I'm always dubious of metropolitan events calling themselves festivals, half the time they are a series of nightly headline gigs. In order to be a festival I feel they have to offer an alternative to the act you're watching, a choice of refreshments, and food, and perhaps a few stalls, comedy, interviews, spoken word to really round the programme out.
It was interesting to see how tickets were available in the run up to this year’s event. Clearly there was a chance to go to this event if you really wanted a ticket, and it was well worth the money as each segment you pay for has multiple venues and line-ups so you have the chance to see numerous acts each day. This is my first festival review in 2016 less than two months after my last one in December, it's clear the festival calendar really is all year around now.
The first night at Motion, a rather cold three roomed warehouse of a building did offer some decent catering, Bristol has a wealth of festival food stalls. The drinks options were tinned cooking lager or fizzy pop cider. The opening act is Roots Manuva who delivers a terrific opening set, and if the rest of the festival is like his it would be a real treat of a weekend. It turns out it’s my favourite performance of the whole weekend. Next up the gentle well crafted music of newcomers Blossoms or the raw energetic draw of a crowd surfing Savages. We find having enjoyed the beginning of Blossoms we can't get into the packed room housing Savages. The venue was a little way out from the rest of the Bristol pubs and small venues showcasing the Fringe events, so we thought we would come in from the cold.
The first night also had a free event St Nicks Nightmarket hosting the BBC Introducing Stage. We decide to go there instead, discovering if we leave Motion we won't get back in. The narrow old Dickensian type alleyways of St Nicks were packed with delicious smells, hot spicy cider, and decent ales accompanies the local acts bookended by a surprise appearance by Tom Robinson and local boy The Lonely Tourist, it felt vibrant and in the outside air much more like a summer festival, and it turned out loads of the pubs were showcasing local talent and great choices of real ale and scrump to accompany them. The first night done it was clear Bristol knows how to host a festival on their skinny streets.
Day two for us begins in Trinity, located in the naughtier part of Bristol with the rock and roll streets home to massage parlours and lively bars including Stag & Hounds and their full fringe programme which ran all day. The venue itself offers Southsea's delicious Pie and Vinyl, the Womens Institute's tea and cakes, Drift’s record shop and musical instruments store selling ukes, nose flutes, harmonicas and more amongst the racks of new vinyl.
Outside there's a sound system kicking out Bristol's signature dub beats, stalls selling curry, jerk with rice & peas, pizzas, and proper espresso. Plus inside a bar with a decent choice of Bath Ales. Of course we're not really here for any of that but it augments the festival atmosphere of the day. Suddenly it feels like a very cold summer festival, and the crowd seems vaguely familiar, a lot of Bristol clearly spends it’s summer in fields of festivals up and down the country.
Whilst Saul Williams drops rhymes downstairs, and Tom Robinson introduces the entertainment, we head upstairs to the stained glass framed room of this old church to hear poets Deanna, Holly McNish, and Kojey Radical, who also performs a track from his EP with backing music, and Murray Lachlan-Young.
Then the arch drood Julian Cope plays his psychedelic mellotron, and talks eruditely to Stuart Maconie, it's tangential, intriguing and informative. The three songs aren't bad either a real highlight of the weekend, we hear the Dennis Bovell, Adrian Sherwood, and Mad Professor, get together was also a hit for many. Local comedy from birthday boy Mark Watson, Alice Matthews, and the mind bleach requiring Cerys Nelms are introduced by an on form Shaun Keaveny.
Next we're off to Colston Hall, to get wristbanded, which means we have not only the three stages in Colston Hall to sample but also the O2 Academy. I do wish this event would have been able to offer the one wristband gives access to all events option, it's a pain to pay for the extra bolt ons, although much of the fringe is free. I can see that capacity restrictions necessitate this but seeing more on offer really makes it feel more like a festival.
Augmented by fringe events in the nearby Fleece, Stop The Bus, Rise, The Golden Lion, and at least half a dozen more venues, plus the late night offerings in Basement 45, and Motion. Saturday and Sunday for us are spent for us in the refurbished glass fronted stair and walkways of Colston Hall with a short dash to the O2 Academy also available. There’s also entertainment further afield again in Motion, but that’s a different tickets and wristband.
There’s decent beer, stout, and cider from Bath Ales, and craft offerings from Beer D, plus an in house food concession (tiny portions) and Beer D offering bespoke bar snacks at prices from £5 to £8 plus more Bristol food stalls seemingly on every corner of the roads outside.
On Saturday the choice of 4 venues (the main rooms of O2 and Colston, Colston Hall’s high Concourse, and a smaller Lantern venue in what was the old building of Colston Hall) all seem to split the crowd well. An audience here to see headliners Underworld enjoy the DJ sets from 2 Kings Records Soundsystem, Dennis Bovell, Ray Mighty, Queen Bee, and the choice cuts and mash-ups of Fresh 4 , and by the time Roni Size & DJ Krust showcase Full Cycle the place is jumping.
The programming elsewhere appeals too - Misty in Roots make a terrific opening act and get the crowd limbered up for some old school dad dancing throughout the night. Misty in Roots and the surely on the cusp of greatness Mystery Jets draw a wide audience as does Ezra Furman and Gwenno. The headliners appear to make a decent split of the crowd with Underworld winning me over from seeing Husker Du’s Bob Mould.
The dance legends present cuts of their new album ' Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future' (all but 2 tracks), alongside crowd pleasers like Black Train, Rez, King Of Snake, and Born Slippy. There’s not one frickin’ laser in sight, and they just have the track names projected behind them, to help the addled in the audience remember what they’re listening too. Singer Karl Hyde’s dancing inspires the bobbing bald heads to give it a go and the ‘euphoria’ button gets the crowd feeling good. By the end it’s hands in the air time – and we all leave with grins on our faces.
The programming on the final day in Colston Hall appears a bit less even for what’s clearly a different crowd. The youngsters aren’t here so much tonight. The DJs in the concourse don’t draw in the crowds at first who head en masse for the main hall to find seats for Guy Garvey. Rapidly filling up, those who are late quickly realise there’s a massive queue and a one in one out policy. To ease their protestations DJ Auntie Flo is taken off the decks and Garvey’s warming set piped through the PA to the waiting queues.
Suddenly the option to go and see the acts in O2 Academy becomes an issue as it means you could miss the main line-up of Julia Holter, and John Grant. The successful re-boot of Bloc Party and their late start in the O2 is either an accident or deliberate to ease the congestion, as once they start their set there’s no chance those watching will see John Grant’s terrific set where he captivates the crowd and brings on Doves’ Jimi Goodwin in a show that mainly showcases his new material. For me Matthew Herbert’s set is the highlight of the DJs on show, although Appleblim, Gilles Peterson, and Mount Kimbie all put in good showcases. Beyond The Wizard's Sleeve provide a more upbeat alternative to the incredibly captivating performance of headliner Laura Marling, with Buzzcocks providing some more vital energy for those who prefer to exercise their lungs in mass singalongs.
Overall I was impressed with the event, more than I thought I would be. Bristol as a city obviously has a bit of a festival vibe about it, with its markets and staunchly independent feel, and the festival deserves to be called that rather than a series of gigs. Listening to the radio station in the morning was like waking in your tent outside the arena, and helped instil interest in ‘getting in there’ and experiencing the sounds for yourself. I don’t know if an event not on the radio would have created quite the same feel.
Of course there was also so much fringe material to enjoy local and rising acts that you could enjoy the whole weekend without needing to spend a considerable ticket price on all the events, though clearly some I spoke to had. Sunday’s programme was slightly clouded by the news of the death of upcoming BBC Introducing act Viola Beach, and with so much of the fringe showcasing rising stars, plus the appearances of acts like Blossoms, Rat Boy, Hinds, and Hooton Tennis Club, they were sure to feature at a future 6Music event.
I wonder where next year’s event will take place, and whether it will fit the festival as well as Bristol has. Looking back at previous eFestivals’ reviews each has said that the location has suited a festival, because they all have a flourishing live music scene I guess. Thanks to all those who put it together, and saw it all run so smoothly over the weekend. Stewards and security were low key, and to all the acts who gave top draw performances throughout.
Me, I’ve been won over by metropolitan festivals if they’re all like this. They remind me of the old folk festivals held in mid-winter in sticky pubs and sub zero village halls. Live music has come a long way from the out of season village folk festivals, and yet it’s still not that much different – they attract good crowds of predominantly middle aged people, who are musically knowledgeable and there to enjoy the musicianship of the tunes, perhaps drink a beer or three, and get in the spirit to roll their bones once again.
Maybe next year they should add the metropolitan festival equivalent of a massive ceilidh and a few pub sessions and go the whole hog – thinking about it, it would appear they already had this year in Underworld with Hyde's moves doing the calling, the concourse DJs, and The Fringe! What goes around comes around.
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