When you’re old and you go to festivals, you begin to care about different things. You think about access to toilets and the time it takes to walk between stages. You notice the quality of the beer and the crowd bottlenecks. And you also care about personalities of performers, rather than how breathtakingly fast and loud everything gets played, and is it a decent and packed-enough audience to crowd surf?
Visions Festival, set in and around the trendy post-industrial warehouses and wastelands of South Hackney, has clearly thought all this through rather well. Venues are interesting and appropriately sized; they’re spread out, but no further apart than you’d get at rural equivalents (and there’s a Sainsbury’s Local on the way from one big stage to another – yay). Beer selections are imaginative, security are friendly and – best and surely most important of all – the music selection is varied and of a very high standard. Some of the acts suffer a bit from what we used to call, back in the mid-1800s, “Shoreditch cool”, but they usually make up for it by cranking out crunchy and full-bodied riffs and beats. Visions – at which I didn’t see an acoustic guitar all day – is not a festival graced by whimpering singer-songwriters, and thank the Lord for that.
Speaking of “Shoreditch cool”, the first act I see, at the pleasant wooden hovel of the London Fields Brewery, is Maria Somerville, and I’m happy to report that shoegazing is well and truly BACK. She presents some marvellously languid, but still somehow banging, noise-guitar and electronica, not a million miles from what a collab between My Bloody Valentine and I Break Horses might sound like. She also behaves as if she isn’t conscious of whether anyone’s watching or not, let alone if she should try performing to them. It’s like trying to get served at the Spitz restaurant in 2001, as those over the age of 35 might remember. Luckily, her indifferent style mixes seamlessly with the gloriously unconventional sound she makes, and I come away elated at the welcome absence of a vocal harmoniser or autotuner.
Black Country, New Road provide my introduction to the underground Hangar venue and, most importantly, the unofficial star of the show: the door at the back of the stage. When I say “back of the stage”, I mean literally: the middle of the back of the stage, and when you consider how dark the Hangar space is, and how bright it is on the other side of the door, you might begin to spot the problem. If the door opens once at the beginning of the set (for the band to come on) and again at the end (reasonably enough, for the band to leave), that would be one thing. Sadly, during the performance of Black Country, New Road (or BCNR to their mates) there are dreaded technical issues, so the damn thing keeps opening and shutting throughout as panicking techies race to fetch new mics, cables or whatever it is. I’m not sure whether I’m the only person in the room to find this hilarious. I’m pretty sure none of BCNR do. That said, it’s difficult to tell, such is the stern intensity with which the septet play their music. And their music, fortunately, is pretty startling. Poetry and bizarre time signatures mixed with post-punk guitar shapes, broken-up Gang Of Four basslines and the twin masterstrokes of saxophone and violin, ensuring that nothing you’re hearing you’ve heard before. Influence-wise, I’m picking up dEUS, The Fall, Tom Waits, I’m even getting a whiff of the more discordant end of Arcade Fire. Thrilling and compelling, BCNR sadly seemed – to my eyes at least – under the impression that the show itself was a technical disaster, and on stage it may have been. We in the crowd loved it, though. But Visions – get a backdrop or something next year so we can’t see that damned door!
After that, I power through a quickfire parade of different acts on various stages: the cool nordic soul-pop of Otta, the jazzy flaves of Steam Down, the energetic desert rock of Imarhan and the bonkers reference-fest that is Lazarus Kane. All accomplished, all tuneful and mostly providing groovy rhythms to bounce the afternoon along, but it’s interesting that the most memorable acts clearly give thought to stagecraft and how best to present their personalities. As such, Lazarus Kane sticks in the mind, creating a cheesy character for himself, his band members also picking roles, from the Dexy’s Midnight Runner chap, to the blonde pop kid, to the Miami Vice dude. Who knows what the songs were about, but they were so cheap and cheerful (in a good way) that they made Electric Six sound like Radiohead.
Running low on personality is something Anna Meredith will never be in danger of. Quite apart from her avalanche of ideas, beats and melodies that torrent from the ample Oval Space stage, Meredith herself also donates between-song banter that betrays a witty charisma, instantly filling the vast hall with unstoppable smiles and good vibes. But the music commands the most attention, as well it should; there are very few people for whom the word “unique” isn’t a lazy exaggeration, but Meredith’s blend of electronica, classical and indie really does prove that eclecticism, in the right hands, is an effervescent delight. It’s been some three years since I first heard her music but I haven’t seen her play before tonight: happy surprises include her band being stuffed with musicians who appear to care every bit as much about the music as she does, and also that they all sing. In uber-cool post-industrial Hackney it’s a treat to see people who quite obviously have no interest in the traditional hipster values of nonchalance and aloof reserve; by the end of Meredith’s set, all inhabitants of the Oval Space have well and truly forgotten any self-image they might have had, roaring out the guitar lines and nodding heads so vigorously to the pounding beats that I might have to go and see the osteopath on Monday.
After a brief debate, we next decide on the Sebright Arms and Wooze. Amusingly, the band’s inert mascots – two brightly dressed, life-sized papier-mâché millennial dolls slouched in a couple of chairs – are holding court on the stage as we enter the tiny basement venue, and as the band’s stage time comes and goes I worry that this is actually all we’re going to get. Thankfully after ten minutes the colourful trio amble on, and prove themselves surprisingly giving as performers, rocking out and bouncing up and down as they present their strangely infectious brand of bubblegum glam-pop. Twin vocals slide out from the direction of the drummer and the guitarist, as anthemic as MGMT and as ironic as LCD; at least, that’s what I suspect, as my usual talent of completely mishearing live lyrics is holding up fine.
Back at the Hangar Stage, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs remind me of that line we used to trot out about The Jesus and Mary Chain: they only do one thing, but they do it bloody well. In the Pigs’ case it’s a brand of Sabbath-influenced doom rock that capably manages to sound like it’s being played in a vast stadium (probably somewhere in Germany or South America). Think Bleach-era Nirvana but produced by Andrew Eldritch. After a burst of pre-set banter that largely consists of the word “bowels”, the glittery-boxing-robe wrapped singer launches into his lurching, prowling, hollering routine, making you simultaneously wish you were watching them somewhere much bigger than the boxy Hangar stage, and glad you’re catching them somewhere this small before they scale up operations to arena level. That said, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs might have to find a few new tricks up their sleeves if that’s going to happen, and maybe the point and charm of them is: they shan’t. (Fans of the conspicuous door at the back of the Hangar stage will be disappointed to note that it only opens and shuts twice during the Pigs’ set. Next year I think the door should be given its own slot on the bill, and perhaps a small range of merch.)
Sadly we only catch about ten minutes of Demdike Stare before the plug is pulled, but they deliver filthy, itchy, syncopated beats and blasts of white electronic noise to a handful of diehards, happy to finally have some space to frug about a bit. Our pint is a bit stale but the night is young, and as we’re turfed out by the endlessly cheerful security staff, the glad-ragged London Fields millennials head off to the various afterparties and one gets the sense that the evening is just kicking off. For me, though, it’s a kebab and bed. Visions, you were an inspiring, curious and eager cacophony of brilliantly played noise. Until next year…
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