GATHERING FESTIVAL, 20TH OCTOBER 2012, OXFORD
After the damp squib of last year's Ley Lines, how would a second stab at an autumnal multi-venue festival along Cowley Road fare? With my gold glittery wristband in place (a perk of writing up the whole thing for Nightshift) and more than nine hours of live music in store, let's get cracking - starting in the East Oxford Community Centre.
The Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr T-shirts are hardly necessary - it's clear from the outset where POLEDO's particular affections lie. Their set is a frenzied, resolutely finesse-free thrash through the heavier end of 80s alt-rock, each hook like being pawed around the head by an angry bear. Make no mistake, though, there are tunes buried in them there songs, scrapping to get out - perhaps they could be allowed more of a victory (though on points rather than an outright knock-out).
It seems J Mascis is a sartorial icon as well as a musical god in OX4, judging by the frontman of BETA BLOCKER AND THE BODY CLOCK (Bullingdon). The band - now apparently a trio - specialise in a brand of nicely blurred-around-the-edges Hipstamatic slacker-indie that calls to mind Atlas Sound. Denied a final song by the stage manager, they end meekly - but on this performance they're an understated (if slightly solipsistic) gem who don't get the crowd appreciation they deserve.
While Beta Blocker And The Body Clock are quite content to meander to nowhere (and no one) in particular, SEASFIRE's slick combination of strident electronically inflected rock and magnified vocals suggests sights set firmly on globe-straddling superstardom. I don't suppose you can fault them for daring to think big, but in the context of a Saturday afternoon in the East Oxford Community Centre it inevitably feels rather pompous and self-important.
EMPTY WHITE CIRCLES (Bullingdon) are equally accomplished but without any of the poseurish attitude. The Anglo-American collective, last-minute replacements for gothy popsters Binary, are far more conventional (and far less studiously or self-consciously cool) than most of the other artists on the bill - you can imagine parents enjoying rollicking folk-rock/alt-country hoedowns like 'Change In Me' - but certainly none the worse for it. Another band to add to the lengthy list of loveable locals, then.
"Fuck this, it's too quiet", exclaims one festival-goer to his mate, promptly pirouetting on the spot and returning from whence he came. I'm not sure what he expected of an acoustic singer-songwriter performing in Cowley Road Methodist Church. KARIMA FRANCIS cuts a striking figure, coming across like Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' eccentric biopic I'm Not There. The Jools Holland-approved native of Blackpool may not be breaking any new ground, but her songs are strong, her voice is true and the respectful silence and rapt attention of her audience is entirely justified.
Also down from the North West for the day is DAN CROLL (East Oxford Community Centre), against whom fate seems to be conspiring. A van booking cancelled at 3.30 am left him and his band to travel down down from Liverpool by a combination of cramped car and train, and amidst the stress he forgot all the vinyl merchandise - "but, y'know, we're happy to be here". However, with the likes of playful, infectious Metronomy-does-Grizzly Bear single 'From Nowhere' in his locker, everything should turn out just fine in the long term.
Back to the Bullingdon, and CUT RIBBONS' leaden-footed by-numbers rock is more than a bit dull, not helped by the female vocals being lost in the mix. Would it be mischievous to suggest that with Swn, Cardiff's equivalent of Gathering, also taking place this weekend, the Llanelli quintet represent the dregs of the south Wales music scene?
Far more excitement is to be found down at the Port Mahon, where an unbelievably fresh-faced duo called YRRS are kicking out a superb fuzz-punk racket in the vein of No Age and Wavves - simple but darned effective. "This song's called 'Teenager'". Of course it is. I position myself right next to the speaker to reap maximum benefit. The last track - by their own admission "unfinished" and "likely to go tits up" - is a bit of a misstep, slower when what we really want is to be battered and bruised some more, but overall it's more than enough to restore one's faith in the future of humanity.
A charismatic Northern fivepiece fronted by a chap called Liam and playing in the back room of a pub? I wonder if Alan McGee is lurking, drool pouring out of his lips and blank cheque in hand. Probably not. Like Cut Ribbons before them, HEY SHOLAY (Bullingdon) suffer from a poor sound mix, meaning that wannabe anthems such as 'Burning' fail to truly ignite.
There's a fair queue to get into the Academy, but it moves fast and the short wait proves to be worth it. Like Metronomy's Joseph Mount, luxuriantly bearded Guy Connelly was originally a bedroom producer and remixer with a love of lithe basslines who put together a band to perform his 'chop pop' compositions. CLOCK OPERA have come a long way since the loosely Animal Collectivesque stylings of 2009 debut single 'White Noise', inching ever closer to the mainstream via releases on uber-hip labels Kitsune and Moshi Moshi while never quite losing sight of those leftfield roots. Tonight's stand-out track 'Belongings' is typical, a ballad that builds to a headrush climax which satisfies both heart and head.
Much more low-key is the Truck Store's headline act, LUKE SITAL-SINGH, who on record sounds like a British answer to Bon Iver but who tonight performs a spellbinding stripped-back set crafted out of nothing more than intricate electric guitar and fragile croon. 'Fail For You' is sufficiently swoonsome for one weak-at-the-knees girl to have to be assisted outside for fresh air. Or maybe that should be attributed to too much white cider.
Upstairs in the Academy, local rabble-rousers THE BLACK HATS waste no time introducing the crowd to new album Austerity For The Hoi Polloi (how George Osborne refers to the Budget, you'd assume) in the same way that a loan shark might introduce a baseball bat to a debtor's kneecaps. It's no-nonsense, brusque new wave-tinged pop punk, terrace chantalongs composed by a lagered-up and lairy Futureheads. Kudos to bassist Ian Budd for soldiering on with a broken shoulder.
It's equipment that's broken at the Port Mahon, PAWS' instruments the casualties of a war raged on them repeatedly by three Glaswegian punks with a need for speed. They're trying to play one particularly breakneck song quicker every night of the current tour, and tonight only miss out on improving their time by just over a second. This fast and furious blitzkrieg is an unmitigated delight for those of us dismayed by the airbrushed sheen of Male Bonding's second album and indeed for everyone present, from the sensibly dressed fifty-something bloke grinning from ear to ear (a proud dad, most definitely) to the girl helping out by holding the bass drum in place with her foot.
Inspired by their manic energy, I hotfoot it back to Cowley Road to catch the tail end of local propects WILD SWIM (Academy Upstairs). Their self-assured new single 'Echo' foreshadows (and "foreshadows" is definitely the right word for a band in love with the crepuscular) potential future greatness, if only they can throw off the shackling influence of Wild Beasts. That moniker doesn't exactly help.
Like Clock Opera, their predecessors on the main Academy stage, DRY THE RIVER have been following the signs marked "Big Time" for three years now. With debut album Shallow Bed behind them, they seem to have arrived at their destination. No longer folky troubadours with a penchant for the pastoral, they now carry the clout and bluster of a fully fledged rock band - all tossed locks, horn sections and echoes of My Morning Jacket - and are rapturously received by a capacity crowd.
The same can't be said of FOXES (not to be confused with Foxes!, formerly of this parish). Normally reliable label Neon Gold presumably see Louisa Rose Allen and the two prettyboys flanking her on synths and percussion as ice-cool experimental electro a la Zola Jesus or Bat For Lashes, when in actual fact they're pathetically contrived and choreographed warble pop. The band and label will probably put the experience down to audiences in the "provinces" being unsophisticated and uncultured, but I say well done us on sending them back to London with a bloody nose.
THE STAVES represent a welcome respite from the sound and the fury elsewhere, their folky stylings and soft harmonies a balm amidst the storm and evoking thoughts of an all-female Fleet Foxes. "You're nice and quiet, and clap in the right places", we're commended, before being told of their recently filmed video shot on the set of an old western movie out in the desert in Spain. Apparently there are actors' lovechildren everywhere, but we have to promise to "keep that between us". Don't worry, I'm sure your secret is safe with me and everyone packing out the hall and lobby of the East Oxford Community Centre.
Back to the late-running Bullingdon for SPLASHH, who have little to offer other than - appropriately enough - watery grunge lite. Did someone say Yuck? This is more like very mild disgust. Set-closer 'Need It' (what, a spellchecker?) has a touch more about it, but the overall impression is of a band who, in the live environment, find themselves embarrassingly denuded of the fig leaf of studio trickery. Much hyped, instantly forgettable.
Unlike THE OTHER TRIBE (Bullingdon). When you're dressed like you've been imprisoned in Adam Ant's dressing room for a fortnight, you've really got to stand and deliver - and they do. This particular tribe has five members verging on fifty, judging by the number of people daubed with facepaint. Someone's wearing a headdress and they're not even in the band. Much like the girl in the video for euphoric single 'Skirts', we're all undergoing some kind of initiation ceremony. Sod nu-rave, this is rave of the old school (or should that be "skool"?) - a techno dance party that almost makes you want to neck a few pills, grab a glowstick, wave your hands in the air and cavort in a wood until Monday morning. Almost, but not quite. It's all completely ridiculous, of course, and I'm both too sober and too unprepared to divest myself of any remaining dignity - but I'm clearly in the minority.
So, how do LIARS follow that? Well, the answer is that they don't. Literally. It's nearly 2am by the time the Brooklyn veterans take to the Bullingdon stage, play one song, twice attempt another and then abandon the set citing technical difficulties. I hang around in the forlorn hope that it might not be all over, but finally give up and trudge off for a kebab-scented sauna with the cast of Skins (aka a nightbus home).
A desperately disappointing conclusion, then, but not one that should be allowed to tarnish the memory of a varied and enjoyable day's entertainment. Here's to next year.