) and new, trendy acts (TikTok sensations Joji and Girl in Red).

The Gen Z-dominating crowd had plenty of main character energy, with every second person dressed like Portia from The White Lotus, in knitted bucket hats, three-quarter cargos, or sweater-as-shirt. Early afternoon sets were surprisingly raucous and silly: Sycco led a 3pm crowd at one of the main stages through a chant of “Slay! Slay! Slay!” for no reason, before jumping on to 2021 hit Time’s Up; New Zealand four-piece The Beths got the crowd bouncing during a time usually reserved for polite head nods; Melbourne DJ JamesJamesJames packed out the outdoor stage – which doubles as the Easter Show’s wood chopping arena – with a hyperpop mix heavy on Charli XCX, and a constantly rising BPM. It was relentless in the heat but the crowd stayed till the end, before fleeing en masse for shade.

Fellow Melbourne producer Harvey Sutherland was joined by a live drummer to run through last year’s long-awaited debut album of self-described “neurotic funk”, Boy. It was a much gentler set, with the crowd building steadily – a nice way to enter an evening of Triple J indie-pop favourites: Australians Mallrat and Julia Jacklin, as well as Finneas (Billie Eilish’s brother and co-producer) and Norway’s Girl in Red.

Mallrat’s Teeth, from her 2022 debut Butterfly Blue, is excellent in a festival context: an ethereal, reverb-heavy track that lets Grace Shaw and the crowd thrash around. The set clashed with Julia Jacklin, who was thankfully just a few minutes’ walk away; much of the two crowds swapped over at some point. Joined by her band, the Blue Mountains-born, Melbourne-based singer threw herself into one of the day’s most wrenching sets, before ending with her most up-tempo track Pressure To Party: there’s nothing quite like screaming along a promise to love again soon.

It was at night that the set times got confusing, largely due to the scheduling of Fred Again. The British producer’s trio of Actual Life mixtapes, released from 2021 onwards, have catapulted him from a behind-the-scenes unknown to one of dance music’s biggest names, known for mixing house and IDM with vocal samples taken from friends. Between landing four tracks on this year’s Triple J Hottest 100, a viral Boiler Room set, and last week’s 3.4-second sell-out “secret” show in Melbourne, it was clear he was going to land the biggest and most enthusiastic crowd. He could have used a later time than 8pm; it was a hard act to follow, even for (and perhaps especially because) it was followed by Phoebe Bridgers.

The beloved singer-songwriter was one of Laneway’s biggest gets: her second album Punisher arrived in 2020 just as people needed to express the vague melancholy that had crept across the world, inspiring a feverous attachment to her songs that most artists long for. But after Fred Again, the tonal and tempo shift was too severe: so many people split off to see hyperpop-ska-punk duo 100 Gecs that the gates to that arena were closed, leaving those wanting to dance stranded.

But the diehards who stayed for Bridgers sang back loudly at her, swaying and, in more than a few cases, crying along.

Irish post-punk band Fontaines DC and producer Ross From Friends headlined the remaining stages, again whipping the crowd into an energetic state that couldn’t be matched by Joji, who followed Bridgers on the main stage: an admittedly lively performer but of lo-fi R&B, which seemed to deflate the crowd.

Related: Will Australia’s festivals survive a wet, chaotic, expensive summer?

It was up to a blast of Cher and Britney to revitalise us before headliners Haim, at 11pm. The trio of sisters danced in sync, and told charming stories between huge sing-a-longs pulled from their three 70s-inspired pop albums; they asked the room where they could party after the show, with Este Haim suggesting the Rocks (to boos), then small queer Redfern bar the Bearded Tit (mass cheers).

But the Tit, an hour’s train ride from Homebush, is definitely closed at 1am on Monday – and despite their enthusiasm, the crowd emptied out after the first few Haim songs, eager to get a head start on the trip home. Sydney Showgrounds proved it can offer Laneway the right vibe – but perhaps more thoughtful scheduling could have kept them dancing until the end.