Constellations Festival Roundup

By on Wednesday, 23rd November 2011 at 2:00 pm
 

Just when you thought the festival season was over, that it was safe to hang up any notion of seeing in one sitting a full working day’s worth of bands until next year, along comes Constellations to sweep away the November blues. (The 12th of November, to be exact.) In the style popularised by ATP’s Butlins jaunts, this is a single-venue indoors one-dayer, using the fantastic facilities at Leeds University as a base for a five-room shindig. At this stage in the year one might be wary of repetition; and whilst there are some acts here that are familiar faces from the summer festival circuit, the promoters have certainly managed to keep Constellations’ lineup fresh and intriguing.

Which is exactly how one could describe Liverpool’s Outfit. A widescreen, spacey, synth-led five-piece, having only formed in January this year, their sound is maturing nicely: surely their anonymity is destined to be short-lived. Recent release ‘Two Islands’ and its impatient vocal intertwining with keening guitar neatly sums up their sound: angstwave if you will. More please.

Féted boy-girl duo Big Deal bring their somnambulant ditties to the alcohol-free Riley Smith room; their octave harmony style being very much the sound of 2011. Hardly likely to make the listener keel over with excitement, or break an ankle pogoing, nevertheless there is a subtle beauty on offer. It’s just that, as we will discover later, boy-girl duos are capable of so much more these days.

Exitmusic are gothy and elegant, lyrical metaphors of steaming marshland echoing their dusky sound. Lead singer Aleksa Palladino, taking time out from being directed by Martin Scorsese, ebbs and moans like she’s emitting some delicate musical secret. Their arch pretension does suffer slightly from the 10 minutes of awkward soundchecking, and indeed by taking place on a mid afternoon in Leeds. In the middle of a rusty, abandoned Russian airfield, or somewhere woody, twilight and damp, this would be perfect.

Dutch Uncles look perfectly at home on this generously-proportioned stage, their mathy style beefed up to generate a rather wonderful combination of conventional rock and jagged, dissonant, jazz-tinged ephemera. A rather unexpected highlight is singer Duncan Wallis’ unconventional dancing style – his weird, wired leg movements bring an unexpected lightness to what could conceivably be a rather cerebral performance.

Onto one of the highlights of the day: Summer Camp. Elizabeth Sankey makes the most of her opportunity to play diva with her mini-dress and shocking red lipstick; there’s an subtle yet disturbing element of menace about her performance – don’t get too close, chaps! Her musical partner, Jeremy Walmsley, in loud Hawaiian shirt and giant myopic specs, decorates the backing tracks with synth and electric guitar, whilst a live drummer adds impact to the rhythm section. They rip through recent release ‘Welcome To Condale’ (review here), gem after gem of ’80s-tinged pop falling out of the speakers, the warm and confident interplay between Sankey and Walmsley a joy to behold. A loop of classic brat-pack films plays behind; Molly Ringwald would surely approve.

Givers, ironically, are given a short half-hour set, and boy, do they make the most of it. A superb combination of traditional Americana, neo-bombast in the style of Arcade Fire, and a sprinkling of African-influenced funkiness, this is a jolly and likeable set from a similarly-blessed band. One gets the impression that they could play for twice as long and keep the listener enthralled. It’s no surprise that a band from Louisiana should have absorbed the broad church of influences which characterises New Orleans, but to package it within short, catchy, warm-hearted pop songs like ‘Up Up Up’ is a superb achievement. Long may they continue to give.

Stephen Malkmus has been around the block a few times, and seems to be mellowing in his old age. Gone are the angular obscurantism of previous project Pavement, in comes a more relaxed approach, characterised by tongue-in-cheek heavy-rotation single Senator. This is still quintessential American garage rock, but the sharp edges have been shaved off; live, the songs are allowed to meander and develop by themselves, rather than being obsessively honed. There’s palpable disappointment when, seemingly too early, Malkmus announces the last song – what soon becomes apparent is that this song is a long, meandering jam, which lasts well over ten minutes. There’s the niggling doubt that Malkmus is slightly treading water with this project that the long, jammy ending to the set does nothing to dispel.

Vessels specialise in that slow, meandering wall-of-droning-guitars sound that has stood Mogwai in such good stead over the years. Doubtless there are plenty of differences between what and why each band does, but the suspicion is that it would take many hours of listening to elicit them. When the sets are this short, and we’re all standing up indoors rather than lounging on a sunny patch of grass, something a little more immediate is called for. Luckily, Yuck are up next, with their noisy indie pop; somewhat heavier than on record, they still maintain their melodic sparkle, and are starting to look like proper contenders.

Wild Beasts, however, live in an entirely different league of expectation. With the stage full of expensive, delectable guitars and a brace of gourmet keyboards, the performance oozes class from the very start. The duality of the vocal styles of Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming astonishes even more than on record; Thorpe’s edgy, vibratoed falsetto a uniquely expressive instrument, unsettlingly incongruous coming out of a bearded man’s throat, Fleming’s velvet baritone adding depth and complimenting the flamboyance of the arrangements. The band have a great depth to their catalogue, and whilst material from Smother dominates, older tracks from Two Dancers sound just as vital. This is a thrilling band, utterly original, and reassuringly complex in all they do. The dials are set to just the correct amount of archness, weight, cerebrality, funk, and indeed camp, an expertly-judged blend of virtue akin to a fine Scotch whisky. It is reassurance to all those that fear the X-Factorisation of music has taken hold, that the denominator is inescapably locked at common: to see a capacity audience in a large room transfixed by such intelligently-written and expertly-executed pop music is a wondrous thing.

And to finally wrap things up, the Big Pink, whose music is about as subtle as their name. Essentially an early-90s tribute act, there’s a bit a shoegaze, a bit of acid house and a bit of baggy in their sound. Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell have all the right credentials, and with single Dominos on Radio 1’s A-list, the future looks bright, except for one thing: their live show tonight is dull. Furze thrashes a Stratocaster and practices his thousand-yard stare, the rest of the music is sample and synth based, too layered to make out any individual contributions or melodies. I spend most of the gig watching the enthralling female drummer, who appears not to be the regular Akiko Matsura, but is great all the same. Something of a disappointment right at the end then, but there’s been so much good stuff through the day that a slightly damp squib of an ending can be wholeheartedly forgiven. A great opportunity to stock up on new bands right at the end of the season… and plenty of inspiration for stocking fillers!

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TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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