To write substantively, yet concisely, about a music festival is somewhat difficult, for each person's experiences at a musical festival are unique. Not only is it possible that two attendees see entirely different musical acts, but they are nearly certain to have attended different workshops, eaten from different vendors, and visited different informational stalls. At Indietracks in particular, attendees are also given the opportunity to roam acres of living museum funded by the Midlands Railway Trust (a charity that benefits from the non-profit festival). Would readers be interested in how I spent my three days? And if so, would that accounting read more like a personal travelogue than the show reviews (or "accounts," as I always hedge) that Too Much Rock readers expect? Should I have spent my days documenting the festival as a whole to write a better article, or merely experience the festival on my own terms and relay those? Or, more relevant to me, how did a person who professes to hate festivals fare over the weekend? Let's start with the latter.
In the past, I have taken musical festivals as a challenge will I be able to remain standing in one spot for 12-14 hours a day, enduring the marathon of musical acts without missing a note or moment of stage banter? With a desired outcome this dire, it's no wonder festivals are seldom worth the effort to me.
While my approach to festivals can be attributed to my own compulsions, I also blame the festivals themselves for creating this "man vs. festival" battle. If an attendee would like to see an artist (actually see the curl of her lip, or how he shifts his weight in his shoes), then he or she must immediately set up a permanent forward operating base at the edge of the stage and not leave it. Abandoning that post for any reason including biological ones condemns the concert-goer to a new view so far from the stage as to barely count as being in attendance. While some festivals attempt to lessen this (dangerous) squatting behavior by utilizing two stages with complementing start times, still, by midafternoon, the bunkering behavior returns. Only now the attendee is not only tethered to his or her post, but also misses each of the acts performing on the second stage. Festivals with a greater number of stages lessen the impact further, but then create painful decision points (known as "clashes") where audiences must choose one band over another, or at a minimum, choose to see only portions of multiple acts. Because of this (or specifically because of this and my obsession for completeness) festivals with multiple stages not merely propose a problem for me, but cause real anxiety. To satisfy my neurosis, if there is simply no way to see all the bands, I've generally avoided the festival, or I've attended but confined myself to one stage where I can at least see complete performances even if it means missing desirable acts playing on a stage elsewhere at the event.
Thankfully there is no need for maintain a beachhead at Indietracks. With only a few exceptions, fans wishing to be close enough to study a guitarist's picking style have no problem walking up within a few rows of the stage. While this is managed, in part, by multiple stages (and the undesirable clashes), it is also a result of the intentionally limited ticket sales. While the rail complex could certainly support double the amount of tickets sold, the result would be a less enjoyable experience. I'm sure the pleasant environment, gorgeous weather, more mature audience, and cultural differences also come into play, but because of this access, the choices, and the mobility, Indietracks is a delightful festival to attend, irrespective of the top-notch indie pop bands performing.
Unburdened by the need to "hold my ground" (and augmented by a very accommodating photography pit), I was free to see bands at any stage I chose. Furthermore, knowing that I couldn't possibly see all the bands opened up the possibility of not seeing a band at every moment. For the first time at a festival, I allowed myself to retreat from the stages for other pursuits (including the pursuit of leisure). Based on my experiences, I'm convinced that a visitor could have a very nice Indietracks experience without ever actively watching a single performance.
Still, I am an active consumer that believes an audience has a responsibility to the band performing. Maybe it's a protestant work ethic that applies to my leisure as well; maybe it's a result of growing up in a small town where touring bands were scarce and thus deserved the utmost praise and respect for traveling off the beaten path, but I feel that I owe my rapt attention throughout an entire set of every band (whether I find their music good, bad, or indifferent). Because of this compulsion, I wasn't able to roam from stage to stage at Indietracks, sampling bands as many did, but instead studied the lineups and scheduled my day as to avoid "missing a note or moment of stage banter" of any individual performance. For me, this is progress.
So where does that leave us? Well it leaves us with details and photographs for 25 bands, and a few passing observations. That sounds like something Too Much Rock readers might expect. Let's just go with that.
A hundred or more indie pop fans boarded an old steam train at an unused train station in the Midlands of England. Once aboard, the whistle blew, the engine started to chuff, and everyone was transported to the Indietracks festival grounds. If it sounds magical, it was.
Festival-goers were eased into the weekend with a shortened set on Friday night. Only four bands, only one stage. Kate calculated we'd be back at the hotel by 11pm and immediately proclaimed that this was her sort of festival. Traffic had delayed several of the organizers and the press list had not made it to the gate when we arrived, so the organizer just told me to write my name down, and gave us our wristbands. This was a laidback affair. I proclaimed that this was my sort of festival.
A large covered stage adorned with beautiful lights and flanked by towers of speakers sat at one edge of the grounds. A grass knoll overlooked it, guaranteeing everyone a quality view. At the top of the hill several vendors were set up selling curries, chips, burritos, and pizza. A sweets shop had sprung up as well. Power was provided by an unseen (or, more importantly, unheard) source. The merch tent sat between the entrance and the outdoor stage.
First on the stage was TeenCanteen. The band is four young Scottish girls, adorable but cloying. The band's music is pleasant with solid songwriting and varied tempos, but ultimately too slick and commercial for my tastes. Frontwoman and keyboardist Carla Easton developed a quick rapport with the growing audience, and, like the other glitter-clad players that lined the front of the stage, provided a good level of energy, yet not much motion. Both bassist Sita Pieracinni and guitarist Amanda Williams provided backing vocals (taking the lead on occasion) resulting in nice harmonies. Although drummer Deborah Smith provides backing vocals on the studio version of band's just-released single "You're Still Mine," she remained staid behind simple drumming and large white sunglasses throughout the set. I cautiously slipped between the barrier and the stage, snapping photographs for the first three songs, then left. Even without a security guard to enforce the established rules of concert photography ("first three songs, no flash"), I felt duty bound to leave. Besides, my vantage point seated on the small grassy rise just twenty yards from the stage was just as pleasant.
Between acts we leveraged our newfound mobility to explore the festival site. I quickly noted a trailer near the indoor stage (a large service shed used for railway car maintenance, repair, and overhaul) that attempted to draw attention to the efforts of some local owl and parrot rescue. So, behind a low picket fence, dozens of birds sat on wooden rods, squawking and staring at us. Kate immediately made friends with an African Grey, then reiterated that this was her sort of festival. I bought a veggie burrito (the vendor sadly out of the advertised veggie chili). Kate got a curry. Then the next band began.
I frequently drag Kate to music festivals in far-flung locations where we're outsiders. It makes the travel all the more interesting. It also means that we often have no idea who the bands performing are. Often our ignorance is punctuated by learning the band in question is beloved by the locals, has been around for decades, and has released a dozen albums. Such is the case of Spearmint.
This five piece is led by the guitar and vocals of Shirley Lee with Simon Calnan providing keyboards and backing vocals, and James Parsons on second guitar. For most of the set, the rhythm section of drummer Ronan Larvor and bassist Andy Lewis was a relatively quiet affair, although during "Light That Shines from Dead Star" (from the band's latest album), disco-punk drumming (combined with Calnan's strong synth lines) mixed up the formula a bit. Otherwise, Spearmint's set was largely easy pop not unlike TeenCanteen, but presented with more gusto and edge, albeit stopping short of anything that could be described as angst. Lee's audience interaction was limited, instead offering a quiet professionalism the seemed at odds with the bright, setting sun beyond the stage. Still audience members bounded relentlessly for several songs that I would later identify as "Psycho Magnet" and "We're Going Out" the latter closing the set with a strong northern soul influence not present in the 1999 original recording.
During Spearmint's set I noticed a woman dancing, or more accurately bounding about in front of the stage joyfully. She wore a jaunty scarf and patterned tights. I'd see her doing the same throughout the weekend, and crown her "The Queen of Indietracks."
Again I slipped between the barriers to photograph the first three songs of Spearmint's set. Again there was no security guard. In fact, on the platforms where security guards ought to be standing to survey the unruly crowd, photographers sat, shooting the stage from an unseen and comfortable vantage point. So unseen and comfortable, in fact, that photographers would stay put throughout the entire length of a band's set if they felt they needed the extra time to capture the perfect moment. For the first time, I noticed someone in the photo pit with a badge reading "Press." Between acts I returned to the press table and collected my own credentials. I would not need them the entire weekend.
The evening continued with one of the festival's most anticipated acts, New Zealand's The Chills. While this long-standing Kiwi pop act has never officially broken up (for more than a year), the rate at which Martin Phillipps (the band's only permanent member) has toured and produced new music over the last thirty-five years has often made it feel that way. This made the band's set a must see.
On this evening Phillipps was a chatty frontman, interacting with a barking dog in the audience, discussing extreme jet lag, the band's forthcoming album, and persistently urging the audience to buy his records. Phillipps worked to understand the purpose of the Midland Railway Centre, asking if trains were brought here for rehab, or if it was just a place they went to die. After some unheard interaction with the audience, he determined that he was playing at a "train hospice" and seemed satisfied. With the help of a four-piece backing band (keyboards, keyboards/violin, bass, and drums), Phillipps treated the audience to several new tracks including "Silver Bullet" (the forthcoming album's title track), "Aurora Corona" (with its big bass line and calliope-sounding synth line reminiscent of early Elvis Costello), and "Underwater Wasteland" (moody post-punk defined by its intertwined violin lines). The new compositions, like the band's entire catalog, are tight and smart, featuring Phillipps easy going vocals, and driven by either his guitar or keyboards. Pseudo-hits "Pink Frost," "Heavenly Pop Hit," and "I Love My Leather Jacket" all came at the end of the set, positively elating the dancing audience.
Kate spent the band's set sitting on the grass, watching the sun set while cute children danced in their parentally-required enormous protective earmuffs, and drinking a chai. This is her sort of festival.
Although The Chills have a larger international reputation than any other band playing the festival, there is no active band more adored by the Indietracks audience than the evening's headliner, Allo Darlin'. Because of this, the band were able to open with three consecutive tracks from its forthcoming album. While this might be ill-advised in most settings, frontwoman Elizabeth Morris has a seemingly effortless connection with her audience, easily guiding it through this unknown territory. But whether debuting a new track, or singing a fan-favorite like the lovelorn "Tallulah," her honest and easy rapport mesmerizes the audience, inspiring them to a silent hush or pulsing synchronized leaps as if everyone were reading from the same script. Morris makes it look simple, and the band trades in simple. Paul Rain's guitar leads are often basic one-string affairs, the bass of Bill Botting and drumming of Michael Collins are generally nothing to note, and Morris's strums (whether on ukulele or rhythm guitar) often land on clean open chords. But as any songwriter will tell you, it's the simple songs that are the hardest to write.
The energetic highlights of the set came when guests were introduced. First, Standard Fare's Emma Kupa joined the band on vocals for "Silver Dollars," and then, to end the set, David and Katie Pope of The Just Joans provided vocals for "If You Don't Pull" a song originally released by The Just Joans five years ago, yet, undeniably, the song of this year's festival. Although the collaboration ended the set on a seemingly insurmountable high, the audience called for more, bringing the band back out for "Kiss your Lips." The encore, as Morris adorably pointed out, was entirely impromptu and genuine, and to that end, offered to let the audience inspect the set list as verification. Authenticity is very important to this scene. The buoyant version of the song that followed not only included the normal homage to Weezer's "El Scorcho," but also a grin-inducing version of Paul Simon's "Call Me Al" replete with the slap bass solo nailed by Botting.
While this song completed the night for Kate and I, others moved to the indoor stage for the "disco." When that dance party ended at Midnight, many moved to the off-site campground where another disco began that would last until 3am. At least that is what I was told Kate and I would be back in the hotel by 11pm. Definitely our kind of festival.