Category Archives: Live

Some Brief Thoughts On Arctic Monkeys @ Manchester Arena

It’s occurred to me that with the exception of writing small novels about music festivals (as evidenced here and here), I don’t really do all that much live reviewing any more – in stark contrast to the halcyon days of Myspace blogging, in which I felt compelled to write a review of pretty much every gig I went to at one point (I think that may have actually lasted for at least a year, if not longer). Sadly the new Myspace design appears to have eaten everyone’s blogs, so I can’t revisit those relatively youthful days – thanks for nothing, Justin Timberlake.

Anyway, now that my writing demands (outside of this blog) are a little more structured and I have a job to contend with, I don’t really feel as inclined to write stuff about random gigs I attend, beyond throwing out the odd thought or summary on Facebook or Twitter. After all, it’s nice to approach a show without an overly critical head on and just enjoy it every once in a while.

Tonight’s Arctic Monkeys gig inadvertently proved to be an exception that rule, and I’ve kinda ended up with more thoughts than can be conveniently shoved into a Facebook status – and this not-really-a-review is the result.

– My position in the venue was kinda weird. Having missed or passed up the opportunity to buy tickets when they were previously on sale, I bought what was literally the last ticket available on the arena’s website after stumbling across it by chance – because it was looking sad and lonely and I really wanted to see the band before the end of the year. Rather than attempt to describe my position, here’s a shoddy picture I took on my phone during the show.

Arctic Monkeys at Manchester Arena

Arctic Monkeys at Manchester Arena

Surprisingly, this off-to the side view was actually ok for the most part – the band certainly aren’t any further away than you’d expect them to be when sat on the second tier of a big arena, it’s just a bit odd that they spend the entire show facing in a completely different direction. Sound was actually ok up there too, at least to my non-audiophile, non-technical ears. It’s still weird for me to think that I once saw Arctic Monkeys in tiny, 200-300 cap venues 8 years ago, but it’s gratifying to see that they’ve very much grown into their role as a stadium band.

– It would be unprofessional to gripe about the setlist in a review, but this is neither professional nor a review, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The focus on material from AM was not unexpected, but to play three quarters of the record and not include ‘Knee Socks’ seems pretty criminal. However, its omission did mean that we got ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ instead (at least, if you compare the Manchester setlist to the one from Newcastle the night before), so I’m ok with that – espeically as I was thinking how I wanted to hear that song just before they played it. We also got ‘Fireside’ as a bonus, presumably thanks to the fact that Bill Ryder-Jones was around to play his guitar part, and also guest on three or four other songs while he was at it.

The one trade I’m definitely not ok with is that Newcastle got ‘Do Me A Favour’ (quite possibly my single favourite Arctic Monkeys song) and we got… ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’. Now, I don’t mind ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’ on record, but its nonchalant pace doesn’t really make it a particularly great live track – it’s no ‘Do Me A Favour’ in that regard, that’s for sure. Then there’s also the issue that long-standing set-closer ‘505’ appears to have been retired entirely in favour of playing ‘R U Mine?’ as the last song of the encore. I guess I know how fans of ‘A Certain Romance’ feel now…

To be fair, Arctic Monkeys are now at that point where they have enough material to draw from that they’ll never be able to please everyone – I suppose my desire to hear tracks from the second album rather than the first just makes me a cooler-than-thou version of the bawdy guys who were singing ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ while waiting for the encore.

– Speaking of older songs, I don’t know if it’s just me but it felt like a few songs had been slowed down a touch, like a record played at slightly the wrong speed. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (it could just be a measure to avoid fatigue), but maybe the band are starting to tire of playing certain tracks, but are near-obliged to do so anyway? ‘I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and ‘Dancing Shoes’ were the most obvious culprits to my ears, but I swear even ‘Brianstorm’ received a little tweak in the tempo department. Then there’s ‘Mardy Bum’, which has pretty much been offered up to the crowd as a semi-acoustic singalong.

There was one newer song that had a fairly significant change though – ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’, which was dropped into a minor key and took on a slightly menacing air in the process. It works reasonably well though, so it’s not so much a complaint as an observation.

– Despite these niggles and gripes, it was still a very accomplished set – you only have to look at the setlist to see that the band are basically at the point where they’re just playing hit after hit after hit. Sure, some of the new songs fit into that mould better than others  – aside from the singles, ‘One For The Road’ and ‘Arabella’ in particular feel like they could be future staples – but there were only two or three songs you could consider duds in an otherwise consistently crowd-pleasing set. Even seemingly unlikely songs like ‘Reckless Serenade’ got a huge reaction from the crowd, as well as unexpectedly giving me a ‘lump-in-my-throat’ moment – affirmation, perhaps, that even after eight years and five albums, I care about Arctic Monkeys as much as I ever did.

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Notes From A Small Island: Unprofessional Stories From Sziget Festival

Perhaps you’ve already seen my ‘professional’ review of Sziget Festival over at Soundsphere Magazine (if not, click here). It’s probably worth reading that first to get a fuller picture of what the festival is about. This post, on the other hand, is a collection of unused notes, amusing observations, occasional frustrations and general happenings that represent the more casual side to my Sziget experience. It’s going to be pretty scattershot, but trying to turn all this into flowing prose would probably mean my writings on the festival swell to nearly dissertation length (the review in itself is already close to 6000 words). So I’ll just shut up and get on with it. I’d like to apologise in advance to anyone whose name I’ve mis-spelt or otherwise completely forgotten (edit: think I’ve fixed some of these now!).

In case you weren't sure which festival you were at.

In case you weren’t sure which festival you were at.

Monday 5th August

–  The bus ride to Sziget takes us through the suburbs of Budapest, which have that familiar yet alien feel of so many European countries. We’re chasing the glowing orange sunset and arrive as night is falling. We meet an Australian guy called Matt on the bus – we get split up, but as fortune would have it we bump into each other later on in the internet tent.

– We wander past a man wearing a rabbit head riding a mechanical bull. James will later try his hand at it, but not before the Pope, a Londoner dressed as a medic, and several pairs of girls make their own attempts. The Londoner puts in an impressive stint and at least one of the pairs of girls come dangerously close to butting heads – for his part, James makes the an admirable go of surviving a particularly rough-looking ride (he’s probably still got the marks to prove it).

– An attempt to ask a question in English to the left luggage attendees in the French camping area leads to a total communication breakdown – I later wonder whether I should have made a ham-fisted attempt to get the point across in French, but I have absolutely no confidence whatsoever in my ability to speak any foreign language. This is probably due to my almost complete lack of ability to speak any foreign language.

– Matt stops to talk to three Dutch girls, (Sarie, Nena, and Tessa) and we end up hanging out with them for the rest of the evening. We go in search of the party (or at least, some music to dance to) and find that everywhere we go seems to wind up shortly after we arrive.

– After about 2am, it seems like music seems to start flowing from various bars around the main stage on a more permanent basis. We bump into medic guy again, and he’s still with the Pope. The leads to me singing a song about “Dancing With The Pope” (to the tune of Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’). I thought it was funny, anyway.

– A random guy tells me that I’ll get fat eating sweet and sour chicken, and that I should empty the contents of my box out and fill it with vodka instead.

– At some point Tessa loses one of her contact lenses, and thus the great search for the contact lens begins. A small crowd forms of those genuinely trying to help (using lights on mobile phones), and those doing the exact opposite (the guy who was simply waving an old-style phone receiver around). Sarie eventually finds it and all is well again.

– Somehow we end up partying until gone 4am. I dance like an idiot to songs I wouldn’t even care to admit knowing the words to – my rendition of ‘Numb/Encore’ is particularly good, if I do say so myself.

...and this is what 4am looked like.

…and this is what 4am looked like.

– James attempts to go back to the tent and duly gets lost. Fortunately he still has some of his wits about him and we’re able to reunite. I guide him back to the tent and then head back. Of course, the party winds up as soon as I get there.

Tuesday 6th August

– If there’s one thing you shouldn’t expect at Sziget Festival, it’s a good night’s sleep. I probably only managed about two hours before the baking sun woke me up.

– There’s some confusion RE actually getting our press passes – seemingly a catch 22 situation where we need to go to the VIP area to get our press passes, but we can’t get in to the VIP area without the press passes. Fortunately we’re able to attract the attention of the press crew, thus resolving the situation.

– We intend to go visit Budapest, but that plan is scuppered by the fact I suffer a huge sleep deprivation induced crash and end up literally just monging out in the shade for two or three hours. James makes better use of his time by heading off to the sports area and then befriending a German girl called Lotte, and a Dutch girl called Fina. I end up spending most of the rest of the afternoon with them at the beach, which is a good way to recuperate.

The beach had some impressive sand-sculptures too.

The beach had some impressive sand-sculptures too.

Wednesday 7th August:

– Today I meet a couple of Sarie’s Belgian friends, Filip and Pieter (I’m almost certain I’ve got at least one of those names wrong, I’m so sorry). They seem like cool guys and actually give us one of the more surprisingly decent recommendations of the weekend when they tell us to check out Triggerfinger on Thursday.

– “You have very good English, where are you from?” – Hungarian pizza man. The Hungarian pizza was great, by the way, but the spicy one is very spicy, as James discovered. The guy also had an amazing moustache.

– While I’m sat outside the Party Arena I can’t help but think that Chase & Status are basically the worst ever.

– Exchange between boy and girl, both wearing “Let’s Sziget Fucked” t-shirts. I presume there’s some pre-amble to this, but the only part of their conversation I witness properly is as follows.

Boy: *Boob grab* “You have very nice breasts.”
Girl: “Thank you!”

– Someone hands me a loyalty card for vodka, complete with attached shot glass. It does, of course, contain a reminder to drink responsibly.

Drink vodka, get free stuff!

Drink vodka, get free stuff!

– Nick Cave omits the lines “I do driver alertness course/I do husband alertness course/I do mermaid alertness course” from ‘Mermaids’. I don’t know if he just forgot them, or whether he thought the reference to a driving mishap he had in Brighton might be lost in translation.

– While dancing in the Colosseum at one point, we notice a conga line going past. A weird guy also sticks a shiny star on Sarie’s face. Takes all sorts, I guess.

Thursday 8th August:

– I mentioned in my review that the frontman of Balthazar compared performing at Sziget to performing in a microwave. I didn’t mention that he followed that comparison up with the following statement: “Let’s just pretend that this is a big bowl of spaghetti and you’re the real tasty meatballs!”

– Presented verbatim, here is the list of objects that I saw being confiscated by security before the Kees Van Hondt show:

  • Two metal barrels
  • A bench
  • Several chairs
  • Several large tree branches
  • A bin
  • Another bench
  • A gazebo
  • An actual fucking Donkey Kong barrel
  • A tripod
  • A giraffe on a stick
  • A tent
  • Another tent
Here are just some of the items in question (including that Donkey Kong barrel).

Here are just some of the items in question (including that Donkey Kong barrel).

– On the way back to the tent I see a young man crouched on the floor, clutching what appears to be a now-deflated inflatable of some sort, and a can of Red Bull. It seems possible that he’s on some sort of Kees Van Hondt induced comedown and is currently wondering what the hell is going on in his life.

Friday 9th August:

– James managed to lose his phone yesterday, but by some miracle an incredibly kind girl called Lisse has picked it up, and after a series of missed calls we’re eventually re-united with it at the Sziget Beach. Apparently she’s some sort of festival guardian angel, as she managed to re-unite someone else with their phone at a previous festival too.

– Today also features the only real source of frustration, a failed attempt to get an interview. Now, I wasn’t really arsed about doing any interviews in the first place and was only even trying to sort this out as a favour, and my original apathy towards doing interviews at festivals is vindicated in the worst way possible. The problem comes down to being sent from pillar to post by some not-desperately-helpful security guards, attempting to find some sort of alternative entrance to backstage in a blind panic, ringing the stage manager too late and not getting an answer, then saying “fuck it” and giving up in an exasperated huff (and of course, missing a call back from the stage manager in the process). So, I end up with nothing to show for spending two hours dicking around trying to sort this out, apart from a general feeling of being unprofessional and the silver lining that I don’t have to do any transcription when I get home (seriously, transcribing interviews is so fucking boring, even if your subject is the most interesting person in the world). So that’s how I ended up writing an email to the press team, apologising for not doing an interview I didn’t really want to do in the first place.

– tl;dr version of the above: Unless your line of work absolutely demands it or you’re mad keen to talk to the band in question, don’t bother doing interviews at festivals – you’ll only end up wasting your time. And at a place like Sziget, there’s so many other ways you could better spend two hours.

– I end up not watching much of the band in question out of misplaced spite (seriously, it can’t possibly be their fault). They’re great musicians, but I know for a fact I won’t enjoy their set regardless of that.

Let's lighten the mood with this pretty picture that's a complete non-sequitur!

Let’s lighten the mood with this pretty picture that’s a complete non-sequitur!

– As I’m waiting for Blur to start, I manage to bump into Sarie and co completely by chance. I then end up getting distracted and losing them 5 minutes later, just as the band comes on stage. This means I spend the entirety of the Blur show on my own, which is exactly what I didn’t want to do. But while I feel a bit miserable about it, perhaps it’s for the best – at least no-one notices me getting a bit teary-eyed during ‘Tender’. And ‘This Is A Low’. And ‘The Universal’. Then again, if I’d have had company then my emotions would no doubt have been somewhat different. It’s almost merciful that they end on the high of ‘Song 2’, otherwise I might have ended up a total wreck.

– Some guy wants to take a photo of my ‘I (Ghost) J F’ T-shirt, because it has his initials on it. This is slightly strange but still somehow cheers me up a bit.

Saturday 10th August:

– In the early hours of the morning and into the early afternoon, a storm hits the island. Nothing too drastic though – the cold air is nice for a change and the rain(!) means I can actually lie in the tent for more than a couple of hours in the morning, which is refreshing. It’s a stark contrast to rain at UK festivals, which feels like a depressing inevitability.

– Hadouken! keyboardist Alice Spooner looks to have gotten involved in the afternoon’s colour party, if her t-shirt is anything to go by. The band’s frontman James Smith shouts “THIS. IS. SPARTA!” at one point, and in hindsight I’m not really sure why. He also manages to get the crowd to do a Mexican Wave.

I have absolutely no idea what or where this is, but it looks kinda cool, right?

I have absolutely no idea what or where this is, but it looks kinda cool, right?

– I somehow manage to successful direct a French guy towards some pizza using incredibly rudimentary French. Granted, the journey only really involved two stages (turn right, then turn left), but I still felt a little proud of myself.

– I was wearing a Hot Club de Paris t-shirt featuring drawing of a young Bruce Springsteen and the words “There is only one boss that Hot Club de Paris answer to.” On the way back to my tent, a random guy stared at the aforementioned t-shirt for a few seconds, grinned at me inanely, then wandered off.

Sunday 11th August:

– I see a girl with a sign saying “Hugs 50ft” (forints, not feet), and think that someone’s got a high opinion of themselves. I then notice that her friend has a sign offering hugs for 100ft.

– I think that Ryan Jarman tries to sing the Hungarian National Anthem at one point during The Cribs’ set, but I’m not too sure. Whatever it is, it goes down pretty well.

– While watching Franz Ferdinand, I spot a gazebo with ‘Franz’ adorned on it, as well as a flag bearing the logo for video game series Half Life. Later, some guys will start dancing on top of a passing truck during ‘Outsiders’, like the true rebels they are.

– “It’s always better on holiday” go the words to ‘Jacqueline’. Too damn right it is.

Monday 12th August:

– We end up arriving at the airport way too early to even check out, but James doesn’t feel like going anywhere else. I somewhat guiltily leave the larger of my two bags with him and head back into Budapest on my own. Managed to get an hour or two in at the Hotel Gellert Spa, although it does take me half an hour of that time to actually find an unoccupied locker that works. Pro tip – if you’re using your free Citypass Spa ticket like I was and don’t want to pay extra for a cabin, go leave your larger items of luggage at the hotel itself. I’m not sure of the full details on rates, but I only paid 500ft (about £1.50) for a couple of hours, which didn’t seem entirely unreasonable. The spa itself is very nice, and I definitely feel better for having made the journey.

– Budapest airport is very nice, but seems pretty slack when it comes to actually making any public announcements about flights – I’d recommend you set an alarm for an hour or so before your flight leaves, just in case. James and I only realise we’re on last call about half an hour before our scheduled departure, and the queue at passport control is ridiculously slow. We’re not the only ones who’re running late however, and pretty much anyone left to check in for the Manchester flight ends up hustling to the front of the queue. Fortunately, to Jet2’s credit, they’re aware of the problem and hold the flight back until everyone is on board – and it doesn’t cause us any delay as the flight turns out to be shorter than expected.

Push The Sky Away

Push The Sky Away

– “I thought you were American.” – Welsh BBC researcher that James ended up sat next to on the plane home. Apparently I’m still adopting my ‘talking to people whose first language isn’t English’ voice, like the unintentionally patronising Brit that I am.

– We bump into one of the more distressed passengers from our earlier escapade at the airport – a lovely (if slightly kooky) girl called Sky, who’d nearly overslept and missed the flight entirely. We had a bit of a chat while waiting for our bags to come off the plane and in the subsequent downtime before we head to the station, and it turns out she’s been doing body painting at some sort of crazy Psytrance festival in Hungary. After making sure she’s got something to eat and somewhere to charge her phone, she thanks us for our help and we’re on our way back to York.

Top 10 Sziget Festival Tips

  1. If you value a good night’s sleep, don’t stay on the island.
  2. If you plan to party all night, do stay on the island.
  3. You can basically camp almost anywhere, within reason. Just make sure it’s somewhere shady.
  4. If you’re a hopeless introvert (like me), either bring an extroverted friend who’ll inadvertently help you make new friends (thanks James!), or bring someone you know will stick with you for the whole weekend. Or, failing that, be happy to go do stuff on your own.
  5. If you have a 7-day ticket, make the most of the Monday and Tuesday by exploring some of the more out of the way stages or doing some non-music activities (particularly popular ones like the Luminarium or Tarot Labyrinth, the latter of which I sadly missed). It’ll save you rushing around and trying to do them all on the last day.
  6. Don’t be too ambitious with your plans during the festival. Even a short trip into town can seem like an impossible mission in the heat.
  7. If you actually want to visit Budapest properly, consider staying a couple of days before or after the festival (or both). You won’t have as much time or inclination to do so during the festival as you might think.
  8. If you’re not sure what you want to do at any given moment, take tips from others and just generally be willing to try new things.
  9. Bring a nail brush. Seriously, my nails were almost constantly filthy.
  10. If you have time, take a visit to a spa before your flight home. It really did help me feel a bit more human.

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Night + Day London vs. Night + Day Berlin

Night + Day

Night + Day

After enjoying The xx‘s show in Berlin so much, I decided to make a relatively last-minute decision to attend their Night + Day event in London (a decision made somewhat easier by a pretty strong supporting lineup and the fact that a good friend decided to come with me). Having just got back from Hatfield House (which is actually about 20 or so miles north of the centre of London), here are my thoughts on how the two events compared.

The Location

Berlin’s Spreepark is a former amusement park that’s now largely overgrown – an eerie relic of times gone by. Though much of it was cordoned off, you could still see enough of the old rides and decorations to make worthwhile to take a wander round the unique location (and I’ve no doubt that many enterprising souls found ways to get a closer look). The London event, meanwhile, took place on a pleasant but otherwise fairly nondescript area of greenery somewhere in the grounds of Hatfield House – I’m sure the house is worth visiting in its own right, but the festival didn’t really manage to take advantage of that. The Berlin show achieved the band’s stated aim of providing a unique location, and this was reflected in other elements of the event too – whereas the record fair and some of the food stalls in Berlin had been sourced from local establishments, the food stalls in London had a more generic feel to them.

Winner: Berlin

The Crowd

When the three Night + Day events were announced, one of my initial reasons for picking Berlin over London (aside from the location) was the fact that British festival crowds are notoriously dickish. To be fair though, Night + Day London was doing pretty well on the twat scale… until about 20 seconds before The xx came on stage, at which point some guy pulled a prime festival knobhead move and plonked himself right in front of me with zero regard for personal space. I later managed to get a rucksack to the face after another guy hoisted a girl onto his shoulders directly in front of me. I won’t say the crowd in Berlin was perfect, but I felt like there was a bit less of the pushing, shoving, and general lack of consideration that seems to plague British festival crowds – certainly, I never considered abandoning my position in the crowd because of other people, which is more than I can be said for London.

I should also mention an incredibly pointless and arbitrary act of theft, which involved some random girl swiping my friend’s house key after he’d dropped it on the floor (unfortunately, it was at almost the exact moment she picked it up that he realised he didn’t have it in his pocket any more). We had hoped that it might be an attempted act of kindness, but a fruitless trip to the lost property ultimately proved us wrong. Why would you steal something that is basically of zero use to you?

The London crowd did contain a girl who, upon hearing the intro to ‘Losing You’ by Solange, exclaimed “this is my JAM!” in a hilarious and completely irony-free manner – so that was a consolation prize, I suppose.

Winner: Berlin

The Support Acts

Berlin had a pretty varied and eclectic support bill – Mykki Blanco was weird but strangely compelling, Kindness were fun and exuberant despite the rain, Mount Kimbie were decent in places, Chromatics were very sleek, and I enjoyed Jessie Ware as a performer even if I wasn’t entirely convinced by her songs. To be honest though, it felt like everything would sound that little bit better if the sun had come out.

Mount Kimbie and Kindness also played the London date, and while Mount Kimbie’s sets at both events felt pretty similar, I definitely enjoyed Kindness more in a rain-free environment. I’ll admit that I could take or leave Solange, but the rest of London’s support bill really was an embarrassment of riches. London Grammar made a strong claim to be the heirs to The xx’s throne with their early performance, while Jon Hopkins followed up with a thrilling set of propulsive electro. Poliça also nailed it with a set that featured a lot of new material – they’d have made a better main support in my eyes, though it’s impossible to deny the fact that Solange got the crowd going. For both quality and quantity of supports, London proved the stronger lineup overall.

Winner: London

The Headline Set

There’s honestly not much to call between the two sets The xx performed at these events. Both were well-executed from a technical and musical point of view, and both were nicely timed so that day turned to night over the course of the show (some neat touches included ‘Sunset’ being played at dusk and ‘Night Time’ being played once the darkness had set in. The setlists were honestly pretty much identical, with the only differences being a pair of rarities and your choice of late 90s/early 00s dance covers. London made a pretty strong showing with a cover of ‘Finally’ by Kings Of Tomorrow as well as the live debut of the Great Gatsby-soundtracking ‘Together’, but Berlin arguably trumped that with a rare airing of B-side ‘Reconsider’ (whose lyrics I love) and a mash-up of ‘Lady’ (by Modjo) and ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ (by Stardust) that featured Jessie Ware on vocals. Perhaps if the band had brought out Solange (or Florence Welch, who was spotted on site) for a duet then that might have tipped the balance – it’s a shame that opportunity went to waste.

It’s also worth pointing out that I enjoyed the actual act of standing and watching The xx more in Berlin, but that’s down to the crowd as much as the band themselves. Still, that factor combined with the the inspired, Jessie Ware-featuring mashup means that Berlin takes the prize.

Winner: Berlin

So basically, if The xx hosted an event in Berlin with a lineup as strong as the London one, they’d be on to a total winner. Ultimately, I was glad to have gone to both – but while I probably enjoyed the music overall at the London event, the Berlin show definitely felt more special.

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Flying To Berlin – Thoughts on Savages, The xx, Sóley And More

While my trip to Berlin last weekend wasn’t my first (see here for a review of Arctic Monkeys’ show in the city two years ago), it was the first time I’ve spent a lot of time in the city on my own. So here are some thoughts on the things I did and the gigs I saw during my trip there last week.

It seems that the people of Berlin are really keen on encores, if their reaction to Savages‘ excellent performance at Lido was anything to go for. They must have spent nearly 10 minutes clamouring for more, and who can blame them – free of the technical hitches that threatened to derail their set at Live At Leeds, it was the kind of show that’s nearly impossible to tear your eyes from. People may sneer at the perceived lack of originality on display in Savages’ music, but honestly, when was the last time you saw this sort of propulsive, menacing post-punk done this well? Of course, an encore was never going to be forthcoming – not only do Savages not really seem like the type for such indulgences, they’d also pretty much played every song in their catalogue by that point. Aside from killer album cuts like ‘City’s Full’, ‘She Will’ and ‘Husbands’, other highlights included ‘Flying To Berlin’ –  let’s be honest, they couldn’t really skip that one on their first trip to the city –  and the extended version of the propulsive, scathing ‘Fuckers’ that they closed their set with. The demand for encores became a recurring theme, with the crowd going wild for both The xx and Sóley even after they’d already returned to the stage once.

Spreepark

Spreepark

Speaking of The xx, their Night + Day festival at the abandoned Spreepark theme park in Berlin ultimately turned out to be a triumph despite Saturday being the one day that the weather decided to take a turn for the worse. While some sections of the park were cordoned off, there was still ample opportunity to view the strange spectacle of the run-down rides and garish props that are now overgrown, while the looming, ancient ferris wheel provided a constant reminder of the park’s history. In terms of music, the day kicked off with the bizarre spectacle of watching an androgynous, cross-dressing black rapper strut his stuff at 3pm on a rainy afternoon. The man in question is Mykki Blanco, whose show would arguably have been more fitting for some late-night, seedy club. Kindness attempt to change the weather with their laid-back, funky vibes, and the sun does briefly make an appearance after their set. The day remains pretty overcast after that though, and while listening to Mount Kimbie‘s post-dubstep grooves and the sleek Italo-disco of Chromatics it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the supporting lineup was selected with a sunny day in mind.

Main support for the evening is Jessie Ware, who proves to be quite a charming performer, dancing around, playfully prodding her sampler and bantering with the crowd in a south London accent that’s a million miles away from her soulful singing voice – producing the kind of cognitive dissonance normally associated with watching Adele squawk away at an award ceremony. Her stage presence perhaps does her more favours than her songs, which, while excellently sung, don’t always make a significant connection with me. I’m probably in the minority in thinking that though, because there’s definitely some love for this lady in the air tonight – as evidenced by the group of German girls stood next to me, screaming “Jesssiiiieee!” at any available opportunity.

As the sun begins to set, anticipation for the main event rises, and finally The xx take to the stage. Tonight’s show is impeccably executed, with music, lights and setting all combined into a performance that proves that they really are the perfect night-time band, their gorgeously atmospheric songs echoing out into the dark. Their songs are mostly played straight, though at one point they bring out Jessie Ware to help them run through a brilliant mashup of ‘Sunset’ and two late 90s/early 00s dance classics – Modjo’s ‘Lady (Hear Me Tonight)’ and Stardust’s ‘Music Sounds Better With You’. One other thing you may be surprised to read is that the band’s performance was actually quite charismatic  – Oliver Sim’s newly found bassist’s strut is a pleasure to watch, while Jamie ‘xx’ Smith is a silent but commandingly animated presence amongst his wide array of electronics and percussion. There’s also a lot of humility on display though, with both Sim and Romy Madely Croft proving humbled by the turnout and reaction to what has clearly been a momentous occasion for the band. As the closing strains of ‘Angels’ swoon and thunder into the night sky, there’s no doubt that this has been a very special event.

Night + Day

Night + Day

Icelandic singer-songwriter Sóley provides my final gig of the weekend, in the pleasant-looking but sweltering surroundings of Festsaal Kreuzburg. Once again, the gig provides a marked improvement on my experience at Live At Leeds, with the crowd proving far more respectful and attentive. Sóley herself is as endearing as ever, telling us about the strange themes for her songs – one new number is about a dead woman forcing a man who’s very much alive to marry her – and generally being really lovely. She even signs the CD I bought at the merch stall – I’m not normally big on signed CDs, but as she was stood right there with a permanent marker it would almost have been rude not to. If you haven’t listened to this enchanting, ethereal songstress yet, I highly recommend you do so.

Finally, some brief thoughts on the city itself. While my brother and his girlfriend sought out food at proper restaurants (I’d tell you the names if I could remember them), I found it remarkably easy to eat on the cheap. Street Food Thursdays is an evening street food market at Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg that sees a wide variety of food on offer from both permanent and temporary stalls – I scored myself a tasty grilled chorizo sandwich and some delicious cheesecake. Markthalle is also the home of Glut & Späne, whose delicious smoked salmon sandwiches I sampled at their stall at Night + Day. Kreuzburger is situated next to the legendary SO36 venue and offers some decent burgers, but the best find for cheap eats was Hühnerhaus, (again in Kreuzberg) where you can get a tasty (if somewhat greasy) half a chicken and chips (or salad or rice) for about 5 Euros – bargain!

I also managed to experience a bit of culture on the Sunday – some highbrow culture thanks to the interesting exhibits at the Bauhaus museum (the art movement, not the band), and some not-quite-so-highbrow culture at the Computerspielmuseum – a video games museum that re-opened in 2011. I could have quite happily spent another hour or two in the latter, but I had an appointment at the Reichstag Dome. Admission to the dome is free of charge, but with the caveat that you have to book in advance. After getting caught out by that policy on Thursday evening, Tom queued up on Sunday morning and managed to get us all a booking on Sunday afternoon. If you’re planning to go, you should probably save yourself the hassle by booking online, but either way it’s worth doing – the architecture is quite spectacular, to say nothing of the views across the city.

The view from the Reichstag

The view from the Reichstag

So that was my trip to Berlin – I’m sure I’ll be back again in the not too distant future.

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Let’s Get Cynical @ Live At Leeds 2013

Live At Leeds

Live At Leeds

Just a quick one regarding this year’s Live At Leeds festival, which I thoroughly enjoyed – a full review will be appearing on Soundsphere Magazine in the near future, but for now, here’s a playlist featuring the best of the artists I saw throughout the day. And by “the best” I mean “almost all” – the quality of the lineup was consistently brilliant. Thanks to Dom for asking me to review the festival, and thanks to the organisers for such a great event!

EDIT: You can now read my review right here!

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Juffage To Cook Up A ‘Sonic Cauldron’ In One-Off Leeds Show

When I interviewed Juffage (aka Jeff T Smith) before his UK tour last year, he mentioned that he had a special performance planned at Left Bank in Leeds – he’s now revealed that this this one-off performance will take place on the 26th April, as well as unveiling more details about the show. Building on his previous ambisonic exhibitions at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and the University of Leeds, Juffage plans create a ‘sonic cauldron’ by surrounding the audience with an array of amps, speakers, ghetto blasters, and even the odd Leslie speaker cabinet in an effort to turn the venue itself into an instrument. Given that Left Bank is a former church, its spacious acoustics will be an excellent fit for such an experiment – if you want a brief peak into the kind of sonic scale you can expect at the performance, check out the teaser video below:

Joining Juffage for this performance will be special guests including Katie Harkin of indie-pop gems Sky Larkin (who you may have also spotted playing keyboards for Wild Beasts), and Tom Evans of post-rock stalwarts Vessels. Together they will perform unique interpretations of Juffage’s material, transforming his already engaging live shows into something truly immersive. The night also features a strong support bill, with Ten, These Men, Steve Lawson and Andy Williamson all lined up to play.

Juffage Poster

Having seen Juffage play in York on his last tour, I can say with confidence that he’s a truly inventive performer, and this show promises to take his sonic innovation to a new level. It’s also going to be his only show of the year and quite possibly his last for some time, so if you’re already a fan of his work or simply intrigued by the concept, you definitely won’t want to miss it.

Tickets for Juffage’s Left Bank show are available from Crash Records and Jumbo Records.

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I Don’t Wanna Get Over You: A Review Of ATP Curated By The National

All Tomorrow's PartiesBecause I’m a lazy ass, I never got round to writing about last year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival at Butlins in Minehead (a surreal location for a very independent event), which was curated by Les Savy Fav, Battles and Caribou. It was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, featuring such brilliant moments as Les Savy Fav’s lunatic headline set on Friday (“tell no-one what you saw here!” shouted Tim Harrington at one point), Battles tentatively but triumphantly reclaiming ‘Atlas’ from the spectre of Tyondai Braxton’s departure, Sun Ra Arkestra offering us delirious space-jazz, Pharaoh Sanders providing smooth, soulful sounds on Sunday afternoon, and far more besides – Wild Flag, No Age, Holy Fuck, Nisennenmondai, Cults and Factory Floor all proved to be highlights. As such, it didn’t take much for me to persuade myself to part with the cash for this year’s event, especially as it was curated by The National – a band who I’d only managed to see previously while surrounded by disinterested Strokes fans at Leeds Festival.

Several months and one change of venue later (thanks to ATP’s financial turmoil earlier in the year), we’re at Pontins in Camber Sands, which is no less of an odd location for such an event. I’ve heard various horror stories about the quality of accommodation there, but thankfully my friend Jonjo and I seem to have lucked into a decent enough chalet – basic, but serviceable and clean, and with the added advantage of a seemingly limitless electricity meter (we were warned that some people would have to purchase electricity, but apparently not us). There are some minor issues – the cooker and water heater share a switch, and there are only about four plug sockets in the entire chalet, but it certainly beats staying in a tent. Onwards…

Friday 7th December

The weekend starts with somewhat of an oddity thanks to Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, who’s playing three completely different shows this weekend, the first of which is entitled Drones/Revelations. The larger of the festival’s two main rooms has been converted into a makeshift velodrome, and the piece is performed by a dozen or so cyclists, who circle round with cylindrical speakers attached to their bikes – the end result is that the music changes subtly, different melodies and noises peaking and dropping as each individual cyclist passes by. The word ‘Drones’ in the title turns out to be both a reference to the style of music and the unmanned drones used in modern warfare, as a looping voice provides quotes about them over the PA throughout the set. As an overall audiovisual spectacle, it’s a pretty mesmerising way to start the weekend – it’s probably one of those things that’s far more interesting to watch than it is to listen to someone talk about!

After taking a bit more time out to stock up on food, I decide to go catch a bit of Nico Muhly – his modern classical compositions are enjoyable enough, but I must confess I don’t remember much about the set apart from the fact that Owen Pallett apparently makes a mean sandwich. Hayden, on the other hand, provides us with some excellent folk-rock, matching his understated sounds with engaging storytelling.

Back in stage one, Hauschka prove to be a little too avant garde for our liking, so we head back to stage two. The lack of sleep is starting to catch up with me, so I make my first (and last) purchase of Monster energy drink and discover that it tastes like disappointment in a can. At least it seems to have the desired effect – or that might just have been Buke & Gase kicking my ass and providing one of the biggest surprises of the weekend. At first, they sound a bit like Yeah Yeah Yeahs playing ramshackle homemade instruments – the ‘Buke’, a modified 6-string baritone ukelele, and the ‘Gass’, a self-crafted guitar/bass hybrid. But the instruments aren’t just a cheap gimmick, as Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez bring a real mix of sounds together to form some sort of grunge-funk-folk-punk brilliance – the pair conjure up a storm of scintillating, invigorating riffs backed up by an incessant 4/4 kick drum stomp, making their set a propulsive marvel from start to finish. Their debut record Riposte is an immediate impulse purchase afterwards, and it’s absolutely worth a listen.

We then attempt to watch Kronos Quartet, but don’t last more than five minutes as they’re currently in minimal, ultra-arty post-classical mode. The sparse, delicate folk of Luluc proves to be a much more appealing proposition – their lyrics and melodies are incredibly simple, but no less affecting for it. Zoe Randall’s vocals have an understated beauty to them, quietly commanding the audience’s attention throughout the duo’s set – on this evidence, their Aaron Dessner-produced new record will definitely be worth a listen.

Later on, Bear In Heaven seem pleasant enough on the main stage, but for some reason we decide it would be a better idea to go check out ambient noise artist Tim Hecker. The set is one, long flowing piece that transforms itself at a frankly glacial pace – it’s basically like listening to one of those ‘slowed down 800%’ videos on Youtube. Occasionally, something resembling a melody might drift into view, only to be quickly be obscured by a swell of bass. Oh God, the bass – it’s quite literally the most visceral thing we’ll hear (and feel) all weekend, with the low end frequencies reaching ribcage-shaking levels. It’s so visceral, in fact, that to leave would almost seem like pussying out, and so we stay until the end to claim our unwanted badge of honour – if it were a physical thing, it would probably read something like “I survived the Heckerpocalypse.” After about 40 minutes of bewildering noise, I’m not sure if I’ve had some sort of transcendental experience, or if I’ve simply been wasting my time – though I have a sneaking suspicion it’s probably the latter.

Japanese noise-rock band Boris are a chameleonic force – their first three songs alone span death metal, minimal psychedelic rock, and what can only be described as a more crazed version of Motörhead. It’s fair to say that some of these aspects come off better than others – for me, their pinnacle comes with their penultimate track, a sprawling, dynamic rock epic. There’s certainly no lack of energy throughout their set, particular from their drummer, whose animalistic yelps and frenzied playing are a definite highlight.

Saturday 8th December

Saturday starts out with an attempt to give Kronos Quartet another shot, and whether by chance or design they prove more accessible this time around. Sure, the perturbing avant guarde piece about 9/11 is perhaps a little much this early in the afternoon, but by contrast we get some tasteful Bollywood strings and a beautiful Swedish piece called ‘A Thousand Thoughts’. They finish their set on a lighter note, with a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’, which is either genius or sacrilege, depending on how you look at it.

I struggle to really connect with Lower Dens, so after half an hour I decide to go watch Richard Reed Parry’s folk set, entitled Quiet River Of Dust – and afterwards I wish I’d seen the whole thing. It proves to be a quirky and engaging performance – the first song I hear is about a boy who gets lost at sea and turns into a fish, if you want some sort of indication of what we’re working with. The fact that this is the trio’s first ever show also highlights ATP as the kind of festival where you get to see things you don’t get anywhere else.

Having seen This Is The Kit earlier in the year, I knew I was going to enjoy their performance – but I had genuinely forgotten how brilliant the band actually are. Mumford & Sons may have single-handedly ruined the banjo for just about everyone, but Kate Stables does the near-impossible and turns it into an instrument of subtle beauty – ‘Easy Pickings’ and ‘White Ash Cut’ being particularly strong examples. It doesn’t harm that her band surround her banjo lines with serenely atmospheric instrumentation – and it works equally well when Kate dons a guitar, as on the breathtaking ‘Spinney’. The set is peppered with equally impressive new songs, and even the band’s equipment has its admirers, with a random scouser describing the collection of instruments on stage as “like guitar porn.” Guitar porn or not, I’m absolutely looking forward to hearing a new record from the band next year.

Indeed, the evening is pretty stuffed with talent. Firstly, Polaris Prize nominee Kathleen Edwards delivers her folky, bluesy Americana with complete conviction – ‘Going To Hell’ in particular sounds like she’s really inhabiting the song and imbuing it with meaning. Next is Sharon Van Etten, whose captivating set is a timely reminder that I really do need to give her new album Tramp a proper listen – as it stands, ‘Give Out’ and ‘Serpents’ are my highlights. Finally, The Antlers suffer some technical difficulties but still manage to deliver a luscious set of their dream-like indie rock.

Without wishing to trivialise the other performers, however, tonight is all about Wild Beasts for me. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m a huge fan of the band, and particularly their third album Smother – so their setlist tonight is pretty perfect for me. The first half of the show is Smother played in its entirety – finally getting to hear the gorgeous ‘Invisible’ live is a major personal highlight, but the whole record is impeccably recreated live, in all its damaged beauty. After a brief pause, the band then proceed to follow up with a flawless selection of songs from their previous two records – that is, ‘The Devil’s Crayon’ from Limbo, Panto, and all the best stuff from Two Dancers. Ending on the delirious one-two punch of ‘All The King’s Men’ and ‘Hooting And Howling’, Wild Beasts have yet again confirmed that they’re one of the finest bands that the UK has to offer – and yet, they’re humble in deference to the weekend’s curators, with Hayden suggesting that The National’s High Violet served as a blueprint for Smother. Clearly, that inspiration has served them very well indeed.

Sunday 9th December

Our first act on Sunday proves to be another of the weekend’s most surprisingly brilliant artists, Ethan Lipton, presenting a piece of musical theatre entitled No Place To Go. Together with his three-piece band, he delivers a story of a man forced to reconsider his place in the world after his company makes the decision to relocate to Mars. What follows is humorous, charming and even insightful in places – highlights include the ominous ‘Shitstorm’, the song about moving in with his ‘Ageing Middle-Class Parents’, the frantic hilarity of ‘Soccer Song’, and the sub-plot about the final sandwich in the conference room. By the time we’ve gone from the comfort of having a ‘Place To Go’ through to the triumphant, joyful conclusion, there’s no denying that Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra have delivered something fantastically entertaining.

Up in stage one, My Brightest Diamond gives one of the weekend’s more theatrical performances thanks to her quivering vocals and striking costume – but the mask does come off when she sings ‘I Have Never Loved Someone’, a particularly touching dedication to her young son. We switch stages again to watch The Philistines Jr, whose geeky indie rock manages to make something as ordinary as waiting for the cable guy sound charming. I elect to watch a bit Youth Lagoon afterward, and while it’s not the worst decision I’ll make all weekend, their floaty indie-pop is a little lacking in substance for my liking.

So it’s back to stage two, where Richard Reed Parry is presenting his final show of the weekend, Music For Heart And Breath. It’s a set of chamber music featuring an all-star cast of those playing over the weekend, including Owen Pallet, Nico Muhly, Gaspar Claus and the seemingly ever-present Dessner twins. There’s a twist, however – as the name might suggest, the piece is written to be played to the speed of the performers’ heartbeats – to aid this, they’re all wearing stethoscopes, which is an odd sight. It’s most apparent when the music is played in a staccato style, and it’s interesting to hear how everything fits together while still being slightly off-kilter. It’s also the quietest the crowd will be all week, with the lone exception of the sorry moron who saw fit to heckle the performers – seriously, who does that?

The crowd could have stood to be as quiet for Perfume Genius, whose beautifully fragile songs should have reduced the room to stunned silence – fortunately, his sheer talent is enough to shine through the incessant babbling from the early evening crowd, epitomised by the heartrending brilliance of ‘Hood’. Owen Pallett, meanwhile, spends the entirety of his set making me feel very silly for not listening to more of his stuff before now – his looped synth and violin compositions are backed by a rock solid rhythm section to form music of propulsive beauty, topped off by his soaring vocals. He introduces several new songs throughout the set, and their quality indicates that his new album will surely be one to watch out for next year – but there is also room for tracks from his back catalogue, including a wonderful rendition of ‘The Great Elsewhere’ to close the set out with. Local Natives provide our last piece of pre-National entertainment – they’re one of those bands who I think I’m not that bothered about, but then end up being fairly impressed by when I catch them live. They may not be Arcade Fire or anything, but they still manage to pull off the whole expansive, anthemic indie rock thing pretty well.

Tonight’s headliners are, of course, the event’s curators, and the reason that we’re all here – The National, who are ably assisted throughout by guest appearances from Richard Reed Parry, Nico Muhly and Owen Pallett. Taking full advantage that we’ll all be eating out of the palms of their hands for the next couple of hours, they begin with an understated new song, entitled ‘Lola’ – but it doesn’t take long for them to ramp things up with the storming guitars of ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ and the sweeping emotion of ‘Anyone’s Ghost’. From there on in, the band can basically do no wrong, whether it be the glorious rush provided by ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ or the raw, heartstring-tugging power of ‘Sorrow’ or ‘England’. Frontman Matt Berninger is on good form too, wryly blaming his “stupid daughter” for the cold he’s caught before playing tender, fearful ode to parenthood ‘Afraid Of Everyone’, and joking that one of the new songs they play is called ‘Buttered Buns’ – “so go ahead and blog away,” he quips. The song in question is (apparently) called ‘Sullivan’ in reality, and demonstrates a more propulsive side to the band’s new material as it’s played back-to-back with another new song, ‘Prime’. There’s room for some older songs too though – ‘Secret Meeting’ gets a rapturous response and is dedicated to a fan who showed Matt a ticket from a London show during the Alligator tour, while ‘Abel’ sees Matt absolutely bursting with cathartic energy. Boxer, on the other hand, provides many of the set’s moments great beauty, including the gorgeous ‘Slow Show’, the quiet, contemplative ‘Green Gloves’, and serene, slow-building set-closer ‘Fake Empire’.

We all know they’ll be back for more though, and the band provide a near-perfect encore – tender, touching new number ‘I Need My Girl’, fist-pumping anthem ‘Mr. November’, the glorious, squalling crescendo of ‘Terrible Love’ and the fragile, beautiful ‘About Today’. And then, to bring the weekend to an emotional close, Matt leads the crowd in singing along to an unplugged version of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ – and as the song finishes, I’m genuinely left breathless for a second. And with that unforgettable moment, The National bring the festival to a close in truly spectacular style.

But wait, there’s more! Matt Berninger encourages everyone to go see Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra once their set is done, and having seen them performing No Place To Go earlier we don’t take much persuading. They continue to display copious amounts of the wit and charm we saw earlier as they run through songs from their back catalogue, and the set features the best  sub-30second songs I’ve heard since I last saw Brakes play. By the end of the set, pretty much everyone in the room is singing along to a song about running a way with a girl from a Renaissance fair (“Her bosom was heeeaaaving, and her hair smelled like steak!”), before cheering for the band to play just one more song – and they duly oblige. ATP, you’ve been amazing.

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