FESTIVAL REPORT: Simple Things 2016

FESTIVAL REPORT: Simple Things 2016


With so many festivals taking place each year in the UK, and cheap flights making events in other countries increasingly attractive, it can be hard for an event to stand out.  As a fan, it’s tempting to try a different event each summer, so it is more challenging than ever before for a festival to create a sense of continuity and build its audience.  In such a saturated market, the most innovative events are affordable, accessible and have a strong, diverse line-up while retaining enough of a unique personality to ensure fans return year after year.  Bristol’s Simple Things has become a highlight of the city’s cultural calendar because it puts music first and avoids predictable programming.  With such low prices, as a festival-goer you feel less obliged do all you can physically stand, and more able to tailor the experience to your needs.  The majority tended to collect their passes around 8pm, watched the headliners, then joined a big all-night party across several city centre venues, including the likes of Death Grips, Helena Hauff and Nina Kraviz.  Others preferred to start early, attending discussions or an Ableton workshop before watching showcases for new bands.  Festivals should take people away from the divisive stresses of the everyday, without lapsing into nostalgia.  Similarly, the best music at Simple Things contributed to the dialogue about those stresses with empathy, rather than escapism.

She Drew the Gun only released their debut album in April, but they already handle this dialogue with some sensitivity and balance.  Memories of the Future often cloaks the anger of Louisa Roach’s lyrics in a vespertine, hushed intimacy.  Their early afternoon show at Sportsmans was cleaner and more strident, emphasising their hooks and their passion.  While ‘Poem’ might be called protest music, the band weren’t preaching to the converted here.  For one thing, Roach is too keen an observer of the everyday for self-satisfaction.  Secondly, many of the crowd were talking loudly throughout, drowning out the poems between songs almost entirely.  Not only was this rude, it begs the question of why they bothered coming at all.  It was also a struggle not to heave in the bar, which reeked of stale fags and beer, as the atmosphere constantly shifted from stuffy and clammy to a breezy chill.  In spite of this, the excitement of seeing a new band exhibiting such quiet confidence and potential made She Drew the Gun one of the highlights of the day.

While the close proximity of all the venues made them easy to get to, one or two provoked concerns about accessibility.  Sportsmans is very narrow and crowded and there’s only one way in.  While Klangstof were setting up, various Plastic Mermaids had to carry their gear past the smokers outside, along the bar and through the crowd.  Wheelchair users wishing to come here, or to the Colston Hall foyer, may have found themselves unable to see the bands.  Of course, this is a consideration to which many venues and festivals must find solutions, and it deserves to be looked at in depth.

Something about Klangstof doesn’t quite add up.  The story goes that Kurdt learned to play along to OK Computer after his family moved from Holland to Norway during his teens.  Feeling isolated by the language barrier, the remoteness of his new hometown and the distance from his friends, the album was a comfort to him.  It’s odd, then, that ‘We Are Your Receiver’ bemoans the effects of social media on self-esteem.  In the circumstances, it might have helped him feel less lonely.  The clownish face-pulling and occasional jokes made their po-faced music even less convincing.  This sort of thing is usually called dreamlike, but who really dreams stock footage of glaciers and whales?

Lots of fans were left out in the cold while Twin Peaks played.  The pub was bursting and it marked the point in the evening when beer started flying.  Maybe the punters really were drunk by then, but the band came across like fake alkies.  Like the show after which they’re named, they exaggerate the trite aspects of a genre to breaking point, but with none of the horror, humour or unnerving blank spaces.  It’s just lots of whooping and hollering.

There’s more genuine warmth in Bad Breeding‘s hardcore punk.  The guitar sounded like rapid drumming on taut sheet metal, then like a siren, then like raining splinters of glass, but it was somehow serene.  You could hear hopeful gasps amidst the fury, both in the spoken samples and the loosely played stop-start rhythms.

The Big Moon also understand how to build and release tension.  Through each quiet, winding verse, the emphasis often fell unexpectedly before, at last, bursting into a euphoric chorus.  They were triumphant, playful and deservedly well-received.  It was a joy to see a band have so much fun on stage.  Hopefully, they’ll have many years over which to develop their huge potential.

Best of all, though, were Warpaint.  Simple Things was mostly very considerate of punters’ needs, but Colston Hall seemed to have misjudged the demand to see the LA band.  They set up just two stations to check bags and segregated men and women, fast-tracking one queue while letting the other stretch up the hill.  The venue quickly reached capacity.  Inside, two security staff guarded the door of an upstairs toilet while a third stood inside, watching men at the urinals.  It was unpleasant and suggested they have little faith in their colleagues’ bag-checking abilities.

There were also sound problems throughout.  Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman seemed to be straining to hear themselves, frequently signalling for more vocal in their monitors.  However, they were magnificent.  The music Warpaint write together is an exultation of listening and mediating, rather than demanding to be heard.  They arrive at moments of euphoria through contemplation.  It’s as though they touch the glistening surface of a cool pond, setting the water rippling.  When the mood takes them, they snatch at something moving beneath and hold it aloft to the light, but always let it go before it’s too late.  They become the eddying of the pool, their momentum spiralling intricately within its banks.

Their new hip-hop influenced songs show how a band can assimilate ideas to expand their sound without losing their identity.  These simpler chants are still mediative, but it feels less private, more social.

This cross-pollination of styles is the best example here of the importance of humanity in music, of growing through sharing.  Warpaint aren’t trying to be the biggest, loudest voice and they aren’t tied to a scene or genre.  In these respects, they perfectly embody the values that make Simple Things itself a continuing success.

Photo credit: Ro Murphy

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