Monthly Archives: August 2012

Briefings From Beacons

While this won’t be as sprawling as some of my other festival reviews, I figured I should offer some thoughts on this weekend’s festival, as a) Joe of Please Please You was kind enough to offer me guestlist for it and b) I just read a somewhat unfairly negative review on Louder Than War that talked about precisely one band (and even then didn’t make it fully clear which band they meant). But I wouldn’t want to gloss over some of the negative aspects of the event, so lets get them out of the way first. Yes, there weren’t enough toilets – I definitely felt a bit sorry for all the female attendees and families with young kids, as the free-standing urinals in the arena mostly alleviated that issue for me. Yes, I couldn’t see any water points in the arena, and a lack of signage on the campsite made it appear that there was only one malfunctioning water tap to serve a few thousand people (this wasn’t actually the case, but I’d only realise this halfway through Sunday). Were these factors enough to ruin the weekend for me? Not really, no, though maybe I’d have been more pissed about it if I’d have paid for the privilege of being there. Anyway, if you want to read a load of moaning about that and other stuff, go have a look at Louder Than War’s review if you so desire – no, I’m not linking it – I’m here to talk about the music.

Friday

Friday was mostly spent wandering around, taking in bits of various bands and trying to find something that would really hold my interest – the brooding post-rock of Post War Glamour Girls gets things off to a reasonable start, but York locals Fawn Spots are the first big hit of the day for me. Their new lineup comes as a surprise to me – following the departure of original drummer Lee Bowden (an amicable split, I’ve been assured), Sean Joseph Hughes has stepped in behind the kit, with Oli Grabowski (aka Endangered Species) providing additional guitar and backing vocals. While the chemistry between Bowden and frontman Jon Meager will be missed, the three-piece sound remarkably tight considering they’ve been together less than a week. They also play two brand new songs (again, written less than a week ago), suggesting that Fawn Spots MK 2 have a bountiful future ahead of them.

Over on the main stage Theme Park play an almost inappropriately tropical-sounding set given the overcast weather, while Disclosure have a bit of a nightmare in the dance tent. They start out with ‘Control’, but the volume isn’t high enough for the crowd’s liking – and they’ve got a fair point. Things go from bad to worse when it appears that the speakers have blown – and when the performance gets started again, they duo only last a couple more songs before the sound dies again and they’re forced to abandon their set entirely. With Julio Bashmore cancelling due to illness on top of that, I can’t help but feel that there will have been a lot of disappointed Friday day-ticket holders…

More meandering ensues, and after Veronica Falls prove pretty dull, Runaround Kids do a pretty good job of livening things up again by at least vaguely reminding me of Johnny Foreigner in places. Hey Sholay win the prize at this point in the day though, their cheery, infectious indie-pop fully invigorating me again. Most of my time after that is spent impatiently waiting for Factory Floor, and happily they don’t disappoint – my only minor complaint is that they keep teasing me with things that sound a bit like their 2011 single ‘(R E A L L O V E)’ without actually playing it, their krautrock-inspired electronica is utterly mesmerising in its repetitiveness nevertheless.

After that, Peace keep me somewhat entertained by at least alluding to various bands I like (Wild Beasts, Friendly Fires, The Horrors, Foals) without necessarily being quite as good as any of them, while Roots Manuva provides a definite feel-good vibe with his main stage headline set. It’s Savages who provide me with one last surprise for the day though, their intense, visceral brand of post-punk coming across like an all-female version of early Joy Division – yes, that good; I was genuinely blown away.

Saturday

I didn’t actually realise this coming into the festival, but Saturday proved to be the strongest day overall in terms of the lineup for me. The Magnetic North and Stalking Horse both impress me early on, and Juffage demonstrates his multi-instrumental talents with a performance that I somehow feel would be even more impressive in a smaller venue – I make a mental note to try and get to his next show at The Basement in York.

2:54 have made one of my most-loved albums of this year, and they’re on fine form on the main stage, with ‘Creeping’ sounding particularly majestic. Future Of The Left follow up with an earsplittingly loud and vicious performance, while Japandroids demonstrate their frenetic energy with a set of lo-fi noise-pop. Later on, Ghostpoet gets the crowd suitably fired up with tracks from last year’s Mercury-nominated debut album Peanut Butter Blues And Melancholy Jam, and it feels like he’s really grown in confidence over the last year or so. His fans respond in kind, particularly to the upbeat optimism of ‘Liiines’, but it’s ‘Cash And Carry Me Home’ that takes on a new life as a live track and becomes a brilliantly unlikely festival smash hit.

Junior Boys prove pleasant if somewhat anonymous, but that doesn’t really matter because after that it’s time for Wild Beasts. It’s only been a month since I saw them headlining Latitude, and while the set is fairly similar, it’s no less exhilarating – and this time round they have time to play ‘Two Dancers (i)’, which is an absolute favourite of mine. The fact that it’s a homecoming show of sorts means that the atmosphere is pleasantly lively and the crowd are in “fine voice” as Hayden Thorpe puts it – the mass chorus of “boy, what you running from?” during ‘Lion’s Share’ is a spine-tingling moment. Oh, and the Pussy Riot masks during the encore were a nice touch. I come away from the band’s performance with the feeling that they really are one of the most important bands of the current generation. Yeah, I went there.

Sunday

There’s a grand piano on the main stage on Sunday, which I can only assume is there for Patrick Wolf – but that doesn’t stop both Goodnight Lenin and Admiral Fallow making good use of it early in the day. Unfortunately, I can’t quite buy into Frankie & The Heartstrings despite their energetic performance – they just seems a little bit Futureheads-lite to me. The Wave Pictures, on the other hand, prove to be a much more entertaining indie-pop proposition, and Hookworms also impress with their mix of motorik rhythms and blissful noise.

Both the rain and my own fatigue lead me to stay put on the main stage for the next few hours, where I almost start to feel I’ve spent as much time watching bands soundcheck as I have actually watching live music. Perhaps the organisers were erring on the side of caution, but 40 minute changeovers seem overly generous even for a festival main stage. Both Errors and Lanterns On The Lake are kept to strict half-hour time limits because of this – the inventive electro-rock of the former and the swooning post-rock of the latter are both deserving of longer sets.

The changeover for Patrick Wolf somehow manages to go on for 50 minutes despite the fact he’s playing an acoustic set with only two other musicians, but fortunately it’s worth the wait. It’s admittedly a bit of an odd fit for a festival main stage at half 7 in the evening – particularly with the throbbing bass echoing over from the dance tent – but fortunately the songs are strong enough to prevail even in this acoustic capacity. The set’s fairly heavy on material from Lupercalia, highlights of which include ‘Time Of My Life’ and ‘House’, but it’s the older songs that really work for me, with ‘Paris’ being my ultimate favourite. Patrick also sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to a guy in the crowd called Paul before playing ‘Hard Times’, which I guess is probably the closest I’ll get to being personally serenaded by the man himself. The crowd are receptive throughout, creating a quiet but nevertheless magical atmosphere – and it’s clear that Patrick is enjoying himself too.

To round things off, mad genius Thomas Truax plays to a packed-out Into The Woods tent, crafting bizarre, hypnotic tales with his home-made instruments, before Cloud Nothings bring the weekend to an invigorating close with their muscular indie-rock. The sound’s a little muddy at first, but it’s cleared up in time for the band’s intense extended run-through of ‘Wasted Days’, and the closing pair of ‘No Sentiment’ and ‘No Future/No Past’ are both vicious and victorious in equal measure. It’s a fine way to round off what’s ultimately been a very good weekend.

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It Really, Really, Really Did Happen: Blur @ Wolverhampton Civic Hall, 5/8/12

Are we coming towards the end of Blur? Damon Albarn’s indecisive stance on the future of the band sparked an urgent need to see them live in my good friend and long time Blur fan Alex – and though I’ve never followed the band particularly obsessively myself, it didn’t take much convincing for me to plan on coming along with her. After agonising over the lack of tickets to their Hyde Park show and making vague plots to go to Way Out West in Sweden, a much easier option presented itself in the form of a series of intimate warm-up shows in England. The Civic Hall in Wolverhampton proved to be our best bet – tickets were acquired, travel plans were made, and now, here we stand, on Sunday 5th August, a mere seven days before the band’s Olympic closing ceremony show. The gig hadn’t really been at the forefront of my mind until about a week or so before, at which point I started going through the band’s back catalogue and actually got quite excited about the show in the process.

As such, it would be easy to overlook the support act at tonight’s gig, but frighteningly youthful LA duo The Bots prove to be a pleasant surprise. Playing a short, energetic set of their thrashed-out garage/grunge hybrid, they basically sound like The White Stripes hopped up on E-numbers. 15-year old drummer Anaiah puts in a performance that could put musicians twice his age to shame and arguably steals the show because of it – though that’s not for a lack of effort from his older brother Mikaiah, who bounds around the stage, hammering his guitar with relentless enthusiasm. The odd attempt at a slower number doesn’t really come off as well as the tight, fast-paced material that makes up most of the set, but nevertheless the performance is very well received by a crowd who understandably might not have given a damn. Mikaiah is certainly flattering to deceive when he calls the venue ‘beautiful’ though – let’s be honest, it’s a glorified gym court with a stage at one end.

The indistinctness of the surroundings immediately becomes irreverent once Blur take to the stage, however. Safe to say there’s no messing around or warming the crowd up gently – ‘Girls And Boys’ is the band’s opening gambit, and joyful pandemonium ensues as the crowd surges forward, while Anaiah from The Bots can be spotted as the show’s first crowd-surfer. The Parklife-era material continues to come thick and fast, with ‘London Loves’, ‘Tracy Jacks’ and ‘Jubilee’ all keeping the intensity up and seeing the crowd in full voice throughout. It’s actually quite impressive how well paced the set is – after this initial burst of lively activity, the band drop the tempo, but do so with some of the biggest hits from later in their career. ‘Beetlebum’ and ‘Coffee & TV’ are both rapturously received, while ‘Out Of Time’ sees Iraqi musician Khyam Allami provide a touch of middle-eastern authenticity by playing the song’s distinctive riff on the oud (a type of Arabic lute) – it’s one of the night’s most beautiful moments.

After that, a section of the show dedicated some of the band’s more rarely performed material ensues – but not before Damon almost terminally embarrasses the 7-year old daughter of long time crew member Stuart Lowbridge by getting the entire crowd to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. Recently rediscovered B-side ‘Young And Lovely’ is subsequently dedicated to the youngster, and it’s the kind of gorgeously endearing song that demonstrates a potential depth to Blur’s back catalogue that I hadn’t even realised could exist. Similarly, a back-to-back airing of 13‘s ‘Trimm Trabb’ and ‘Caramel’ allows the band an opportunity to show off their darker side – the former simmering with misanthropy before exploding into chaotic frustration, the latter a masterpiece of understated melancholy whose cathartic payoff packs a distinctly more visceral punch here than it does on record.

Damon Albarn at Wolverhampton Civic Hall (photo by Alex)

“And now for something completely different,” says Albarn after ‘Caramel’ draws to a close – and true to his word, the band ease back into Britpop mode with ‘Sunday Sunday’, before ‘Country House’ and ‘Parklife’ fire the crowd up even further. It’s pretty much been a flawless set so far, but there are occasional moments that will have made the band glad this was effectively a rehearsal and not the main event at Hyde Park, though they only serve to add a little extra character to the performance rather than detracting from it. Damon fluffs his lines during ‘Parklife’, and immediately after that both he and Graham snap a guitar string within the space of two songs. It’s interesting to see how the pair deal with the problem in completely different ways – Coxon continues to shred his way through ‘Oily Water’ with only five strings, while Albarn effectively abandons his instrument and takes the opportunity to marshal the crowd through the “la-la-la”s of ‘The Puritan’.

As the band blast through ‘Popscene’ and ‘Advert’ it’s becoming increasingly surreal to me that I’m watching this band playing these songs live in these relatively intimate surroundings. I can’t help but wonder if the energetic blur (sorry) of ‘Song 2’ or ‘No Distance Left To Run’s utter desolation might lose a little impact in the open expanse of Hyde Park – though on the other hands, there are other songs that certainly won’t. The singalong to ‘Tender’ starts before Albarn even opens his mouth, while ‘This Is A Low’ is so utterly powerful that it can surely transcend any barrier.

After a seemingly obligatory chorus of ‘Tender’s “oh my baby” refrain as we wait for the band to return, Albarn takes to the piano to lead the band through the chiming expanse of ‘Sing’ – a song that seems tailor-made for the band’s big day in London on Sunday, which makes it all the more incredible that it’s from the band’s debut record Leisure. A beautiful, heartwarming rendition of ‘Under The Westway’ follows – for me, it’s easily the better of Blur’s two newest tracks – before the band have a little fun by playing the ‘Intermission’ from Modern Life Is Rubbish. After that, it’s pure victory lap stuff, and I mean that in a good way – the anthemic ‘End Of A Century’ rolls into a triumphant ‘For Tomorrow’, before ‘The Universal’ ends the set on a euphoric emotional high – for those present here tonight “well, here’s your lucky day” couldn’t be a more fitting sentiment. It takes me a while to process afterwards – it seems unbelievable that I’ve witnessed such a phenomenal show by a truly important British band, but it really (really really) did happen.

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