So, yeah.. I figured out a few things at this year's Electric Picnic. Things that, had I a modicum of common sense, foresight or organisational wit, should have been obvious before I, err, missed the ferry to Ireland. But more on all that later.
For those that only know about Oxegen, Electric Picnic is the other major Irish festival and the country's closest answer to Glastonbury. Sure, it has little of Worthy Farm's tradition (it only began in 2004), but that needn't preclude it from feeling special. It has a similarly well-balanced mix of music, culture/arts, fun stuff and pretty decent food. The Stradbally Estate setting is beautiful, and there's a decent crowd of beery lads'n'lasses and middle class wine-quaffers to make things lively, but never rowdy.
Weirdly, what really makes Electric Picnic feel special is the thing it has less of. With a capacity of around 35,000 (compare that to Oxegen, Reading and V's 80,000+ and Glasto's 170,000+) , Electric Picnic feels like a big festival that didn't sell too good. But this is, in fact, bloody awesome. There are no bottlenecks walking from stage to stage. You can see/access a stage when you arrive at one. There are no queues for food or toilets, and you don't have to pitch your tent in double-decker formation. Usually, more equals merrier, but 30,000 is more than, like, two; and in terms of attending a festival, feels like exactly the right amount.
Anyway, enough of all that. This is how the three days unfolded..
There's nothing quite like that panic-stricken, shite-i've-actually-missed-an-entire-day-at-a-festival-that-i'm-supposed-to-review feeling. Imagine that momentary apex of the pre-vomit stage where all the blood abandons your face and, I dunno, goes somewhere else. Prolong that feeling and incorporate into it a total lack of sleep, a fairly long drive and an unimpressed girlfriend, and you're left with the emotional equivalent of _George's Marvellous Medicine_ exploding in your cerebrum and something else exploding in the pit of your stomach. Not good.
I spend a good five minutes desperately driving into stuff (literally, driving into stuff) at Holyhead Port in a rather peculiar-looking terrorist-like attempt to find someone who a) I can understand and b) doesn't exacerbate my already frantic mental state. I don't respond well to comments from one passing member of the public: 'You've missed it! You better go to the terminal!' I am rather hoping a smiley man from an AA advert scenario will offer some comforting advice and escort me on board the ferry that hadn't actually left yet (I was fifteen minutes early, but apparently also 15 minutes late). No such luck. The place is dead and as helpful as a place that's dead. I manage to find one lonely Stena Line maintenance man who seems genuinely frightened by my dodgem car-style driving and maddened facial expression. 'Terminal.' Fuck.
£35 down (this, on top of the ludicrous £259 for the return ferry ticket) and six hours later, I arrive at the festival in the same kind of mental and physical state that usually accompanies a festival exit. It's at this stage that I come to the realisation that if Electric Picnic really wants to emulate Glastonbury it needs to open its gates at least the day before things officially start. Arrival days (especially mine) are almost always stressful piles of cackshite and can potentially drag on and/or go catastrophically wrong. And even if they go fairly smoothly they are nothing if not totally knackering. So, you'll be more than glad to know that musically, Friday ends up being a virtual wipe out.
As we slog our way across the site, carrying weight a mule would justifiably object to, I ask my girlfriend why important people have to walk the furthest at festivals. She doesn't verbally respond, but her expression suggests that it'd be better if I analyse certain parts of the trip at a later date. I enthusiastically tell her you can hear The Waterboys' 'Whole Of The Moon' in the distance! Again, no response. If The Waterboys can't rouse a woman's spirits, I ask myself, then what can? It was around the time that Modest Mouse take to the Main Stage that our luminous yellow bag trolley with worryingly weak-looking straps decides to do exactly what I thought it would do when I agreed to hire it. Several thousand people walk by and ignore our baggage-all-over-the-place plight. I feel like Larry David in that _Curb Your Enthusiasm_ episode where he is trying to change his car tyre. 'Five dollars for a verbal response!? Anyone??!' Next time I intend to travel with a sleeping bag and a toothbrush. AND NOTHING ELSE.
Having finally found the correct camp site by dusk, tent-pitching goes mysteriously smoothly. We're even close to the toilets and showers, and there is a convenient bar/eatery near by. Hold on a minute, I ask myself. This is way too peachy. Preparing for disaster, we zip up the tent, down some warm beer and head to the bright, noisy bit.
The festival is profuse with happy-faced people that don't seem to have experienced the same kind of trauma as us. I wonder how these folk get it all so right. I drink some more and annihilate a Thai red curry to the surprisingly raucous sound of Roxy Music and Phil Manzanera wrestling with what sounds more like a meat-starved leopard propped in front of a mic than a piece of wood with a plug in it. The old world guitar heroics of 'In Every Dream Home A Heartache' follow the chilling piano solos of 'A Song For Europe' and an extended version of 'My Only Love' – all torn-up blues guitar and pained wailing from the band's backing vocalists. And of course, there stands Brian Ferry. Still the coolest guy in rock? Well yeah, he probably is. The rock star anguish is still there. The vulnerable egoist is still there. The contradictions that make Roxy both seductive and loveable are all still there.
...Which is a bit of a shame, as I find it hard to engage with them. Coming in late to the set and feeling arrival-stressed obviously don't help. We decide to depart in search of more instant pleasures. PiL provide the tonic needed. You could just about hear Lydon's cackling rants at the Main Stage. Inside the Electric Arena, the full vituperative wall hits you like this festival has REALLY FUCKING BEGUN. 'Religion II' (including some naughty pokes at the Roman Catholic Church), 'Public Image,' 'Memories,' a jubilant, crowd-baiting 'Rise' and a pretty true version of Leftfield's 'Open Up' constitute a bona fide Festival Moment for everyone in attendance. Lydon apologises to Roxy for slightly stealing their thunder. He's right. They did.
The latter part of the night is spent rather haplessly looking for something half-decent to dance to. Unsurprisingly, a band that calls itself The Rubberbandits aren't able to provide that. One can only assume that electro jazz-funk is something of an acquired taste here in Ireland. A bit like Guinness. If Guinness was in fact puréed excrement. We move on. The rather bizarre practice of dancing to silence with headphones on takes us nicely to near-exhaustion. Oh yeah, I (of course) have to lose my glasses in the process. Festivals are so much better blurry, aren't they? Thing I figured out: a spare pair of glasses is, like, FUCKING VITAL.
It's a painful morning. During the night two more things become clear: take too much stuff to a festival and you actually have no space left in the tent in which to lie down properly; and pitch your tent next to a bar that pumps out nerve-shreddingly loud music (Florence, 'Blue Monday', 'Sweet Child O' Mine'.. you get the picture) to pissed-up VIP'ers until sunrise, and your chances of even a semi-decent night's sleep are slim. Sanity is also quite hard to cling onto. Noise torture is real, people.
We prop open our eyelids with grimy fingers, slap ourselves and after the agonisingly slow consumption of an overpriced full English, head manfully into the throng. We must concentrate on the music! And stop fannying about! ..is the general tone for the day. Happily, we're able to combine this mood with the other main one (chronic tiredness/semi-lucidity) as we collapse in front of the Main Stage like two pathetic octogenarians after a tight game of boules.
Like PIL the night before, Mountain Man are the right band at the right time. There's nothing complicated about the Vermont-based all-girl trio, but like pretty much everything released on Bella Union lately, they are producing music of a quality you'd be daft to ignore. And more importantly, their bashfulness and tender harmonies are exactly what the doctor ordered. Tender too are Dublin's very own Heathers. Essentially the same as Mountain Man, minus a lady, and with a bit more Heartfelt Emotion. They smooth out quite a few hungover edges.
It's a pretty good job I've woken up by the time Crystal Castles finally emerge onto the Electric Arena stage. The sight of Alice Glass lolloping around like an eight-year-old child, making noises akin to the sound of atomic bomb explosions – that is if atomic bombs used sparrows instead of nuclear fusion – is still one of the most captivating things in live music. Under a blast wave of chaotic chiptune and epileptic strobe lighting, it's anarchic, destructive; even nihilistic at times. Fronted by someone as young (Alice is 21; and yeah, it feels like she should be older by now) and patently tortured/vulnerable as Glass, it makes the rock star-human being juxtaposition seem as confusingly and uneasily diametric as Alice's white face paint and untidy black eyeliner. It's a memorable snapshop of chaos, and sticks in the brain for the entirety of the weekend. And no one touched Alice up. Which is nice.
The acute need for sleep means we arrive for Hot Chip a little tardily. From the back it all seems to be going off rather splendidly. Joe Goddard is unwell and not in attendance but Alexis' lone falsetto is ample. Not that anyone is really bothered. It feels like a drunken wedding party. Drinks are being thrown all over the place, everybody thinks they know all the lyrics, people are moshing when they should be dancing. A final salvo of 'I Feel Better', 'One Life Stand' and a bouncing 'Ready For The Floor' cements Hot Chip as a not-so-serious band you can seriously party to.
LCD Soundsystem pick up the baton. I find it strange that a band like LCD can co-headline. Hot Chip, probably yes, but LCD? There's just something slightly sub-euphoric about what James Murphy does, as though he considers it shameful to ever give an audience what it wants. Perhaps that's why the LCD performance doesn't quite capture the crowd in quite the same way that Hot Chip did. But for all LCD's NY-inspired, hip-conscious restraint, it's still an electric set. And despite This Is Happening's popularity and crit-hype, Sound Of Silver still feels like Murphy's essential record. 'Get Innocuous!', 'Someone Great' and 'All My Friends' reverberate like icons for music's last and present generation. The absolute lack of dancing space doesn't particularly matter. It's enough to close your eyes and happy-face drift like you're on meth.
Finally breaking out of the sweatbox indoor arena environment is a relief, as we head to Leftfield at the Main Stage. Herein lies the beauty of festivals. One intense show indoors followed by something more spectacular and slightly less intense outdoors. And being able to hotstep it from stage to stage in minutes is definitely this festival's trump card. At most other festivals you have to commit early. Here, you just trundle about and obey your moods. Devoid of any usable energy we perch ourselves at the back and sitdown dance like the festive troopers that we are. Leftfield, having reformed earlier in the year and represented by Neil Barnes and not the other bloke, play an absolute stunner. It's pretty much a no-nonsense mixed DJ set made up of the band's clubbiest tracks. 'Song Of Life' sets the tone and it doesn't let up. Most of the set is drawn from Leftism. 'Afro Left', 'Storm 3000', 'Inspection (Check One)' and the relentless acid house of 'Space Shanty' turn Stradbally Estate into one of those illegal raves that you claim to have partied at but never actually did. I can't make out whether it all makes me feel young or old. Either way, the adrenaline shot is greedily consumed. 'Phat Planet' pounds through soil, grass and wellies, firing off a field full endorphin receptors.
Having braved it out until 5AM (AKA the time at which the VIP bar finally stops spewing out its yuppie karaoke), I feel just a tad fragile come Sunday morning. This fragility means that I option for a shower instead of catching the RTE Concert Orchestra do their thing. It's a slight regret at the time and still a slight regret now, but sometimes you just gotta stop yourself from smelling so bad even your girlfriend loses sympathy. Refreshed (that is, smelling better.. my brain still feels like tepid Ready Brek), we decide it might be an idea to repeat yesterday's early restorative tactic.
Before we flop in front of the Main Stage, we take a stroll around the Body & Soul and Global Green areas in order to cleanse the senses we have left. Both are pretty faithful interpretations of Glastonbury's Healing and Green Fields. As usual, on a budget, it's a case of rather envious window shopping first, desperately needed treatment later. It's not implausible to think you could take in no music whatsoever and still feel you're getting your money's worth here. But when a festival is a strict three-day affair, it strikes me how pointless it is having all this obviously great stuff everywhere and just not enough time to appreciate it.
The chilled-out organo-electro sound of Bonobo accompanies coffees and Danishes. New album Black Sands is another great piece of chillwave, but playing live (in brackets) (as opposed to what, miming?) Simon Green and his large backing band sound more Acid Jazz than anything else. It's a pleasant start to the day, but the electronic thuds and sampling of conventional chillwave feel like they're missing. Maybe my current electro head is getting the better of me again. An hour jumping about to Mr Scruff in the dance tent satisfies that particular need.
A slight gap in proceedings allows me to try and organise the night ahead. As is presumably the case with all musicheads, it's impossible not to become horrified with the amount of stuff you are forced to miss. The Horrors, The Low Anthem, The New Pornographers and 808 State are all squeezed into a ridiculously band-busy Sunday night and will have to be forgotten about. I disconsolately fold my designer crepe and take sorry munches from it. My slightly cheated mood isn't helped by The Big Pink. While there were a few holes in their debut album, I was one of those in the supportive camp. Their lumpy new material suggests their doubters may have been onto something. The fact that they are LOUD isn't enough, just like a dumb blonde's big tits aren't gonna keep you hooked for more than a couple of nights. 'Velvet', however, still sounds fabulous and 'Dominos' still Keeps The Lads Happy.
Predictably, Mumford & Sons draw an enormous crowd to the Main Stage. If there was ever a nation that should object to Mumford's faux-folk banjo-pop it's surely the Irish, right? Not right. The band's well-intentioned songs are lapped up by a crowd that has clearly been pretty deprived of MOR goodness up to this point. It's pint-glasses-in-the-air stuff from the Londoners, and, in all honesty, it sort of fits the surroundings. Like them or hate them, main festival stages need bands that can deal with playing on them, and the current music scene as it is, is bereft of such bands.
It's kind of ironic how Mumford & Sons fit the Main Stage like a glove, yet The National struggle to make an impact. High Violet is, without doubt, one of the best indie rock albums of recent times, but The National are not quite The Bends-era Radiohead just yet. The National are a powerful band, but their songs don't explode. Rather, they implode with a vacuum of passive-aggressive resignation that is harder to convert to big stages in crowded fields. The Big Stage asks bands to offer something that is unafraid of itself. Signs are that The National are pretty close to letting go of the things that pen them in. If the will is there (and it needn't be, but if it is) this band can kill stages like this and make bands like Mumford & Sons cry themselves to sleep for even existing. At the present time, they are just falling a little short on the live front. Still, 'Bloodbuzz Ohio' careers through a field of male guilt with anger and recrimination. 'Conversation 16' is the love song for the people that were never loved. 'England' sounds like something approaching triumph under heavy black skies and drizzle.
With IMPENDING DOOM in the air (drizzle, of course, being a valid harbinger of DOOM), we seek refuge and make tracks to Fever Ray at the big indoor tent. I stand with a totally disproportionate sense of expectation (on a personal level, this trip was all about Fever Ray) and gawp at the set. I wonder how a bunch of old lamps will work alongside the deep, saturnine futurism of last year's still-awesome debut album. The place goes black. The groaning buzz of 'If I Had A Heart' fills the arena and the lamps glow sporadically like you just set foot in a haunted house. For the full headliner treatment, we're given the full laser light show. It's sort of bizarre what two beams of green light can do to a big bunch of people, but amaze and entertain us they certainly do. And the lasers aren't just blasted any which way, they are used simply but inventively to accentuate the spacey claustrophobia of the music. During 'Keep The Streets Empty For Me', the single lasers split into five branches. Each small drum patter lights up one of the single branches, while a concussive thud every four beats lights them all up. Beyond figuring out what the lasers are up to, there are few other surprises. But when one of your favourite records is played in full, on one of the best live soundsystems I've ever had the pleasure to stand in front, and there's a shitload of lasers pinging light all over the place, there really isn't much to grumble about. 'Coconut' slams great divots into my already battered skull, and by the end even the sound men are trying to rupture my senses, as the bass is turned up to a slightly comical 'eardrum purification' level. You just gotta love that shit.
It rains, and rains good, the rest of the time. One last thing I figured out: at some stage, you're gonna get truly pissed on in Ireland.
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- Spotifriday #60 - This Week on DiS as a playlist
- Listen: Download Moby remix from Fever Ray producer
- Festival News Round-Up #5
- Animal Collective win Drowned in Sound Users' Poll 2009!
- Animal Collated: The round-up of what the criticis thought to 2009