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Split Festival 2012: Day 2 Roundup

 
By on Monday, 1st October 2012 at 2:00 pm
 

Missed Martin’s field report of the Saturday of Split Festival? You’re in luck; read it here.

Where Saturday at Split Festival 2012 was noisy in the main tent and more subtle in the other, the situation is roughly reversed on Sunday. Field Music turn in a lithe, precise set on the main stage. Since this writer has, more by coincidence than anything else, seen them four times this year so far, I can safely say that they are better every time, and have never played the same set twice. A hometown gig is always a bit more special, and the crowd are duly appreciative.

Saint Etienne’s comeback continues apace – Sarah Cracknell looks glorious, her sparkly mini-dress picked out by a central spotlight, and she sounds just as good. In a set heavy with material from this year’s ‘Words and Music’, the synth-pop sound is just as present and correct as in years gone by. The volume and tempo is gently increased as we proceed, Cracknell elegantly gyrating, flourishing a feather boa. Close your eyes, and new songs like ‘When I Was Seventeen’ can make you believe it’s 1992 again; Neil Young has never sounded as warmly glorious as when they cover ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’.

A guilty candy-floss pleasure compared to the gristle of Future of the Left, whose noisy Welsh surrealist punk deafens everyone in the small tent. Andy Falkous, drenched in sweat, screams out such deadpan masterpieces such as ‘Sheena was a T-shirt Salesman’ and ‘Failed Olympic Bid’. The humour perhaps isn’t immediately apparent, but the skit climax, “if Margaret Thatcher was alive I’d ask her what her favourite film was” surely clinches the deal.

What’s the point in running a festival if you can’t headline it yourselves? After last year’s absence, The Futureheads are back with what is essentially a greatest hits set. They kick off with the superb ‘Beeswing’ from this year’s a capella album ‘Rant’; four-part harmonised vocals have always been an essential part of the ‘heads sound, but this song, shorn of any instrumentation, demonstrates just how accurate and heartfelt they can be with just four voices.

But it’s not long before the electric guitars come out, and the band rattle through the best bits of their back catalogue, climaxing with a majestic ‘Hounds of Love’. The audience are enraptured throughout, as well they might be: this event is more than just another show, it’s a celebration of Sunderland, its people and its music. And on the evidence of Split 2012, Sunderland is in very rude health indeed.

 

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.

 

Preview: Split Festival 2012

 
By on Thursday, 20th September 2012 at 3:00 pm
 

The tent is packed away. The wellies have been demuddied and chucked in the back of a cupboard, not to be seen until next year. By September all the big summer music festivals have been and gone in a haze of traffic jams, mud, and the occasional transcendental musical performance. But for the music fan that wants more, there are a few notable events still yet to come – of which Split Festival in Sunderland is one. A modestly-sized, two-day, outdoor-but-under-cover shindig just outside the city centre, Split has a great local feel to it, showcasing a superb blend of North-East talent and national acts.

Following on from the success of 2011, which saw the Drums and the Charlatans headline a rich and varied bill, 2012 promises to be even bigger, better and brasher. The pièce de resistance, perhaps curators Futureheads’ greatest coup ever, is the appearance of Public Image Limited in their headline slot on the Main Stage on Saturday night. Johnny Rotten’s post-Sex Pistols outfit reformed in 2009, and in May released ‘This Is PiL,’ their first album of new material in 20 years. Expect a razor-sharp band featuring guitar virtuoso and Fagin lookalike Lu Edmonds, and coruscating bar-room banter and plenty of brandy-swigging from Lydon himself (pictured right at Primavera Sound 2011). As the last PiL date before their American tour in the autumn, this is simply a no-brainer. One to savour.

Elsewhere on the bill we find a double dose of West Yorkshire noise in the form of Pulled Apart by Horses and That Fucking Tank, postmodern chanteuse Kyla La Grange, the dreamy pop of St. Etienne, and finally our hosts The Futureheads wrapping things up on Sunday night on the Main Stage. If the ears finally succumb to noise, there’s a fine tent of folk at the Tunstall Hill Tent on the Saturday (Kathryn Williams, King Creosote, followed by The Unthanks to close out the night), which turns noisy again on the Sunday with headliners Future of the Left. Last year saw a food tent with international delicacies galore, and a wide selections of real ales to dig into, both of which make a welcome reappearance this time around. Split is a great way to wrap up to a fine season of festivals, and with tickets a veritable steal at £40 for the weekend and day tickets for £25 for either Saturday or Sunday also available, it’s bound to be Rotten.

 

Split Festival 2011 Roundup

 
By on Monday, 3rd October 2011 at 2:00 pm
 

Each festival is defined by its terroir: the land on which it takes place that gives it its atmosphere and reason for being. Where would Glastonbury be without its mythical rumours of ley lines and King Arthur, for instance? At first glance, the city centre of Sunderland wouldn’t be considered prime real estate by festival goers. But Split Festival have found a very accommodating venue in Ashbrooke Sports Club, a cricket and rugby venue with a proud tradition of sport, and a rather fine clubhouse, which is given over for a weekend a year to all manner of musical, comedic and gourmet endeavours. Some of the rugby team even double up as security.

Inevitably a festival on a tiny scale, there’s one large tent, a ‘fringe’ tent, and a food tent, laden with all sorts of edible goodies. The clubhouse is off-limits for regular punters, being reserved for staff, performers and press – and the regular sporting participants and their families, who continue to absorb their rugby league and Premiership football in the bar, even as the racket emanates from the tent below, whilst many a music fan’s Adidas wreak their havoc on the previously hallowed cricket outfield.

Sunderland clearly deserves its own festival; even though there are big national and international names on the bill, the roll-call of local talent is rather impressive, with Saturday’s Vinyl Jacket, B>E>A>K, Beth Jeans Houghton and Little Comets holding up the North-East corner. Beth Orton played a superb, brave solo set in the fringe tent, proving that even shorn of instrumentation, her songs still hold the power to captivate. The Rifles somehow manage to sound like an indie Madness, which is no bad thing when you get your head round it.

The Mystery Jets’ epic, thoughtful set is well-received, Blaine Harrison managing to deliver plenty of excitement despite being sat down throughout the set. The Drums bring a touch of flouncy transatlantic glamour to the affair – sticking to their new material, the set is tense, sparsely arranged, aloof. Something of an acquired taste, and not the most likely choice to bring a crowd to an excited climax on the end of day one, but certainly a class act. (Further, I got a chance to chat with them; you can read my interview with them here.)

On Sunday (day two), Hyde and Beast continue their meteoric ascent with a note-perfect rendition of the best bits of recent album ‘Slow Down’ (review here). Unsurprisingly popular, with the sprinkling of Futureheads in the line-up, the crowd give a justified warm welcome to the downtempo, subtle psychedelia. The only festival I can remember that actually runs ahead of time, Ganglians are off almost as soon as they are supposed to have begun, looking nonplussed about the whole affair.
Dinosaur Pile-Up’s stripped-down, Ash-on-steroids set is slightly incongruous in the late summer sunshine, and there’s a feeling of killing time until the utterly wonderful Frankie and the Heartstrings take the stage.

Arguably the biggest band in Sunderland at present, a truly deserved accolade, practically every song sounds like a hit single, with plenty of that jerky, assertive rhythm that distinguishes a Sunderland band. Frankie himself is a classic frontman, throwing shapes with abandon, the crowd enthralled. An apparently unplanned power cut in the last song couldn’t have been better timed, Frankie whipping the audience into a frenzied chant of “Sunderland!” in the darkness, until persuaded to leave the stage minutes later by a bouncer who himself couldn’t help but hold his fist aloft, proud as punch. Every festival has its ecstatic moment which sums up all that is special about the weekend. This was Split’s.

After such a strong set, the Charlatans had a tough job, and they sort of got away with it by dint of being a professional, well-rehearsed unit, with a popular body of work behind them. Great for fans, but missing something of the connection of the previous act. And after all that, it’s a short hop home. Festivals in cities are something of a rarity, but there’s something to be said for good transport links, and being in bed in time for getting up for work on Monday morning. On this showing, Split 2012 should be an unmissable event.

 

Interview: Jacob Graham and Jonathan Pierce of the Drums at Split Festival

 
By on Thursday, 29th September 2011 at 11:00 am
 

TGTF caught up with Jonny and Jacob from the Drums over a Sobieski and Sprite at the Split Festival in Sunderland earlier this month. A highly appropriate name, Split, as when another member of the band appeared at the door, he was swiftly shooed away. Clearly the band has two core members, and dare I say a revolving door policy for the rest; Jacob admits split rumours have plagued the band from the beginning. The duo have plenty to talk about: from being a dedicated synth fan in the grunge era, through lazy musical comparisons… to apiphobia?

Cheers, and welcome to Sunderland. How have the UK festivals treated you this summer?

Jacob: We were a little alarmed by the bees everywhere at Bestival – but we’re both from the country so we’re used to that.
Jonny: At UK festivals, everyone just wants to party with their friends. At US festivals, everyone just goes to see the bands they like and stays in hotels. Camping is very much a UK thing.

On to the new album, ‘Portamento’ (review here). The lyrical themes sound very much like one man’s opinions.
Jon: I write the lyrics, then we get together to write the music. Almost every song that we’ve ever released has been about the same person; we’re obsessive people in this band. [I note an exchange of not exactly cordial glances between the two at this point….unrequited love maybe?]

The themes on the new album change from very much being in control of a relationship to self-doubt and needing a doctor. There’s certainly some raw emotion on display.
Jon: I don’t see it as therapy. Decided the only option was to write an honest album, after all the things we’ve been through in the last year and a half: an album based on reality. There’s some whimsical aspects of the last album that I don’t believe in any more. We’re suckers for heartbreak, it’s the only thing that touches the two of us.

There’s a nice moment in the record where it breaks into a choral synth piece. It reminds me very much of Tomita. Is this a hint of a new direction?
Jacob: It’s interesting and wonderful that you bring up Tomita; people here who talk about us using synthesisers say the craziest things like Searching For Heaven sounds like New Order, which to me is totally absurd, such a limited frame of reference. I listen to a lot of Tomita, Jean Michel Jarre, and Wendy Carlos, that’s what we’re interested in as far as synths go. We specfically hunt down vintage synthesisers with a lot of fervour – that’s actually how we met each other, we were obsessed with old synths, around the age of 11 or 12, we were collecting as much old analogue gear as we could!
Jon: Do you want to hear the song that was playing when Jacob and I met each other? [A Macbook appears, playing ‘The Electric Joy Toy Company’ by Joy Electric: think Nintendo soundtrack with reverby, childlike vocals.] This was our favourite band for 10 years. Everyone else picked on me for listening to it. We were shipped to the same summer camp, and he came over and said, “who’s playing this?” I thought he was gonna make fun of me, but he was like, “it’s my favourite band!” I said, “really? Then look at this!” I pulled out a Joy Electric t-shirt, he asked if he could touch it, I said sure you can touch it, and we became pen pals. We were the last to get email.
Jacob: It was very strange for us growing up in the middle of America, being 12 years old, right when grunge music was at its height. Nirvana was the rage, and we were listening to this [Joy Electric]. It was not cool. It’s still not cool! [laughs]

It sounds like a toy sound. In fact, you seem to make guitars and drums sound like this, the opposite of Nirvana, when they turn everything up to 11.
Jacob: It’s always one note at a time – we never knew how to play guitars, we can’t play any chords or anything, so when we played them we knew how to sequence notes on a sequencer, so it’s the same mentality on a guitar.
Jon: We grew up on monosynths so we tend to just play one note at a time – like a mono guitar.
Jacob: The night we met, Jonny wrote down his address for me, and signed it Electric Till Death! It wasn’t a joke to us, we were like, Yeah! Synthesisers! As much as we’ve used guitars over the last couple of years we’re over that too, it’s all just one big blur. I think that’s why we used synths again on ‘Portamento’.
Jon: It’s like going back to a past lover: it’s comfortable, but kind of boring.
Jacob: [indignant] It’s not like that for me!

I want to pass on a complaint from a friend of mine. He wanted to hear ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ at Bestival, and apparently you didn’t play it. Is that deliberate?
Jacob: [sarcastically] We just forgot to play it!
Jon: It’s strategic – the words in that song are empty at this point. The show can only be as good as the level of sincerity; if I’m standing there singing, and the song is void of anything that I’m feeling, you go away with less of a feeling of potency, like you witnessed something special. At the risk of losing a fan who likes us for that song, I’d rather play something that every word that I sing I can feel when I’m singing it – I think it heightens the energy and intimacy of a show.
Jacob: I don’t want to discredit your friend [personal note: discredit him as much as you like!], but anyone who says ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ is their favourite song of ours has failed to check out the rest of the catalogue. There’s loads of special moments there – we’re happy to lose the fans who don’t want to dig any deeper.
Jon: I don’t know if we’re really a festival band anyway – we really record stuff bit by bit, it sounds like it’s made in the basement of a house in Ohio with a shitty lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. We are very much an indoor band.

They really don’t seem like an indoor band when they take the stage to headline Split… although we’re in a tent, so, technically, we’re indoors. Jonny flounces around the stage like a stroppy diva, Jacob conducts the band from his bank of synths, the two of them defining the sound of the Drums. Tension is never very far away; it’s built into the songs, it’s built into the band. There’s no denying the rawness of emotion on offer within ‘Portamento’, and it continues the sound of a band who love their electronic music but seem able to cross over into the mainstream guitar band consciousness. Direct from the Joy Electric dating agency.

 

Preview: Split Festival 2011

 
By on Friday, 2nd September 2011 at 11:00 am
 

The fourth Split Festival returns to the Ashbrooke Sports Club in Sunderland on 17th and 18th September. The two-day festival, curated by Sunderland’s own Futureheads, boasts a fine slice of local talent, whilst offering enough international acts to keep even the most jaded festival-goer awake. At the time of writing, tickets are still available at the bargain price of £35 for the full weekend.

For any enthusiast of the vibrant Northeast scene, or fans of its melodic, harmonised sound, the goodies on offer at Split are second to none. Saturday features the sparkly, newly-minted Vinyl Jacket from Northumberland, Sunderland’s ornithological instrumentalists B>E>A>K, the delicate and dramatic Newcastle-bred but L.A. enthusiast Beth Jeans Houghton, and a rare chance to catch Jarrow’s poppy guitarslingers Little Comets. Saturday’s talent from further afield includes 80s widescreeners Spector, the mathy Dutch Uncles, and straight-ahead indie veterans the Rifles, whose new album is due out just a couple of days later. Then there’s a chance to see how the Mystery Jets’ new material is coming along, before headliners the Drums (pictured above) give a masterclass in deceptively simple, melodic New York thought-pop, showcasing new album ‘Portamento’ released the same week.

There’s a distinctly punky edge to Sunday’s line-up: Sunderland’s vintage punk rockers Leatherface, active for over 20 years, are still capable of ear-bleeding intensity, after whom the Dauntless Elite, Dinosaur Pile-Up and the King Blues create a triptych of melodic noise that should satisfy all but the most hardcore of punk fans. Bringing light to the shade are the sunny Tomahawks For Targets from Newcastle, Sunderland’s superb, trippy Hyde & Beast, featuring both a Futurehead and a Golden Virgin, and the jangly Ganglians with their dreamy Sacramento psych-rock. A homecoming gig for pop ‘n’ rollers Frankie and the Heartstrings is worth wearing a quiff for, before headliners the Charlatans put on the granddad shirts and baggy jumpers and shake it like it’s 1990.

If that feast of musical goodness wasn’t enough, there’s a literal feast on offer, with Masterchef finalist Stacie Stewart cooking up a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in honour of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, which, rhymingly enough, was written in Sunderland. Not to mention the superb Fringe Tent, with Beth Orton headlining the Saturday, or Sunday’s enviable comedy line-up. A veritable treat for a modest price – even Geordies must be tempted to cross the river for it.

General Admission tickets are available for Saturday, Sunday and the whole weekend. Prices are £25.00 for a day ticket and £40.00 for a weekend ticket (booking and postage fees apply). There is an additional VIP ticket option called ‘Friends of Split’, giving you access to the festival on either Saturday, Sunday or the whole weekend plus access to the ‘Friends of Split’ area where there will be a dedicated bar service with local Real ales, lagers and spirits and a luxury seating area, you will also receive some Split branded merchandise including a ‘Friends of Split’ t-shirt. Prices for Friends of Split tickets are £44.00 for a day ticket and £71.50 for a weekend ticket (inclusive of booking fees, postage fees apply). For more information, visit the official Split Festival Web site.

 
 
 

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