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Memories of an Un-Free Festival: 6Music Festival Friday

Posted on Saturday, 21 February 2015 | No Comments




Music is not the story until it is.



To refer back to the last entry: scheduling bands for 5:30 on a Friday, when a fair proportion of their audience will have barely left work, is a fair example of the level of regard the audience is held with. Your writer arrives at quarter past the hour - an achievement only manageable by getting to the day job early, and not all office workers have reasonable supervisors/vaguely acceptable workplace practices as I do - to hundreds of people slowly inching their way in. You know: the gig they had to be online for at the specific time of sale before it sold out minutes later, the gig they had to turn up at an absurd hour to actually see one of the most popular bands on the bill. To kill the time, I start throwing the concept of the military-Academy complex in my head, as the hundreds of us prepare to navigate such an unfriendly event, at such an unfriendly and overpriced venue. The right-wing nonsense about the decadent BBC is usually that: if they really wanted to see taxpayer money thrown into a furnace, I can only suggest they try finding the invoice to see how much it cost the Beeb to book this shithole.

Again then: do not pretend for a second that this is an event designed for the enjoyment of the live consumer. Before each band, an assortment of 6Music presenters prove themselves varying shades of useless as they try to introduce the bands: anti-hype people, if you will. Some of them present good shows, some of them don't, but this was just another unneccesary layer of branding, atop the glowing neon signs, the giant projected logos and the fact that the event is actually named after the bloody station. You do have to ask if this is really what we want a public organisation to be doing. (Of course, very few people still care about such distinctions. For the majority, the BBC are just another brand - another of Thatcher's final, brutal victories.) It is hard to shake the awareness of being at a recording rather than a gig, everything all too neat and tidy for its own good.

Which brings us to the bands of course. Arriving at a distinctly unfriendly time for anyone with a job - you know, most of the audience the BBC are supposed to cater for, rather than have the audience cater for the BBC - means that I arrive in the room just before The War on Drugs start. Having been somewhat ambivalent on the band previously (softened towards them by their dignified non-response to Mark Kozalek's ongoing campaigning to make any Red House Painters fans left in his audience feel utterly ashamed fo him, perhaps), their short set leaves me even more confused by their success. It's not that they're a bad band - there are things to enjoy in their sonic identity and their Neil Young meets Avalon-era Roxy Music aesthetic - but the idea of feeling passion either way for a group that seem so entirely bored and unconvinced of their own material is something of a challenge. They are a band that leave no trace of their having ever been there, no real memory of any kind other than the dim awareness that half an hour of mortality has passed in their presence. The punchline here is that the band are returning to this stage a week later for their own headliner performance: never has functional adequacy been so rewarded.

After that brief set however arrives the reward: the return of the mighty Sleater-Kinney to these shores for the first time in a decade. If there is ever to be a set text on how to negotiate the tricky business of the rock reunion, this band might be the perfect example. Recording an (excellent) album in secret that picks up just from where they left off, one that acknowledges the last decade of rock - it's not a stretch to imagine Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker scouring the shops to work out the pedal set-up Annie Clark uses while listening to Fangless - but more crucially retains the unique identity and chemistry of their previous work. They receive, as is only apt, a hero's welcome, and the enthusiasm of the crowd is matched by the intensity of the set that follows. Corin's voice remains a source of natural wonder, Brownstein could teach Pete Townsend a few things about proper rock posture, and Janet Weiss remains one of the greatest percussionists in rock history - with new live recruit Kate Harkin in tow (Ms. Sky Larkin herself, and previously of Wild Beasts - how's that for a CV?) Plenty of the new album ensues, and this is one of those cases where a band airing the new stuff is entirely welcome: A New Wave and Bury Our Friends are already anthems up there with their finest work. (Speaking of which: the greatest break-up song ever written might be absent, but the equally magnificent Jumpers is in the set -  the song that first introduced me to Sleater-Kinney, and as such my pinnacle of the set for obvious reasons.)

One of the many flaws of these big corporate set-ups is the limited stage-time that the bands receive - even a band as brilliantly cut the crap as Sleater-Kinney come up against the barriers of the set list. So exactly why they decided to end on the passive-aggressive, Kozelek-grade bullshit of Entertain is, considering that this one of the smartest bands in the business, currently showing everyone just how it's really done, utterly baffling. Always an explicit attack on Interpol, who follow them on the bill, it was never the band's finest hour, but to dig it up for a joke at the expense of a band that evidently bear them no ill-will a decade later ends a brilliant set on an uncalled for downer. (The idea of targeting them in particular for crimes of retro natures when your previous support bands include The White Stripes and The Bl*ck K*ys is the most absurd of irony as well.)

Still, the slated band arrive next, and continue to prove that the fatigued act that was doing the rounds four years ago in support of their misfiring self-titled is very much a thing of the past. Be it time constraints or otherwise, but Interpol absolutely tear through their set tonight: the opening Say Hello to the Angels rips through the speakers, while recent single All The Rage Back Home turns full-on surf punk. Indeed, watching the glitchy, oceanic visuals accompanying their dense wall of reverb, the thought strikes me: were we all wrong when we called Interpol a post-punk band? Tonight, during airings for fan favourites The New and Pioneer to the Falls and a beautiful Take You On A Cruise, it hits home that what they do is far more akin to Disintergration-era Cure and early Ride than the lazy, ignorant Joy Division/Chameleons references that most journalists pad out their copy with. Perhaps it's this that explains why they've managed to retain their devoted fanbase (and, in El Pintor, give their recorded output a welcome kick) while so many other bands of their era have faded away: they were never really in the same conversation anyway. Suffice to say then that the mutual love between Interpol and Newcastle remain fully alive and intact.

After two such forceful sets, the arrival of Mogwai is that of a weirdly subdued gatecrasher. They are, of course, a magnificent band, and as with all the other bands on the bill, could easily headline this place on their own, but the audible disquiet of the crowd during the slow beauty of Heard About You Last Night does stand out from the devotion previous acts receive. Just as well then that the set soon moves into a virtual Mogwai greatest hits: a storming Rano Pano bleeds into the stunning Hunted by a Freak, which itself dissolves into the open of Mogwai Fear Satan - and yes, the arrival of that distortion stomp ends any chatter through sheer blunt force. A late shift into their more pop material like Mexican Grand Prix and the Braithwaite-sung Teenage Exorcism (which, yes, is a total Interpol rip-off: perhaps someone at 6Music was playing a meta long-game with the billing?) keeps the newly won-round crowd on side, before We're No Here ends the night in a blaze of blasting feedback and bright white light, blasting away the advertising and putting the case for a pop-alternative station like 6Music far more effectively than the station itself seems capable of doing.

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