Too Much Rock
Pics+Video Podcasts Singles About
Saturday July 26th, 2014 at Indietracks Festival in Derbyshire, UK
Gruff Rhys, The Popguns, Owl & Mouse, The Spook School, The Yawns, Dorotea, Onsind, Bill Botting, Elopes, Skeletal Shakes, & Ace City Racers
Tweet

 This is a continuation of an earlier show account, please read day 1 for all the color and set up.

We weren't exactly sure when we should arrive at the festival. While bands didn't begin on the main stages until later in the afternoon, acoustic acts began performing in the trains a bit earlier, and for some reason I still had the feeling that if we weren't there when the gates opened, the day would be lost. It took all of the will power I had to simply leave when we left (giving a ride to a fun couple from London, but scaring them with my American-in-the-UK driving skills), and arrive when we would. Even after a stop at Tesco for breakfast and snacks that we squirreled away for later in the day, we arrived just before the first band took the stage.

Glasgow's Ace City Racers started the day with leaps and raucous noise all stuffed into tight pop song structures. Guitarist James Racer and bassist Mark Racer trade lead vocals, with drummer Craig Racer always filling in the holes. With punk rock power chords and some interesting post-punk drums the trio come off a bit like The Jam. Which can't be accidental when you see the mod-revival kit the guys are wearing in all their promo shots. If I were hipper I'd have recognize the guest guitarist who joined the band for a track, but I'm not. He was wearing a Boyracer t-shirt though so maybe he's another sibling of the Racer boys. No?

The mystery guitarist was not the only one at the festival wearing a Boyracer t-shirt. In fact the band was well represented among a sea of indie pop band t-shirts worn by most of the gents at the festival. The ladies (and at least one hairy man) were a bit more formal in delightful patterned dresses and colorful tights that were rivaled only by the rainbow of hair dyes represented. Bangs and bobs were nearly universal. Again, my kind of festival.

Kate and I made our way to the slope near the outside stage where we sat waiting for the next band. The sun was intense. Although twenty degrees warmer at home, this was the hottest day Derbyshire had seen (and likely would see) all year long. Local trio Skeletal Shakes must have been feeling the heat as the band launched into a take of "Heat Wave" featuring delightful bouncy rhythms unique to the band's retelling. The local band was formed by vocalist/guitarist Dan How and drummer Andy Beswick, both from the much-loved, and now defunct, Standard Fare. Months later duo expanded to include Hannah Moore, who now provides backing vocals that blend and harmonize nicely, a load of tambourine, and, occasionally, acoustic guitar. Although missing the traditional bass role, on the songs where How played lead-heavy electric guitar and Moore added her own acoustic, the band's sound was as full as it needed to be. Both "That Boy Scotty" and the buoyant "Pretty Little Stones" are tracks I'd like to hear again.

The Midland Railway complex is, essentially, a model railway. I built a small set when I was a kid, saving my allowance for a particular engine or carriage, for the general store or the bank. The volunteers at the Midland Railway do the same, but they buy in full 1:1 scale. One of the buildings purchased for their play is the St. Saviour's Church – a small Victorian church built in 1898 and moved to the site to become part of a planned Victorian streetscape. During Indietracks, this small tin building becomes a third stage. As I was told that seeing a show in this venue was a must, I headed to church on Saturday afternoon.

Sadly, 100 other attendees thought the same thing. As I attempted to make my way into the church, I was met by a stream of exiters warning me that there were no seats available. I continued in undaunted. Once inside, seats were the least of my worries. It was easily 100 degrees inside the building. While the audience sat in pews fanning themselves with whatever paper they could find, I took the only position I could – on the floor, before the first row, inches from the base of the microphone stand. Definitely out of reach of any breeze that could potentially blow through. Additionally, I sussed out that every photo I'd take would boldly feature nostrils. This is the experience I was told was a must-see?

The band I stumbled in on are locals Elopes, a two-piece riot grrrl affair that skews toward the sly and reservedly sarcastic more than the explosive. Sadly (for all involved), the set began ten minutes late due to some missing backline equipment, setting the duo off their game before ever playing a note. Whether it was this, the heat, or merely the newness of it all, guitarist Hazel (who declined to share her last name) seemed self-conscious, if not outright bored, at the microphone. Drummer Cara (again, no last names please) was slightly more at ease, beating out the sparse patterns that form the backbone of the band's songs. The duo opened with the witty manifesto "Feminist Killjoy" from its current cassette demo, immediately setting the tone. Sure the message is the same as it's been since the genre's inception, but let's fault society for that, not the band. While the bulk of the audience remained seated, panting and fanning as they were, one guy bravely slipped his post, made his way to the (mostly empty) aisle and danced with abandon. His mop of floppy hair bounced gaily with every step. I'd notice him again at another performance an hour later, and then again throughout the fest. I ordained him the King of Indietracks. After a few songs and a few bad photographs of nostrils, I stepped outside into the glorious cool air. From there I listened to the rest of the set, including one track where Hazel brought her voice to a glorious full-throated scream making me wish I hadn't retreated. Lesson learned, if you want to see a band at The Church, you're going to have to get there early and bunker. Disappointing.

The Church is not the only non-traditional location where bands perform at Indietracks. True to the festival's location, acoustic acts perform on the vintage steam trains that ferry about the site. This, too, I was told was an essential part of the Indietracks experience. Always game, I wrangled Kate (who had skipped Elopes to attend a workshop where attendees learned the Allo Darlin' song "Tallulah" on ukulele – disappointingly not taught by Elizabeth Morris herself) and we headed to the platform to see Bill Botting (of Allo Darlin', natch) play a solo acoustic set on a moving vintage steam train.

Like my experience at The Church, the boxcar where Botting was to perform was impossibly hot and densely packed. Several fans quickly reached their limit, leaving for cooler cars before Botting was even able to begin. The rest of the audience flushed and sunk to the floor. As the crowd sat panting and fanning themselves, I again was reminded of the endurance test that define most festivals. Indietracks was losing its charm before my sweat-stung eyes.

The oh-so-likeable Botting felt the heat as well, apologizing and attempting to move forward as planned despite a host of difficulties: the train was hot, it was crowded, it jerked forward unexpectedly, rocked back and forth relentlessly, and paused for indeterminate and unexplained lengths of time. At one point Botting worried he didn't know enough material to last the entire circuit, later he found himself hurrying through the final number so that passengers could disembark before the train began another lap. These were not easy conditions for Botting's set of originals and pruned covers. Case in point: when Botting attempted to cover The Smittens' "Gumdrops," he couldn't get through more than the first several stanzas without forgetting the lyrics. Even with prodding from the audience (The Smittens are a festival favorite), he was forced to give up, noting in increasingly humorous mumbles, "I'm so sorry. I thought it was such a good idea. I really love them. I should try it again later. On my own. In front of no one." Later he'd ask his sister Hannah Botting (of Owl & Mouse) to join him for a cover of The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." As she stood holding Botting's sleeping infant daughter, the two siblings delivered a touching performance. Unfortunately, Botting's quick visit of Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" was less inspired. Although Botting is positively adorable, the set will only be remembered for the heat, and the realization that I have trouble photographing anything standing untethered in the middle of hot, dark, crowded, swaying steam train.

Although the (comparatively) cool air of the outside stage called to me like a siren, I hustled toward the indoor stage to see Onsind. Two months ago I had never heard of the band, but after buying its album on the insistence of every member Colour Me Wednesday, I now looked forward to the act's Indietracks set more than any other. Based on the crowded room, I was not alone. I slipped through the mob to my station in front of the barricade just in time for Nathan Griffin and Daniel Ellis to begin their set.

Immediately the band admitted to being perplexed at their inclusion at an indie pop festival. The folk punk the band performs is far from the twee roots set by Pastels and others years ago. Still, Onsind saw a certain ideological connection to indie pop's past (a history that Ellis admitted was foreign to him until recently). Certainly Onsind share the politics of indie pop statesman Morrissey concerning animal rights, sexuality, and religion, yet I've always considered any radical politics present in indie pop to be a vestigial trait retained from the genre's punk roots, not a core tenet of the genre. Maybe things are different in the UK.

An insider explained the band's inclusion slightly more succinctly: "Their star is rising." Certainly so, and deservedly. While the band recalls many of their American contemporaries on Plan-It-X records (with Ghost Mice being an obvious influence), the duo are easily at the top of the heap. The band opened with the curiously named "PokĊ½mon City Limits" with its "Never Trust a Tory" refrain. While I shouted the chorus with the rest of the crowd, those that lined the front of the barricade screamed every word to nearly every song the band played, pumping their fists in unison at climatic moments. While there wasn't exactly a crush at the barricade, the obviously younger crowd drawn by Onsind made their devotion evident. In return, both diehard fans and the curious alike were rewarded with a strong set built on excellent storytelling, catchy refrains, and raw emotion. Well done.

Although Kate slipped out to enjoy a pizza in the sunshine, I remained in the shed for Sweden's Dorotea. Like several other acts playing the festival, Gothenburg's Dorotea was resurrected specifically for the festival upon the urging of its organizers. The band is lead by the guitar and vocals of Mikael Carlsson, although he was a curious frontman. Despite a long history on stage, he seemed both unable and uninterested in communicating with the audience, twice aborting this banter mid-sentence to play another song. The rest of his band fared no better – a bass player that faced backwards, a guitarist that stared downward, and an iPod providing steady drum machine beats. This was pop punk but without any snarl, with no guitar leads, with no backing vocals. Hell, some of the short blasts didn't even have choruses! When the band played "Decent" from its 2002 7" the audience erupted, leaving me a bit confused. Was I missing something? Maybe I'm just jaded from the multitude of great pop punk bands that come from the US? So for me the highlight of the set wasn't "Decent," but when Carlsson dedicated a song to his beaming "auntie," noting that she had brought the band over to the UK twice, making her the closest thing the band had ever had to a booking agent. Adorable.

As I made my way out of the shed, I noted that I stunk. I needed to air out.

Next up on the outside stage was Glasgow's The Yawns. This was the most American-sounding act of the festival (as I experienced it), drawing heavily from the slacker '90s indie rock oeuvre – especially the meandering, Pavement-esque guitar lines of lead guitarist Stuart McIntosh. His freedom stood in contrast to the rhythm guitar of Gavin Will, the tumbling drums of Rikki Will, and the walking bass of Emma Smith, all of which focused on providing the band a sturdy rhythmic base. However McIntosh's freedom was nothing compared to literal freedom of vocalist Sean Armstrong. The band's frontman wandered about the stage for the first few songs, then climbed the barricade to roam about the audience for the next few. Eventually he returned to the stage, but soon found himself making a leap onto and over the barricade to venture back into the tickled audience. Whether amongst the audience in the sunshine or on the shaded stage, Armstrong was bemused, resulting in entertaining, rambling banter that went nowhere. My favorite remarks were a monologue where he expressed the band's love of playing outdoors. Yet immediately after making that pronouncement he seemed to disappointingly realize that the band had never played outdoors before. He tried to save the sentiment by offering that the band had played a condemned warehouse once, but then remembered that too was indoors. If Armstrong wasn't high, then he definitely operates on a different plane than the rest of us. The result was a good show, yet one that left the audience distracted from the band's music. The next band, however, put the two together flawlessly.

True to the band's name, The Spook School is made up of four artists. Just ignore the fact that the band hails from Edinburgh not Glasgow, because it's the fact that there are four members that is important. More than any other new band I can think of, each performer (guitarist/vocalist Nye Todd, guitarist/vocalist Adam Todd, bassist/vocalist Anna Cory, and drummer Biall McCamley) plays a key role in defining the band's music and stage performance. Lead vocals switch about in the band, likely corresponding to each song's author. Nye Todd provides the bulk of the set with his high voice (Todd is transgendered, and has just begun taking testosterone as part of his transition), with Adam Todd and Anna Cory each contributing lead vocals in smaller doses. McCamley provides backing vocals, but more importantly he provides the bulk of the audience interaction between songs. He's incredibly entertaining, and made even more humorous by his outsider location at the back of the stage, and doubled down again by the embarrassed responses he elicits from the Todd siblings. While Sam Brackley of Colour Me Wednesday contributed trombone to the opening number, and The Just Joans' David Pope came out for another, the highlight wasn't the guests but rather McCamley's introduction of them. The latter went something like "Anything that Allo Darlin' can do, we can do half as well!" in reference to both David and Katie Pope guesting with Allo Darlin' the night before. Throughout the set McCamley seemed focused on vegan food (me too!), and began naming vegan food items. As he was ultimately cut short by the rest of the band, his final shout of "I can name all the vegan foods in the world!" came ringing through the PA.

While McCamley sets a challenging bar to overcome, the band's anthemic songs are easily up to the task. With few exceptions, the band's indie pop is played at breakneck speeds with jangly guitars, lots of leads, and big pounding drums. Despite a very dire clash with Joanna Gruesome playing the indoor stage, the large audience belted out choruses to "The Cameraman," "You Make it Sound So Easy," and the anti-gender binary track "Hexidecimal." I must admit that I found myself perplexed by latter's lyrical refrain. While a gender binary is obviously too restrictive, sixteen gender settings seem adequate to me. Maybe I'm just being an old computer programmer, stingy with my storage.

If you've come along with me this far (and I'm surprised you have) then you'll note I've seen shows on the outdoor stage, on the indoor stage in the shed, on a vintage steam train, and in a Victorian church. What's left? Why, the impromptu shows inside the merch tent, of course! Up next, Owl & Mouse.

Owl & Mouse is the project of Hannah Botting. We were introduced to her earlier in the day when she joined big brother Bill Botting during his train set. Her EP Somewhere To Go (Fika, 2014) is a light and twee affair built around her solo voice, and ukulele. Similarities to fellow Aussie Elizabeth Morris are undeniable and unavoidable. But as Tom Ashton of Fika told me, "You don't have to be original, just good." Owl & Mouse is good. Sadly performing seeing a short set of originals and covers in a hot tent while nearby stages run through noisy soundchecks, is not the best way to experience the band. Even joined by a backing vocalist, Owl & Mouse just couldn't compete with the outside stimuli.

The painful clashes continued as I snubbed Dean Wareham (of Galaxy 500 and Luna) to see The Popguns. While a big fan of Dean's various projects, I justified that I would be more likely to see Dean (an American) than the recently reunited Popguns. Besides band's album Love Junky was curiously popular around my house in the mid to late '90s. Two songs in particular remain on my iPhone today. Spoiler Alert: The band didn't play either of them.

The Popguns are a Brighton-based indie pop band formed in the late 80s, active through the mid '90s, and then on hiatus until reforming in 2012. Core members Wendy Pickles (vocals), Simon Pickles (guitar), Greg Dixon (guitar), and bassist Pat Walkington have returned for this second stint, adding in backing vocalist Kate Mander and a stand-in drummer whose name I didn't catch. While the noisy, three-guitar explosions heard earlier in the band's career are no more, the reunited band put on a solid performance that sounded great and looked good to boot. The set included a mix of new tracks ("Still Waiting for the Winter" and "City of Lights" both sounded solid), covers (an apropos inclusion of 10,000 Maniac's "Can't Ignore the Train"), and early fan favorites ("Bye Bye Baby" and "Waiting for the Winter"). While the latter two sent the audience into anachronistic fits of pogoing, that isn't how the band presents those songs today. Songs are mature and tempered – exactly opposite of the vitality, reckless urgency, and intensity of youth that The Spook School, Joanna Gruesome, and so many of the day's rising acts trade in. Is there another chapter for The Popguns with a new young audience, or will the band continue on just to remind us of the days of MTV's "120 Minutes" and our years as a college radio DJs? Just so you know, I'd be perfectly fine with the latter.

After The Popguns' set, the audience stayed put and waited. To guarantee its audience no clashes during the night's headliner, that set wouldn't begin until all the other shows ended. That meant waiting for both Dean Wareham and The Proper Ornaments to release their congregations. It was just after 9pm, and amidst the last light of the day, that Gruff Rhys walked onto the stage and sat down inside a cockpit of effects, samplers, keyboards, guitars, and computers. Even those who hadn't done their homework had to understand that this wasn't going to be a typical performance.

Gruff Rhys (best known for his adventurous band Super Furry Animals) is Welsh. This is relevant. Several years ago Rhys discovered that he was related to John Evans – a Welsh explorer who trekked North America (specifically the Missouri River system) in the late 18th century. At that time, and for very dubious reasons, John Evans and others thought that a Welsh prince named Madog ab Owain Gwynedd had sailed to America in 1170, stayed, and intermarried with the Native Americans. In 1792 Evans went in search of those decedents, then thought to be the Mandan tribe of the Dakotas. Several years ago, Rhys traced that journey in search of John Evans' history. That project inspired a movie, album, app, and multi-media presentation all titled "American Interior." Rhys brought that presentation to Indietracks. History lessons at a music festival? This is Kate's kind of festival.

With dimmed lights and projected slides, Gruff Rhys led the audience through a delightfully entertaining version of Evans' story. Although dense with history, the telling was far from academic, as Evans' journey was filtered through a modern lens, augmented with Rhys' own discoveries and tour mishaps, dominated by Rhys' wicked sense of humor, and punctuated by eight or ten songs from the associated album. Typical of Rhys' other musical output, the songs are meticulously constructed to be both experimental and psychedelic, yet retain a pop heart. Rhys carried the bulk of the weight with his acoustic guitar, a wealth of backing tracks, and expertly sequenced samples. The accompaniment of drummer Kliph Scurlock (previously of The Flaming Lips and much controversy) and a bassist whose name I didn't catch, was minimal, and often involved them playing live along with backing tracks. While the duo didn't offer much musically, it certainly helped the performance feel like a rock show rather than the one-man lecture.

At the end of the set, Rhys built a repeating loop then stood up holding a series of signs. The first several thanked the audience (in a variety of ways), the next read "Resist False Encores," and the final simply read "The End." Analog slide show complete, he then backed off the stage without uttering a word.

Like the night before, some fans immediately jumped up heading for the train back to reality, while others slowly made their way to the disco across the complex. Many of them ultimately ending up at the campgrounds for more DJs and late-night antics that shouldn't be printed. By now, you know which direction Kate and I went.

 Continue to day 3 coverage of the festival

Too Much Rock / 4027 Locust Street / KCMO 64110