It may be a surprise to some, but there are other festivals going on this weekend, there’s even some others happening in the South West. Disappointment at not being at Glastonbury aside, what better way to cope with remaining in the real world than to just go and enjoy some other live music elsewhere?
Admittedly Bristol Sounds is barely a festival. It’s not even a gig in a field, but just a series of 5 gigs in the centre of Bristol Harbourside, though it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Each show was promoted individually as well as a combined festival, with an engaging selection of bands, headliners being Tom Misch, The Cat Empire, Bloc Party, Elbow, and The Cinematic Orchestra on the respective Wednesday-Sunday nights. We only went to the middle trio though, focusing our energy on seeing the performances that particularly appealed.
Thursday started with Ibibio Sound Machine warming the crowd up, with the eight-person ensemble filling the stage with lively dancing and energetic, African-rhythm infused electronic beats. They were a thoroughly entertaining and appropriate opener for The Cat Empire, but also lacked that little spark that can make an act truly engaging, desperate to hear and see more of them.
The beer selection was respectable, the local Sulis lager is at least better than the usual festival fare, and Brooklyn Brewery had a bus there as well, albeit heavily priced (£6 a pint!). Unfortunately, the food selection was pretty abysmal, both compared to modern festivals and Bristol events in general. Most of the selection looked incredibly unappetising as well as generic, although our settled solution of chicken burgers proved a reasonable option.
And so to the first headliner of our weekend, The Cat Empire opened up their act with “Ready Now”, a single released in July 2018 from their latest album “Stolen Diamonds”. For a band going just shy of 20 years their music has evolved in time whilst retaining the signature Jazz, Ska, Funk fusion features that made them famous to begin with.
With the first notes of “Ready Now” quickly filling the arena, the festival punters started amassing by the stage taking barely minutes to go from an enthusiastic but yet not fully warmed up crowd to a joined up mass singing and dancing to the music. Felix Riebl’s undeniable charm accompanied by the band’s talented trumpeter James Angus’ fired up the audience who quickly joined them in singing along to almost every song and dancing to the tunes the band was dropping, almost as if the gig was taking place in the fields of a festival rather than Bristol Harbourside.
But that was just the start; the band clearly knew their audience and both the stage and crowd feeding each other energy. Watching them you could tell that every single band member was in their element; drinking in the love the audience was generously sharing and jumping from one side of the stage to the other, alternating music instruments whilst not missing a single note. Felix’s vocals mixed with the great trumpet, bass, keys and of course drum sounds, producing a performance that illustrated not just each member’s expert ability in their music specialism but also their insatiable chemistry.
As the set progressed they covered most of their latest releases from Stolen Diamonds including the signature songs: “Kila”, and “Oscar Wilde” mixed with some of their well-loved older tunes including “Sly”, “Kilimanjaro”, “Steal the Night”, and “Brighter than Gold”. With most bands you can tell which songs belong to a latest release as the audience will be less familiar, or more reluctant to sing along. Definitely not the case here. The band continued jumping from song to song and from album to album without losing the enthusiasm of the crowd. There was barely a moment to take a breath or stop moving your feet as vocals seamlessly alternated with instruments to keep the movement flowing.
The encore almost came as a relief from the constant flow of powerful emotion emanating from a crowd that embraced the Australian band and let it’s heavily inspired Latin rhythms carry it away. Still, the crowd was not ready to go home, at least not before a three-song encore. Following a well-coordinated chanting for one of their most famous songs “The Chariot”, which probably left many members of the audience voiceless the next day, the band jumped back on stage with swift feline movements and rewarded the audience’s love and demands with an impressive finale.
We were a little rushed on Friday, arriving just in time to catch She Drew The Gun, and wow we were glad we did. They showed off their punchy, psych-infused rock style, interspersed with overtly political lyrics, delivered either in Liverpudlian shouts or elegantly crooned by multiple vocalists. The most impressive support act of the weekend brought a performance filled with energy and power, thumping out their songs to an appreciative crowd.
The day’s headliner’s Bloc Party couldn’t have offered a greater initial contrast as they arrived to a tape backing of “Every Time is the Last Time”, the secret track off their much lauded debut “Silent Alarm”, which they’re touring once again. As they picked up their instruments, they blended the recorded play into “Compliments”. An oddly mellow choice, particularly given it was quickly followed by the similarly downbeat “Plans” with both songs disrupted by low volume and difficulties with the sound mixing. This bland start instantly dampened the crowd’s enthusiasm, and the lengthy pause to fix the tech issues - over 5 minutes - only perpetuated the growing tension. This is a band on their third line-up, still trading heavily on a 14-year old debut album to keep up enthusiasm and ticket sales, this could quite easily turn out to be disastrous.
Once the sound technicians had finished though, the performance sparked into life. Kele Okereke offered a sincere apology, responded amiably to the crowd’s calls for more volume during the opening bars of “Luno”, and the improved sound brought with it a palpable increase in energy. They continued to work through “Silent Alarm” in reverse, with the fans’ joy and Bloc Party’s performance improving throughout as the hits kept powering out, everything from “Price of Gas” through “This Modern Love” and onwards proving an exceptional crowd pleaser. The finale was as electric as the start was ponderous, the reverse order leaving them finishing with their two big hits of “Helicopter” and “Like Eating Glass”.
Returning for an encore, they performed the final track from the “Silent Alarm” era, its bonus offering “Two More Years”, before launching into the immensely haunting and powerful “Hunting for Witches”, “Octopus”, and “The Prayer”, before concluding with the intense “Flux” and “Ratchet”. Painful as the struggling start was, they more than made up for it with their next 80 minutes proving they still had enthusiasm to entertain with their first songs.
The supporting act on Saturday was Villagers, whose live show elicited a remarkable level of indifference. The music was pleasant enough, but faded into the background before a busy amphitheatre filled with a crowd that just couldn’t quite care either way. They finally livened up for their final song “A Trick of the Light”, but by then most of the crowd had dispersed into lengthy toilet and bar queues.
Considering that Friday was the only sold out day, Saturday seemed a lot more packed, and with a notably older audience. Understandable considering the headliner, weekend slot, and much higher ticket price, but the extent of the age difference felt remarkable. It didn’t diminish the crowd enthusiasm for Elbow though, who walked on stage to rapturous cheers and applause before launching into “Fly Boy Blue/Lunette” and “The Bones of You”.
There’s something special and unique about a live performance by Elbow, particularly at outdoor shows. They transfer a soaring, anthemic energy into their songs that isn’t present on record. “Magnificent” lived up to its title, as did the rest of their 1 hour and 40 minute set. Guy Garvey excelled as a frontman, singing with beauty while keeping the crowd constantly involved with sing-a-longs, various clapped rhythms, and an engaging tale of when their bassist Pete Turner got obscenely drunk when the band went out to see Villagers (who were presumably better than on Saturday given they got invited as support).
In this day and age, an encore is generally expected, particularly from headliners, and in many ways, it was refreshing to see Elbow just work through their set, and then just bow and leave the stage, while making it completely clear that the night was over. Sometimes, the anticipation can add to the joy of a band returning and playing their biggest hits. On this occasion, it felt unnecessary. Every second of their final four songs, “The Birds”, “Lippy Kids”, “One Day Like This”, and “Grounds for Divorce” felt momentous and inspiring, bringing our weekend (if not the event overall), to a fantastic conclusion.
Overall, Bristol Sounds offered a fantastic few nights of live music, in an impressive venue with (the opening two songs of Bloc Party aside), excellent sound quality and atmosphere. A series of outdoor gigs isn’t the same level of wondrous detachment as a festival, but this was a vast improvement on the various London park-based “festivals”, and a good line-up would surely see our return.