There’s one in every group. In ours it’s Sammy Eastwood, pushing fun times, working out tickets and accommodations, and putting it all on her credit card. This is how you get 33 of your closest friends to Singapore over a pre-Tet weekend, staying together in three rooms of a prime-location hostel, then attending one of the best festivals the region has seen.
The occasion was Laneway 2014, an indie extravaganza that featured five Pitchfork best-of-2013-ranked artists. On The Top 50 Albums of 2013 list, Chvrches breaks the ice at 36th, James Blake comes in 26th, Haim ranks 17th, Kurt Vile ranks 13th and Savages come in with the ninth-ranked album of last year. This is the kind of lineup that only comes to places with forward-thinking music fans — or at least ones willing to spend over VND2 million for a day’s entertainment.
By starting the Facebook organising three-and-a-half months before Laneway came to Asia, Sammy was able to hook us all (plus another 10, staying in random accommodations throughout the city) into one of the things so appealing about being a VND1 million flight away from a completely foreign setting.
She booked a hostel named Shophouse — ‘the social hostel’ — and we brought our duty-free bottle of booze per person to its rooftop. Downstairs, the imported ciders and beers made us lustful and spendy; they’re priced at S$9 to S$10 (VND160,000-ish) a pop. Cute shops abounded, and when we left two days later we cradled our aching wallets, afraid to look inside.
The Nickel-and-Dime Phenomenon
It’s a well-known fact of concert-going in Vietnam that crowds are cheap. Though the economy can’t quite support the Australia-level admission fees, Laneway Singapore charged (S$160 at the door, or roughly VND2.67 million), it’s still a bit shocking that many are turned off by VND50,000 entries but undeterred by VND80,000 drinks.
Because of this situation, international bands just off their first break are hard to book. Though The Cribs and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s best days are behind them, they still managed to coax Ho Chi Minh City show-goers into spending VND350,000 on advance tickets. But for taking a flyer on a band who they’ve only heard of, briefly? That’s a hard mark to hit, never mind the air miles such a band must travel to get here.
It’s because of this conundrum that we had to travel to Singapore to see the vital new music on display there, and it turned out to be very worth it.
A Polite Party
Originating in an alley alongside a Melbourne venue called St. Jerome’s Bar, over the past decade Laneway has grown into an international happening. In its 2013-14 edition, it made stops in several Australian cities, New Zealand, the US and Singapore.
The edition that we attended — alongside 10,000 others, and the random promotions, parking lot parties and patches of grass that make the festival experience something greater than the sum of its acts — was the city’s fourth, and biggest yet according to the official PR. It was also the biggest thing any of us had seen since we came to Asia (our group was expat-heavy), and something a few of us knew the value of, having experienced Glastonbury and other similarly costly fests.
Watching how another Asian crowd handles fly-by western success stories proved educational, with a predictably polite crowd raising mobiles and doing little else in time to the music. The applause came at the end of songs, except when call-and-response pros like Haim played with their adoring but none-too-dancey audience.
“Come on Singapore,” middle sister/guitarist/lead vocalist Danielle said, “get excited!” — starting a rhythmic clapping that carried on through much of the following song.
At another song break they paused for a phone picture, something the crowd had been doing the whole while. Danielle, once again using the first-name tactic: “Say hi, Singapore!”
Later in the media tent, they told an adoring cohort (about twice the attendance of other Q-and-A sessions) that it was the best show they’ve ever played. Someone followed the feel-good hellos with a ridiculous-serious question about Beyoncé comparisons. In a microcosm, they showed why they’re so good with a crowd.
“All these bands that people compare us to, I don’t know where they come from, but they’re awesome. The fact people compare us to Beyoncé is awesome. We wake up in the morning and wish we could be Beyoncé. We write about it in our diary.”
Not everyone took the rigid vibe with such humour. In a rather light media session with Chvrches, in between the Lush FM DJ-cum-emcee’s fawnings over their elfen lead singer, one of the other band members said, “We were told in advance not to say anything we shouldn’t or we’ll get caned.”
There was a weird silence in the room. Someone asked, “Is this live?”
The emcee refrained from calling Chvrches’ lead singer cute for a moment, as she explained caning: “You know what that means? Your flesh curls around the cane. It’s not some BDSM sh-t.”
Just like that politeness was restored, with fun questions once again peppered the lead singer’s way. I hear “she’s so cute” murmured in the aftermath.
Our contingent stood out — especially the dudes in custom-tailored suits. Throughout, we chased free drinks, posed for pictures and hugged a lot. This is the festival experience we’d been missing out on in Vietnam.
After a whole day of wandering between stages and free-beer parking lot parties, high-fiving every one we could get our hands on and generally ignoring all the hydration advice we know from our workaday existences, we all managed to find each other for a transcendent James Blake closing set.
Dave and Bryon, members of Saigon-based electronic duo Space Panther, hugged after being long-separated in every-hour-is-a-day festival time. Bryon said, “I’ve thought about so many things I wanted to tell you tonight, but you weren’t around.”
Dave opened up the embrace on one side to focus on James Blake, engaged in some impressive orchestral enveloping of the tenth-hour crowd. “Dude, can you believe this is live?”