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Vantastival 2018 - Saturday Review

 

We’ve arrived by the banks of the Boyne in perfect tent pitching weather. The skies are cloudy. There’s a pleasant breeze. But it’s still very warm. Now in its ninth year, Vantastival is the unofficial start of summer festival season in Ireland. The June bank holiday wouldn’t be the same without it. Featuring a fully home-grown line-up and independently run (with sponsorship from some big brands), it’s established itself as the true home of quality independent music in the country.

With the tent up, food is the first priority and it’s great to find Lala Poutine set up here. The Canadian dish is hard to find in Ireland, so it is a genuine treat to dig in to the many variations of chips and curds. King Kong Club contest winners Where’s Luke kick things off on the Firestone stage with some accessible but earnest rock. Amid the rough hewn planks of the Woodland stage, Kilkenny’s The Southern Fold blend bluegrass and southern rock to great effect. The lead singer’s ZZ Top beard matches his gruff bluesy voice. They have a sweet, soothing sound accentuated by the male/female duo on vocals. It’s only when the pair duet on a cover of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ that I realise I’ve seen them before.

The sun eventually emerges and soaks the Boyne Valley in baking heat so we skedaddle to the shade of the Woodland again. The festival’s recycling drive is being ably assisted by a troupe of children in hi-vis vests walking around with plastic bags and encouraging the grown-ups to finish their beer so they can take the empty cans. MG favourites Nix Moon played a storming set here last night, if the videos on Facebook are anything to go by. They’ll have won a few more fans in the run up to the release of their debut album. The band are still here and looking remarkably fresh as Sun Mashene hit the stage. The five piece play some loud rock with noticeable influences of ‘90s Manchester guitar pop and undertones of shoegaze.

Back in the Firestone tent, Navan’s Chinese Newspaper are immediately the most impressive act of the day so far. A four piece guitar band who have mastered all the tropes of rock 'n' roll, their songs are packed with ideas and creative play. They are by turns light and tuneful, then crushingly heavy. In his shorts and funky shades, the lead singer is the spit of a young Olga from The Toy Dolls. It’s quite fitting too, as both bands have a similar magpie approach to music, even if they don’t sound alike. The drummer may resemble a hipster Trump but he has the chops to get away with it. He switches from funky to double-bass-pedal insanity with the twirl of a stick. Chinese Newspaper’s energetic and original music draws in an enthusiastic and eclectic festival crowd. They sound like the finished product already. If they can transfer that industry and inventiveness to the studio, they’ll do well.

Elephant take to the main stage. There’s a Future Islands vibe from the music. Front man Shane Clarke sings in a falsetto to a guitar he wears “Beatles high”. He and the guitar are engaged in a duet, and the band fill out the sound to main stage proportions. This band, that he refers to as “the next stage in the evolution of the group: Elephant 2.0”, are unobtrusive but essential to the big sound. It’s simultaneously familiar and different: very much in the vein of Future Islands so.

And that’s the end of a very hot summer’s day outside Drogheda. Tomorrow, we have Exiles, Thumper and our old friends, Makings to look forward to. Goodnight!

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Car Seat Headrest, Camden Roundhouse, London

On a May evening at the Camden Roundhouse, Car Seat Headrest a.k.a. Will Toledo, everyone’s favourite overwrought, lower-case tweeting indie-darling, walks onstage with six other musicians - significant because it’s a far cry from a few years ago when he was playing all the instruments himself and uploading his albums to Bandcamp. Signing to Matador in 2016 has significantly beefed up Toledo’s sound (predominantly because his albums are no longer recorded on a Macbook), and along with that - his live performances. The set starts with a cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Waves of Fear’, droning notes building to a crescendo before the band launch into quite possibly the best gig opener since, er, ‘Fill in the Blank’ - Twin Fantasy’s ‘Bodys’.

Car Seat Headrest recently released a re-recorded version of Twin Fantasy, the album Toledo “Didn’t know how to finish” first time around when he uploaded it back in 2011. The previous version was a multifaceted, bedroom heartbreak record, but in re-recording it, that sweet Matador money has unsurprisingly made for a stronger, more urgent modern classic. New versions of tracks are mostly exactly the same, perhaps with a couple of lyrical references updated (on ‘Cute Thing’ - “I want a voice like Dan Bejar” is now “I want a voice like Frank Ocean’s” [fine] and “I want a stage presence like John Entwistle” is now “I want a stage presence like James Brown” [weird choice]). After ‘Bodys’ the band start bashing out the big ones from the two preceding albums, Teens of Style and Teens of Denial - ‘Fill In the Blanks’, ‘Hippie Powers’, ‘Drugs With Friends’ - it’s almost a greatest hits set, testament to the sheer volume of chorus-heavy bangers in Toledo’s back catalogue. As ‘Cute Thing’ comes to a barnstorming end, the band immediately launch into a Talking Heads cover (a CSH live staple) - Remain in Light’s ‘Crosseyed and Painless’. Skittering guitar and bass loop over backbeat drums, and Toledo bounces around the stage, eyes closed and singing to the ceiling.

Talking Heads is followed by pints-in-the-air singalong, ‘Drunk Drivers’ (complete with cowbell and maracas courtesy of support band Naked Giants) and closing with latest single, ‘Nervous Young Inhumans’. The band stalk off to thunderous applause before coming back 5 minutes later for an encore of some of Twin Fantasy’s quieter numbers, before following with twelve minute epic, ‘Beach Life in Death’, a song written seven years previous. In the past Toledo has referred to ‘Beach Life’, which is obviously one of the more personal songs (from a man whose stock-in-trade is personal songs) as the “albatross around his neck” (the song’s title is also a reference to The Ancient Mariner). By re-recording the album, in his new persona as one of his generation’s most adored alternative songwriters, perhaps Toledo has managed to slough off the albatross from his neck. He certainly can hold a crowd down. 

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Bearded Theory - Day Three

 

So, having survived the ordeal of the lightning, I rise like Odysseus into baking sunshine for the last day of Bearded Theory. The drainage here is excellent. You’d hardly know it had even rained. In fact, my neighbour slept through it, the bastard! Donning slightly damp boots, we head to the arena to recharge, both literally and figuratively. After dropping my battery pack at the recharge station and getting a bacon roll from Duck Burgers, I’m feeling almost normal again. The festival site could use better signage but credit where it’s due, its day three and I have yet to queue for a toilet or find one that was dirty or smelly. It sounds like a small thing but it’s quite an achievement, well done Bearded Theory.

Sheafs invite the early risers to step a little closer. The band have just arrived from Sheffield and look noticeably fresher than the assembled throng. The stage is lined with vintage portable TVs and signs reading “This is not a protest” as the rock quintet launch into ‘You’re So Fickle’. Front man Lawrence climbs down into the pit to greet the front row during ‘My Pollution’. He already looks like a rock star with his floppy hair, open shirt and white half moon tambourine. He even scales the barrier to get amongst the crowd and whip them up during ‘I Wanna Show You What I Mean’. Good stuff!

There’s a lot of dadrock on the main stage this afternoon and nothing worth writing home about so I head over to the Showcase stage where a very pleasant group of milquetoast youngsters are playing inoffensive indie. A poorly chosen cover of ‘Love Is All Around’ thins out the crowd as people start walking away shaking their heads.

But next up are Cohesion. The long hair, tattoos, and black face paint suggest a metal band. They are more accessible than their appearance indicates. The guitars are ‘90s grunge, and the melodic vocals are positioned somewhere between Ricky Warwick and Disturbed. Nonetheless, the tunes are good, the rhythms tight, and the rock is hard. They aren’t afraid to groove either. Even the unfashionable guitar solos sound good. Cohesion may be on the poppier end of the metal spectrum, but they are exactly what this Sunday afternoon needs.

After bravely hiding away from another thunderstorm, I expect to have missed most of Jake Bugg but his set has sensibly been held back until the storm passes. I’ve managed to miss him at a handful of other festivals, so I’m delighted to finally get to see him live. I haven’t heard the new album yet apart from the surprisingly good duet with Noah Cyrus. Backed with a three piece band, he sounds uncannily like Lee Mavers when he sings, but his speaking voice could hardly be more different. The set leans heavily on his early material, with the new tunes scattered between the likes of ‘Taste It’ and ‘Slumville Sunrise’. The recent songs stand out; a bit grandiose and overblown. The country aspect of the music is more pronounced live than it is on record, as is Bugg’s ability to shred on his guitar. He even throws in a Richie Havens cover. The weather has necessitated a truncated set, but what has been lost in quantity is made up for by the quality of the songs. A 40 minute greatest hits set; it would be greedy to ask for more than that.

And that’s that for Bearded Theory 2018. The music was great. The weather was crap but that can’t be helped. Catton Hall makes for a great venue, and the food & drink stalls were many and varied. There is room for improvement in some minor aspects and the organisers are very open to suggestions from festival-goers.  For a festival on this scale to retain their independent approach and BYOB policy is, increasingly, a rarity. In the absence of Glastonbury this year, Bearded Theory was a fine alternative.

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Bearded Theory - Day Two

 

Waking up to see exit polls predicting a landslide for the Repeal movement back home is a great start to the day. I feel warm inside even if the skies are overcast. Equally, the promise of seeing Idles, Sleaford Mods and The Winachi Tribe today stirs excitement in my guts that is unrelated to the festival hot dogs.

After a few showers, the sun finally shows its luminous face just in time for the ska/punk/metal hybrid of Random Hand. Their road crew entertain the crowd by name-checking the various food stalls for soundcheck. Hopefully the band are as much fun as their support team are. Singer/trombonist Robin Leitch points out that the main stage is much bigger than the stages they usually play. Accordingly, the sound is shit down the back, but the energy of the band is enough to draw us in closer where the superior sound and the skanking oldies put a whole new complexion on things. “Most of you won’t have heard of us but we’ve been playing a long time and this is the nearest we’ve played to an ice cream van. And it’s definitely the most people who have seen my flies come undone”, he says as he fixes the furniture. Riotous stuff!

UK Subs are a band that I know more through reputation than through experience. They are more familiar from t-shirts than from their music but after 40 years and 26, alphabetically titled, albums, I am anticipating a masterclass in punk entertainment. What follows is an adequate approximation of punk but I suppose you can excuse that in a band that has been doing this longer than half the crowd has been on the planet. To be honest, Random Hand had as much of an impact on me, in a shorter set, but ‘Down On The Farm’ takes me back to the old Guns 'N' Roses cover and it’s one more band off the bucket list.

From what punk used to sound like, we move very swiftly to what it currently sounds like. I’ve been listening to Idles’ debut album, Brutalism, for over a year now and it is imprinted on my brain. The chance to see them live was my main motivation in coming to this festival. I hide my pale, easily burned skin in the shadow of the bar while they soundcheck. If there were a lot of photographers for Pins last night, then I will need the thesaurus for the proper collective noun for this pack of paparazzi.

They open with the ferocious ‘Heel Heal’. Lead singer Joe Talbot has his own version of the moonwalk. When he spills his water on the stage and the crew come on to clean it, he insists on doing it himself as it is his mess. He and a crew member get down on all fours and he continues to sing as they mop up the spillage. A 10 year old boy named Isaac is drafted in to sing ‘Mother’, “This is our future” says Talbot of the boy. He dedicates the song to the crew and to the toxicity of masculinity. I hesitate to use the clichéd term “capturing the zeitgeist” but it seems particularly appropriate for this band. Idles’ musical approach is as representative of our changing society as is the unfolding result of the referendum.

There are a handful of new songs that bode well for the forthcoming album. They note that it is “An honour to open for Sleaford Mods; the best band in the country right now”. Having seen the Nottingham duo a few times recently, it is hard to disagree with that sentiment. Idles are the only band who look to challenge them for the crown. It’s difficult to write anything about them as they play. Their performance is so overwhelming that they all sweat through their shirts and the veins are visible on their faces and necks. Even watching them is exhausting. I had intended to see Fun Lovin’ Criminals next but I think I need a lie down before Sleaford Mods.

Sufficiently recovered from one onslaught of socially conscious invective, I return to the main stage to see Andrew Fearn and James Williamson let loose. The prolific pair pepper old favourites amid the newer cuts. “Are you enjoying it?” asks Williamson, “For a lot of people, you’ve very quiet. Are you fucked up?” If you haven’t seen these guys before, then you should make it a priority to rectify that. Their unique performance and material never disappoint. Williamson’s manic delivery and physical tics are a statement in themselves, but the juxtaposition of Fearn’s affable, tracksuited loner bobbing along to the laptop, while nearby an angry man spits invective, is visually arresting. It’s reminiscent of Iggy Pop’s artfully aggressive dancing on ‘70s TV. Aside from all that, it’s just hard not to get caught up in the stark, thunderous, post-punk beats.

There’s dancing of an altogether different sort over at the Showcase stage with The Winachi Tribe. I've been following these guys for a couple of years now but it's the first time I've seen them live. They don't disappoint. They're a slick, funky groove machine. The fat rumble of the bass guitar slots in with the dancey drums and percussion, laying sound foundations for the smooth vocals of Liam Croker. We spoke recently about their new single and he gives me a shoutout when introducing it; a nice ego boost for a Saturday night. You wouldn't get that from Robert Plant. The showcase tent fills quickly with the band's accessible sounds drawing in passers-by. Hopefully we'll see them on one of the bigger stages next time.

Whether it was the Black Dragon cider, the beautiful music, or the general good vibes, I'm not sure, but the next thing I remember is being woken by a nearby roll of thunder. I'm a city boy, and not usually an outdoors type, so being in a field under a nylon/polyester tent in a lightning storm is a new experience for me. The initial surge of awe and excitement that greets the sights and sounds of nature's brilliance fades very quickly when you're in such a precarious position. Thunder, at sufficient proximity, is not just an aural, but a visceral phenomenon. I went from enthralled to shitting myself in seconds flat.

After putting all my clothes and electronics into a waterproof bag, the only logical next step is frantic googling. This is only mildly reassuring, insofar as there's little you can do in this situation with no adequate shelter nearby. But deaths by lightning are relatively rare: more common than shark attacks (little chance of that in rural Derbyshire) but less so than being shot by a toddler in America. 90 minutes of wishing I had a God to pray to, and counting Mississippis, later and all that is left to do is wish I'd properly covered up my boots before the rain started.

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Bearded Theory - Day One

 

It’s a historic day in Dublin as we finally get an opportunity to decriminalise abortion. I’m celebrating by following in the footsteps of the 4000 Irish women each year who have to make the trip to England. Thankfully I have a happier reason for travelling ...

Bearded Theory festival is back at their iconic home of Catton Park nestled in the National Forest for their 11th outing. They have six main music stages; The Pallet, Magical Sounds, Woodland, Maui Waui, Convoy Cabaret and One Big Showcase. They have several smaller venues including Something Else Tea Tent, The Ship, Rogues Hideout, Magic Teapot, Alpaca and Creative Intentions.

The line-up is pretty great with legends like Robert Plant, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Jimmy Cliff, The Membranes and Therapy? Other festival staples like Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Jesus Jones, The Coral and Altern-8 join the relative newcomers like Sleaford Mods, Idles, Jake Bugg, Rews, Pins and The Winachi Tribe for a very promising three days of dancing and merriment.  The Winachis are headlining the Showcase stage on Saturday night, and we spoke with singer Liam Croker over here about the festival, headliner Robert Plant, and the band’s adventures in Hollywood.

The sun has been splitting the stones all week in Dublin, and it continues to do so through Wales, but by the time I reach Derbyshire, it is grey and drizzly. Good festival weather so. After a bit of exploring and sampling the strong cider, it’s time for The Coral on the main stage. The rain starts to come down harder just as they’re getting in to the swing of it, so it seems like a good opportunity to check out the sheltered Woodland Stage.

Rews have just started. The English/Northern Irish duo play a guitar/drums set that is heavy on the pop rock. They’re a bit like The White Stripes but with more of a groove and sans the pretension. The clearing is loosely populated and it’s worth getting to the front to experience Shauna Tohill’s gut-shaking guitars. They are obviously enjoying themselves here and, on this evidence, it’s easy to see why they are attracting so much attention recently.

There’s a significant coterie of photographers in the pit as Pins run through their linecheck. Perhaps it’s in hope of an appearance from punk godfather, Iggy Pop, who appears on their new single. Or perhaps it’s just because the Manchester quintet look, and sound, uber cool. In particular, the visual contrast between the synchronised, twin drummers at the back of the stage, clad in black and moving in concert, and the trio of singers in white out front, is immediately arresting. All of which would mean nothing if the music were boring, but the constant swirl and underlying menace of the tunes make them utterly compelling. They play with a deserved swagger. The venerable Mr. Pop has chosen his collaborators wisely once again. This crowd are bleeding deadly.

As the sun begins to set, ‘90s throwbacks Jesus Jones have the task of following Pins. They sound remarkably modern. They looked like taking on the world in the post Happy Mondays / Screamadelica era and had a number of transatlantic hits. Their combination of techno blips and baggy alternative tunes has (mostly) worn well. “Your parents might remember this”, quips lead singer Mike Edwards, as they break out ‘International Bright Young Thing’. ‘Right Here, Right Now’ and ‘Real Real Real’ still sound great and get the enthusiastic crowd moving, but the material from the new album, Passages, is much more interesting musically.

The festival sold out weeks in advance but it still feels spacious when moving around, until we try to leave the Woodland arena. With only one narrow entrance /exit point, it swiftly bottlenecks, and it takes significant intervention from the security staff to get people out. After a long day's travelling, the warm, dry tent is a welcome sight at the end of the evening. Tomorrow looks like the most exciting lineup of the weekend with Idles, Sleaford Mods, and the Winachi Tribe topping my list of must-sees.

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Hidden Door Festival, Leith Theatre, Edinburgh - Sylvan Esso


Arriving late due to my indecision on what to wear that night (what?! My weather app says it’s supposed to be 17 degrees but it’s colder than winter with that damn haar out there! Tshirt? Under three layers? Sweatshirt?) we walked in on the E M I L I E quartet. Not too many people had congregated on the floor as the night was still young and maybe everyone else was stuck at home in their own clothing indecision. We took the opportunity to roam around Leith Theatre to look at the installations. By far my favourite one was lurking in the basement. Video work by Clara Hastrup showed humour and skill behind all those images. Red hot bacon frying over lime green forest fires: Clever. The music filtered down through the building; it blended in well with the surroundings, enhancing the experience of looking at the artwork.

When we popped back up to ground level, Emilie Atkinson and her three were winding up their set.  It was a good introduction to the night of electronic music.

As I looked about me, I noticed the crowd this second night was noticeably younger than the crowd from the previous evening. Maybe the older kids didn’t feel like putting on their dancing shoes or perhaps these kids were more savvy with what was going down in the world of electro pop, indie pop and all the other electro words and pop descriptions needed to define what we were hearing.

After an hour’s wait (it must take a long time to unplug and reassemble the stage according to the musicians’ needs) Happy Meals showed themselves, backlit and two shadows, ready to perform. Apparently, the mid-calf black pants suit is the costume of choice for musicians this season as Suzanne Rodden was sporting a flared trouser leg version of this season’s wardrobe staple. She excited the crowd by joining them, hopping over the ineffective fence. We lost sight of her several times, sometimes for several minutes. She was also doing this barefoot which was either brave or crazy. Crazy brave? There was hair flipping, hair twirling and a few back bends. The music would rush forward to find the faster beat it needed for the next number. For the final crescendo, Lewis Cook and Suzanne disappeared in a puff of smoke after a scream. Right. That’s Happy Meals then.

At this point I needed to pop outside. As I exited the building, I noticed a bank of people all staring roofwards. What do you do when you see loads of people looking up? You look up too to see what they’re all staring at. Apparently, they were all gazing up towards Kathryn Spence and Tess Letham as they danced dangerously close to the edge of the roof. It was beautiful when you were within earshot of the music, however, when you were out of it - for example queueing up for the portaloo – it looked a bit bizarre. One needed the other.

It was finally time for the headliners to show themselves. The floor was packed, as was the upper lever where we were sitting directly across from the stage.  When the door to the back of the stage opened, the crowd went wild…only to realise it was a stage worker. The crowd cheered again when another shadow appeared. Er. Still neither Amelia Meath nor Nick Sanborn. Take three, crowd went wild and yes, this was what we were waiting for. This was my most favourite act of the night. I loved the banter with the audience (we learned a new word for ocean breeze – Haar!) to the quirky dance moves (both) and yes, a black mid-calf jumpsuit. Hearing them at home compared to seeing them on stage are two very different experiences; things are amped up several notches and far less mellow in their on-stage performance. They very clearly have a big following here in Edinburgh and it is easy to see why. I was already a fan of their music but this experience has made me a fan of them as performers. Lots of fun, lots of energy and rockin' dance moves. If only she would make a How To Dance Awesome Like Me dance video. I would sign up for that.

Hidden Door continues until June 03 - further details here.

Further images from this show can be found here.

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