Macmillan Fest 2015 – picks of the fest

Tomorrow sees Nottingham one-dayer charity festival Macmillan Fest make it’s way down to to Bristol for the first time. Earlier this month the event made its usual stop at Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms – you can check out what we made of the festival in full here. For now, here’s our favourite bits and piece of the festival…

I’ve never been one for cover-dominated sets, especially among a line up of original acts, but acoustic duo Amy & Lily have made it on to my list of rare exceptions. Upstairs on the slightly out-of-the-way stage, the pair weren’t greeted with a crowd as full as they deserved, with covers ranging from First Aid Kit to Paramore and shaking things up with more instruments than your usual straightforward girls-and-guitar act. In short, if you like acoustic covers sets done well, but you fancy things a little different, Amy & Lily are your go-to on the Nottingham scene.

Let’s carry on with the theme of acoustic-ness; since the popularity of Jake Bugg, all the acoustic acts of Nottingham seem to have risen to the surface, though I’m sure they’d all be insulted with any sort of association or comparison in such a sense. Whether the rise of Bugg was relevant or not, there’s not denying that the smoothly-run acoustic bar stage of Rescue Rooms showcased some of the best local talent of the day. The likes of Josh Kemp with his irresistible enthusiasm and loop-pedal expertise, blending covers (Oh, What A Night) with originals (Stupid Cupid), and throwing in a dash of comedic brilliance to The Train Song (“I find myself falling in love seven times every train journey”), and Sam Jones, the sort of artist that leaves you thinking, “this is what acoustic music should sound like”, topped my favourites for the stage’s line up.

Taking to the off-the-beaten-track Spanky Van Dykes stage, Chasing Cadence put on a solid show that proved they knew how to work with a crowd. And of course, the headliners of the day proved second to none with industrial strength enthusiasm that the crowd were nothing but eager to reflect. Fearless Vampire Killers’ performance on the newly added Rock City Basement stage and Evil Scarecrow making their mark in the packed out Rescue Rooms main room ended the festival with a fantastic buzz that something wonderful had just occurred.

Macmillan Fest 2015 – an overview

You don’t need to be a Nottingham local to know that the music scene in the city is a busy one, from the world famous Rock City to the dozens of festivals spanning every genre that take place inside the city boundaries. Of the multitude of one-dayers Nottingham boasts, there are a few that really stand out, and year in, year out, Macmillan Fest remains one of them. Now in its sixth year, the festival has come back even bigger and better, pulling in not only a new venue in the form of Rock City’s Basement – in addition to the regular five stages – but another date; September 26th sees Macmillan Fest reach back to its roots as a small festival and head down to Bristol’s Thekla. But until then, let’s run you through our favourite bits of its Nottingham appearance earlier this month…

The complex of stages that makes up Rescue Rooms lends itself easily to indoor and tightly spaced festivals, one of the many reasons it’s chosen so frequently on Nottingham’s fest circuit. From the huge main area through the intimate upstairs one to the fairy light endorsed acoustic bar stage, there’s a different atmosphere around every corner – and you can poke your head outside to a buzz of stalls, a barbecue, and more fun reasons to donate a few spare quid. And if it’s raining, there’s never more than a ten metre rush between stages, so there’s not the mud risk of the outdoorsy festivals.

Only the smallest of points marred the day, and they only seem worth noting to highlight how little was wrong with the festival. The upstairs stage, one with some of our musical highlights on, isn’t the easiest stage to find for locals, let alone those unfamiliar with the layout. Though there were signs and general directions towards it, again I felt it could do with more attention pushed on it. Another hiccough came from the lack of stage times around the venues, the “clash finders” as they’ve become known. Again, it’s not a make or break deal, but when you can’t quite remember if it’s half two or half three, or if it’s Stealth or Rescue Rooms that that band is on, it’s certainly frustrating. A Facebook group boasts the set times in the description, but only one stage (Spank Van Dykes – more brilliant food here) boasts free WiFi, so it’s not terribly convenient.

Though it’s easy to get lost in the homely, friendly spirit of the festival, all layered in the community vibe implying you could happily strike up a conversation with anyone and discover a new set of friends, the voice and the meaning of the day isn’t forgotten; it’s written on the posters, it’s all over the (surprising amount of) balloons, it’s mentioned by nigh on every artist – every penny of profit the festival receives goes straight to Macmillan, so you can have a brilliant time and know you’re doing something good.

With the festival now being bigger than ever and showing no sign of slowing its growth, you’re left wondering how long it’ll be till it takes on Rock City’s main stage, and how long it’ll be till it’s Nottingham’s biggest festival. I bet you a pint of excellent cider it’ll be there in another six years.

Tramlines – Musical Rundown

After our general overview and top ten points of the Sheffield three-dayer, let’s get down to the meat of it; the musical peaks and troughs of Tramlines.

Friday night saw a contrast of acts of the main stage – though that is the beauty of multi-genre festivals – with the intriguing sounds of Ghostpoet wrapped up with compelling stage presence being one of the weekend’s first acts at Ponderosa. Though the sound quality was strong for a festival, a mark of praise that applied across the weekend for indoor, outdoor and a lot of the Fringe venues, there wasn’t quite the power to enthrall the crowd as much as felt deserved.

Kent two-piece Slaves managed to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, involving the crowd probably more intimately than expected (which you can read about here). With a tornado of chaos they took to the main stage and tore it apart, less fuzzed up that the frantic studio sound you’re used to hearing, but with no compromise on the energy front for it. Clear vocals kept the focus on their lyrics ranging from whacky to political, whilst losing enough control to demonstrate their ability to freewheel into madness at the drop of a hat.

Although The Charaltans felt a somewhat under-delivering main stage headliner, on the other side of the festival Anathema were giving one of the best performances of the weekend in City Hall’s Basement. With a powerful brand of cinematic classic rock, the band delivered blast after blast with Lee Douglas’ vocals remaining a striking highpoint of the set, and their raw performance leaving an atmosphere of almost literal jaw-dropping awe.

We Are The Ocean took over Leadmill as the Friday night headliner, sticking another pin in their path to success with fan favourites Chin Up, Son and Young Heart laying side by side with recent Good For You and Holy Fire. After the long wait for their return, it’s strikingly clear that the Essex quartet are right on track to the top of their game and ready to mark their space in the alt-rock music scene.

Saturday night headliners Basement Jaxx were among those to encounter trouble warming with the crowd, though inhibitions seemed to loosen a little by the time closing Where’s Your Head At came around, but bizarrely the problem hadn’t been so prevalent earlier on in the day. In fact, Sugar Hill Gang’s mid-afternoon set easily had the greatest crowd reaction of the weekend, with nigh on everyone in the packed out arena joining in – and with queues to get in stretching the best part of a mile, it’s no wonder the embankment around the arena was also packed with people partying to the set.

Saturday’s highlight again came from City Hall’s headliner, And So I Watch You From Afar. Instrumental rock has a power little else does have, and the Belfast quartet made the best of this with a truly captivating execution. I’d go as far as to say they made me fall in love with live music all over again, and should you ever find yourself with the opportunity to see them, I urge you to take it. Nay, I urge you to hunt down their nearest gig to you, and beg, borrow and steal to go to their show.

Post-headliners, the city came out with some of the best DJ sets of the weekend, with Mike Skinner of The Streets (no surprise that he closed the set with Fit But You Know It) appearing at O2 Academy before Basement Jaxx showed up for the second time that day – thankfully the crowd replied with a little more enthusiasm this time around though.

Neneh Cherry provided her unique blend of pop, R’n’B and hip-hop with unabashed enthusiasm rather early to a slightly sparse crowd; Sunday’s whole line up seemed to be running early and although the great medium of the internet allows updated times, when the vast majority weren’t expecting to have to check for updates and would probably have stuck to their programmes – if anything, music is usually known for running late (but we’ll get to that later).

The festival’s Fringe sees all sorts of unusual characters take to the stage, with a handful of not-quite Oasises thrown alongside a bunch of wanna-be Pulps. My highlight of the free events came with female-fronted Scarlet at Crystal, a glorious brand of indie-pop with a tight performance that should have earned them a place on the main line up.

Two pieces seemed to be a big point for energy over the weekend, with Sheffield’s own pair Nai Harvest kicking out riffs and mania at Queen’s Social Club on the edge of the city. Off the release of their new album Hairball, the shoegaze duo delivered a torrent of reckless abandon that had the packed room enthralled. No one else over the weekend came across quite so comfortable on stage and with quite so much thorough enjoyment.

Sunday’s highlight came again from Leadmill in the form of political punk-folk artist Billy Bragg. The excellence of his performance needs no explanation and he managed to prove he can still go at live gigs with as much gusto as ever, taking the set on for an extra half hour whilst the odd one or two were crammed into the packed-to-capacity venue; somehow I feel it would’ve been a wide choice after Wu Tang Clan pulled out to upgrade Bragg to the main stage, but there you go. This was a performance to inspire every person in the crowd, and one that closed the weekend on high spirits.

Tramlines – Our Top Ten

The majority of festivals which attract thousands of people are field-based, but even Tramlines’ hashtag #escapetothecity directly opposes this. Last weekend, Sheffield’s city centre was taken over by masses of people ready to experience the multi-genre three dayer, but with the atypical location there was more than just music to experience. From captivating venues to inspirational speeches, here – in no particular order – are our top ten of Tramlines 2015.

  1. Billy Bragg’s speeches
    I may have said this list was in no particular order, but this was a hands down favourite for me; beforehand I had been warned that Bragg’s live shows are an “experience”, and this was a claim that was lived up to. His half-an-hour overtime set saw his setlist interspersed with what can only be described as political rants and prep talks to inspire even the most haggard of hearts in the final hours of the festival. I challenge anyone to go to a Bragg performance, even if you don’t agree with his political views, and not come away motivated to do your bit to change the world.
  2. Slaves’ finale
    Maybe it’s not fair to pick a highlight of the weekend that may well never appear in another set ever again, but oh well. Whilst closing their set with first single Hey, drummer and vocalist Isaac Holman took to the crowd, with a hat. After managing to stand up on the audience and crowd surf a bit, he returned to the stage, sans hat. Then followed a demand for its return, a very real threat to stop the set till it was found, a crowd-wide chant of “where’s his hat”, a plethora of incorrect hats being thrown at him (including a neon bobble one which was louder than their set, and a good five or six from Team Sheffield Hallam), and an eventual reunion. Yes, bizarre, but with the sort of fun that only festivals can boast.
  3. Cathedral
    By having a city festival, almost any acceptable space is turned into a venue – sometimes this may mean the spare six square foot of floor at the front of a pub is cleared of tables and crammed with musicians, but there were rare occasions when these buildings were more glorious that claustrophobia-inducing. One of the main venues, the Cathedral, was a perfect and wonderful example. Of course, the acoustics alone were enough to make the space a fantastic choice, but it’s a rare and wonderful time when you can happily spend all your between-set time gazing at the architecture and admiring the ceiling.
  4. City Hall
    Another brilliant main venue came in the form of the City Hall’s Basement, far away from the wristband collection station and seemingly buried a good way underground. Transported away from the chaos of the ground-level nightlife, this room boasted several of our stand out acts of the weekend including And So I Watch You From Afar. Though the room seemed accustomed to holding events of a more delicate nature in general, it did a brilliant job of containing the massive sound each act delivered, and truly engulfing the audience with it.
  5. Crystal
    For those who couldn’t get to the main festival, the free fringe version served as an apt substitute, and this didn’t (necessarily) mean having to compromise on venue quality. Crystal (where we headed to check out Scarlet) was a fine example, with its intriguing half in/half out architecture and cosy-meets-sophisticated furnishing making it a simply lush space.
  6. Fringe
    In fact, the entire fringe section of the festival is worth noting for all manner of reasons. As well as allowing non-ticket buying punters to enjoy some of the weekend’s delights, these venues showcased an even wider variety of music for those who had a gap in their time. Transforming spaces allowed the festival to flood to very literally every corner of the city, and pushed what the weekend was capable of boasting.
  7. Set-up
    Let’s take things to an even more general level – the entire festival’s set up. Sheffield takes pride in being a city with such nearby countryside links, and whilst not strictly out of the city, the main stage took advantage of this. Despite being a stiff ten-fifteen minute walk from the general “center” of the festival, they managed to get the whole open field, generator-run food vans, ridiculously large flags, canvas covered stalls and generally slightly muddy vibe of a more typical festival alongside the packed rooms of the true inner-city festival.
  8. Food all night
    Whilst in the grand scheme of things, there may have been acts or moments that deserved recognition more than this, I feel this is a fair point for non-McDonald’s fans and potential punters for Tramlines 2016. After you’d enjoyed the festival till the sun was rising, or even just till the small hours, there was food to be found in the city, at Subways if no where else, remaining open 24 hours through till the late-nighters’ nights ended and early-morningers’ mornings began on Friday and Saturday (or Saturday and Sunday, depending which end you’re coming at it from).
  9. Nightlife
    Let me point out again more perks of Tramlines being an inner-city affair; the music doesn’t stop at 11pm when the last band play and the main stage shuts down. Head into the city and you’ll find all the big venues remaining open with DJ sets till the early hours (7am for the Friday and Saturday, 3am for the Sunday) with the likes of Basement Jaxx and Mike Skinner (The Streets) providing the entertainment.
  10. Dominos
    Dominos were handing out small pizzas by Devonshire Green for £3; I feel this point needs no explanation to its brilliance.

Tramlines – An Overview

A week and a half ago saw the centre of Sheffield turned into a living venue for multi-genre music festival Tramlines. Along with the music of the weekend (for which you can check out our musical rundown) and our top ten moments of the three days (which can be read about here), there were all manner of other pros and cons and quirky tit-bits about the festival that stand as noteworthy.

Sheffield, like Rome, is built on seven hills. For any non-locals who didn’t know this, at Tramlines you will be quick to discover this painful and brutal truth – well, it’s not too painful till the hills need to be climbed. However, this setback comes in balance with the rather excellent layout of the festival – despite the main stage being oddly far from the rest of the venues since being changed from previous years’ Devonshire Green to Ponderosa, there was a good mix of inner city indoor venues and the more typical festival vibe of flags, glorified burger vans and mud at the main stage.

For the sort of people who are up for going to see any sort of music live, like myself, multi-genre festivals are a dream; there’s no way you can ever get bored. This doesn’t apply for everyone though, and with music ranging from dozens of DJ sets, through political folk-punk and every derivative of alt-rock, to grunge, psychedelia and shoegaze, it’s no wonder the crowds weren’t always up for whatever sing along or audience participation was demanded of them. This seemed to be a fairly weekend-wide phenomena, with even Saturday night headliners Basement Jaxx only having a big impact on the biggest refrains of closing Where’s Your Head At.

Festivals don’t stop with the night’s headliner, but inner city festivals do have the advantage of vamped up clubs over muddy rave tents, and Tramlines was no exception. City-wide, the music continued till 7am on the first two night for the fool hardy, determined, or Jager-bomb fueled, and an almost modest 3am on the Sunday. If you’re the sort to be interested, you could’ve probably made your money back on your £30 ticket with the nightlife alone. However, with great nightlife does not necessarily come great service, particular low points being waiting an hour wait for a drink at the O2 Academy (whilst everyone around us was served)  which coincided with the majority of Mike Skinner’s set, and an unnecessary shove from a Foundry bouncer over a genuine misunderstanding.

Keeping things relatively local meant that the vans which lined the main stage had little extravagance to them (I found a bizarre pang of disappointment at the lack of zebra/ostrich/kangaroo burgers), but quality was improved with this compromise. Personal favourite’s came from Grolsch’s 40o years celebration, as much for the free beer as the quirky photo booth, and The Street Food Chef’s burritos – I can vouch for the pulled pork and veggie option. Head into town, and there’s your usual food stops, plus 24 hour Subway (for the festival’s first two nights) and £3 small Domino’s pizzas near Devonshire Green.

With every square foot of the city turned into a festival venue, there were some intriguing corners dusted off and brought to life. From the stunning architecture of the Cathedral to the booming space of the City Hall’s Basement, let alone the tried-and-tested atmosphere of the made-to-fit venues such as Leadmill and O2 Academy, again this was a something for everyone affair.

Tickets for the weekend were limited, and although the best part of 200 bands made the main festival’s line up, there was more beyond that. Even without a ticket, you could access any of the weekend’s Fringe venues, a selection of which were showcased in the guide, but these were by no means the limits of what was available. The sheer volume of music over the weekend was enough to blow even die hard fans of live acts away, and with Fringe venues showcasing local and lesser known talent, there was every chance you’d wander into a pub for a pint and come out with a new favourite band. That’s surely what festivals are for.