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.