As Field Day draws the country’s scenesters to the capital like moths to the proverbial flame, England’s ‘other’ musical cities (Bristol, Nottingham, and Manchester) are left blissfully alone to swap cutting-edge acts in an incestuous three day love-in.
What starts in an excitable mugginess in Bristol soon breaks into a downpour of biblical proportions. Punters find themselves swept along on a tide of rainwater and cider, paddling down Bristol’s sidestreets between venues: holey daps, sea-shanties, and high-spirits pitted courageously against the elements.
In such conditions, it’s no wonder that iconic boat venue and festival epicentre, the Thekla, becomes the logical place to be, doubling as a Noah’s arc. Across its two stages, it hosts a diverse programme of emerging talent that would have no trouble repopulating the post-flood world with the full gamut of genres. There’s everything from the angsty post-rock of Deaf Club to the fragmentary beat-poet blues of Willis Earl Beal via the sprightly vaudeville folk of Pearl and the Beard.
The Thekla’s mighty hull also welcomes Odd Future’s warped nu-soul outfit, The Internet. Fronted by Syd tha Kyd and her impressive falsetto, their computer soul is fleshed out to something resembling Erykah Badu. Unusually for an Odd Future act, it’s fairly predictable with each slow jam rising and falling within the classic soul canon (think a young MJ performing Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder) and there is little to grab the attention.
A far less slick but arguably more exciting prospect is Montreal’s Doldrums. Just like their battered and bruised equipment, all snapped cymbals and duct tape, the trio are rough and ready. Rather than building a beat and then dropping it, it is actually the process of them finding (through trial and error) the beat at the same time that provides the musical suspense. As frustrating as this is at times, the combination of Madchester swagger, psych overtones and sample-heavy DIY electronica shows some serious potential. Tonight, their set lacks fluidity but delivers heaps of lo-fi charm and youthful recklessness, a soiled euphoria.
Elsewhere, other acts also fall a little short. Californian scuzz-poppers the Wavves lose their carefully-engineered distortion to the O2 Academy’s cavernous space. Their reverb-heavy garage degenerates into fairly generic thrash-pop-punk, not dissimilar to early Greenday. It is, however, suitably scrappy with enough tempo for a healthy mosh-pit to form.
Headliners The Drums also fail to overcome the limitations of the O2’s fairly anaemic sound, appearing foppish and a little contrived. Despite playing the hits, they seem to lack the necessary conviction to elevate their songs above casual pastiche. None of this matters to the crowd who are in fine form, lapping up frontman Jonathan Pierce’s Morriseyisms and singing along contentedly. Ultimately, The Drums do little to suggest that they are anywhere near as good as the bands they rip off.
There are two acts, however, that truly deliver. Both Beth Jeans Houghton & the Hooves of Destiny, and Islet, are superb.
Taking to a sweaty Fleece stage, Beth Jeans Houghton & the Hooves of Destiny open with Atlas. With a killer guitar hook and a rousing folk swell, it is deliciously busy with ideas yet still manages to retain the impact of the finest pop music. With Yours Truly; Cellophane Nose, Houghton has made an album of complex textures that is highly listenable, endlessly interesting, and in a live environment, distinctly danceable. The half hour set is a triumph, a colourful and carefully-woven tapestry threaded with eccentricity, flare and incredible tunes.
Just like their name suggests, Islet are a small island of unfettered originality in what, by midnight, is a West Country Atlantis. They hit Start The Bus with an uncompromising balls-to-the-wall bonkers blend of post-punk rhythms, Kraut-rave, and rampant exhibitionism.
It’s impossible to convey quite how barmy Islet are: the Welsh quartet are vessels, allowing ideas and influences to pour through them. At one point, guitarist and drummer, Alex Williams, shoots off into the audience to nuzzle in their armpits, to inhale their unease and worm around in the confusion he has helped create.
The sense of spontaneity and wild energy are infectious, contributing to the success of their unique post-modern collage. The fresh chaos of their sound is as tight and as funky as the mosquito’s tweeter: it is exhilarating, it is new music pushing boundaries, it is Dot To Dot at its very best.
Words: Tom Spooner