Following its humble beginnings in Hereford in 2008, Underground Festival is a two-day celebration of all that’s alternative in the UK, reborn last year in the spacious halls and corridors of Gloucester Guildhall. This year surpassing itself by having no entry fee whatsoever and a lineup of new and up-and-coming artists spanning the underground genre spectrum, the festival spreads itself across three indoor stages; the cavernous main stage, the beautifully ornate BBC Introducing stage, surrounding intricately by glowing yellow fairy lights, and the closely intimate room that hosts the tranquil Risk & Consequence stage. Between the first two sits the Guildhall café, which, in a rare move for any event, boasts affordable snacks and alcohol, whilst between the second and third stages is a niche in the poster-covered wall hosting a henna tattoo stand and a tea and cake sale hosted by Oxjam.
The festival is brought serenely into life by the young, diminutive and wonderfully fresh-faced Kitten & Bear. The young duo is made up of an acoustic guitarist and a female vocalist, both of whom look no older than sixteen, the latter of which employs an utterly serene falsetto among her heavily contemporary-influenced vocal. Whilst the pair are clearly still developing as both writers and performers, they are overflowing with promise and potential.
The first act we see on the BBC Introducing stage are The North Ship, who bear an inexplicably awkward reminiscence of the more ballady side of the Rolling Stones. Although incredibly suited to the small, intimate stage, the band have a slightly less-than-impressive live sound and could certainly do with paying some more attention to their timekeeping, despite their admirable commitment to their performance.
Next we see the first full band to play the main stage so far; up-and-coming modern glam rock band Dive Bella Dive. Although their attire collectively spans the last few decades, with the guitarist bearing more similarity to The Sex Pistols-era punk than The Sex Pistols, there’s unexpected overkill in their set. However, their performance and communication with the audience is incredibly admirable and the crowd of young teenagers are openly adoring, even if their generational gap leaves them somewhat nonplussed at the sample the band use from the original Pokémon Game Boy games.
Polarsets then deliver a stunningly tight and utterly mesmerising set on the same stage, blowing us away with some of the most enormously thick textures we’ve ever heard from a three-piece. Following this is New Carnival, who carry out a vast, bass-driven and synth-laden set of indie gems, bearing great similarity, at times, to Tall Ships.
Changing things up from the predominantly ultra-modern bands so far, The Great Hereafter offer sweet, sleazy, bluesy tones to the small crowd gathered at the Risk & Consequence stage, vamping enjoyably on a Johnny Cash song towards the end of their set before it all gets wonderfully ‘Freebird’ for the outro. Next, however, we are rushed fiercely back to the present by a staunchly commanding set from Dirty Goods. Sweet jesus, if these guys play their cards right they could go far. Blending alt-rock with gritty electronic elements and some of the most heart-pounding bass we’ve ever heard to create a sound that genuinely echoes their name, these guys have a vast sound that could comfortably rival that of The Joy Formidable.
Sadly this is the last band of the day for us, save for a few marvellous minutes with upcoming indie-folk band Dog is Dead, but returning on Sunday morning we are greeted by Tess Beighton, an acoustic singer-songwriter with absolutely pitch-perfect live delivery. Tess suits her style, and the festival, better than many performers we’ve seen. Delta Alaska then kick things off on the main stage for us, and perform a greatly memorable set featuring huge and expertly layered modern rock sounds, although for one reason or another the drums consistently slip out of time with the very syncopated rhythms of the rest of the band.
Following this, however, are the famously vibrant Stagecoach, who live up to their reputation magnificently. Although the size of the stage may be intimidating to many artists who are used to more intimate shows, Stagecoach are absolutely built for this, and their collective performance and sound is utterly outstanding. They certainly do their best to involve the crowd, even to the extent of briefly gifting their mandolin to a thoroughly bemused girl in the front row and placing the microphone over barrier alongside her. The band heartily thank the audience for attending while Luke Barham’s sweaty fringe hangs over his face as they close what will be their last show of the year.
If we’d thought, however, that Stagecoach had pushed the boat out with performance, they were dwarfed by the chaotic and utterly savage behaviour of Exeter-based hardcore punk four-piece The Computers. Dressed all in white and sporting fringes, tattoos and a very different vibe to what we’ve seen so far, The Computers bring an attitude that only the best hardcore bands manage. Whilst the band are both tight and aggressive in their own right, the vocalist spends the majority of the set moving around the floor, guitar and mic stand alongside, giving the bouncers a run for their money and involving the audience in his throaty screams as often as possible.
The next band we see, Harbours, could go a long way in the tortured indie-rock world. The impossibly young band balance soft and heavy dynamics brilliantly, and apply just the right amount of force to the snarled vocals that lay alongside cooed harmonies.
Young Legionnaire now assume their position on the main stage and crank out the most obliterating and muscular guitar tone of the weekend, taking their cutthroat math-rock sound to a level that their studio records don’t display in quite the same way. It strikes us, however, that these three would be far better suited to a smaller stage that lands them right in front of their audience, as they have a hard job really filling the vast hall.
However, on the BBC stage next door, Nicholas Stevenson casts a spell over the floored audience with one of the most genuinely heartfelt sets we’ve ever heard. It’s a restful 45 minutes, as the indie-folk singer’s velvety melodies ebb back and forth through a tide of soft acoustic tones and evocative rhythms, taking to the twinkling stage as if it were designed for him.
After a glance in at Blitz Kids on the main stage performing a set of blistering modern rock with astounding energy, we return to our patch on the dimly-lit floor to be cast blissfully back into a state of happy disbelief by Big Deal. The boy/girl duo utilise gorgeously sweet octave harmonies for the most part of their set, and often unison guitar lines. The combination of warm electric and muffled acoustic tones make for a thick and somewhat lethargic timbre, reminiscent in parts of She Keeps Bees, minus the drums and darker, bluesier quality. It strikes us how remarkable it is that something so incredibly simple can be so incomparably effective.
The evening is closed by headliners Francesqa, who perform one of the most comparatively clean and album-like sets of the weekend. Both rhythm and note-perfect throughout, the band deliver a collection of dreamy modern rock ballads, staged more as if in a music video than a live performance. The sound balance is perfect, and although not a set that steals the show, Francesqa bow out the proceedings brilliantly.
We leave in the wake of an immensely satisfying weekend. Still, there are points about the festival that could be added to, of course, like more activities in the relatively unused room between the BBC and Risk & Consequence stages. On many levels, however, the organisers must be commended for what they have achieved this year, such as the superbly coordinated stage times that kept clashes of similar bands to an impressive minimum, and the brilliantly diverse lineup. Whilst Underground Festival is still developing – as all great annual events must – it has enormous potential to do even greater things in coming years.
All photographs courtesy of, and exclusive property of Alice Muir.