For me, Tramlines is best described as an urban adventure. The sprawling site means festival goers explore what feels like every inch of Sheffield within 72 hours. With 17 keys venues to visit, and an impressive amount of Fringe events to boot, there's never a dull moment at this inner city affair. Back for its seventh year, with a brand spanking new main stage, I was dying to discover why this Yorkshire festival appears to be ever popular as well as increasing in size.
After sadly missing Friday's acts, including a headline slot from indie old-timers The Charlatans, we began our Tramlines experience on Saturday at the unlikely venue of Sheffield Cathedral. Upon entry we found the majority of the audience sat on the floor, already enthralled by the female singer on stage. Hannah Lou Clark's set was wonderful; intimate yet intense, the music often quite raw, and definitely enhanced by the spiritual setting. This talented vocalist's songs reminded me of Laura Marling's darker material, and I was pleased to have seen such an interesting artist here.
Next we chose to navigate across the city to the main stage, located in Ponderosa Park. It's just a ten minute tram journey from the centre and the conductor advised there was a special £3 festival all-day ticket available, which seemed like a sensible option. Hopping off the tram at the other end however, this was where the organisation ended. Queues to access the main stage area went literally round the block, as an insanely slow entry system at the gate seemed cause all the traffic. Luckily we sneaked inside just in time for hip hop legends The Sugarhill Gang to hit the stage.
Energised by the strong Sheffield sunshine, the crowd went bonkers for the Gang from NYC and the festival felt like it was really in full swing. Absolute classics like ‘Apache', ‘Rappers Delight' and ‘White Lines' were appreciated by all, and the audience buzzed off the interaction with the artists. The Sugarhill Gang were the real deal; extroverted American icons, showing off their best poses on stage in the intervals between their raps and being recited back to by the crowd.
Following the frivolity of the main arena, we took the chance to check out the Folk Forest. Set within a brook and shaded woodland area on the outskirts of town, this venue displayed a distinctly more laid-back vibe. The band on stage, Diagrams, were great; a pacey, poppy, folk style six piece with an amazing trumpet player. I enjoyed the lovely harmonies in several songs, and their set reached an enthusiastic climax with closer ‘Tall Buildings'. The Folk Forest was also the perfect place to refuel with a tasty stone fired pizza and a couple of refreshing Thornbridge ales.
A 40 minute march through some Sheffield suburbs later and we were back to Ponderosa Park to see Martha Reeves and The Vandellas' set. Unfortunately her slot had been moved from 7:30pm to the earlier time of 7:15pm without our knowledge. This change, coupled with our lateness, meant we missed a good chunk of music which was disappointing. We later found out from another friendly festival goer that the most up to date stage times were listed online, but this wasn't much use when my phone battery was already out of juice.
Despite this, Reeves provided one of my favourite moments of the weekend. I loved the way she interacted with the crowd, quizzing them about their love life when she asked “Is it hot?” during a section of ‘Heatwave'. She just looked and sounded magnificent; fabulously flamboyant and such a star. Basement Jaxx were brilliant too. Opening with ‘Red Alert', they got the festival bouncing and ensured that a proper Sheffield shindig was had by all. The band's costumes were totally over the top, and the mayhem on stage was replicated by the shoulder-sitting, crowd-surfing audience.
Later we headed back into town to the famous Leadmill venue to sample what Fat White Family had to offer. These lads were seriously raw, raucous and authentically rock ‘n' roll. The bare chested singer screamed the sarcastic lyrics down the mic, whilst the rest of the band created a dirty, garage sound. The gig was packed out and an impressive mosh pit dominated the Leadmill dancefloor, proving that this London band's anarchic music is also much appreciated elsewhere. We stayed at the now sweaty venue for Sonic, the Leadmill's club night, and enjoyed a dance to the indie disco.
En route back to the hotel we stopped off at the Millennium Gallery, another of the city centre venues. This was the destination for the arty types with contemporary installations from Sheffield-based curators Prism to take in. I was mainly there though to pick up one of the custom screen prints, designed specifically for the festival. My Sugarhill Gang poster is the work of Felt Mistress, creator of “Creature Couture” characters, and I love that it's so unique being 1 of only 30 printed.
As the rain poured on Sunday morning we sought sanctuary at Fagans pub, a cosy place famous for their all day breakfasts. From there we could jump from one bar to the next, with several Fringe Event venues all within spitting distance of each other. The close proximity of these early afternoon acts was a welcome change to trekking around town on the Saturday, and we squeezed 3-4 bands into an hour or so. This is included Jackobins, whose showy singer's antics would be more suited to a stadium sized gig.
Later we caught most of The Ratells' set at Devonshire Green, the former location of the main stage. This local band formed a part of the Exposed In Session line up, and songs like ‘Faces' were popular with the modest, yet loyal crowd. I was interested to hear that the Bastille-esque band were “going to go away and come back as something new”, as they seemed to be popular with the punters already. It was then on to Sheffield City Hall to see Chris Cooper Band in the stunning ballroom setting. The group were good but a little confusing; for me, the singer's folky vocals didn't quite add up with the heavy, rocky guitar riffs.
I was really looking forward to Neneh Cherryy next at the main arena, as she's always been an intriguing character and often experimental in her music. Cherry bounded onto the stage with some big attitude and an even bigger grin, and the group played a couple of tracks from her new record, ‘Blank Project'. Her sassy and seductive vocals sounded great against the dubby basslines, and I appreciated the adventurous nature of her new material.
The need to be open minded to new experiences like this is essential at the festival. There's no way you can sort your schedule to see every single band you'd like to, as the various city and suburb venues mean it's impossible. Put it this way, you've got to be prepared to pound the Sheffield streets. To those with the right mentality, however, this is what makes Tramlines magic. The variety of locations to visit and as a result, the variety of artists on the lineup, rivals many festivals twice its size. The combination of big name headliners and an abundance of new bands to discover would be more than enough to bring me back to Tramlines next year.
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