If the previous day at Live at Leeds has taught me anything it’s that inner city, multi-venued, festivals are hard to organise. They’re also hard to participate in. Changing times, overlapping favourites, time-consuming distance to venues; none of these facts are particularly helpful to music fans who want to see as much good live music as possible.
What inner city festivals perhaps require the most is the understanding from music fans that these things are hard to co-ordinate. As a reward for your understanding you get the payoff of seeing a number of artists at a decent price.
Quite simply inner city festivals are a trade-off between logistics and line up.
My own inner city festival tactic is pretty simple. I choose to dig in. Gone are the days of trying to be in four places at once and sacrificing being at the front in one venue to have to start all over at the back in another. If you’re at an inner city festival for the music, then it’s sometimes best to avoid the party and hedge your bets on one venue.
So today I spend most of the day at the Head of Steam which seems to have the best line up for dance/hip hop/ grime artists. And today starts with local Mc maestro, and an artist who deserves to be topping rather than opening the day, Kay Greyson. Given a thirty minute set Grayson is on blazing form with her De La Soul style of laid back, intelligent, rhythms. Standout cuts ‘Colours’, ‘Come down’, ‘Give it all’, ‘Sauce’ and ‘Call the police’ all show off her remarkable style and growing library of impressive tracks.
A ridiculously quick turn over and Drive are up next with their blend of 80’s retro dance pop. Playing their first ever gig they need the first song to steady their nerves before nailing their sound with second track, ‘Freeze frame’. By their third track, ‘Monolith’ they’re finding top form with lovely pop melodies and early Depeche Mode references.
In a diverse line-up it’s hard to make out the connection between Kay, Drive and next artist Sweets until someone points out that they’re here as part of the Soul Kitchen party, a nod to the local label and presumably part-home to our first three acts of the day. It’s a mood-changing showcase given it’s hip hop to pop and back to hip hop narrative, but it works well with Sweets up next in a chance to showcase his hip hop flows about lads holidays, trying to find meaning in life, and getting into misdemeanours with friends. This being his Newcastle live debut he’s on fine form and as he raps on standout track ‘Girl from Ibiza’ one day he may truly will fall from the stage and his audience will catch him.
From hip hop we return back to electro pop in this afternoon’s flip-flop of genres with three-piece San Junipero. Upbeat, electro, and in search of pops golden melodies there’s something of Alphabeat about them and their quest for the dance floor but rootings on the pop chart. Standout tracks ‘#077’, and fellow EP-mate ‘Black ice’ cause some dancing in the crowd but it’s standout ‘Stargazer’ which steals the set with it’s deep grooves and infectious beat.
We’re back to hip hop next with Irish MC Kojaque and his hard-hitting rhymes about toxic masculinity, youth violence and having no-future. Part braggadocio fronting of Connor McGregor and part heart-break/ street tales of Gil Scott Heron Kojaque’s skill is to find his in your face confidence, and then shatter it by letting you see the reality of where this confidence comes from. As Kojaque himself raps, this might be Ireland’s answer to The Chronic and he’s someone well worth watching out for if you like The Streets and Plan B.
Kojaque’s set kicks us off onto an amazing run of three superb live shows, and on any other day he would end with the title of standout performance. However, today’s not any day and even his precise flow and deep rhymes can’t stave off the absolute carnage that comes with London spitfire-act 404 guild. Likened in some quarters to the mayhem of early Libertines, 404 rip the Head of Steam apart with their grime orientated 30 minutes of sheer sweat, removed t-shirts and crowd interactions. Non-stop movement from the three MC strong set up, with bangers ‘Boost’ and ‘Acid Rain’ make this the most intense show of the day and a set that surely take it’s place in the memories of the Head of Steam.
Which also means it’s a difficult show to follow; though luckily local hero Dylan Cartlidge, who was also ordered by 404 to stand at the front and participate in their show, has the crowd and good tunes on his side for his follow-up.
Playing to the largest Head of Steam crowd of the day, Cartlidge makes good use of the stage with his funk/hip-hop inspired set which has the crowd dancing along. Standouts ‘Monsters under the bed’ and ‘Scratch, sniff’ showcase his technical bass playing skills as well as his ear for creating a bounce. He’s worked with Danger Mouse and he’s on top form.
The reality of our three-piece belter means that at some point it’s a hard bar to reach and although Delilah Montagu gives it her best effort with her Carol Kaye inspired Californian pop, and Huntar with his electro pop, by the twilight of the evening the Head of Steam is looking a bit lonely and the running time delayed by about 30 minutes. Montagu’s ‘7 days of rain’ steals the evening’s highlights though it’s slightly lost in a venue which requires intimacy rather than groups of heavy drinkers acting up and it’s unfortunate that a venue door can’t be shut, or a steward can’t gently nudge people for silence. Perhaps this may be the first sign today of unwise curation on the parts of the organisers, or a lack of supervision.
And then it’s outside and across to the o2 for Jake Bugg, lines of people and pints of lager. And whilst Jake is very good it’s suddenly all very corporate with set lists and cleverly curated light shows.
What today proved to me was that innovation and excitement comes from the grassroots, something that the acts that I saw on the Head of Steam stage provided. The rest can sometimes prove a slight let down by comparison. Inner city festivals provide a great line-up, we just may need to see the balance of logistics improved in the future.