Split Festival 2012: Day 1 Roundup

By on Friday, 28th September 2012 at 2:00 pm
 

Split Festival has the finest grass in all of fest-dom. Even though the square of the Ashbrooke Cricket Club at which it is held is fenced off, the outfield still proudly displays its evenly-cropped blades, a far cry from the slopping mud too often endured by festival-goers elsewhere. This year sees Split subtly bigger and improved: there is a vintage tent, an arts tent selling the crop of local music photographers’ work and a veritable globe’s worth of international cuisine. The Creole food deserves a particular mention. But the real treat is a comprehensive musical programme, with a distinct tilt towards the regional – unsurprisingly, as local heroes the Futureheads are in charge of the whole thing.

As with all good, small festivals, there are two stages; as one band finishes in one arena, another starts in its counterpart. The slight figure of Kyla La Grange belies her impact; her epic gothic-tinged songs are as if designed to be played on an outdoor stage, at once majestically swooping and delicate. The avuncular King Creosote is up next in the acoustic-themed tent: his performance is a masterclass in understated delivery; with just a djembe and bass for accompaniment, there’s a surprising amount of dynamic on offer, and with material as strong as his, it’s a fine way to gently shift gear into evening.

And shift gear is what Leeds’ Pulled Apart by Horses most certainly do, in a whirlwind of coruscating grungy noise and a frenetic stage show. Nobody seems to be injured – a rarity apparently for a PABH gig. Whilst not strictly punk, one has the feeling that the noise and aggression on display here is directly inspired by the antics of Rotten and his peers over 30 years ago.

Before we get to him, there’s folk headliners the Unthanks. Sisters Becky and Rachel, backed up by a string quartet, grand piano, and band, produce a captivating set of gentle drama and fragile beauty. There’s no artifice or pretention; the sisters’ best trick is taking the sound of authentic Northumberland-influenced folk music, updating it with more mainstream arrangements for a wider audience. That and the clog dancing. Probably the most unlikely support act that Johnny Rotten has ever had, but not less effective for that.

The anticipation in the air of the main tent before Public Image Ltd take the stage is palpable, and to cut to the chase, the crowd are not disappointed. Rotten has an instantly recognisable stage persona, at once cheekily humourous yet genuinely threatening. His singing voice is a strange thing – one can’t really claim that his vocal lines have proper melodies, but it’s never really out of tune; his oft-employed keynote-drone-with-microtonal-variations technique wouldn’t sound out of place reciting echoing Koran verses in some dusty Eastern European mosque. His lyrical content wouldn’t be welcome, however. Naturally, there’s plenty of anti-establishment rhetoric, and even a moment towards the end of the set where the audience is exhorted to worship Rotten-as-musical-deity, which they are only too happy to do.

The band are razor-sharp, particularly Fagin-esque unsung guitar virtuoso Lu Edmonds: swathes and shards of his guitar overlay the pulsing, deep bass and tireless drums. Lydon is an enthusiast of dub reggae, and there’s plenty of this influence on display, but towards the end of the set the band turn up the tempo and become essentially a live dance music act, more akin to the now defunct Faithless than any traditional punk outfit in spirit and sound, with Lydon gargling brandy and preaching from the pulpit like a demon priest.

His one misstep involves a throwaway comment about the police, cumulating in the line, “the boys in blue aren’t all bad… well maybe they are,” a clanger of monumental bad taste considering the tragedy in Manchester just a few days previously. His opinion on Jools Holland is too scabrous to repeat here, and considerably more amusing, considering the band’s date on his show the following week. In case nobody knew, PiL are a challenging, uncompromising listen, led by one of the greatest frontmen of all time, still firing on all cylinders. Is there any higher praise?

Stay tuned: Martin’s roundup of Sunday’s bands at Split 2012 will post early next week.

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