Again we arrived at the festival precisely when we happened to arrive. It's freeing knowing that you needn't queue for hours beforehand and make that mad dash for the stage when the gates are opened. At Indietracks there is space for everyone, and everyone will see the bands they want without hassle. The ease of the festival begins at the front gate – security politely peers into your bag in a hunt for glass bottles or alcohol, but virtually anything else you could want to bring to a festival (food, water, blanket, camera, good luck troll) is allowed. Yes, this is my kind of festival.
Once through security, Kate and I sat down with the festival guide to see what our day might look like. I decided it should start at the indoor stage, but that was still twenty or so minutes away. So, in a bold step forward, I agreed that I could watch a few minutes of whatever band was about to start on the outdoor stage, and then abandon its set to move to the shed. This is progress.
As it happens, Spain's Axolotes Mexicanos opened the outdoor stage, delivering a quirky and twee high-intensity pop set. The trio was led by the tiny Olaya Pedrayes who provided vocals and keyboards, with brother Juan Pedrayes on guitar, and Stephen Lyne on bass. Pedrayes's relationship with her keyboard quickly became a running gag, as she often would announce (with Lyne as translator) the songs in which she would play keyboards, those that she forgot to play keyboards in, and (near the end of the set) a song which required her to play keyboards with two hands. The last instance inspiring her to exclaim (in English) "Next Level!" Thankfully even when Pedrayes shirked her duties, the songs didn't suffer due to a preponderance of pre-recorded backing tracks and lo-fi percussion. With beats that varied from Casiotone levels of simplicity to pre-programmed rolls and fills, the band's set careened between simple pop punk and the blippy, high-energy electro-pop of Dan Deacon. The latter was exemplified in "Perro Salchicha" – a song Olaya described as about "A sausage dog. Which is very fat."
Although Padrayes began the set by telling the audience that she wouldn't be moving around much because she was sick and nervous, that didn't keep her from bouncing in oxblood Doc Martens that matched her dyed hair. It also didn't keep her from excitedly shouting "Yay!" or "Si Si!" each time Lyne would translate her song introductions to the audience. She was simply adorable, which made her (again, translated) R-rated introduction to "Love Shot" – a song about, well, you know – all the more entertaining. While I had only intended to watch for a few minutes, the band delivered one of the best performances of the festival, keeping me from going anywhere.
By the time I made it to the indoor stage, Liverpool's The Swapsies was already nearing the end of its set. What I caught was three or four songs that were poppy, sweet, and well composed. Lead vocals were traded between guitarist Huw Spink and Andy Warhurst (who contributed a bit of guitar along with a bit of glockenspiel), with backing vocals provided by bassist Matt McCall and drummer Elaine Kinsella. The quintet was completed by the lead guitar and keyboards of Sean Ravey. Warhurst, Spink, and McCall all provided some amount of banter, each appearing perfectly comfortable on stage and with the attending audience. I wish I would have seen more, but luckily the entire set was captured and posted to YouTube. "You want to go out tonight? Sorry, I can't. I'm staying in and watching The Swapsies!"
As far as anticipation goes, No Ditching was very high on my list. It seems every UK band that I follow on Twitter has played with the all-female five-piece, and every one has sung its praises. That set my expectations pretty high. Additionally the band's bio name-drops a half-dozen other bands that its members have been in, or are currently a part of. This also helped set my preconceptions of the band. Because of all this, it was quite a shock when the members took the stage as cold and timid as could be. Naomi Griffin, the band's vocalist and guitarist, fronts the Durham band, but she seldom looked up from guitar. The second guitarist/backing vocalist [I queried the band to discover the identities of each musician, but never got a response] was similarly shy, the bassist stared out above the audience motionless and without expression, and the band's second percussionist actually quaked on stage during the sound check. Only drummer Kate [again, no last name] made regular eye contact with the audience. This wasn't the powerhouse I had expected to find, but rather a new band still embryonic, still finding the strength to shout its vision. So what is that vision? DIY punk rock with strong feminist and animal-rights politics. No Ditching's punk is poppy, quick, and bouncy with the rhythm way up front, simple guitar leads, a few backing vocals, and no solos. And if the positively explosive "Meat In Your Teeth," with it's big power chord riff and "My girls and me/We make a pretty good team" refrain, is any indication of what the band is capable of, my expectations are going to fall way short of the reality.
Although Kate ducked out to the "Put a Bird on It" workshop to make her own felt bird brooch, I stayed put in the shed to catch the next act – a fun garage rock band from France called "The Wendy Darlings." When I played the band's last album on the podcast several weeks prior, I was merely lukewarm on the effort. Turns out this is a band that must be seen live to fully appreciate the energy and charisma of the trio, and particularly that of vocalist/guitarist Suzy Borello. Bo carted a large hollowbody electric about the stage, thrashing it back and forth, hopping, twisting, and smiling all the while. She shared her smiles first with equally mobile bassist Sylvain Coantic and drummer Baptiste Fick, then with the audience. Everyone was having fun. Several songs into the set Coantic announced, "We're not really French, we're just snobs," sending everyone into stiches. The band's set heavily featured songs from its new album (The Insufferable Fatigues of Idleness, Odd Box Records, 2014), including "Teenager," which inspired the audience to chant back the "You're Not a Teenager Anymore" refrain along with Coantic. But whether new or old, the band's set combined punk, garage, and rockabilly in delightful doses. If there was a more inclusive and fun set at Indietracks, I didn't see it.
Although I was happily able to walk around in the sunshine between bands, I kept a close tab on the indoor stage, plotting my return as soon as London's Cosines completed its soundcheck. The band is a five-piece affair that combines twee, krautrock, and glam in varying strengths to either create something new entirely (the band describes itself as "mathematical pop"), or to merely add depth to its set. The band performed both of its singles (including B-sides), a jaw-dropping cover of Rod Stewart's "Young Turks" that only I sang along to, and a good chuck of the band's full length debut, unavailable until the week after the festival. Sadly this foreignness, the unexpectedly muscular bite to the band's songs, persistent bass troubles, and the standoffishness of frontwoman Alice Hubley, all combined to keep the eager audience at bay throughout most of the set. Even guest trumpeter Francesca Dimech and saxophonist Emma Cooper seemed demure, and had to be urged into motion by guitarist Simon Nelson. The set ended with both guest horns and guest guitarist Simon Love on stage for a noisy blowout of "The Answer." Before the six-minute finale began, Nelson noted it would either be wonderful or a disaster. Don't worry – it was wonderful.
One of the things that the curators of Indietracks do so well is blend the new and the old. Rising bands like No Ditching and The Spook School feature alongside established acts such as Allo Darlin' and Gruff Rhys, and both are augmented by old favorites returning to the stage such as Spearmint and The Popguns. Sliding into that last category are The Flatmates.
While The Flatmates never grew to international prominence, the Bristol band had a string of wonderful power pop singles in the late 1980s before ultimately fizzling out. Immediately after the band's demise a posthumous LP was released, but it failed to inspire a reformation. Now, years later, the band is back, but with a radically altered line-up that finds vocalist Debbie Haynes replaced by Lisa Bouvier, drummer "Rocker" moved to keyboards, a new drummer and bassist, and only guitarist Martin Whitehead in his original position. Maybe not better than ever, but definitely a welcome return.
The band's set featured old favorites, a couple of new songs ("Punk Moth" was memorable), and a few covers. Included in the latter camp was the band's new single "When You Were Mine" (by Prince) and two others that I didn't recognize (despite Bouvier's insistence that one of the songs was played every night in every indie disco). The band's stage show was enthusiastic if not always spot on. Bouvier runs about the stage with loads of energy, but that often slid her voice into unwanted territory. The old MacBook that drove Rocker's keyboard crashed during the set. And bassist Matthias Lidehall's guyliner was just a bit too thick, and his leather pants a bit too baggy. Still, there was no denying Whitehead's songs, and "Happy All The Time," "Shimmer," and "I Could Be In Heaven" were as brilliant in 2014 as they were in 1987.
While the outdoor stage was prepared for the next act, Kate and I made a rush for the merch tent to see Martha. The acoustic four-piece from Durham features Nathan Griffin and Daniel Ellis of Onsind, Naomi Griffin of No Ditching, and J. Cairns. Sadly this surprise act (tent acts are only announced on the day of the show) was much too popular for the venue, making it both impossible for merchants to conduct any sales, or for anyone (except those that camped out early) to hear the act – let alone see them. Dejected we went back out into the sunshine, watched kids play soccer in the dusty roadway, and waited for the next act to take the stage. All in all, not a bad substitute.
As the evening shadows grew longer, and the stage lights began to take over for the sun, Welshman Stephen Black took the stage with his project, Sweet Baboo. The band is often comprised solely of Black and his acoustic guitar, but for at least half of the set he was also joined by a bassist and drummer – both of whom provided backing vocals as well. Essentially delivering two separate sets, Black treated an audience to his full repertoire, from delicate acoustic fingerpicking to noisy electric solos. His influences are vast, though many of his songs have a bouncing undercurrent that recalls Jens Lekman. Because of this, even the slow songs seem danceable. A slinky dub number that was well received by the small audience quickly put any questions about Black's dance floor agenda to bed.
Although Black wasn't a particularly chatty frontman, and there was certainly no rehearsed banter, he did share several wry comedic stories between tracks. In particular, as an introduction to "Walking in the Rain," Black admitted that he tried to make the song as commercial as possible, in hopes that it might get played on the news during weather reports, as (evidently) Travis' "Why Does It Always Rain On Me" does now. We all wish him luck.
As the Sweet Baboo set stretched to the edge of its allotted time, the band showed no signs of letting up. I believe it was during a new number (likely) called "We Used to Call Him Dennis" that Kate made a break for the indoor stage to see The Just Joans. I stayed put, frozen by a compulsion that wouldn't let me abandon a band mid-set, and unaware that the band had been asked to play a double set to cover Let's Wrestle last-minute cancellation. I stayed until the bitter end, and then ran to the shed for what was left of The Just Joans. I guess I hadn't made as much progress as I hoped.
Although festival organizers got so much right, putting The Just Joans on the inside stage and Sweet Baboo on the outside stage was a mistake. The shed was packed from the doors all way to the stage, with no (polite) way for me to even make my way to the press area beyond the barricade. I arrived in time to hear David Pope announce that the band would play a cover of an Allo Darlin' song, and then launch into his own "If You Don't Pull," earning first riotous laughter, and then boisterous vocal support from the enormous audience. And since the band seemed keen on having the audience sing along, a cover of Pulp's "Do You Remember The First Time?" and the fan-favorite "What do we do now?" were tossed out as well.
As the sated audience left the shed, I was reunited with Kate, and we were now able to make our way toward the stage. For the first time all weekend, we were met by fans already staking their claims at the edge of the barricade. Anticipation was running high.
Withered Hand is the project of Scots singer/songwriter Dan Wilson, passably fleshed out on this occasion by a full band – including a bassist, guitarist, drummer, and backing vocalist – of which only the vocalist, Pam Berry (of Black Tambourine), was recognizable to me. Although I love the songs of Withered Hand's latest album New Gods (2014 Slumberland/Fortuna Pop!), I was worried that live, those compositions might cross the line between the heartbreaking Americana of Deer Tick, and the stadium Americana of Mumford & Sons. Thankfully, even live, Wilson's superb lyrics were able to stave off the mindless excesses of the latter. They shone not only in the delicate "California," but also in the rocking "King of Hollywood." When it came time for "Heart Heart," the audience transformed from reserved fans silently mouthing every lyric, to bouncing maniacs shouting out the chorus. Afterward, Wilson quickly quashed the mood, sending off his band, then continuing solo and acoustic with several older numbers, including "No Cigarettes" and "Love In The Time Of Ecstasy." When called back for an encore, Wilson returned with the full band for the delightful "Between True Love and Ruin." Withered Hand plays a dangerous game as long as McAmericana bands continue to proliferate every television commercial and movie trailer, but on this night, even through a set that never really took off, Wilson's compositions proved to be the difference maker.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, we are to the final act of the festival, and the final chapter of this tome: Hidden Cameras on the outdoor stage.
Hidden Cameras is a heartbreaker for me. I fell in love with the band somewhere in the middle of its career thanks to its records on Arts & Crafts. During this period Joel Gibb (the only consistent member of the project) created songs that were gloriously lush affairs with harps, horns, and strings aplenty. Each song was a blissful, lighter-than-air, chamber pop symphony. Then came this year's Age, an album firmly anchored to the dance floor, and decidedly outside of my musical interest (and evidently Arts & Crafts' as well since it was released on Gibb's own EvilEvil label). Which band would show up?
As the parade from Withered Hand made its way toward the main stage, Gibb was already talking to the crowd. He stood in the center of the brightly lit stage, shining shirtless in a gold sash and sarong. Alongside him four men (bass, keyboards, cello, drums) wore the same. I should note that Gibb is gay, gloriously gay. Gay in every sense of the word. Gay gay.
The band's set was a cheery affair, (regrettably) stressing the danceable more than the drifting elements of the band, but one that understandably catered to the needs of the fanatical, bouncing, live audience. While the band didn't draw the crowd that Allo Darlin' had two nights before, Hidden Cameras' fans were there to party and they made it known. Gibb approved of, and encouraged, this. He was an assured frontman, working the audience well, making God-awful faces when he sang, and dancing about the stage when he chose to set down the guitars that kept him otherwise occupied. Near the end of the set, the entire band (save the drummer) was called into action for the synchronized dance moves that accompanied "Underage." The audience had to make up their own moves for "Follow These Eyes." While I was happy to hear "Death of a Tune," it was encore "Learning the Lie" that finally satisfied me. And while the band included "Music is My Boyfriend" from 2004's Mississauga Goddam, it skipped that album's opener (and my favorite song), "Doot Doot Ploot." Still, there was a little something in the set for everyone, including early single "Ban Marriage," which surely made someone's day.
As the encore wore on, I left my post between the barricade and stage and found Kate in the audience. Together, we stood atop a hill in the middle of England, where we witnessed five shirtless men on a stage playing pop songs, saw hundreds of ecstatic dancers, looked over dozens of quaint and retired old train cars, and we knew that this was our kind of festival, and that, somehow, we'd be back again.