Handmade Festival is a three-day festival held in Leicester, held across the city's O2 Academy venue plus the conjoining student space of Union Square. The 2016 arts-focused weekend incorporated film, comedy, performance, poetry and photography, although the main focus was sure to be the wealth of new and established bands playing across four stages on each of the days.
In checking out a sampler of what Handmade has to offer on the first evening, we looked at a bill including the well-established indie rock of We Are Scientists, instrumental rock heroes 65daysofstatic, and new bands including Black Honey and Vitamin. On paper, it was an exciting bill - with plenty more ahead over the weekend.
Handmade differs from many city-based festivals at this time of year by taking place under one roof, with all four stages a short distance from each other. The largest stage, Leicester's Academy 2, would feature the headliners, while Academy 3 and Scholar Bar flaunted lower-billed acts. The fourth stage, Union Square, took place in the open surroundings of a lobby-like area; Akin to a performance in a shopping mall's food court, rather than a conventional stage.
Beyond the music, on the first evening, very little was set to occur. Over the weekend, Handmade would surely feature a variety of interesting artistic occurrences, but for now it was more a packed gig schedule than anything else. The only exception was a number of photography displays, featuring live music shots and more from Handmade approved photographers. They received little attention, more window dressing than anything, and were the only evidence of the other arts on day one.
By taking place in an O2 Academy, the Handmade stages offered little in the way of value for money in terms of drinks. A soft drink was an eye-watering £2.60, and alcohol wasn't much better. A Starbucks was open in Union Square briefly early on, but closed at its usual time, leaving another beer bar for the festival goers. Outside, a small number of food trucks offered the usual festival-style grub.
Handmade officially kicked off at 5PM, having initially been billed for a 6PM start right up until the week of the festival. The organisers pointed to a ticketing site as the cause of the discrepancy, but for anyone looking to arrive for the first bands, it is quite an unforgivable mistake. The doors were open earlier, with an uncomplicated wristband collection at the top of the stairs at the venue.
The first band billed for the day was Estrons, the exciting, politically-charged Welsh rock outcasts who may be the most exciting band from the country since Catfish and the Bottlemen. Unfortunately, they had to pull out of Handmade, for unexplained but apparently unavoidable reasons. (They appeared the following day at Live at Leeds.)
This pushed back the start time slightly, meaning that the first band of interest to perform was Vitamin. Their fresh indie pop is sure to be a big hit over time, as their in-vogue sound reminds strongly of The 1975. However, in a live setting, it loses a lot of its charm - it's almost bland - and they're not a band to rush out and see at a gig anytime soon. Their set was also very short, missing out some of their singles, even though they had plenty of time to play a couple more.
It wasn't the best start to the day, but Handmade had plenty to offer, and Her Name is Calla offered a vast contrast to the accessible pop of Vitamin. Their sparse post-rock graced the main stage with a performance of their The Quiet Lamb album in full. As with all post-rock, they're a band that you need to understand to enjoy, and thus not for the impatient or unchallenged. Their long performance received a devoted audience and an ovation at the end, the day's first success.
During Her Name is Calla's mammoth performance, another new band - The Magic Gang - took to the Scholar Bar and vastly outperformed their predecessors with an impressive set. The Reckless Youth also appeared with their loud and rowdy rock on the smallest of the three main music stages, their vocalist keen to come to the crowd barrier and their cheap CDs in high demand at the end of the show.
Handmade had finally picked up after a slow hour or two, although the lobbies - and any space away from the stages - felt quiet and lacked in atmosphere. Arguably the place to be was the Black Honey merchandise stand, where vocalist Izzy Bee and other band members camped out with t-shirts and EPs ahead of their set.
Black Honey were, perhaps, the most exciting band to appear on the day - hyped by all that have seen them, tipped for major stardom, and yet still something of a cult band bubbling under the surface. It's hard to see why their massive break hasn't come yet, as they've got all of the ingredients for success, from an eye-catching, brash femme vocalist to a growing catalogue of acclaimed songs. They were the day's stand-out act, a familiar assessment anytime they play a festival. 65daysofstatic were next up, plunging the Academy 2 into darkness for an hour-long performance of their progressive sounds and eclectic melodies. They're now long-runners, even veterans of their genre, but have lost none of their star power in the live environment. Like Her Name is Calla, you've got to appreciate the genre to appreciate the band, but some will have paid the price of admission to see those two tense offerings alone - and received value for their money.
The Union Square stage featured less acts than any other, with only three appearing in total, and headlined by local act Elizabeth Cornish. The Leicester singer-songwriter cut a lonely figure on-stage, not helped by the large room being loosely populated by bands that had already played chatting amongst friends and not too many there to pay attention to her set. Still, it was pleasant enough, and the stage would likely yield a better atmosphere on the busier days of the weekend.
Pretty Vicious were last to appear at the Scholar Bar, the festival's taste-making stage of hot new bands. They've been around for a little while, and are considered a top live act, so it's no surprise that they were spirited and full of vigour for the occasion. Although they haven't hit the heights expected of them, and might not win a great deal of plaudits critically, they were a popular booking as second stage headliner.
The day's actual headliners were We Are Scientists, an accessible contrast to the preceding acts on the Academy 2 stage. The California band's stop coincides with their ongoing tour with new album Helter Skelter, but there was plenty of opportunity to hear the hits too. Nobody Moves, Nobody Gets Hurt and It's a Hit are massively recognisable tunes for the millennial generation, and it put a party slant on the evening with simple good fun. They're still an impressive live band, possibly even better with age, and closed out the day suitably with their set. A promotional tie-in with pop-punk night Suburbia! offered the prospect of an after-party elsewhere for those interested in continuing their festival beyond 11PM.
The first day of Handmade Festival was an interesting endeavour, with some good performances, especially from the polar opposites of 65daysofstatic and Black Honey. But in many ways this felt more like a gig than a festival; Taking place predominantly in an O2 Academy, with barely anything happening beyond the stages, and a quick clear-out once the bands were done (Union Square was being vacated at 10PM).
There was very little to create a festival atmosphere, and while many similarly start with a quiet first night, they always tend to feel more lively than this. The Union Square stage felt like a bit of a waste, ignored by many in the room, providing more of a lobby soundtrack than a stage on which acts could impress and perform.
For locally-based music fans, the line-up provided good value in bringing a number of exciting bands together for a six-hour bill. But it's hard to see why you would travel far for this, especially with so many rival events (including new East Midlands offering 2Q) in the spring, many of which feature the same bands in a more spirited metropolitan package.
That said, it is very cruel to judge Handmade on its opening night alone, especially as the arts programme had barely kicked into action at all. With more going on over the weekend, including day headliners Deaf Havana and Swim Deep, things must have picked up, and a quiet first evening may be long forgotten.
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