In years to come, festival historians might well look back on 2017's Handmade and suggest that this was the year that the Leicester based event came of age. That's not to say it's not been a festival worthy of praise in the past - but now, in its fifth year, it truly feels like the tweaks and refinements that have greeted us punters year on year are resolved and the promoters have settled upon a format that's nigh on perfect. Long may this last.
Beginning life as a festival across venues in the city centre, Handmade moved up to the O2 Academy a couple of years ago. Organisers suggested that this was the only way to make it pay even though many of the crowd accepted this rationale with heavy heart. As a compromise, this year's Friday night line up again returned to some city centre venues. It's a touch that gives the overall proceedings a cutting edge.
When we all get up to the O2 academy on Saturday afternoon, the first thing to note is that the main academy venue is now, for the first time in Handmade history, a space in which to watch bands. With three other stages, all neatly signposted and within remarkably easy walking distance of each other, this is never going to be a festival in which you'll be able to rack up the steps on your tracker. Previously, the layout may have highlighted the rabbit warrens of the University campus. But now, it just feels like a compact area in which to watch great bands.
That's one thing Handmade has always excelled in. This is a festival where the promoters are on the pulse and, as such, it's one of those tickets that represents incredible value for money. It doesn't break the bank to see up and coming bands who, by next year, are very likely to charge this much to see a set by them alone.
General consensus seems to be that there's few acts with more spark than Idles this weekend. Sunday afternoon on the main stage and they throw out a set that will surely go down in festival folklore. From the moment that Joe Talbot nonchalantly takes to the stage and announces 'We're Idles - the misspelling is a pun on words', there's never any doubt where this set is heading. Gloriously sweaty, this band of gobby punks leave many with mouths aghast, such is their immediacy. When guitarist, Mark Bowen, dives into the crowd and rolls around topless on the dusty, beer-strewn, floor of the auditorium, the connection is there for all to see. Finding time to genuinely apologise for the accidental misdirection of spit, Joe shows that he's also a gent. Angry and sweary, tender and compassionate, this is a craft well done.
The anticipation for Cabbage on the Saturday night in the Queens Hall, the second venue, reaches similar zeal. The threatened placards protesting against the alleged misdemeanours of lead singer, Lee Broadbent, don't materialise and many consider this to be a good thing. This bunch are politically aware and appear dejected by the accusations of sexual assault that have landed at their door. Lee is particularly reserved. He's in slow puncture mode but you suspect that, in the fullness of time, he'll snap out of it. For now, the energy is under-cooked even though guitarist and alternative frontman, Joe Martin, does his best by showing off his torso from the top of the set. "He has such a hot body", said my friend in an open display of lust. In my eyes, they remain an important band and they'll return to former heights soon.
"I really loved Peaness ", I say when asked about highlights of the Saturday. I'm not the only punter raising giggles when I openly declare my love for the Chester based three piece. They've been on my radar now for a little while but this is my first time catching them in a live setting. Down in The Cave, a dance studio by day judging by the mirrors around the room, the upbeat and happy trio play a blinder. They've got charming melody and infectious tunes that can't fail to put you on top of the world.
The scholar bar has previously been a vital stage for Handmade. But this year, with the scheduling of two larger rooms in the Main Stage and Queens Hall, it's more of an important bit player, an integral part of the jigsaw though no longer a corner piece. Thus, I'm guilty of stopping to watch fewer bands in here than I might have done. It's now a thoroughfare to the outdoor concrete food court areas where smokers congregate and friends catch up around wooden tables. The food is decent given that there's just a sprinkling of stalls. Curries, burgers and Mexican offerings from a range of street food vendors, you sometimes have to queue but never for long enough that it's unpleasant. The same is true when queueing for a beer. It's great to see that the Handmade Ale makes a return at £4.10 a pint. It's not so great that choice becomes seriously limited by the Sunday evening as the alcohol starts to run out.
Handmade still does that thing in which it partners up with like-minded organisations. On Saturday, the local BBC Introducing set up is responsible for the Scholar bar line up. It's great to catch up with Kagoule, now arguably elders of the East Midlands scene, headlining this Scholar bar stage and showing that they probably should have been slotted into one of the larger stages. Other local acts such as Kermes and Ash Mammal do their blossoming reputations no harm at all putting in much talked about sets in those larger venues.
Headliners - it's a toughie for a festival of this size. Do you blow your budget on a few bands that can guarantee you ticket sales (although quieter venues by day) or do you attempt to weave quality throughout? Somehow, Handmade seems to have achieved both this year. Saturday night's co-headliners of Pulled Apart By Horses and Twin Atlantic are unlikely to be featuring on my car stereo anytime soon but there's no denying that these are bands with fan bases to plunder. I give Pulled Apart By Horses ten minutes to impress me and I stay for twenty which is a definite endorsement of their frenetic power. Judging by a very random band T-shirt count, Twin Atlantic's fan base tend only to come out at night but they do so in large numbers. Sunday's co-headliners are much more my cup of tea. British Sea Power might start slowly but before long they drag you into their lush, orchestrated world of foliage and don't let you go. By the time the dancing bears come and join us, we're in some sort of heaven, a place that gets even more intense with epic, instrumental set closers. Frightened Rabbit seem delighted to be headlining Handmade. Their convivial presence with jokes about the vegetable variety of cabbage masks the overwhelming lyricism of their tunes. Fab.
I should return to the beginning and the Friday night. For one night only, Handmade has returned to the streets of Leicester. Many choose to spend their evenings in the presence of local acts made good. I hear particularly positive things about Her Name Is Calla in the Bishop Street Methodist Church and Grace Petrie at the Guildhall. But for Photographer Phil and myself, Friday night is for drinking and so we stick to tried and tested haunts, The Cookie and Firebug. At the Cookie, we catch Neon Waltz. These lads from the very north of Scotland have enough baggy jangle to impress me and I resolve to catch them again later in the summer. The rage about HMLTD has largely passed me by but you couldn't help but notice their stylish glam from the moment you entered Firebug. Looking like a modern day Sigue Sigue Sputnik, they hang around the venue in prominent positions wanting to be noticed. And, once they take to the stage, they definitely achieve that. It's derivative of Adam And The Ants or Bow Wow Wow but see beyond the art school fashion and you have to conclude they've got tunes, work hard and have fun. Ultimately, that's got to be a recipe for further success.
By the time that the festival returns to the city after the bands have finished on the Sunday for the silent club night at Firebug, my legs have long since told me they need rest. It's worth noting that, although this is predominantly a weekend about seeing bands, there is effort made to entertain us with other stuff. Apart from the silent disco, there are photography and art exhibitions. Some of this is projected onto a screen at the back of Queens Hall to watch should a band become too much. Comedy makes a welcome return as well.
Other acts to register on my radar over the Handmade few days include Honeyblood, Happyness, Haus, Orchards, Goat Girl, Shame and Jaws. I'd seen a couple of these before and thought I knew what they were all about. The chaps from Jaws seem genuinely delighted that a decent-sized contingent has turned out to see them in Leicester. "We've never played to this many people before in Leicester", says surprised lead singer, Connor Schofield. Happyness have surely played more energetic sets than this - in truth, they don't seem very happy to be here - but, if you forget about their awkwardness and let their laid back blissful sound wash over you, there's enough still to enjoy. Orchards are a new band to me. I'm always up for a bit of twisted pop though and they produce it with style. Glittered up and slightly kooky, lead singer Lucy Evers is a captivating presence whilst prancing around. Oddly delightful.
For all that I saw over the weekend, there is much that I missed. That's a sign of a good festival though, right? In the next couple of months, the tent will get an airing and, no doubt, many of the acts on the Handmade bill will develop their craft still further in muddy fields. Handmade has been a fine introduction to the largely guitar based bands who'll be making waves throughout 2017.
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