There's a very slight hint of ramshackle in the air when we arrive at Leicester's Handmade festival on the Friday afternoon. "It's a little bit like somebody woke up this morning and thought let's put on a festival", nervously whispers a friend to me. She has a point. The staff issuing tickets on the door seem ill-prepared for what's about to descend and there's already a queue at the bar despite there only being a handful of people here. It's not a big site but we have trouble finding our way around such is the lack of immediate, obvious directions when entering this University. But, as the day develops and the weekend grows, those early fears prove unfounded. If nu-rock is your thing and you don't like traipsing around a damp festival field in early May then Handmade might be right up your street.
Now in its third year, it's been an interesting genesis for this small, well-formed festival. Originally conceived as a multi-venue festival traversing across bars and spaces in Leicester's old city, this is its first year moving up to the O2 academy space at Leicester University. Some punters that I chat with have a moan about this development. "It's lost something that it had when we could just walk around town aimlessly", says one. But another counters that this is a move borne out of financial and logistic constraints. "You'd never get up and coming bands like Slaves and Eagulls playing unless you've got a venue of this size. And the city centre can't accommodate."
I've been to a few gigs at Leicester's O2 academy recently and have been somewhat perturbed by the choice and price of beer on offer. You just about tolerate Tuborg with little change from a fiver at those gigs but, at a festival, it's a different proposition. Happily, the organisers have had some foresight here and, downstairs in the Scholar bar, we get some barrels of ale and boxes of cider supplied by local brewers, Everards. The Handmade Festivale tastes suspiciously like Everard's Sunchaser but, in addition to that, there's a choice between pints of Tiger and the Richard the Third themed beer. At £3.50 a pint, the popularity of this mini pop-up bar is of no surprise.
Food provision might have also been an issue. We're some way from the takeaway restaurants of the town centre. But, outside of the Scholar bar, on a paved courtyard that also doubles as a place where the smokers congregate, there are a couple of stalls. Mirch Masala are a local Indian snack-based restaurant and their paneer based noodle offerings provide strong spice for the weekend. If curries aren't your bag, another BBQ based stall provides burgers and foot long hot dogs. Functional provision without being spectacular. I expect the fear was that many people would have eaten before they arrived on site.
Handmade is unlike other festivals we'll go to later this year that rock n'roll from dawn to dusk and back to dawn. This is a pretty controlled and contained operation. Some people find it inconvenient to get out of work on the Friday in time to see festival openers, Hooton Tennis Club, play in the main Handmade stage (in the second room of the O2 academy) yet others report that the half four start time on the Saturday and Sunday has left them twiddling their thumbs for too long in the day. Certainly, by not opening the doors until late afternoon, it becomes more difficult to establish if this is actually a festival or a set of long gigs held over three nights. I don't suppose the distinction matters much.
Much of the action alternates between the main stage (the second academy venue) and the Scholars bar. Sensibly programmed, for much of the time it's possible to flit between these stages and catch one band starting just after another band has finished. Doing this equates to a pretty frantic, non- stop experience, one that tired me out on the Friday night. Elsewhere, there's the Cave stage, a dance studio by day within this maze of corridors that's been recycled into a stage for the weekend. Follow the corridor past the one block of toilets and you find The Alumni room, a box-room that might host small seminars by day but this weekend entertains acoustic-based acts. Opposite here is a small cinema if you want a complete break from music.
Although the decent, free programme declares that Handmade isn't just a music festival and they take art provision seriously, it's the music that seems to takes primary focus for most punters. On the main stage, the aforementioned Hooton Tennis Club kick off proceedings with a bang and prove why their brand of scouse garage pop-rock turned heads at Heavenly records; Los Angeles based, Francisco The Man, announce that this is their first ever gig in the UK. In frontman, Scotty Cantino, they've got somebody with a unique, captivating voice. I suspect that those of us here might have a story to boast about in years to come if their star takes off as early signs indicate; Max Raptor are a rock band from Burton On Trent. Many of the bands on display this weekend seem to need pretension, gimmick and image to attract us to their charms but Max Raptor take a stand against such stuff. Dressed in black T-shirts, they engage brilliantly through energy, audience interaction and traditional rock pose. Clubs represent Leicester well and show that their guitar laden dream-rock can fill bigger halls just as well as it does within the pubs and clubs of this fair city.
Friends rave about the Saturday night headline performance of Bo Ningen, but, unfortunately, my tummy wasn't quite right and I'd had to make a swift exit during Toy's darkly psychedelic set. This same bug wiped me out for the final day of the festival meaning that I missed some cracking main stage entertainment (on paper at least). From Allusondrugs through to Future Of The Left and Slaves, this was the evening that I was most looking forward to.
In my eyes, other mainstage offerings fail (a bit) to live up to hype. If you're a fan of Killing Joke then I have no doubt that Eagulls will be the sort of band you'll salivate over but I found their set a little bit inaccessible and wondered if their rise from packed out bars to headlining large rooms has been a little too rapid. Ditto with Friday nights sub-headliner, Honeyblood. On record, I really enjoy this Scottish two-piece and it's clear that Stina and Cat have much talent but, on this night, they don't really hit the heights. This is no reflection on the excellent sound and lighting ethic that seems to be a feature of this festival.
I've been warned about the on-stage antics of Baby Godzilla before. They make themselves popular with fans and unpopular with security staff by their full-on attempts to break the fourth wall. From the off, they jump into the crowd and make use of the fixtures and fittings within the Scholar bar to climb and jump on. A photographers’ joy, they shock bar staff by posing from on top of the bar. They holler from table tops and even disturb smokers outside on the terrace. Amidst a hardcore, Black Flag like sound, it's impossible to not be drawn into the theatre they create and tough not to acknowledge that, although you might not buy any of their records, this is one of the shows of Handmade.
With everybody slightly shellshocked, it's a hard act for Aussie based Bad//Dreems to follow but they do so with skill. With a slightly discordant edge to their brand of stoner rock, they take us back to calm after the exuberance before. I'll check out Bad//Dreems again just as I will Childhood, Friday nights headliner, down here in the Scholar bar. On Saturday, over in the cave,Ex Comets draw an impressive crowd to their inventive sound. Like a noise-rock Grandaddy, I spend much of their enjoyable set trying to name all of the Leicester based bands that I've seen various members of this supergroup in before. I fail badly.
On each night, the headline acts finish by eleven. In a field, this might seem a bit early but, once it all closes at the University, there are bars in town that we can head towards. And, on the Friday and Sunday nights, a £10 deposit means you can get a pair of headphones upstairs at the brilliant late night drinking haunt, Firebug, and treat yourself to Silent Disco fun. Photographer Phil and I indulge on the Friday evening. I suspect my Freddie Mercury like moves to Queen anthems are still giving Phil nightmares, especially as he was on a different channel and must have thought any last squeeze of style or rhythm that I might have claimed had totally disappeared.
Just down from the University, in the Richard Attenborough centre, there's a Sunday night of new and innovative performance artist work under the Tetrad collective. It's a line up that looks intriguing (how could you refuse a show called 'The Love Story Of Terrance the Crocodile and Julia The Mannequin'?) and if it wasn't for my dicky tummy I'd have looked to take in some of this as an alternative to the music.
Overall, Handmade charms and impresses and is certainly a festival to keep an eye on in future years. It has a good team of people behind it and the scope and potential (assuming it stays at the O2 academy) to develop into a must do early fixture of the festival season.
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