Bluedot, Jodrell Bank Observatory, Orbit stage, July 8 2017.
At a festival like Bluedot where so much depends on the science talks, the workshops, the demonstrations, the projections, the light shows, the readings…you’d expect the music programming to get left behind. Besides the set of fairly predictable crowd pleasing headliners (Pixies, Orbital, and alt-J) Bluedot did well to cram in some interesting artists and performers. Here’s a round-up of the bands I saw on Saturday:
First up was Caro, an indie three-piece from Leeds, who did well to open proceedings on the Orbit stage, playing to a crowd of festival early birds and day trippers like myself. For a few minutes I was pleasantly reminded of all those mid-2000s guitar bands I saw as a teenager, the first gigs I went to, and then I remembered precisely the problem with those (usually all male) guitar bands: they all sound the same. The same cheeky chappy vocals, the same jangly guitars, the same triumphant indie pop. And Caro prove that these bands still have so much to answer for. Adam Pardey’s lead vocals sit somewhere between Joe Newman (alt-J) and Jack Steadman (Bombay Bicycle Club) – and though their song about the ‘monster ghouly man who feeds on love’ went down well with the kids, it was too saccharine for me. To be a bit fairer to them, on record ‘Cold Comfort’ is kind of catchy – the kind of thing that would go down well enough on Steve Lamacq’s roundtable. These are polished, capable performers, playing build-a-kit songs: emotional open, slow build, quiet bridge, big climax. I guess it is what it is.
Horsebeach played a set of sunny, sad music – like you’d forced Mac DeMarco or Real Estate to live in Manchester for a few years. Chorus ridden, vibrato guitars overset with no fuss lyrics about your shit life: I spent some time away, feel I’m finally doing okay / But I fucked this up again, what can I say? Ryan Kennedy sings on ‘The Highest Place.’ The title of their latest album, Beauty and Sadness just about sums it up: driving, catchy, dream pop (you can’t help but get behind it) mixed with an irresistible nostalgia: last summer, visiting home, that trip with your friends when you were 18, your ex. The music is best when it’s at its most mournful, dredging up old relationship or thinking about your miserable day job. Go listen to ‘I Must Work & I Must Die’ at the end of the album: When you’re lost like me / Nowhere to run / Stuck in a job / You must stop and think, there are better things outside…perfect for a rainy summer’s day in Manchester.
An afternoon scheduling meant that AEVA (Dan Jacobs) had to battle with the inevitable buzzkill of the sun from outside the tent of the Nebula stage, and a recumbent crowd of afternoon drinkers. How do you pace a set for a crowd like this? No one seemed to be willing to make the first move to get up and dance (myself included). The one guy who came to the front so his friends could record a joke video of him dancing about summed up the vibe. Which is a shame, because AEVA’s warm, driving techno was pretty captivating – at points the music syncing perfectly with a video loop moving through the clouds – the AEVA logo emerging like we were watching a glossy space travel advert. It would have been good to see more made of these visuals – and a crowd like the one at Bluedot were probably desperate to see the controller Jacobs was trying to keep off screen. AEVA’s set featured the title track of his first release Dramatic Sunset (Don’t Delay, 2017) – warm, easy, four-to-the-floor, powering its way to the end before you’ve noticed (the kind of thing people would lose their minds in twelve hours time). The real highlight was ‘Departure,’ the final track on Dramatic Sunset – an ambient, inviting piece that moved between thick cellos and buzzy synths – a great close to the set.
Two-piece Virginia Wing seemed uncomfortable on the Nebula stage, with Alice Merida Richards’ vocals dominating layers of synths, samples, and a soprano saxophone. At their best they were heavy and discordant, losing the vocals somewhere in the muddy mix, though at their worst Richards’ performance seemed forced and too serious, taking on a dangerously close inflection to Karin Dreijer Andersson of Fever Ray. Christopher Duffin on saxophone deserves credit for working hard to push a few of the songs along however, and I found myself wishing that the saxophone was taking the lead.
At this point I’m not sure whether musicians were intentionally double booked (two for the price of one?) or whether Bluedot had no idea that Duffin (Virginia Wing) would play with XAM Duo and later, Jacobs (AEVA) with Makeness…I’m sure the booking policy was more invested and engaged than ‘musicians in multiple bands.’ Anyway, Duffin returned to play in XAM Duo with Matthew Benn, whose debut, XAM Duo (Sonic Cathedral, 2016) was a fun meeting of saxophones, synthesisers, and drone loops (the opening song, “Proem” and the twenty-three minute “I Extend My Arms Pt I & II” recalling the devotional synthesisers of Alice Coltrane). Live however, though they worked hard to build up some interesting melodies and set them off against each other – the set fell a bit flat. Like a few of the bands I’d seen, I wondered if I’d have thought differently if they’d had a crowd to pull in and keep.
AEVA returned to play in Makeness (Kyle Molleson) on the Nebula stage, and though Molleson’s great vocal effects brought me closer to the front, there seemed to be an awkward struggle to keep the live drums in time to the electronics. Molleson’s latest release, Temple Works is a purposeful, energetic record; however, in a live format – the dramatic thumping and pounding sounded a bit hollow.
Special mentions: The crowd seemed completely engrossed by TVAM (Joe Oxley’s) one-man performance on the Orbit stage, which saw Oxley’s driving, overdriven guitar over a drum track, alongside a synced Adam Curtis style cut up documentary (featuring Oxley’s lyrics) on a lo-fi TV screen. Oxley’s Porsche Majeure (Static Caravan, 2015) was a great single: lo-fi, fuzzy, sassy,– but this show with the TV was a bit too didactic for me. W.H. Lung, whose first release Inspiration! / Nothing Is in March of this year caused a stir (and a flurry of festival bookings) drew a huge crowd for their explorative, psychy songs – and they delivered a confident and accomplished performance. Finally, Juanita Stein of the Howling Bells on the Roots stage (why was this stage so far away from the others?) was a welcome, unexpected dose of crooning Americana – and her melancholic renderings of American life and culture were composed and moody.
I wish I could have stayed around for the late night Mission Control bookings (which kicked off long after my last train) – starting with a three hour set from Space Afrika (Joshua Reid & Joshua Inyang) whose ambient soundscapes are completely compelling. The last time I tried to see them in Salford the venue was so busy they wouldn’t let anyone else in. Likewise I bet Belisha Beacon’s intricate, complex electronics (her debut This is Fine on Fractal Meat was created through live coding) was great to see live. Next time.