Bristol's Venn festival turned three this year - the event first brought experimental joy to this corner of Bristol in 2004. Based around existing and established venues in the Stokes Croft and St. Pauls area of Bristol, many of which are next door to each other, making long walks non-existent.
The venues themselves are as diverse as the area housing them - Casablanca is a Moroccan-themed shisha bar, the Malcolm X centre is a polka-dotted hall with Jamaican lager-slash-beer, the Full Moon is a punkish pub.
Diversity is applied to the musical line-up too; dub-step to hip-hop to shouty girl punk - the linking factor being the high quality of everything on offer. Despite the intense sunshine and the presence of premier pie shop 'PieMinister' in Stokes Croft, DiS made it to gigs. In fact, we made it to many gigs. The musical policy at Venn was so all-encompassingly fantastic, that weather and food paled into insignificance with the excitement of bands weird and wonderful in venues small and large.
Now our ears throb, our eyes squint and our legs ache from dashing from gig to gig, but we're still here to comment on our quite incredible findings.
In Bristol, the streets are filling with Friday night traffic, bare tanned legs and premature drunks. From bouncered doors dotted up and down the street, pounding repetitions seep. While everyone else prepares to get crunk and party, we prepare for observed silence and delicate songs - a night in celebration of measured simplicity. St George's Hall is said to have some of the best acoustics in Bristol, galleried, high-ceilinged and archaically elegant. Audience settle in their seats and listen to music spiralling slowly into the atmosphere.
Crescent are a slow-motion band, moving forwards stately and composed. The set is no act of dramatics or fireworks, but an appropriate orchestration of time-lapse tides changing the shape of the sea. Such is their dazed state that Vashti Bunyan (pictured, left) is a comparative whirlwind of activity - songs that are thirty-seven years old sound as sprightly as they could ever have done, Bunyan’s voice virtually unchanged. ‘Diamond Day’ arrives on stage to cheers, fleshier and brighter than on record. This is, in part, thanks to the impeccable musicianship of supporting string section – their accompaniment is sensitive and light, adding splashes of colour to a palette of greens and browns, as tales of growing crops, sunsets and the birds in a Scottish sky are recounted. Bunyan’s songs are not so much ‘twee’ as earthy, with real human warmth. This warmth is confirmed, when she and the guitarist break into peals of laughter when an unprepared encore (the crowd insisted) doesn’t go quite to plan.
Max Richter’s most recent album The Blue Notebooks is a modern masterpiece, a fully formed classical work, one that crosses through the widest emotional spectrum with a fairly minimalist style. Live, there is a cellist, a violinist, a piano and a laptop. This is the problem – the set seems, mainly, to be a recreation of the recorded sound. The recreation is immaculate, the acoustics suit perfectly, but essentially this feels like a play-through of material without any real addition. As this is a Friday night, and we’ve been too long sat in seats, the great temptation is to leave for the other side of town and the Optimo DJ set (pictured, right). Jamaican beer is consumed, and dancing is thoroughly attempted. Music policy is unpredictable, intense fun. Cut, chopped, mixed. Even a vocal from a Eurhythmics song sends the crowd silly. Dance, keep dancing, be teased waiting for a big beat to drop in. Overhead of the DJs, eclecticism is further enhanced – Dutch vacuum-hoover porn is projected onto a screen. Confusion is fun.
Safetyword (pictured, left) are the perfect festival opening act – one about which no expectations are harboured, making what is an excellent set even more so through sheer surprise. I expect some sound-a-like minimalist art-punk, I get the total opposite – imaginative, cluttered, heart-warming music. Perhaps we could dub it maximalism: the ultimate brew of all your favourite bands, ever. Such sonic adventures don’t hit the mark every time, but Safetyword never fall totally flat. Three-part sherbet sweet harmonies over the top of math-rock guitars. Clattering drums, vocal breakdowns, sing-a-long chorus, teen angst, solemnity, silly humour, time changes, Zimbabwean influence. “Foot Oven” starts out sounding like Graceland era Paul Simon, turns to Foals style precision math-rock then switches into Futureheads-esque vocal delivery. A rainbow-coloured thunderbolt of unforeseen joy to open a festival that celebrates the eclectic and the exuberant.
The sun is melting tarmac underneath our feet, humans in the street risk turning into from flesh and bone into puddles on the floor. There have been violent attacks in the area, fire engines are patrolling the streets. Political and social unrest provides a fitting backdrop for Fog (pictured, right), who – despite equipment failures – slam us with hip-hop-rock, singing of ‘the bomb that rolled behind the sofa and was forgotten about.’ Knowledge of Bugs provide rest and respite – delicate, pulsating, circuit-bending; ultimately unobtrusive in it's beauty. Volcano the Bear are exactly the opposite - cawing and crying for attention. Unsure of their direction, they swip-swap enticingly from eastern european folk-song to Bebop jazz improv. As much of a stage show as a musical act, they bow guitars, vandalise cymbals and fight each other onstage. Earlier in the day ‘Free Venn’ provided an afternoon in The Croft – a venue with the best air conditioning in Bristol. Francois and Rozi play cutesy folk, Rose Kemp is serious and forlorn, Emily Breeze(pictured, left) threatens us with a thundering shout of ‘don’t mess with me, I bite’ grrrl-rock. The surprise is Tom Brosseau, a last minute stand in and a recent signing to the Fat Cat record label. What, on the surface, seem to be simple acoustic songs of rural America, are supported by a voice so sumptuous and melodies so shifting, that a whole audience creep closer and engage their ears.
“Do you believe in spirits of music?” Ariel Pink asks whilst wandering around a dusty stage. It’s hard to tell whether Ariel’s aging taped songs are the sound of ghosts in pop music form or just the cluttered creations of Los Angeles confusion. You’ve heard the melodies before, but this time they have added hiss, added distance, clarity removed. To someone familiar with his songs, Ariel Pink at Venn was a beautifully disorganised performance of spooky lo-fi pop. Ariel wanders the stage, seemingly dressed in pyjamas, howling and humming as he tries to find the next backing track to put in the tape machine. The live bassist and keyboardist, dark sunglasses on, make thicker sounds to drown out the demons with. To those uninitiated with Ariel Pink, this could seem lo-fi mess rather than lo-fi pop, songs that could be better if only he’d come out from behind his copious fringe and record on something snazzier than an eight-track. Still, haunting seems to work best in an analogue mess.
The Chap, at first glance, could appear to be clinging onto the coat-tails of the English-eccentric musical revolution – the boy scout uniforms of British Sea Power are the apparel, the off kilter pop of the Mystery Jets is a sound touch-point. The Chap’s three lads and a lady manage to combine the geography-teacher-with-cane crazed intensity with a touch of self-deprecating humour. Songs are introduced as being various shades of "abhorrent"; dance moves are performed in robotic synchronization; cellos are trashed in a very aristocratic form of rocking out. Perhaps The Chap are a little silly, but songs littered with tiny hooks here, there and everywhere are akin to a fiendishly fun tickle in the ribs.
French-Canadian duo Vialka are, despite attempts with various degrees of forcedness from others to beat them to it, the strangest band of the entire Venn extravaganza. Marylise Frecheville might just be the greatest female drummer of all time, while her partner in sonic crime Eric Boros coaxes endless shards of by turns electrifying, melodic, rhythmically spastic, and impossibly complex guitar. Marylise plays throughout, and there really is no totally polite way to put this, with one naked breast proudly protruding from a costume that’s part Marie Antoinette and a good eyeful of insane asylum. When she jumps from the stage to Russian dance with the enthusiastic but clearly startled Malcolm X venue audience, it initially appears to be a one-off, only for further forays to confirm eccentric hyperactivity equal only to her titanic, hectic Lightning Bolt-in-a-dress stickswomanship. And we can’t really exceed the accuracy of Vialka’s own self-descriptive attempts: they are indeed a ‘turbo folk gypsy punk micro-orchestra’.
DJ/Rupture doing world music – yeah, alright, quit it with the genre tag dissin’ already, we know – mightn’t be the easiest listen on paper, and the absence of the Moroccan third of his Nettle project through visa issues isn’t, you’d think, about to help matters. Anybody who’s caught Rupture’s legendary mixes, which skip from Arabic rap to full on mash-up drum & bass and skittering electronica with seamlessly brilliant ease, will know different, however. British cellist Jen Jones’s wonderfully discordant string abuse sits perfectly on Rupture’s perpetually flawless beats, and although there’s an undeniably downbeat feel when put in the light of his crowd-rocking solo sets, the tempo rises enough times via crisp bass thuds and rattling percussion to maintain interest levels. It might fit into the Rephlex Records-coined ‘braindance’ arena too snugly for any desperate for an all-out rave-up, but then the straight party-heads in the Malcolm X are probably in the wrong place anyway.
DJ Pinch and Bass Clef both bring varying approaches to the art of dubstep, or as it becomes in the Blue Mountain for one night only, the gentle art of pushing a sound-system and every set of ears within range to near-breaking point with monumental sublow frequencies. Pinch is a stalwart of the Bristol scene, one of the major players in making the southwest city second only to London in the dubstep hierarchy. He shows why too by vibrating fixtures and drinks from tables with a classy selection of wax that has an early evening crowd doing the standard slow-motion-running-in-tar dubstep dance. The chunky, bearded figure of Bass Clef makes Pinch seem but a distance memory though, with live trombone and cowbell ringing out above dangerously potent bass wobbles. His set is admittedly lengthy, but with insistent rhythms and a real sense of improvisation plus click/play safety net eschewing, that matters little.
The double-headed successive shitnoisefest of V/Vm and the Assdroids at The Croft proves to be perfectly apt, the former spinning rotten records from the truly worst archives of pop culture, the latter attempting to brawl onstage and making a magnificently shambolic racket in between. The comic highlight of which is V/Vm’s pig-masked leader announcing his vinyl collection tonight is due to his last disc jockey engagement at a wedding, then spins what seems like 20 minutes of ‘Electric Dreams’ only to whip the record off, declaring “I wasn’t really feelin’ that” in broad Stockport tones. Several hours later, having scooted into the frankly cunt-filled Casablanca and waited for an hour plus for Cobra Killer not to appear – the former Digital Hardcore noise Amazonians-turned-prima donnas apparently decided the wallpaper wasn’t to their liking, or something – the last drops of excitable energy are sapped. Which leaves a quick dash back to Blue Mountain and a few bars of ace-but-ear-destroying dubstep dude Kode 9 before collapsing in a music-overloaded heap.
Friday photos by Louis R-D, Saturday photos by Kane Rich
Words: Adam Anonymous