A festival virgin’s Electric Picnic
September 2, 2008
I’m just back from Electric Picnic, a three-day music festival in Stradbally, Co. Laois. Where to start?! This was my first festival ever, and I am thrilled that I finally took the plunge. Better late than never, say I.
I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of visuals, vibes, layout and the practicalities. I’d been warned about the loos (not as bad as expected), and knew about the music of course, but that’s about all.
I had the arrival all nicely planned with military precision: park in car park E, and wheel my trolley-load of stuff to the adjacent, “quiet”, campsite. Right. First off, there’s no choice about where to park. This is probably old news and a non-issue to regular festies, but as a fest-virgin I’d no idea. For the last ten miles we were in a one-way system with a sole destination, so I was deposited unceremoniously in car park C1. I think it’s the furthest one from my campsite. I was seething to the point of distraction but realised I’d better shake off that attitude pretty quickly so I got into the spirit and followed everyone through the mud. It was at this point that I first realised I had Too Much Stuff. Y’know, Just In Case. I knew I wanted to get to the Quiet Campsite (hah! more on that in a bit) but no one seemed to know where it was. Eventually a nice young chap (sometimes it’s quite good being at an age where you can say that) took pity on me and hauled my very heavy trolley some of the way and I found what seemed like a good, quiet spot to pitch my tent: towards the far corner, at the edge by the car park fence (remember that bit) for easy findability late at night. Tent was pitched in ten minutes, as adverstised, and I felt inordinately smug and pleased with myself.
View from tent (yes I was there early)
More or less how it looked later on (not my pic) though I’d a bit more space around mine.
One cereal bar later, bag packed with loo roll and G&T decanted into a Ballygowan bottle, and I was ready to explore. What a huge site! There was so much going on it was head-spinning. Delicious looking food stalls, music everywhere, people in costumes, stalls for Oxfam, Amnesty and the like, a fully fledged carnival complete with big wheel and Fossetts Circus, a cinema no less (how the hell could you find time to go to the pictures? I barely had time to eat!) – the list was endless.
Going for a thong – tattoos instead of clothes
One of the many good food places – chilli chips and great veggie burgers
The Body and Soul area was beautiful, with sculptures, creative lighting, quiet areas and a very calm, chilled out vibe. Veterans will know all this I’m sure, and possibly be less impressed, but I loved it.
The centre of the Body and Soul meditative area at night
But I was there for one reason only: the music. I found myself at the main stage for Kíla, though it says something for the state of my specs that I was actually expecting The Kills, even though I knew they weren’t on until the next day… and that was even before the first G&T. D’oh. They were OK, though I was definitely less than impressed with their dancing troupe of self-conscious, ‘Brazilian’ (no way!) hip-wigglers. Kíla reminded me of Horslips (remember them?). I was going to say they’re an updated Horslips, but actually not so updated really.
The rest of the day consisted of New Young Pony Club, Tinariwen, Joan as Policewoman, Digitalism and Think of One. I’d intended to go to Goldfrapp but messed up on the timing due to getting utterly lost (and misdirected) going back to my tent. And instead of choosing who to see for a whole set, I found myself rushing to get a bit of everyone… well you do, don’t you, as a newbie? NYPC rocked, and are definitely on my ‘must have’ list. I enjoyed the Saharan sounds of Tinariwen too, though found them a bit samey after a bit. While they were hypnotic to listen to, and captivating to watch, I would have liked to hear more of their upbeat sounds. But yes, they’re on my ‘more’ list too. Joan as Policewoman was thrilled to be there, and I’m sure she put on a good gig, but she was too downbeat for me at that time of the evening and I wasn’t pulled in. I applied the three-song rule and left: I needed to dance. Lucky for me then that Digitalism were up next, and I danced hard after battling my way through the hordes to a better spot near the front. I do like being right up front. :)
I’m not a Sigur Ros fan but if I’d had any energy left by then I would have stayed to get their apparently fantastic show. I’d slept really badly the previous night (too excited!), so decided to get an early night and be ready for the rest of the packed weekend. Meandering back to my tent I passed an amazing dance troupe, Strange Fruit. “Their unique shows see the performers bend and sway to impossible angles on five-metre poles combining elements of theatre, dance and circus to create a truly original style of performance.” Can’t argue with that – it was beautiful and mesmerising.
Pics taken from the Nokia
Then as I walked past the IMC World Music Stage – via an incredible 10-minute head, neck, shoulders and back massage – intriguing sounds pulled me in: the Belgian and Moroccan musicians of Think of One creating Gnawa trance rhythms mixed with jazz, gypsy and funk. A great way to end the day’s music and squeeze a last dance out of my tired body.
Oh yes, I mentioned the quiet campsite, didn’t I? Hah, quiet apart from the rave in the adjacent carpark, that is. And the parties in neighbouring tents until 3 or 4am. Ah well, I had my earplugs, my tent was nice and cosy (and thanks to festival veteran friends I was well equipped) so I did manage some sleep, and felt surprisingly OK on Saturday morning. I heard other people complaining about it though, so I was glad it wasn’t just me in my festival innocence.
The next morning I met up with friends for coffee (wonderful coffee from Coffee Angel, hit the spot perfectly) and we swapped notes and plans. She’d noticed lots that I hadn’t, and so my list of things to explore expanded even more. At 12 noon (armed with yet another coffee) I headed to a ‘tweetup’ – a meeting of twitterers – and about six of us turned up. It was a delight to meet twitterers (and friends) FrankieP, Maryrose, PeterD who had donated the fabulous boat from Casino Royale, David from Poetry Ireland, and Ciara in her superb costume.
PeterD’s waterproof? camera…
After some grub (delicious sausages and mash from the wonderfully-named ‘Hot S&M’ stall) I was off to hear Dublin’s Crash Ensemble. I was surprised and pleased for them that it was so well attended and it was great to hear them play in such a venue. They obviously enjoyed it too and it was a terrific performance.
More dancing beckoned then, in the form of The Herbaliser, who rocked big time, and I loved Jessica Darling’s fabulous soul singing. Then it was over to the Electric Arena for Elbow. I only knew one or two songs of theirs and they weren’t quite what I expected (yes I know they’re huge) – though in a good way. But their set doesn’t stand out for me, compared to the others, good though it was. However, after that it was Underworld, and wanting to be up front, I was bit early so also caught the last 20 mins or so of Grace Jones. While she’s not really my thang, you have to hand it to her – the woman has style. Just as much of it as she ever did by the look of things: she put on a an amazing show and had the crowd in the palm of her hand. I met a couple of lovely women, Ines and Pamela, and we hooked up for the following gig which was Underworld. As with many others I’d never heard of them (yes I know) but had been told they were unmissable. And they were! My new festival buddies were very impressed with my front-finding abilities and delighted to be up there where all the action is, but yet where it’s less claustrophobic. And the security folk give you glasses of water too, which is pretty cool. What a show! Brilliant dancing, and we all had a blast.
Underworld from the Nokia
The view behind me at Underworld
And yet the night was not over! George Clinton was on the main stage from 12–2 and it was packed. We sidled right up to the front again and danced like it was 1979. What a weird setup though. I mean, what is the deal with the nappy guy? And I could have lived without the 70s air guitar from Michael Hampton (and yes he’s amazing), but thankfully it was only the odd number and we were back to the funky beats in no time. Ooh yeah.
Back to the tent via the Neutronyx ‘Rave in the Woods’ which was beautifully set up, but not for me the right beats to follow all that funk, so I hit the hay. And then the rave proper started. And the party. The rave in the carpark (almost beside my tent) was, I’m told, ‘dirty techno’, ie not a steady pulse that you could kinda ignore in your sleep, but rapid fire hard bass on and off, so it woke you up when it started and when it stopped. Until 7:15am. Then people started getting up. So with no sleep I was very tired on Sunday. Yes I know, if I will insist of festivalling at my age blah blah… but soddit, a bit of sleep would make it so much easier. Still, Coffee Angel wasn’t called that for nothing I’m happy to say and I perked up.
And so another day of music dawned and it just kept getting better and better. We were serenaded during coffee by the excellent Dublin Gospel Choir on the main stage – they were loud, lively, and perfect for a sunny Sunday. Great stuff. I had a bit of time to explore, amazingly, so had a good poke around the Village Green and the Body and Soul areas.
Thank heavens for healthy juices: great for hangovers. One highlight was when Hot Chip’s Ready for the Floor blasted out of a stall. About a dozen people spontaneously started dancing, giving it their all so I dropped my bag and joined them, wandering off at the end of the track. Magic.
Next up was Brooklyn’s Hercules and the Love Affair, and yeah they were good and I danced to the disco beats, but would have liked a bit more variety in it, though I suppose that’s just what they do. I kept thinking they were about to break into Donna Summers’ ‘I Feel Love’ (they didn’t) though they did cover Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’, an old favourite and not one I ever thought I’d dance to. The lovely CSS followed and they were terrific, though I thought that the sound system really let them down with so much bass that the voices were quite lost. I definitely want to hear more of them.
Sunday evening was difficult. How the hell can you choose between so much funky goodness? I managed half-an-hour of The Roots who were superb, and let’s face it how often do you see a euphonium (oops) sousaphone on a hip hop stage? Well quite. But I had to leave because then there was Grinderman. Now, I knew that there was a Nick Cave connection there, but in spite of being a Nick Cave fan (am seeing him in NYC in Oct) I’m still discovering his back catalogue and, embarrassingly, I did not know he was in Grinderman. Argggh! Imagine my surprise! There he was – in the flesh! OMFG I was starstruck and he was awesome in the true sense of the word. What a powerfully intense, superb performance. He was magnificent. Once again I was in the front row, and on a (natural) high for the whole set. Fanbluddytastic. Actually I still have the Cheshire cat grin from that. Sensational.
So how do you follow that? Well, The Gossip did a good job of using up some of that overflowing pent up energy from the preceding gig. Beth Ditto was unstoppable and the crowd loved her. Again I wasn’t so happy with the sound though, and don’t think it did her any favours. The bass was so wallopingly loud (and I do love bass with a good amount of welly that rattles your whole body) that we didn’t get the full force of her wonderful voice. And I even put tissues in my ears to prevent that physical slam slam a couple of times when right at the front by the speakers. But Beth Ditto really rocked and we all screamed along happily with her during ‘Standing in the Way of Control’.
OK not from Electric Picnic, but you get the gist.
The final main-stage act was the Sex Pistols (what’s left of them) and I caught some of it. Well it was sort of OK, and it was nice to hear punk rhythms after all the funk, electronic and what have you. They were doing their usual thing trying to whip up the crowd into a frenzy in a fuck you sort of way, but the crowd was not to be whipped. It just seemed wrong: nothing less than anarchy and a crowd going apeshit will do, really. Otherwise it’s just not punk. I don’t know what or who it would take to create that sort of vibe these days, but the Sex Pistols didn’t manage it. The audience liked them but was basically polite, I thought. I tried Chromeo briefly after that, but wasn’t really in the mood for that, so felt it was best left for another time.
I used the opportunity to have a good wander round and see it all properly at night – it really was stunningly beautiful. The wooden tower was to be burned at 12:00am so I hung around to wait for that and managed to pack in one more dancing gig, again in the World Music Tent: the African sounds of Mahmoud Fadi’s United Nubians – sax, African drums and a DJ. Nice.
Preparing the tower for burning
Exciting displays from Arcadia
And close up
The burning turned out to be at 2am, but by now my feet were so sore I thought I wouldn’t make it back to the tent, so I gave up and headed off to sleep, which I did. All night long, and with a huge grin on my face.
In fact the atmosphere throughout was jolly and, well, festive. Even the Gardai were friendly, laid back and chatty, and told me they thought it was basically a decent crowd. They didn’t expect trouble and as far as I know they didn’t get it. There was so much I didn’t have a chance to see – even apart from the music I missed – you’d really need a week to get through even half of it. Poetry, comedy, theatre, art trail, cabaret… I just wish it had been longer. It was fabulous, and already I can’t wait until next year (and will be eyeing up other festivals too). I’m a total convert.
The get-out the next day was another story, suffice to say that:
(a) I am SO buying a rucksack; and
(b) next time I will tie a balloon to my car.
But I still have my wristband on. :)
[All pics not from my lowly Nokia 6300 are reproduced with permission – and next time I'll bring my camera!]