Bluedot, Jodrell Bank Observatory, Orbit stage, July 9 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 Sunday:
The eight performers of the Rajasthani Heritage brass band woke everyone up on Sunday morning, opening the Lovell stage with a bang. The driving bass drum moved the musicians expertly between seemingly impossible tempos, switching between Rajasthani folk songs, Bollywood numbers, and a specially prepared suite of sci-fi themes. Their reimagining of Delia Derbyshire’s Dr Who theme tune was mysterious and melancholic, turning round with a fun oompah finish.The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back was rendered cheeky and playful – and the bass drum shuffle left me thinking that the march is kind of a jam. Their other sci-fi arrangements were inventive and dynamic – though the highlight were their Bollywood classics: a mournful ‘Monica, Oh my Darling!’ from Caravan (1971) and the rousing title track ‘Main Hoo Don’ (1978). They played for an hour but I think we all could have listened for another.
The last time I saw Girl Sweat Pleasure Temple Ritual Band, crammed onto a step stage at the Star and Garter in Manchester, my ears rang for three days (and I’d had to leave the set half way through because it was too painful). They seemed completely at home on the expanses of the Orbit tent however – managing to fit all eight of them (2 drummers, 2 guitarists, 1 bassist, 2 vocalists, and a man repeatedly banging something in the corner of the stage) on the enormous stage. I usually have a test for when I see a band with this many members, in costume: do they really need that many performers, i.e. does everyone have a place? and are they trying to compensate for something with those costumes. Sweat pass the test: they need the people, they need the costumes. I have the power of sweat / Sweat is the power in me / I have the power of sweat / Sweat is the power in me was the perfect opening chant to an overheated audience. They are a sound man’s nightmare, and make no apologies for their cacophonous, discordant sound. Last time I saw them the sound was so muddy you couldn’t hear the female vocalist (unless she screamed) or the saxophone – this time, the saxophone cut perfectly through ‘Rise,’ wailing over the top – and the female vocalist now took the lead. One saxophone sounded like ten, meeting the constant screaming and yelping of the vocalists, and the methodical, intricate, drumming. They were a welcome increase to the decibel levels at the festival – and unbelievably, despite the chaos, the band leader managed to control and round off the musicians on several occasions, proving Sweat to be a group of versatile, intuitive performers. There was great work between the drummers (who knows what you could hear back there) and the two guitarists created a blistering drone between them. Last time I saw them I’d found it difficult to square Sweat’s sense of fun (the gold and red lamé costumes) – the dancing, squatting, lunging, of the lead singer – with what seemed to me at the time as a kind of high seriousness: the red veil the female vocalist drapes over herself, screaming and laughing hysterically at one point, the chanting, the melodrama. Previously this had seemed like a contradiction, though here it emerged as an absolute commitment to their music. ‘Come to Temple, witness the beauty, and get down.’
Later on the Orbit stage, Rival Consoles (Ryan Lee West) played a solid set of the kinds of full, warm electronic music we’d heard from him on Night Melody (Erased Tapes, 2016). West has written about how he’s interesting in ‘exploring electronic music with a human sentiment,’ and he opens his set with some triumphant – nearly moving – organs. What’s emotional about West’s music? Though he gets close a few times, he manages to avoid the temptation to go all out euphoria, and I’d probably say that the music is contemplative? thoughtful? It’s difficult to say. I think I was probably more ‘moved’ by AEVA’s set the previous day. After a strong start, we again ran into the problems of pacing a set for a mostly still, sometimes lying-down crowd. I wonder how many times West has played to a tent full of people laying down – which seems to be the unfortunate thing to happen to a lot of this day time electronic music. At least the detailed seismograph visuals were responding to the music. West settled into a powerful set, and despite maybe lapsing into a predictable build/drop build/drop a few times, it was an intense and engaging show.
Anna Meredith on the Orbit stage opened with the completely mad ‘Nautilus,’ the opening track of Varmints (Moshi Moshi, 2016) – I’ve never been able to decide whether it’s very catchy or very annoying. The repetitive, slow, up-and-down of the tuba and synth was a bit maddening in the hot tent (not their problem, I know) – and I found myself wanting the drums to hurry up and get it over with. That said, though the tuba looks out of place, a bit extra,– in a live setting it was brilliantly bassy and full, and seemed at home alongside Meredith’s synths. The rest of the set featured intricate electronics overlaid with cellos, electronic drums and, unbelievably, the tuba again. Sometimes the sweeping cello felt a bit film-score, and sometimes the vocals sounded a bit cute, a bit twee. Occasionally, however, they managed to build an enjoyable, carnival style frenzy of sound. The atmosphere grew throughout the set though, and by the end I think they’d won most of the crowd.
Six-piece Team Picture from Leeds played an expansive, accomplished set full of psychy, muddy songs. The lead singer’s crystalline vocals did well to cut through the noise from the main stage, and their performance was the best I’d seen all weekend (the Devo cover went down exceptionally well). ‘Potpourri Headache’ was a highlight – syrupy and sickly, like a chilled out Elizabeth Fraser in ‘Sugar Hiccup.’ I made the mistake of missing half of Team Picture’s set to see Whyte Horses Experience on the Lovell Stage, whose rare live performance fell a bit flat. High-energy garage rock meets with dancers in blue raincoats with painted white faces: for a while it was impossible to tell who was playing an instrument and who was a dancer – and they probably didn’t pass the aforementioned costume test. Musically they seemed all over the place – garage rock, folky pop songs with xylophones, psychedelic numbers. Though it sounded like it was written for the festival sunset slot, the powerful, overwhelming live vocals on ‘Feels Like Something’s Changing’ outstripped an otherwise OK performance.
Opening with the title track of their latest album, Heads Up (Rough Trade, 2016), Warpaint showed off what they do best on the Lovell stage: driving, dark pop songs, and delicate three-part harmonies between Emily Kokal, Theresa Wayman, and Jenny Lee Lindberg. Their new sound is punchier, cleaner, to-the-point; we’re a long way from their looser first album, Exquisite Corpse (2010), though I guess that goes without staying. The new Warpaint seems more confident, and upbeat – Let you talk / Trust your turn / Shake it off / Everybody’s got the same Kokal sings in ‘The Stall’ – but they’ve managed to keep those melancholic, vocal hooks they do so well (think ‘Elephant’). ‘Undertow’ sounds as good as it did the first time I heard it on The Fool (Rough Trade, 2010) – and when the wind picks up the smoke from the machines on stage I remember why bands look and sound so different at festivals.