Tramlines festival is fast forging a strong reputation as an unmissable fixture on the festival calendar. With more than 200 artists for a £30 weekend ticket, it’s easy to see why. Most of the venues are scattered around the city centre with a couple of parks thrown in for the bigger names, including the new Main Stage at Ponderosa Park.
Ghostpoet‘s opening slot on Friday at 6.30pm isn’t a particularly friendly time for non-Sheffield residents, so first up is Walls at the Millennium Gallery, an appropriately arty venue for their pulsating electronica. A burbling bassline and surging synths over techno beats, this band are at their best in their most stripped back form. There’s a mid-set lull for an ambient passage of mostly sub-bass, but the pounding electro closer turns the gallery into a warehouse rave.
Blanck Mass‘ throbbing mid-range noisescapes feel like sensory deprivation, to the point where the introduction of some low end is a relief. This gives way to the sort of loping hip-hop beat that defined the excellent last Fuck Buttons record, before a shimmering, almost New Age soundscape becomes a dystopian sci-fi soundtrack. A fractured memory of a melody heralds a stuttering, relentless beat and then glorious technicolour electro joy. Serious shapes are thrown.
Saturday begins on a more sedate note in the stately surroundings of the Cathedral. While ears still ringing from Blanck Mass, Hannah Lou Clark eases us into the day with her confident strumming, the glassy vintage drum machine lending a harder edge to songs like ‘Kids in Heat’ and the title track from her recent EP Silent Type.
There’s some confusion at City Hall with a small crowd expecting to head into the spectacular ballroom, but five minutes after The Broken Oak Duet‘s set is due to start there’s the distinct sound of pummeling riffs from around the corner. An outside stage has been set up by the steps of the City Hall, right underneath the swinging arm of a funfair ride called Freak Out. The Broken Oak Duet are more fun than their name suggests. The drummer tells us to stick around for Cleft as “they’re like us, but better”, which is pretty fair.
Cleft rather brilliantly describe themselves as “turbo prog”, in that they do a lot of the things that other prog bands do, but in half the time. They introduce themselves as an instrumental band, then launch into ‘Elephant in the Barroom’, their only track with vocals, only the singer isn’t here so it’s an instrumental version. They’re nothing if not contrary, but the ride swinging around above their heads really hammers home how much fun they are. A sole newbie, punctuated with jagged shards of noise, bodes well for the future.
The Main Stage at Ponderosa Park is about a 20 minute walk from the city centre. When you enter the arena you can’t see the stage for another funfair. The capacity has doubled but the facilities don’t seem to have been increased to fit. The queue for the portaloos, for example, is up to an hour long. The organisation of Tramlines as a whole is excellent, not to mention the fact that they’ve made a few deals on local public transport to get people to and from the less convenient venues, so for Ponderosa to be so poorly catered for on such a basic level is a hugely disappointing oversight.
Motown legends Martha Reeves and the Vandellas have been given an extended set time of an hour of classic soul and R&B. When you can afford to play ‘Nowhere to Run’ so early in the set it speaks volumes about the strength of your back catalogue, and ‘Dancing in the Street’ later just affirms her songwriting chops.
The arena is heaving by the time Basement Jaxx arrive. Naturally, the hits go down the best, opening with ‘Good Luck’ and ‘Red Alert’. They lose the crowd slightly with their newer stuff, but they keep the carnival atmosphere going with a ballerina dancing to a breakbeat and a lovely call and response version of ‘Romeo’.
There’s a bit of a dance off going on for Gulf at the Harley which amuses the band no end. They make an excellent Smiths-like indie jangle but there’s more than enough of a disco influence to justify the freaky dancing. ‘Out Here’ has a harder psychedelic edge to it, but it’s the frantic, Chic-style guitar work that really sets them apart.
Glasgow’s electropop heroes Errors‘ latest album Lease of Life is more atmospheric than previous efforts but their krautrock streak shines through tonight. Occasional vocals from collaborator Cecilia Stamp add some warmth. The penultimate ‘A Rumour in Africa’ really gets the crowd going with its driving lead melody. There’s a lot of love for Errors here.
Sunday morning greets us with the news that both Ezra Furman and Wu Tang Clan have cancelled, leaving some big shoes to fill. In the absence of Ezra Furman, we have the Ratells, who the programme describes as sounding a bit like Biffy Clyro. Unfortunately for us it’s more late-period Biffy than interesting-period Biffy, all power ballads and man buns. At one point, they even cover ‘Paradise’ by Coldplay, setting the tone for a series of weird cover versions throughout the day.
It’s raining so Goat Head beckon, mainly because they’re indoors and have a brilliant name. Turns out they’re depressingly young, certainly not old enough to drink at Queens Social Club. Blur and Nirvana covers set the scene, but once they learn to be slightly less obvious about their influences they have the potential to be a good fun, grunge-punk band.
The Big Moon, on the other hand, are already a good fun, grunge-punk band. They’re having a whale of a time onstage, like a proper gang. Their Ramones-style cover of Madonna‘s ‘Beautiful Stranger’ is odd, but they’re enjoying themselves too much for it to matter that much. The rest of the set is woozy, Hammond organ infused indie pop loveliness.
Local(ish) boys Nai Harvest are all fun-time emo-punk, abrupt pace changes, pregnant pauses and Pixies widescreen choruses. ‘Ocean of Madness’ is a standout, with a looser groove giving a slightly surfier feel. By the end, guitarist Ben Thompson is stood on the bass drum soloing away. It’s all very silly, but well earned.
The queue is around the block at the Leadmill, but from the talk inside most people are waiting for Billy Bragg rather than Liverpool psych-folk trio Stealing Sheep, which is a shame as Not Real is one of the best albums of the year so far. Opener ‘Sequence’ soon wins over the crowd with its effortlessly charming wonk-pop. Their electro-pop influences are more pronounced in a live setting, all chiming synths and glistening loops; like Hot Chip but without the contrived awkwardness. The multitasking on display during ‘Apparition’ would overwhelm lesser bands with keyboardist Rebecca Hawley darting from synth to sampler to three-part-harmony. ‘Greed’, with its exotic cowbell rhythms are mesmeric and as the song builds to fuzzy keys, it’s clear that no one in the room is having more fun than the band. Stealing Sheep? Stealing the show more like!
There’s a sign up behind the bar at Queens proclaiming “NO BEER LEFT”, but Dutch Uncles ably provide all the high spirits needed. While they struggle to capture their appeal on record, they are unmissable live. Singer Duncan Wallis is the star of the show, shimmying around like a sexy Morrissey. ‘Bellio’ is an early highlight, all fidgety grooves and arpeggios, along with ‘Cadenza’ and its house-vibe piano chords and the twiddly guitar lines of ‘Flexxin’. They end the weekend with a cover of Seal‘s ‘Kiss From A Rose’ and we head out into the night in search of one last pint of that delicious triple chocolate stout that Queens had on earlier.
Photo credit: Luke Hannaford