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.