Dallying in the The Tap and having a major malfunction with the oven meant that I missed Ghostpoet (not true, I’d already missed him by the time I’d arrived but hey ho). My imaginary review of Ghostpoet is that he combined social commentary and intelligent toasting with tunes that hark back to Bristol in the days of trip-hop, mostly taken from his latest album Shedding Skin (he finished with a full-blooded version of ‘Liiines’). But I don’t know. Maybe he played a set of Spice Girls covers and wore a tutu. I would have watched that.
After finally managing to conquer the oven, we made our way to the Main Stage – located in the Ponderosa park, which is a lovely leafy area on the very outskirts of the city centre – to try and catch baggy 90s legends The Charlatans and, more importantly, Tim Burgess’ increasingly odd blonde bowl cut. They were halfway through a medley of their most famous tunes when we arrived at the gate, only to be told that the park was at capacity. This was to become a running theme of the weekend.
Unable to get in to see Tim Peaks – and not really wanting to hang around and miss anything else – we decided to take a trip to the Cathedral. It rapidly starts dawning on me while walking across the town that Sheffield is a much bigger place than I gave it credit for and began to realise that the heels I brought to combat an onslaught of tall men standing in front of me and obscuring my view wouldn’t be of much help.
Luckily the punters at the Cathedral were taking part in a mass sit-in on the floor. Despite the fact that I’d foolishly imagined the Cathedral to be an old rickety place with uncomfortable wooden pews and a slightly grimy, lived-in-for-400-years feel, the venue itself was gorgeous. It did contain the statutory bit of stained glass but overall the place was as modern as could be. Plastered and painted over the original architecture, it felt fresh but special at the same time.
Charlotte OC was headlining the Cathedral that night, though as the Ed. pointed out she felt like a carbon copy of Bat For Lashes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I love Natasha Khan and her ethereal pop – but as the set progressed and a familiar pattern of icy synths and powerful vocals emerged, it maybe got a little bit dull. I was getting distracted by the detail on the ceiling and shifting around on the stone floor to prevent getting a dead leg and I’m not sure that’s really an endorsement of what Charlotte OC is all about.
Along the road at the O2 Academy – otherwise known to locals as Roy Music (long story) – a celebration of drum and bass was taking place. I’ve only ever been to one god-awful club night at an Academy and that time I ended up on a bouncy castle struggling to find my feet (both literally and metaphorically). There weren’t any bouncy castles in Roy Music though it might have helped pull off some crazy dance moves. Personally I was trying to lift my legs as high into the air as possible without causing serious damage (I’m old). I don’t really know what happened to Roni Size but I suppose if you’re into your stuff the presence of Grafix and more would’ve kept your appetite for D’n’B sated.
Then we went home and I got my arse handed to me on Mario Kart.
Saturday provided some gloriously sunny weather. It wasn’t boiling hot either which was nice (no one wants to be steamed alive in their own denim pinafore). It made for a pleasant atmosphere in the Folk Forest, another curiously leafy area just outside of the city centre. I was beginning to notice that for all its Brutalist aspirations and architectural harshness in places, the Steel City harboured numerous respite sites for those looking to get away from the somewhat literal concrete jungle and this might have been the prettiest of them.
We were there to see Payroll Union, a band who either look like they’ve crawled off the set of a Sergio Leone movie – sans ponchos and bigger on the colour black – or are waiting for the next lumbersexual convention to roll into town. I’m not being funny here, it’s just that their appearance suggested that they might have been playing something heavy on the Americana or a set of tunes straight out of Nashville. Instead they were more akin to The National, playing atmospheric yet downbeat rock. Springsteen fans might have been happy that some of their songs focused on the plight of the working man, though their observations on the “white slave” was perhaps a little bit too on the nose.
Over on the second outdoor stage, I think I caught a great deal of sunburn. All I know is that getting back on the night, I noticed that I closely resembled either Rudolph or an alcoholic and it wasn’t the best look (it required a lot of foundation to cover up). I suspect sitting in the sun watching Best Friends and Blessa was the root cause of this.
I’d never heard of Best Friends but they produced a slab of pop-punk infused indie that wasn’t particularly inventive but was technically proficient and pleasant enough to enjoy on a hot Saturday afternoon. Their guitarist wanted to be properly punk rock but upon beginning his movements to smash his guitar into the ground, he quickly stopped, turned around and returned his axe to its stand gently. I think Best Friends might have commitment issues. Blessa were a more remarkable outfit, providing some lovingly crafted synth pop that soared over the field. Ethereal synth pop is in right now and Blessa appeared to have the formula just right.
We also saw Steve Lamacq enjoying a bit of Best Friends. At least we think he was enjoying it. It was a bit difficult to tell really.
Sheffield natives Rolo Tomassi are one of those bands that I was convinced had quietly died the death. I couldn’t escape them when they first rolled around, playing all sorts of melody-infused metal with one of the most ferocious frontwomen you’re ever likely to see. But then, seemingly without a trace, they were gone, like some kind of screamo Keyser Soze. Metal, admittedly, isn’t really my thing but if someone asked me where they should start with the genre without being completely assaulted or threatened, then Rolo’s blend of softer, more emo elements and sheer raw power would have been my choice. Eva Spence is an incredible lead singer, weaving between more hushed, sweet vocals and deep screamo roars with ease. All the time she’s up there, flinging herself around on stage only to become a curiously shy figure when thanking the audience, Spence looks and feels like the ultimate rock frontwoman: confident and humble in equal measure with some magical, inexplicable quality that means you can’t take your eyes off her.
But now I need to talk about the Leadmill. Now, I’ve heard a lot about the Leadmill and how legendary it is and from the outside it looked pretty promising – classic neon sign, nice gig posters, seemed quite inviting. But upon (finally) getting inside, I found that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see the positives of the venue. Sure, the sound was okay but all the venues – even the outdoors ones – had been doing a bang up job maintaining decent sound quality levels (no mean feat at a festival). No, to me the Leadmill seemed like a horribly dingy place that no one had cleaned since 1973. The result of this was that 40 years of beer soaked on to the floor had ran down to the stage and sank it into the ground so you felt as though you were looking forward or down at the artists rather than slightly up at them. This was the one place where I couldn’t see a damn thing, no matter how hard I tried and no matter how far my tiptoes could extend me from the floor upwards (and I have small toes so that’s not very far unfortunately).
I guess this sort of minimised my enjoyment of Fat White Family. I don’t find their music particularly inspiring or fresh. They always seem to be aiming to shock subliminally but fail on the subtlety level and end up just sounding like an unnecessarily crass and try-hard attempt to capture the glory days of the Sex Pistols. I don’t find their leery growls of “touch the leather” the least bit intimidating, shocking, confrontational or even tinged with the tiniest bit of sordid sex appeal. But their stage show and presence was rumoured to be second to none, so I was determined to see if they lived up to the hype. I’ve heard stories of faeces, fights and some major instances of stripping on stage but if any of that actually happened I didn’t see any of it. Combined with the Leadmill’s natural dip, a rather large man – both in height and weight – stood directly in front of me. I saw a lot of the ventilation in the ceiling and not a lot else.
Coincidentally, Steve Lamacq is a big fan of the Leadmill and he stood next to us for a bit during Fat White Family. I think he was following us because we’re clearly trendsetters.
After a bit of dallying – and an unsuccessful attempt to try and see Nao – it was off to see Giles Peterson. Or at least it would have been if there wasn’t another massive queue preventing our entry. As a Peterson fan that was particularly disappointing but it did mean I could catch a glimpse of the Submotion Orchestra, a Leeds group dealing in all kinds of lovely, funk and soul and 70s pop-folk inspired dance music that seems gloriously effortless and light to the touch, without feeling shallow or derivative. James Holden began his set with some furiously pounding beats and a level of drone that harked back to the early, more experimental days of Battles. The Canadian producer is ridiculously talented and can make any long, swooping passage of electronica seem like mere seconds. He’s just that inventive.
Then we went home and I got my arse slightly less handed to me on Mario Kart.
It’s a rule that it absolutely must rain at a festival. Because without rain and mud and sliding around and being cold and damp, you just aren’t getting the proper festival experience. So after two days of glorious weather the heavens opened and it started to chuck it down with rain and there I was contemplating how one of my must-see Tramlines acts was going to be performing in the open air and I wouldn’t be able to dance properly because I’ve got ridiculously bad balance.
Before a fix of mud-slinging though, it was off to The Royal Standard to catch a small section of the fringe events. First on Sunday’s bill were Sheffield’s own Arcana Valley, a boy-girl duo with one guitar and a lot of heart. Singing original tunes that borrowed deeply from traditional folk and mixed in with some acoustic singer-songwriter sensibilities, their short set showed off some deft guitar picking (and a lot of banter about the hazards of tuning), Lil’s sweet vocals and some beautifully crafted lyrics. It occurred to me that you could probably spend a whole three days just milling around the fringe events (and looking at the Standard’s rather impressive lineup you probably wouldn’t be disappointed). It’s something I’d definitely consider for a return visit.
I’m not sure how happy everyone was about being dragged to a freezing cold main stage that was rapidly become wetter and muddier as time went on, but I was determined to see Neneh Cherry and no amount of rain was going to stop me (I’d even bought some waterproofs especially that morning just so I could stand relatively comfortably in that field). Last time I saw Neneh, she was what felt like a bazillion miles away playing a half hour set amongst a crowd who didn’t know an awful lot about her latest album Blank Project. This time, she was playing a bit of a longer set but still to a bunch of people who didn’t really know an awful lot about Blank Project. So perhaps a set that was almost entirely filled with songs from the LP wasn’t the most exciting thing for most people, especially as she starts with ‘Spit Three Times,’ one of the much slower tracks on the album.
Things pick up a lot more as she powers through renditions of the rock-tinged Weightless, the 80s-inspired ‘Out of the Black’ and an extended, ad libbed version of ‘Everything’ but the biggest cheers came when Cherry donned her head towel and started playing some of her biggest hits. I still find this odd as Cherry herself admits that she “fucking hates nostalgia” but did I care? No, not really. On a purely selfish level, seeing Cherry perform ‘Manchild’ might have been the highlight of the festival. I won’t lie – I did have a little bit of a cry during it. The rain obscured it though. No one saw I was being a big softy. Spilled the beans though now, haven’t I?
Kate Tempest started to provide the only set of the weekend where I actually felt physically assaulted by what I was listening too. And no, it’s not because of Tempest’s amazing rhymes and her impeccable sense of rhythm, but because her bass was set so unbelievably high that at times its pounding meant I could barely hear anything she was saying. Admittedly, seeing Tempest perform is like having a wave of ferocity thrown at you anyway but I wasn’t sure it needed that added level of brown noise attached to it.
Sick of getting soaked though, we moved on early from Kate to visit Queen’s Social Club, where Shopping were about to perform. Now, I know a lot about the act and little about the band, so I wasn’t too sure what to expect from the trio – from seeing their androgynous look and straight leg jeans I roughly surmised that they were some kind of post-punk outfit and to some extent that was true. The threesome turned out more to be like a love child between The Slits and X Ray Spex. That’s not a bad thing. Poly Styrene was a legend and The Slits broke a lot of barriers. Shopping’s take on this was to combine short, staccato lyrics shouted into the mic (a la Scream-era Siouxsie Sioux) and combine that with quick-fire rhythms and a blend of jangly riffs and deft guitar picking. A minimalist approach, yes, and one that wasn’t breaking the mould, but Shopping carried it off so well that – standing in the 70s interior of the Queens, with it’s Phoenix Nights decor – it was difficult not to genuinely believe you were back in 1979.
After a quick bite (there was a lovely Mexican street food restaurant that a friend called Tim recommended to us) it was time to see Billy Bragg. No wait, not see… That other thing. Queue! It was time to queue for Billy Bragg. Queuing is a very British sport and we did pretty well considering we were getting increasingly cranky as time wore on. I became victim to a roller derby bumping that completely took me off guard and sent me flying and a bunch of Jeremy Corbyn campaigners attempted to persuade us and a group of Brazilians to vote JC. I think the tactic of drunken campaigning for Corbyn worked much better on us than it did on them but who knows? They might be members of the Labour Party now.
After all this we still didn’t get into the Leadmill (they announced it was full and it was unlikely anyone would leave) and I was not so secretly pleased. Actually I couldn’t contain my excitement. I think I squealed. It was back to Queens to see Dutch Uncles. The Manchester group have frequently fallen just out of my grasp when it comes to gigging but I’d heard that they were phenomenal live. Well, my love for the Mancunians meant that they could have probably played hyper-experimental versions of their songs and I would still have loved it. So this mini-review is completely biased.
So now that you all know where I’m heading with this… Duncan Wallis is the best frontman in the country right now. I don’t care if he looks like Adam Levine, Wallis has all the moves, he sings beautifully and puts 100% in. Actually, all the Uncles do in their own way, whether they’re constrained by instruments or not. Their latest album O Shudder might be their best work anyway and starting with LP opener ‘Babymaking,’ a completely seductive and wonderfully sensitive meditation on the ticking biological clock pretty much confirmed that Dutch Uncles are a band at the top of their game. ‘Babymaking’ is the anti-boy band love song that still makes you want to squeal in delight, which is no mean feat. Through a set that contained other O Shudder highlights and tracks from their previous efforts Cadenza and Out of Touch In The Wild, there wasn’t a single moment where it looked like they were flagging, while the 70s decor in the Queens gave them some extra razzmatazz. Off-kilter pop gem ‘Flexxin’ was always going to be a highlight of their set but somehow they managed to top it by ending their performance with a pitch-perfect rendition of ‘Kiss From A Rose.’ Yes, Dutch Uncles covered Seal. And it was magical. And I desperately want to see them do a proper set.
On the way to DQ for a spy as to whether we’d be able to get in to see Craig Charles DJing, we passed by the Leadmill once more to find Billy Bragg still playing. And talking. The bouncers – bless them – let us in to stand at the back and we were treated to Bragg talking about his love of Jeremy Corbyn (how Corbyn kept coming up in everyone and anyone’s conversation that weekend I’ll never know. But he was omnipresent). I won’t beat around the bush. I’m not the biggest fan of Bragg at all, but I do like a few of his songs, two of them being ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forward’ (a song he apparently hadn’t played for over a year) and his version of ‘A New England,’ which hits all the right notes of melancholia without being overly soppy (as ‘Between the Wars,’ another song we caught, seems to do. Don’t get me wrong, the overall message is solid but I always found the delivery a little blunt). ‘A New England’ and it’s singalong chorus was a beautiful closing salvo to the weekend, one that had contained more ups than downs.
I guess it kind of ended on a down. I had my arse handed to me again on Mario Kart despite being completely sober and not monstrously tired like the night before.