Underage Festival: wait a minute, these people are all children!
The Underage festival was too young for us at DiS. Aged a tender 21 years, I'm the youngest here. But still - banned. So, we recruited - and we recruited well, we reckon.
As the first of the expected five thousand attendees trickle through the gates, Johnny Flynn’s modern-day meandering folk flickers over a sun-bathed Victoria Park like a bulrush basket baby down a neon-Nile of wilfully outrageous attire and misplaced youthful exuberance; a glimmering golden alchemy that stirs and lulls in equal measure. Songs like ‘Eyeless in Holloway’ see Johnny join the dots in landscapes of half-remembered fictions and half-forgotten realities in hazy sepia, the effect developing as a pin-hole photograph of Piccadilly Circus, wistfully yellowed by wide-eyed earnest and dog-eared with a genuine poetic affectation – all embellished courtesy of The Sussex Wit with galloping drum flourishes and barnacles of swooning violin. Although the thoughtfulness and understatement of Johnny’s set possibly sees him ever-so-slightly under-appreciated on a bill boasting larger and louder concerns, the modest throng ensnared by his every word rest assured knowing his astral talent is very much in the ascendancy.
To really be effective, Crystal Castles’ malevolent, malfunctioning eight-bit terrorism needs to be loud enough to envelope the audience in its pulsing dark heart, to wash over you in ferocious, asphyxiating sheets of warped two-dimensional Gameboy glitches and bruising drum bombast that pierces your skull with their sheer shrill force, burrowing deep into the brain like a fever. As it is, owing to those considerate chaps at the Tower Hamlets council and the stifling acoustics of the inflatable stage on which they play, the would-be caustic choir of end-is-nigh sirens that layer the huge ‘Atlantis to Interzone’ remix with which their set begins sound more like a police car siren drowned at the bottom of a canal, Crystal Castles a shadow of themselves.
Whereas Crystal Castles’ on-record potency and immediacy felt stunted and watery, doubled over in its surroundings, Laura Marling’s bright-eyed, achingly honest folk-pop seems almost swallowed by the size of the main stage on which she’s billed. A seated Laura cuts a vulnerable yet never less than commanding figure, her unassuming and unsentimental persona veiling a quiet cut-diamond self-assurance and unwavering conviction in her songs, her heart seemingly breaking a hundred times under the weight of the world she depicts and picks apart in her brittle, dustily beautiful tones.
Shirts are removed, torsos adorned with bizarre felt-tip markings, top hats flung from the audience and donned Slash-style for haphazard guitar noodlings, an endorphin-addled audience breaks out into spontaneous bouts of fighting in circles, camera-men scramble and trip over their flash-guns to capture ‘the madness’ – late of the pier rarely deliver anything but unfettered chaos. Even though glorious sunshine at three in the afternoon and the cold light of sobriety are not the most conducive conditions in which to witness the troupe’s maniacal majesty - their defective gene dance music more suited to 12 hours later in the day, and vague, bleary-brained, lead-legged dancing - their performance remained as engrossing as anything else on the bill. A band who don’t have so much as the slightest dalliance in reality, instead dabbling in daydream and dealing in sweat-box nightmares, songs like ‘VW’ are as heavy and oppressive as they are immediate and seizing, a heady concoction of hypnotic syncopated drum cycles, euphoric synthesized gasps and melodic exorcism.
Kid Harpoon suffers slightly from a mid-afternoon wane in interest which seems to idly blanket large parts of the crowd, many choosing instead to bathe in the sun or maraud endlessly around the site. As such, his sinister, sparkling narratives that brew and bubble with uneasy optimism and cast light on the darker aspects of living do not quite get the airing they deserve. Despite this however, new song ‘Flowers by the Shore’, bolstered by new band The Powers That Be, is a promising insight into the nature of Kid Harpoon’s new material, the intricate details and peep-hole perspectives that characterised his earlier work being re-scaled into wings spread, Springsteen-sized anti-anthems.
The coursing, surging energy of Foals’ relentless rhythmic onslaught soon stirs the crowd from their inertia, the tent spilling over within seconds of the band arriving in a flurry of swarming, agitated guitars, earth-shuddering, beating heart drum breaks and Gwen Stefani references. Needless to say, this shit is bananas. Their set remains much unchanged, save one new song played before giving way to the crawling, arachnid introduction to ‘Mathletics’, which sees Foals less mechanically break-neck and more yearning and achingly melodic. However, the time the band has spent in exile in New York seems to have achieved the impossible in tightening them even further. Taut almost to breaking point, ‘Hummer’ and ‘Balloons’ feel as if they might snap in two under their own monstrous tension.
“One minute to stage time...” the baying mob screaming blue murder are told, and for all his ludicrous press posturing, tiresome claims of retirement and Tiny Dancer tantrums and tiaras, as the afternoon folds to evening and the sky takes on a blushing red hue, there are few people capable of igniting such a delighting inferno from a damp spark as Patrick Wolf. The appropriately big-top shaped tent swells enormous with abject adoration and threatens to be thrown into the air by sheer force of excitement as a ten-second countdown to its preposterously brilliant ringleader strutting onto stage begins. The set begins as it intends to go on, unabashedly camp and outlandish, undeniably ostentatious and infused with its own importance, but negating all of this - a genuine forget everything joy, emanated from six-foot-something-in- Lederhosen presence of Patrick himself and mirrored tenfold by a crowd not jaded by tired cynicism who want to believe in the myth he shrouds himself in. If Patrick is to keep his word and stop playing live after the Autumn shows as he is claimed, it is the effortless, soaring, breathless hope of ‘Wolf Song’ and ominously bleak Dickensian fantasy of ‘The Libertine’ that will shape his legacy. For the time being however, this night belongs to him, everything else trampled under the galloping weight of his brash, beautiful rapture.
Washing into E3 on the crest of a wave of broadsheet-culture-supplement-saliva, frothing with such terms as “teen explosion!” and “youthquake!”, it was always going to be difficult for Sam Kilcoyne’s Underage Festival to stand up to its own expectations. Rarely has a fledgling festival been so in the public eye, and in some respects, being so hyped to the hilt did the event no favours. The main gripe with the festival was not in terms of its idea, which was an indisputably strong one, but the rather sterile way in which it was executed. The trouble being, really, that it was the commentators and organisers more excited about its importance and place in history as the ‘first ever credible event for fourteen to eighteen year olds’ than the people actually attending on the day. The result was an atmosphere that for large parts of the day was at best excitable, and at worst really quite muted. Rather than defining itself as different positively, the festival really set itself apart with what it did not offer, most noticeably of course alcohol. Whilst this is by no means of be-all importance (Field Day inadvertently proving that alcohol and festivals are not entirely necessary bedfellows), anyone making the journey to Mile End to witness a change in the way music festivals are promoted and enjoyed may well have left disappointed.
If, however, Underage Festival is to be looked upon as a well organised, reasonably priced, inner-city showcase of a good glut of exciting emerging talent, then August 10th found plenty of cheer to be had.