So what makes a good festival?
Certain factors are beyond dispute: Enjoyable music with great performances, good organisation and atmosphere are a given. Good weather inevitably also helps. Some might cite the quality, variety and price of food and drink while others enjoy chilling in wellbeing areas or attending workshops. There are those who prefer sampling craft beers or sitting, listening intently to the quality of musicianship. For those seeking a more esoteric pastoral or laid back experience TRNSMT is probably not the place to be. If you’re someone interested in current mainstream music who wants to sing, dance, bounce, party (and probably drink) amid a community of like-minded people then TRNSMT is probably your environment. It’s a bold statement, but sun kissed, sold out TRNSMT 2019 brought together artists and fans in a way that allowed performers to reach greater heights by feeding off the energy from an incredible crowd. As an example of a festival knowing its audience and giving them what they want, it delivered in outstanding fashion.
I have a routine for TRNSMT, staying just outside Glasgow and making a short train journey into the festival. It’s convenient and the journey in also seems to act as a barometer for what to expect in terms of a crowd. This year my Friday lunchtime journey proved quite an experience. The station platform at Hamilton was full of teenagers, mostly aged 13 -16 and predominantly female. We joined an already rammed train which filled beyond bursting point as we took on similar clientele at each station. There were a few who had clearly already over indulged in alcohol but most were just in really high spirits. For a significant number I sensed that this was their first big gig and they were excited. It was really pleasing to see that sense of anticipation on so many young faces as we made for the festival entrance amid a cacophony of chatter and singing.
First act of the afternoon for me was Mabel and as I reached front of stage to begin photographing I was taken aback by the size of the crowd. What’s more the buzz that I’d witnessed among hundreds on the train was now magnified into thousands. Now being old, I’m no expert on current UK pop. I’d heard a couple Mabel’s songs but I’d clearly underestimated her popularity. It was just after 1 o’clock but there were thousands in the audience and most seemed to be singing along to almost every song in her short set. The diminutive singer and her well - choreographed dancers put on an impressively slick performance. She clearly has talent in abundance; no doubt she’s inherited some of her mother’s genes and the musical tradition passed down by her grandfather.
The rest of the afternoon was a teenager’s heaven. Amine’s recorded hip hop has some interesting instrumentation and lyrics that at times display at lightness of touch and humour mixed with political awareness and animosity toward his president. It’s a pity that some of the more subtle aspects weren’t evident in his performance but in fact he’d judged his audience well. Fuelled by real onstage energy, the crowd were quickly onside, spurred on by calls for his “energy crew” to, “bounce” or “jump” the young audience needed little encouragement to do just that. AJ Tracey is up next; the West London grime artist is developing a reputation for a more outward looking and accessible take on grime. He tries to slow things down after a couple of numbers to pay tribute to a recently deceased friend but disappointingly, the audience aren’t listening. They’re here to party so there’s soon a return to music to bounce to. He gets a great reception. Personally I would have liked to hear more of the slower subtle stuff but I’m undoubtedly in a very small minority.
Mixing tracks from their debut Communion and Palo Santo, Years & Years treated us to the first great performance of the weekend. Their catchy synth pop, great musicianship and songs that are both upbeat but at times have a laid back feel are impossible not to smile and move to. In Olly Alexander they have the consummate frontman: great voice and undeniable charisma. Add to this confetti cannon, late afternoon sunshine, and a crowd that just want to party and you have festival perfection. This is a band at home on a big stage who look set to get even bigger.
Gerry Cinnamon could probably walk onto a Glasgow stage playing a tin whistle and get a great reception, such is his popularity. He drew an enormous crowd who sang and waved their arms to every song in his hour long performance. It’s simplistic singalong music but perfect for bringing an audience together. It couldn’t have been anything but a triumph and of course it was.
The announcement of Stormzy as Friday headliner may have surprised and dismayed some. I would guess that these are people who haven’t seen him live. He’s a special performer and on Friday night he didn’t disappoint. After an incendiary opening he wasn’t afraid to slow things down with the gospel tinged, “Blinded by your grace.” Following this with Lewis Capaldi’s, “Someone you loved” could be seen as inspired or a cynical ploy. Whatever the motivation the impact was enormous, with what seemed like the whole crowd singing much of the song with him. “Shape of you” was inevitably covered before “Vossi Bop” and “Big for your boots” brought the crowd to fever pitch. The set may not have included the special guests, ballet dancers and bicycles that made his Glastonbury performance so memorable but this was a set that focused on the strengths and charisma of the man himself. It was a great performance to bring the day to a close.
If Friday had been a day for teenagers, hip hop and pop; Saturday was mostly about guitar based indie and pop. It brought a more mixed audience; still a predominantly youthful crowd but with fewer young teenage girls and more mature men in evidence, no doubt enticed by older generation acts like Richard Ashcroft. What didn’t change was a desire to embrace the music and party.
Once again crowds flocked to the main stage. This time more appreciative than ecstatic as opening act Sam Fender brought us Tyneside’s take on Bruce Springsteen. I couldn’t help be impressed by how many of the audience knew and sang along to the material. I was keen to sample Arkells on the King Tuts stage and wasn’t disappointed. More used to filling arenas in their native Canada they were greeted by no more than a couple of hundred people. It was great to see their enthusiasm undiminished and soon apparent that this was a band with musical talent, impressive songs and a real stage presence. Meanwhile, back on the main stage The Snuts were in full flow. The crowd had swelled and was in good voice, young men and women were held aloft on shoulders and the air was thick with the aroma of flares. It was a triumphant performance but without wanting to be too critical, one that I suspect owed more to being on home soil than their abilities and material. The contrast in stagecraft and talent between The Snuts and Arkells was plain to see.
Saturday afternoon at King Tuts highlighted the variety encompassing current guitar based music. The Dunts offer guitar based songs with a degree of punkish urgency. In contrast, they’re followed by Londoner, Cavetown whose delicate acoustic based material clearly has a following in Glasgow. Gravel voiced Jade Bird follows; impressive as always but I still keep thinking that many of her songs sound like something bluesy from the past that I’ve heard before. The highlight of the afternoon was however Fontaines DC. They’re getting a lot of critical acclaim and it’s easy to see why. Their mix of raw guitar rock, with echoes of The Clash and Joy Division, and some almost spoken word poetic lyrics delivered in Irish brogue is both different and delivered with an air of menace. Crowds flocked in, giving them a brilliant reception. Such a pity though that quieter moments of spoken word were completely ignored, seen by many in the audience as an opportunity to break into TRNSMT’s anthem, “Here we go, here we f***ing go.”
Away from the hectic main stages, new venue Queen Tuts was like an oasis of calm. Devoted to promoting female Scottish talent, it had a much more laid back air with picnic tables dotted around. It’s a pity that I didn’t have more time to linger and take in more of the music than fleeting snippets as I walked past.
Sigrid has that special sparkle, an onstage charisma that elevates her performance way beyond her recorded output. From the moment that she walked onto the stage and opened with, “Sucker punch,” the crowd were in her hands. Playing a significant proportion of her album the set was testimony to her growing status and raised the benchmark for performers who followed.
I’ve always found Bastille an interesting band. Since their conception they’ve produced a succession of quality pop songs but more recently their palate has been widened by a number of high profile collaborations. There’s also been a growing tendency towards more “artiness” in their live shows; manifest at TRNSMT by stage props including a TV, step ladder and a rotating circular podium. My first thoughts were of pretentious overload but the ladder and podium proved a good vehicle for some impressive jumping by Dan Smith. More importantly, I got the sense of an already successful band taking the next step in an upward trajectory. They have enough good songs and on stage charisma in Dan Smith not to bet against it.
Catfish and the Bottlemen can never be accused of artiness. They play straightforward tunes with choruses to sing, lots of guitar and Van McCann cavorting around the stage with seemingly boundless energy. The description’s not meant to be derogatory; it’s what they do and they do it very well. They’re still playing to a backdrop of the frenzied crowd in front of them which works so well but with the release of new material it’s good to see them play a more balanced set not so reliant on their first album. As always, the band delivered a high energy performance which saw a reciprocal outpouring of emotion from the audience; worthy Saturday night headliners.
Just prior to Catfish we had The Hunna headlining King Tuts stage. Similar to the former in their no nonsense approach to delivering guitar driven music, but with a little more emphasis on rock, they played an impressive set that drew a great audience response. Putting them on immediately prior to Catfish made perfect sense in terms of musical flow. The only problem was that they’re too big a band for that stage. The arena was more than overflowing and it proved a real battle to get out when trying to leave before the end of the set.
Sunday’s Main Stage line-up had a more mellow look so it was surprising to find The Amazons opening proceedings. I thoroughly enjoyed them but they played to a smaller crowd than other opening acts and I sensed that their more rocky riff laden sounds were a little out of place. Up next was Tom Grennan; great voice and songs that are perfect for singing along to; the growing crowd duly obliged. It’s pleasing to see someone with talent develop and gradually play to bigger and bigger audiences but I’ve now watched him play a similar set 7 times in the past 13 months. Mr Grennan, please go away for a while and come back with some new material.
For anyone with more eclectic tastes, The King Tuts Stage was the place to be on Sunday afternoon. Edinburgh’s, Retro Video Cub were a real find; great energy with guitar based tunes and choruses and an approach similar to Catfish. An hour later, Catherine McGrath brought country music to Glasgow via Ireland. There was something about her voice and the songs that was really engaging and I would have liked to have stayed longer. In complete contrast, SWMRS delivered an hour of high energy Californian punk pop. There was nothing remotely original here but they were great fun with a sound influenced by drummer Joey Armstrong’s father’s band; whether vocalist Cole Becker’s green hair was a nod in this direction too, I’ve no idea.
Emile Sande, a late replacement for Jess Glynne, delivered the most emotional main stage performance of the weekend mixing gospel tinged soul and pop. Having seemingly dropped off the musical radar for several years, I’d forgotten how powerful her voice is. She was clearly thrilled to back playing a big stage in the country where she grew up and unsurprisingly received a warm welcome.
Due to family commitments I had to depart before George Ezra. “Man of the moment,” Lewis Capaldi was the final act of the weekend for me but for many in the Scottish crowd I’m sure he was the real headliner on Sunday. Adding fuel to his ongoing feud with Noel Gallagher he made an inspired entrance, arriving on stage to confetti cannons, wearing a Chewbacca mask. (It’s really pleasing to note that the signed mask has since raised over £5000 for charity through an online auction.) Like fellow Scot Gerry Cinnamon he drew a huge crowd who loved every minute of his performance and really deserve a nomination as the UK’s best festival choir. It’s ironic but watching the self-proclaimed, “podgy guy singing sad songs” was actually very uplifting and a fitting way to end a great weekend.
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