In its fifth year of existence Carefully Planned has perhaps reached its optimum form. Spread across eight locations in Manchester’s bustling Northern Quarter, the festival makes use of the unusually close proximity of a wealth of great live music venues and other suitable buildings to present a dizzying number of bands with a miraculously low number of clashes and, befitting of its name, a miraculously low number of mishaps.
This is mainly thanks to both a trusted network of volunteers, who diligently staff each venue and the allocation of sensible set lengths and sufficient breaks in-between each set. Where some events would cram as much as possible onto each stage and fall flat on their face as soon as a technical hitch occurs, Carefully Planned keeps, for the most part, to a 30 minutes on/30 minutes off schedule for each artist. All of which is perfect for seeing a full performance and then making your way to the next stage or getting a drink in-between bands performing on the same one. This seems like a small detail, but it is one that many inner-city, multi-venue festivals overlook, and it is one that can make or break such a festival. Especially with so much to see across 20 hours of music. From Emma Kupa‘s pleasing Saturday lunchtime set of rustic, nostalgic indie-folk through to the fading hours of Sunday night, there is always something to see across a wide range of genres, even if said genres are virtually all closely related to the use of a guitar.
What there is to see is usually of a standard that combines to make a bargain of the entry price (£20 for both days or £15 for one) several times over, though not always. Axes are, if you wanted to be particularly generous, what you would call a “gateway band”; their bright tappy math-rock is plenty raucous and delivered with a high intensity, but it is also for the most part completely devoid of substance and falls over itself in its attempt to fit in as many twists, turns and genre tropes as possible into each song. Members of the audience look around grinning at each other and giving ironic devil signs in a manner that would belie a lack of familiarity with the type of music that Axes play, but there is nothing to take from their set. They are a “goals of the week” band, or the equivalent of a wrestling match that is nothing but highspots; all highlights with nothing in between.
What is interesting is The Spills, who follow Axes at the Night & Day Café on Saturday night, have a song dedicated to the foremost practitioner of the aforementioned style of wrestling, Sabu. They are much more level-headed, however, and deliver a set of a very high standard. There is nothing new here but their youthful, gritty take on lo-fi alt-rock, and the faint traces of pop-punk that occasionally worm their way to the surface of the Wakefield quartet’s music. It is exactly the kind of music you want to listen to after eight hours of drinking.
At first glance, Chrissy Barnacle, who opens up the tiny Cord venue at 2pm on Sunday, makes the kind of music you want to listen to when you wake up with a foggy head and foggy eyes. But when you delve deeper into the narratives that she spins, it becomes a little too much. Her marriage of hyper-personal storytelling and vivid imagery on the spine of intricate, memorable melodies brings to mind Moonface‘s Julia With Blue Jeans On; where Spencer
Krug claims, “I am a barbarian sometimes”. Chrissy Barnacle confesses to being “a monster”, and her odes to lost love and would-be love possess an emotional weight that is hard to wrestle with, even without the summaries she often presents before she plays them.
Shortly after, Okinawa Picture Show‘s set is just what you need to wash the melancholia away. They write short, catchy bursts of what you could call indie-pop or pop-punk but are really just pop, and like their previous touring partners Martha and T-Shirt Weather they play them with an infectious energy and enthusiasm, with vocalist Elly on top form despite claiming to be suffering after a visit to a local vegan restaurant.
Also on top form on Sunday are Nottingham trio Cecille Grey, Kagoule and Eyre Llew. Remarkably, Eyre Llew deliver a formidably accomplished performance for a band who have been playing live for less than six months, and manage to rise above sound issues that are pleasingly rare throughout the weekend, which in itself is an amazing organisational fit given that several of the venues are not regularly used for live music.
All three of the above acts also play to crowds of an impressive size, although the general thoroughfare of the festival on Sunday is noticeably quieter than Saturday. Whilst this could simply be down to the fact that many were nursing a hangover from the first day of the event, it could be argued that the lack of a focal point on the second day might not have grabbed the attention of possible casual attendees.
It will be interesting to see where Carefully Planned Festival goes from here. There are enough hitherto-unused venues within the Northern Quarter for it to continue expanding, but for the price of entry there is certainly no need for it to; it could halve in size and still be value for money. All in all, attendees to its fifth edition would probably agree that the best change would be no change at all.