This was my first visit to Electric Fields and approaching the location, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the beauty of the rural setting and grandeur of Drumlarigg Castle. With tent pitched by late afternoon it was time to explore the festival site; a fairly long, narrow arena where stalls were beginning to open and some “dressing” of the arena was still underway.
As opening act The Orielles took to the stage a small crowd began to gather. It’s always difficult to open an event, especially in front of a meagre crowd. Unfortunately the band looked a little lost in their surroundings and lacked enough self- confidence to really interact with their audience. Ezra Furman who followed had no such problems and as numbers front of stage grew he delivered a short but impressive set based largely around recent album Transangelic Exodus. It was clear that a significant number among the few hundred present were familiar with his material and closer, Suck the blood from my wound, brought immediate recognition and appreciation. It’s worth noting that the weather was getting increasingly cold. Ezra began wearing a thick jacket, removed it after a few songs but by the end of the set it was back on. Having said that, I would have struggled wearing just a short red dress in those conditions.
Ride, who followed have never been a great visual experience but were impressive musically, mixing songs from their reunion album Weather Diaries with 1990’s material. There was a steady influx of people as their set progressed but there was still only a relatively small crowd of around three or four thousand by the time headliners James took to the stage. I can only assume that the small numbers were a consequence of the fairly isolated rural location and the fact that this was a “bolt on” Thursday night gig where punters were required to pay an extra fee.
James were clearly there to promote their new album, Living in extraordinary times, and this was certainly an extraordinary gig. I’ve seen James on a number of occasions and they aren’t one of those bands that play the same set every night and just roll out their 1990’s hits and while they did perform tracks from a range of their back catalogue, these weren’t always the most obvious choices. Of the better known material, She’s a star and particularly Sit Down which closed the main set got a great reception and the inevitable sing a long but there was a sense of frustration among the audience over the lack of familiar material. This wasn’t helped by the quality of the performance which included several “false starts” where instrumentalists and Tim Booth “messed up” delivery and stared songs again. Living in Extraordinary times is clearly a political album with more than nods toward current UK and USA politics which Booth alluded to on several occasions. Although not the most professional of performances or what the audience wanted, I actually found the band’s performance until the encore thoroughly engaging.
However, what happened next unfortunately blighted the rest of the weekend for your reviewer. During the encore there was an onstage “discussion” between Tim Booth and the band’s guitarist who insisted on a making a statement to the audience before the final number. Taking the mike he shouted, “Fuck Trump, and fuck anyone who voted Brexit” which resulted in some cheering. After pausing, he went on to say, “As an Englishman living in Scotland, fuck the English.” While not everyone responded, this resulted in extended cheering and much aggressive punching of the air with fists by large numbers of the crowd around me. Personally I have no time for nationalism but I appreciate that people are entitled to their own opinions. When people use their voice from a stage to insight a crowd in a way that becomes threatening to a minority it is far more worrying. I’m sure that the anti-English sentiments were already present and I know from conversations during the following day that these views were not held by all but in view of the strength of hostile feelings expressed I made a decision to keep my mouth closed and conversations to a minimum from that point onward. I’m sure that there were other English in the crowd but apart from a few security staff I heard no English accents over the following 2 days. As he obviously feels so strongly, I assume that the guitarist will be keen to express his nationalist opinions when James play arena dates in Manchester, Leeds and London later this year; or maybe not. . .
Feeling more than a little angry, I retired to my tent for what proved to be one of the coldest nights I’ve spent at a festival for a long time.
Friday dawned bright and sunny and remained so for the rest of the day. I must pay a real compliment to the facilities as on both Friday and Saturday mornings I managed a really refreshing, free, warm shower in a clean environment without any queuing. At the risk of causing offence I still can’t understand why hardly anyone was using them, especially when on the opposite side of the site others were paying in advance for the right to showers. Was this Electric Field’s best kept secret?
Musically, Friday afternoon on the main stage offered some real highlights. Opening act “Life” were new to me. Their noisy guitar sounds and charismatic frontman who prowled the stage with a mixture of energetic aggression and at times strangely Jarvis Cockeresque poses, really did bring the day to life! A couple of hours later Ibibo Sound Machine brought a very different kind of energy; visually colourful, their western take on traditional Nigerian rhythms proved irresistible to feet that wanted move to the beat. It was a real pity that significant numbers chose to drift away at the start; the sounds being a little too far from the comfort zone of those who had come to see the 1990’s guitar bands higher up the bill. Also worthy of mention were Shame, another young post punk guitar band with a charismatic frontman. They were at pains to stress that they don’t take themselves seriously but they have some good songs, notably the impressive, One Rizla.
During the afternoon crowds drifted in. There were small groups of twenty something and forty something men seemingly intent on drinking themselves to oblivion and congregating stage front (I guess they’d come for Mr Gallagher, there was no sign of this element the following day) but in the main this was proving to be a family event. There were lots of couples, many with small children, sitting on rugs drinking an occasional beer in the warm sunshine. Colourful balls and inflatables were doing great trade in one of the stalls as children ran around enjoying themselves. Giants roamed the land between bands. Robbie Burns and his dog wandering the arena, with the hound chasing small children, drinking their parent’s beer and then peeing water over them. It was certainly novel, and provided great entertainment.
Evening brought more conservative sounds. First up are The Coral. Initially quite lumpen, the set steadily improved as they played more their breezy, catchy hits like, “In the morning,” interwoven with the psychedelic guitar sounds that I recall from their early live performances. The appeal of penultimate act Teenage Fanclub has always been lost on me and I’m afraid that Friday’s performance did little to change that opinion. They were however well received and it’s easy to see how their sound appealed to those coming to see headliner Noel Gallagher.
This is the 5th time I’ve watched and reviewed Mr Gallagher in recent years and I’m becoming guilty of writing very similar reviews. So was Friday night any different?
What we got was the usual well oiled, professional performance from Noel and his High Flying Birds. As usual it was 5 or 6 songs into the set before he played any Oasis material. There was the usual, repartee mixing wit and sarcasm; introducing the first Oasis songs he addressed a teenager in the audience with, “Is that your grandad you’re with? Is that your mad uncle? They’re going to get excited in a soon, this is what they’ve been waiting for.” What did come as a pleasing surprise was the audience reaction. I’ve stood in too many fields where crowds have listened either in polite silence or chattering, barely applauding his solo material, only to erupt when an Oasis song was played. It was refreshing to stand in a crowd where significant numbers were familiar with songs from his most recent album, often signing along. Without doubt it was the old material that got the greatest response but it must have been pleasing for him (if he heard it) to get more acknowledgement for current endeavours. Around 20 minutes before the end, just as the band began building toward the inevitable Oasis / Beatles finale it was time to leave. I needed to be in place to photograph Young Fathers headlining the Valley Stage.
The Edinburgh trio began in blistering form and 3 numbers in, photos taken I was looking forward to watching the rest of the set with a beer; but it was not to be. The tent was so rammed that photographers were escorted backstage instead of out into the audience. By the time I got back it was impossible to see anything; the low stage being only about 40 cm above the audience. Deciding to get a beer I headed toward one of the bars only to discover that draught beer had sold out by around 10pm. It was a disappointingly early end to the night!
The Valley stage, only open on Friday and Saturday had different curators for each day. Day one was presented by BBC Scotland and produced some standout performances. Dream Wife’s punk pop gave us spiky tunes, melody and three front women with real presence. Avalanche Party may have lacked subtlety but their raw garage rock possesses real power live with their lead vocalist spending more time off stage than on it. They’re a force of nature and probably the most exiting young band I’ve seen live for a long time. Sunflower Bean mixed jangling west coast guitar lines and melodies with harder elements and New York attitude. Vocalist Julia Cumming has an assured presence and live I was impressed by how much more edge they showed than on their recorded output. And then there was Baxter Dury; possessing a disconcerting resemblance to his late father both in mannerisms and turn of phrase, he’s a mesmerising entertainer. Part way through the set, after messing up the start to one track he jokingly commented, “It doesn’t matter, it’s all about me anyway.” He may have been partly right but the songs are pretty good too.
Day 2 was curated by DIY magazine and the afternoon could not have offered a greater contrast to the previous day. A succession of uninspiring bands played in dire lighting conditions which felt as though they were indeed the product of DIY! The first band to show any spark or charisma through the murky lighting conditions were Black Honey and by this time it after 7pm.
Saturday’s main stage in contrast proved to be an exercise in excellent eclectic programming. Glaswegian’s The Vegan Leather give us angular beats, catchy choruses, politics and non-rock star looks. Thoroughly enjoyable; I just kept thinking Talking Heads. Edinburgh local Stanley Odd was up next. Now I don’t really like rap but this was a political rapper with subtlety, intelligence a great grasp of language and tunes. Backed by an excellent live band and a great command of the stage his lyrics encouraged thoughtful analysis and contemplation of myriad issues currently plaguing society.
So where did we go from there? Hollie Cook brought us the sounds of Jamaica via West London. This may have been lightweight reggae but it brought smiles and dancing on a day where the Scottish weather turned from Friday’s sun to murky half-light and drizzle. Ms Cook is all about bringing happiness and smiles through infectious music. She certainly hasn’t inherited the punk angst of her more famous father.
From summery Reggae to goth influenced rock in 30 minutes; it’s The Horrors on next. I had never seen them play in daylight before and wasn’t sure how they’d come across without the usual minimal but very effective lighting. I needn’t have worried, they delivered a great set although to be honest the weather had become so gloomy that it was almost dark anyway and only five o’clock.
I was very tempted to give Idlewild a miss but glad that I didn’t. In their prime they were a great live band but two years ago I’d witnessed a truly lacklustre performance by a band that showed no enthusiasm or energy and gave every impression of being in things just for the money. On Saturday they were back somewhere near to their inspired best; I’m sure playing to an enthusiastic Scottish audience must have helped.
Reminiscing again, my thoughts drifted back to a tiny stage in a walled garden at The Green Man Festival where several years ago I witnessed two men aided by tapes of wartime voices and a homemade screen really impress with their songs and quirky approach. Public Service Broadcasting have come a long way since then and seem to gain more members every time I see them. Saturday saw the introduction of a live vocalist for the first time in my experience and as they play bigger and bigger stages the archival film backdrops and lightshow continue to expand. I really enjoyed their set although have to admit that I don’t find the material on most recent album, Every Valley to be as strong as their earlier work.
Finally we had Leftfield, delivering a great closing set centred round their iconic Leftism album. Neil Barnes may stand quietly smiling, unassumingly and playing keyboards at the back while a succession of vocalists bring the performance to life but this is his creation. Lightshow, beats and vocals merge seamlessly and the audience loved it. Those crammed at the front cheer, shout and punch the air. Further back where there is more space there is much dancing. Among so much good music it’s probably the performance of the weekend and a great finale to the festival.
The organisers of Electric Fields deserve real credit. They put on a well organised, family friendly festival with plethora of good music. Such a pity that one man’s indiscretions exposed anti English feelings and nationalism among significant numbers in the audience.
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Electric Fields 2018 review