“This is a proper independent festival“, announces Chris Cain from Friday evening’s headliners We Are Scientists, “much better than those awful, big corporate sponsored affairs, like….like GREENPEACE“!
I’m not sure whether the New York-based Californian actually did manage to confuse the largest environmentally aware organisation in the UK with its most densely populated weekend of arts and culture, or if he was just being deliberately obtuse, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides, he’s right – Leicester’s Handmade Festival, now in its third year, has everything you could ever need and more.
The sentiment was echoed by Gareth from the ever frenetic, boisterously entertaining Los Campesinos!, as he pointed out that “other festivals, you have to walk about a mile to get to another stage, whereas you have a really great set up here – everything is so close together.” Again, this is another of Handmade’s major selling points – you enter the site through the top of the university stairs, where you are immediately faced with a selection of fine foods from various cuisine – choose from Mexican, a traditional burger stall, the exquisite Indian vegetarian food of Mirch… Let’s just say you won’t go hungry, whatever your dietary choices. Step through the door and you’ll find the Union Square area – this year opened up to punters for the first time – which serves primarily as an acoustic area, but also one in which revellers could eat, drink, socialise and take general refuge. This was an inspired decision – after hot-footing it from stage to stage throughout the weekend, there are bound to be occasions where it all catches up with you – this is the perfect place to relax, while some agreeable chillout tunes serenade you just a few metres from your nose.
High points from this particular stage were one half of former local heroes The Havenots, Sophia Marshall, whose smooth tones deserve to be heard by a much bigger audience than the scattered stragglers who were there to witness her cutting its rhetorical ceremonial ribbon, and She Makes War (real name Laura Kidd), by far the most interesting and upwards thinking act on in Union Square throughout the weekend. Not for nothing has she previously been described as a “modern musical Boudica.”
Stage left, there is a glass door to a room in which the cream of up and coming comedy, both local and from further afield ply their trade, and this on occasion doubles up as a “cinema room” where, on the one foray I made here, was running Casey Affleck’s amusing 2010 mockumentary ‘I’m Still Here‘.
Walk through the door at the other end and turn left, and you will arrive at the O2 Academy 2 stage, or the “main stage”, if you prefer. There’s something of an olde worlde kind of smell about this particular room, lending it a certain charisma. Fittingly, most of the bands who perform in here over the weekend share the same trait (charisma, I mean, not the smell!). The splendid Leicester band Ash Mammal opened proceedings with a high calibre performance. Frontman Cass Rowe possesses a distinctively quivery vocal style and the gradual build of a “will they/won’t they” rhythm section becomes quite scintillating when the pay off actually comes, at which point the songs eventually turn into an emotionally charged crescendo of throbbing noise. It’s an original sound and Rowe belts those chords out like Janis Joplin has been cloned and cross-bred with Placebo‘s Brian Molko. If anything, this band encapsulates everything that Handmade festival is all about – showcasing the finest of local talent, whilst embracing musical diversity from all over the UK and beyond.
Perhaps this is an appropriate time to acknowledge the efforts of those folk behind the scenes – the ones who make it happen and ensure that Handmade goes with barely a glitch each year. John Helps, a musician himself, and formerly of the much admired local band Maybeshewill, has in recent years been a consistently tireless advocate of new local music, as well as curator of many of the best nights in town. Along with The Cookie, Firebug and Andy Wright, former owner of the legendary Leicester venue The Charlotte and one of the shining beacons of light on Leicester’s music scene for as long as I can remember, these guys all deserve the warmest handshake you can give them, and truly, we salute them for all they have done.
Back on the main stage, some truly sublime acts blessed us with their art. Big Deal, with a setup – and sometimes a sound – that recalled The Duke Spirit in their prime, were feasibly my personal favourites from this particular alcove, though every single artist gave it their all. Deaf Havana arguably drew the biggest, most fanatical crowd over the three-day period, and while their huge Linkin Park-like choruses are not, if I’m honest, entirely my bag, I would have to concede that, on Saturday, they were pretty much flawless, and more than worthy headliners.
During the short journey from the main hall to the two remaining stages downstairs, it is worth stopping to look at the fine artistic and photographic pieces on display, another defining feature of Handmade, where you will observe classic images of recent years captured majestically in the moment. Down in both the Scholar bar and the O2 Academy 3 stages, meanwhile, the engendering, perhaps, of some future superstars was taking place. The immaculate Black Honey definitely fit this category with their female-fronted shoegaze-pop. Actually, thinking about it, this festival has been conducive in highlighting what a wealth of female talent there is out there at present, to such an extent that you could easily have dedicated a whole day to performers of the fairer sex and quite feasibly ended up with the strongest line up. The infallible We Three And The Death Rattle – as though The Kills had joined forces with The Moldy Peaches – and one of the finest purveyors of witty prose to emerge from this fair city, Grace Petrie, are both testament to this belief. Petrie plays stripped back folk with a humorous bent. If Billy Bragg isn’t already a fan, I suspect he soon will be.
Trying to whittle a review of Handmade down to an acceptable word count is a little like trying to drag the lake with nothing but your own cupped hands, given the overwhelming quality of the acts over the weekend, but if I really had to make a “most memorable” list, then quite apart from the ones I have already mentioned, I would have to go for Leicester’s very own The Reckless Youth on Friday. Remember that classic NME piece, where the Manics‘ Richey Edwards had carved the words “4 Real” into his own arm after Steve Lamacq had questioned the band’s authenticity? You get the impression that this band would go to similar extremes to prove it themselves. As a live entity, there is more than a passing similarity to their South Wales counterparts, albeit a much heavier one. Big, epic choruses and a confidence in their own abilities that stops just the right side of arrogant.
Saturday belonged to the ear-bleedingly loud Clefts, peerless eighties throwbacks Rich List, the brilliant singalong rock of Ohboy!, and the utterly ridiculous but fabulous Jurassic Pop (“I tried to make it in several serious bands before and never got anywhere, but as soon as I formed one where every song was about the film ‘Jurassic Park’, it started to take off,” singer Darren ‘Treacherous’ Nedry informs us, before eliciting that “no matter who we are or who we’re with, we should always make the time to sleep with Jeff Goldblum.” Um, OK…
So impressive was the weekend’s roster, in fact, that I’m sure I could make a case for almost every single one of these artists as the ultimate festival zenith. Criticisms are few and far between; if I had to suggest a way to improve future editions, I would like to see an expansion of artists to reflect Leicester’s rich cultural diversity, given that this aspect is arguably what Leicester is most famous for, or at least it was until football’s Premier League was conquered by the Foxes anyway! The only other slight error of judgment was, perhaps, Swim Deep as Sunday’s headliners. Not that there is anything wrong with them as artists or performers – they played a defiantly jubilant, easily palatable set – but to me, it was glaringly obvious that seasoned pros Los Campesinos! would attract the greater crowd (and they did) and hence make more sense as the main event.
Enough of the nitpicking, however, as Sunday continued to serve up top notch musical cuisine in the shape of foul-mouthed political folk troubadour Beans On Toast and some seriously intense proggy instrumental math-rock from London’s Three Trapped Tigers.
Overall, Handmade 2016 was an unmitigated success and Saturday, I would suggest, was one of the strongest festival schedules I have seen in recent years. Roll on 2017!