I am stood at the bar in the reception area of the Victoria Warehouse Hotel. Damon Albarn has just played a brave, wilful and wistful set on the opening night of the inaugural 6 music festival and now I need a beer. A 330ml plastic bottle of Heineken sets me back a bank-breaking £4.50. Next to me, a young woman fumbles around for extra money after racking up a round of £31. She doesn't need to worry. Further along the bar, a drunken, exuberant man in his 50's leers over and draws a crisp £50 note from his wallet. “These are on me”, he generously letches. The astounded, young woman laps up the philanthropy. It's only later that I'm told who that man is - Mark King, bass player and main songwriter from 80's funksters Level 42. Slap thwang.
This is a hot ticket. Selling out in seconds, it's debateable whether what we have here is a big gig or a festival but, if you're one of the 8,000 punters lucky enough to get a ticket, I don't suppose such semantics matter. In the industrial space of the main Victoria Warehouse, you're directed around an elaborate one way system by stewards impersonating traffic wardens. At the far end of the warehouse, there's a silent disco. I never venture in so miss out on the treats served up by Mr Scruff (only doing an hour), Derrick May, and Don Letts amongst others. Adjacent to the disco is the second room. It's just about large enough to host some of the up and coming indie acts of the day such as Drenge, Nick Mulvey, and Jagwar Ma, but when Metronomy take to the stage a crush begins to form which results in a one-in, one out policy being imposed. If it wasn’t for the ease with which Metronomy encourage dancing, fun and joy to spread this could have been a situation that turned nasty. It’s definitely a sign that this could well be their year.
Completing the circle and back towards the entrance is the main room. The ceilings are high, the sound bass-heavy and you can see why this venue is adept at hosting rave projects. There's no staggering of times between the stages leading to occasional sound bleed and some hideous clashes. Bombay Bicycle Club, or Jagwar Ma? HAIM, or Drenge? Wild Beasts, or Franz Ferdinand? These are not easy choices to make. There’s a general hubbub from the chattering crowd which impacts upon some of the quieter acts of the weekend. As the nights get busier, the herding gets more intense.
It's an altogether more pleasant prospect next door in the Victoria Warehouse hotel. In here, the 6 music fringe festival runs for radio fans who have got lucky in a ballot for free tickets. The hotel is a quirky space and well suited to the activities on offer. Mark King might be hanging about in the reception to pounce but explore a bit further and the delights are more rewarding.
Themed into sections named after influential bands played on 6 music we have the Talking Heads area, the Cornershop, and the Public Image Ltd space. Tickets haven’t been over allocated and it's possible, if that's your desire, to get a front row seat for any of the interviews that 6 music DJs conduct with the key acts that are playing. When Mary Anne Hobbs chats with the incredibly dull HAIM in Talking Heads, I spend the entire interview wondering if they've ever uttered anything interesting in their young lives. It's possible to get a golden ticket view, unblocked by pillars and unfeasibly tall men, when the likes of Tim Burgess, and Nadine Shah take to a stage by the Public Image Ltd photo gallery. It's easy to thumb through records and books whilst eating pie in the Cornershop record store room. As you might expect Rough Trade and Piccadilly Records are here joined by a fascinating Music Exchange social enterprise from Nottingham . Where the main venue shudders under the weight of an excitable audience, the fringe hotel (complete with Buddhist shrine) offers a retreat of calm.
There is, of course, good reason why tickets for both the bustling main event and the more sedate fringe have been so popular. 6 music is a well respected brand with a growing audience. The dark days and threats of closure seem a long way removed now and this is a triumphant ten year celebration. The line up of acts across both days is astonishing and enough to put some larger festivals to shame. It's as beneficial for bands to be on the bill as it is for touts to trade tickets. Acts are able to give glimpses into new releases and insights into how great they might be in festival fields this summer .
I am stood at the front of a balcony looking out over the crowd that has assembled in the main room of the Warehouse for Damon Albarn's set. Teased by the release of single 'Everyday Robots' and told that this set will be our first chance to hear tracks from his forthcoming album of the same name, there's an echoing buzz in the air. Albarn takes to the stage with his new band, The Heavy Seas . Initially, Albarn tinkles and twinkles from behind a keyboard. Later, he strums a guitar and later still his melodica gets a blow. It's gentle, mournful stuff and those wanting more of a Friday night party show their disdain by chatting to friends. Even when he moves away from the more unfamiliar tracks and dips into his Gorillaz back catalogue, the constant murmur that surrounds does not subside. The echo in this warehouse is extreme and from the back of the room, one yearns to hear the words within these sentimental, soul searching tunes . This is a gig for radio, a red button performance and for the first time ever in my life I wonder if I'd have been better off, listening at home, drinking tea in my kitchen rather than lager amongst a swell of cameras, i-phones and chat.
Fortunately, other acts that play this main stage don't allow the venues limitations to get in the way. The National are undeniably one of the main draws over the weekend and their 18 song strong set gets many into a frenzy. When Matt Berninger reaches out into the crowd, who duly respond in adoring fashion, you realise that here's a band who have worked hard to realise their headline potential. With dark joys such as ‘Apartment Story’ and ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ in their back catalogue, they won't be letting this success out of their grasp in a hurry. An acoustic, unamplified version of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ closes the set. It’s a challenge not to shed some tears.
Midlake show they have the potential to invade The National's space if given permission. A slow burn of a set bursts into life when John Grant joins them on stage for a rendition of ‘Sigourney Weaver’. From that point of the set, they rock and swagger through ‘Roscoe’ and ‘The Old and The Young’ as if their future festival lives depend on it.
Kelis, Jake Bugg and Franz Ferdinand all surprise in different ways. Throughout her soulful and playful set, Kelis shimmers in a tight fitting golden leotard. She gives us an uptempo set as polished as her clothing and it’s surely no accident that Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ is punctuated throughout her show. You can’t help but smile at the joy Kelis and her band bring to proceedings. The following day, Jake Bugg doesn’t need sparkly costumes or stage banter to prove that some songs from his latest album, ‘Shangri La’ are on a par with his eponymous breakthrough. By the time he ends his set with ‘Lightning Bolt’ he’s got the crowd on his side. Apparently, Franz Ferdinand asked their fans to come up with the setlist for this show. Classics such as ‘Michael’ and ‘Take Me Out’ still sound as fruity as they did on release. ‘Fresh Strawberries’ from last year’s album ‘Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions’ mixes into the blender with a natural ease.
Feeling hungry, I head out of the main venue in search of some food. In a courtyard space by the entrance to the arena, some people smoke whilst others queue for their standard festival fare. Queues for pizzas and for pulled pork things look time consuming so I settle for a Warehouse burger. Choice for food is adequate without being exquisite. It’s certainly more varied and of better value than the beer choice. In future years, should 6 music decide that this event becomes a regular in the festival calendar, the organisers could definitely look into the provision of real ale and pints. It looks like the Victoria Warehouse hotel does typically serve a more complete range of drinks but that the extent has been stifled for this weekend.
Back at the fringe, there are some stand-out moments, some highlights that it would be remiss not to mention. Playing twice on the Public Image Ltd stage, Graham Massey’s Sun Ra tribute, The Part time Heliocentric Cosmo Drama After School Club bristles with soul, jazz and funk intent. The eleven members of the band cram onto the tiny stage and lose themselves in their big band antics. It’s impossible not to dance or at least shuffle at this early afternoon bliss. Over at the Talking Heads stage, Stuart Maconie reconfirms his status as the sort of down to earth bloke you could listen to all day as he spends twenty minutes giving us extracts from his much longer ‘People’s Songs’ project. He tells us the story of Modern Britain through the songs of the day with good humour and political nous. I resolve to see him perform this show in its entirety someday soon. Adam Buxton brings one of the Fringe Sessions to a close with an entertaining 20 minutes that actually becomes 30. The premise is simple – twenty sections lasting just one minute in length. “Where’s Joe?” asks a punter during one of the sections given over to audience questions. “Oh, he’s just at home”, replies Adam reflecting on his erstwhile comedy partner’s general laziness. “What do you owe to 6 music?” asks another audience member. “I owe them everything”, retorts Adam, only slightly tongue in cheek.
The first 6 music festival had much going for it. With a superb line-up and excellently priced tickets for those lucky enough to get one, it was never going to fail to satisfy for most. Sometimes, the infrastructure of the Victoria Warehouse got in the way of the intent but these are surely teething troubles that can be resolved in future years. The festival fringe needs far less fiddling with and managed to provide many of the highlights over the two days. 6 music festival, you’re not quite a ‘lesson in love’ yet but there’s certainly ‘something about you’.
latest on this festival
festival home page
The BBC Radio 6 Music Festival 2016 review
line-ups & rumours