“Lovers, friends, strangers - the innate human desire for connection.” So reads the tweely-crafted sign framing the gateway to the Body & Soul area of Electric Picnic; a succinct reminder that not all festival-goers are jabbering, onesied clusterfucks, seemingly intent on making you question the very fabric of your worldview, twisting and turning, a total claustrophobic mess in a shite, dew-infested pop-up tent in a field in the back-arse of nowhere at 5am in the morning. Such is the transformative reprieve of certain festivals: the unwavering conviction that transient moments of pure, unadulterated, inter-subjective glory outweighs - nay, mercilessly crushes - the innate human desire for a half-decent night’s sleep, reasonably-priced food, etc.
Of course, one shouldn’t complain. With the traditionally pindrop-silent bus journey home - bedraggled teenagers absentmindedly faceplanted against sun-split windows - three full days away, the prospect of eagerly trouncing around the innumerable acres of Stradbally Estate, Co. Laois is a truly life-affirming thing. A kaleidoscopic cornucopia of sound and vision, separated into several different villages each bounding with their own range of stages, hideaways, art installments and quite literally everything in between, Electric Picnic is utopian wonderment distilled to an expansive, panoromic land of unceasing curiosity and happening. It’s no surprise, then, that it is still very much Ireland’s leading music and arts festival. Friday
“An easy money-spinner.” Tent pitched, wellies donned and “must-see” acts duly noted, Friday gets under way with an expectedly superhit-driven Main Stage set by Blondie, one of a few veteran acts this weekend who waste no time asserting their clout. A striking figure in black-and-white, Debbie Harry is both engrossing and fully on form, effortlessly dominating proceedings from the off. Confidently shape-shifting across the stage -commanding her band and the ever-growing crowd with timeless classics such as “Heart of Glass” and “Atomic” - the sixty-nine year-old is very obviously not entrenched in any realm of doubt-ridden nostalgia. Sure, latter-era singles such as “Maria” still sound a bit shit but nobody particularly seems to care; it’s Friday evening, the sun swells in the sky and an array of less-familiar masters await.
Shortly afterwards, a little trek beyond, the boundlessly enchanting, tree-speckled Body & Soul area plays host to two of the country’s most hotly-tipped acts back-to-back: Girl Band and The Altered Hours. Whilst the former Dublin noise-rock quartet deliver a blistering, visceral ambush to a mostly mesmerised sea of eager heads, the latter Cork five-piece summon galvanic psych majesty and tectonically-charged rapture on the likes of recent single “Dig Early” and older cut, the ill-boding sonic exorcism of “Wicked Son”. Without the slightest hint of exaggeration, both bands comfortably justify the hype surrounding them at present, respectively confirming their arrival on home soil. As anyone who paid witness will attest to, one can only assume they’ll both be gracing much bigger stages at next year’s festival.
With James Murphy performing a DJ set that is later overheard in the mind-expandingly grim queue for the toilets as “An easy money-spinner - boring as balls!” Pet Shop Boys induce every man, woman and child to get their camp on via a stream of disco-infused, universally-known synth-pop singles on the Main Stage. With shedloads of bombast and unceasing visual kitsch (the ensuing warped dreams - you cannot imagine) their set - not unlike Blondie’s before them - is an unreservedly fun and transporting experience. Whilst “West End Girls” and “Always On My Mind” were always going to coax the crowd into spasmodic, cider-fuelled dancing, “It’s A Sin” feels altogether - not-even-remotely-embarrassingly - reverential. The most successful musical duo in UK music history? It certainly all adds up.
A distinctly hipper proposition back at the Body & Soul stage, Tune-Yards wow the crowd with their wonderfully tangential and idiosyncratic brand of experimental pop. With your writer just about able to catch a glimpse of Merrill Garbus and co. in action, clutching an overhanging branch as a means to stand barely upright on a hill, the crowd look on, transfixed throughout. Of course, as with the nature of Garbus’ incomparable compositions - propelled by the most elusive rhythms and masterful genre-bending incantations - physical participation from the crowd is sporadic and uncertain, the mere act of paying heed more than enough for the crowd to realise they’re in the company of a genius, absorbed in a subtly ecstatic Day One highlight.
“Kindness, I suppose.”
No thanks to having to endure a nearby couple’s pissed-up, comprehensively nonsensical altercation about the disappearance of a sandwich, your writer awakes on Saturday morning a begrudging, slightly bear-like figure. Luckily, however, a slew of fine acts await Day Two, kickstarted by none other than The Stranglers. The roves happily linger for the singles, swigging overpriced mojitos on the grass, as your writer treads curiously towards the Mindfield village, a exquisite patchwork of literary, spoken word and politically-charged tents. The free-spirited and inquisitive mingle and meld, and the whole of Stradbally Estate is charged with an ineffable sense of purpose and activity. “The innate human desire for connection” indeed.
A little later, in the main Literary Tent, palaverous intellectual extraordinaire Will Self runs morphological circles around his audience, only half-reluctantly summing up the meaning of life as kindness (and who amongst us would disagree?). Using his latest novel, Shark, as a cerebral base of sorts, he touches about egotism, ageing, psychogeography (or “flanning”, as he astutely calls it) and much more besides, delivering an hour of reprieve from the nigh on omnipresent festival brouhaha. Over at the Cosby stage, Temples, leathered-up to the eyes, forge psych-tinged progressions with barrages of beautiful feedback. With frontman James Bagshaw evoking Bolan in his swagger, the band peak on the earworming “Mesmerise”.
Having assuredly made their ascent to ultra-promising upstarts to fully-fledged Main Stage artists, Bombay Bicycle Club see in the early evening with their unmistakable brand of indie-pop. Where “How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep?” incites positive vibrations throughout the main arena, it’s electronica-laced closer “Carry Me” that sees Jack Steadman et al. reach the height of their powers today. A mere stone’s throw away at the Electric Arena - the second biggest stage at the festival - Metronomy, suited in ultra-alluring white, burst through a fault-free set doubling up as an hour-long overture to the oft-convoluted laws of lovesickness. Drawing jointly from the recent Love Letters and The English Riviera,”Corinne” and “Month of Sundays” stand out in what proves to be one of the weekend’s best sets.
Rather inexplicably sandwiched between Paolo Nutini and Chic on the Main Stage, honourary headliners Portishead ensure their first Irish show in seventeen years isn’t one to forget in a hurry. An imposing, authoritative presence from the moment they step on stage to the portentous throb of “Silence”, Beth Gibbons, Adrian Utley, Geoff Barrow and their cast of first-rate session players concoct the most immersive and rapt performances of the festival. While instantly-recognisable trip-hop standards-of-sorts “Sour Times”, “Glory Box” and “Roads” transport and beguile, it’s the almighty “Machine Gun” - performed to images of the recent conflict in Gaza, as well monetary symbolism from the downfall of so-called Celtic Tiger-era Ireland - that ensues the hairs on the back on neck stand firmly on end. The wait was worth it.
Wrapping things up like few others can: the, shall we say, ubiquitous Nile Rodgers and Chic - outright headliners of Day Two. Playing pretty much every upbeat song ever written (actually), the party is well and truly relentless from start to finish. From opener “Everybody Dance” to an untouchable closing triad of “Let’s Dance”/”Le Freak”/”Good Times”, Rodgers and his band take the Electric Picnic crowd on a journey that can rarely be taken - all topped off with the very recent news that the legendary songwriting talisman is free from cancer after four years. But, of course, any verbal or sympathy-inducing cue for celebration isn’t exactly required here: Chic’s music - not to mention Rodgers’ music for others - manages that just fine.
“Neither us have ever given up hope to keep living.”
As per tradition, Dublin Gospel Choir open the third and final day of this year’s festival on the Main Stage. Not unlike last night’s decades-spanning, globetrotting headliners, you would need to have a hollowed-out heart of stone to not feel compelled to tap a foot, at least, to their exuberant, crowd-pleasing set of covers. Indeed, as tends to come with that standard sense of institutionalisation on the final day of music festivals, the prevalent mood from the crack of dawn is one of quiet, feel-good fraternity. And who better to soundtrack that next than The Wailers, who deliver yet another set of stratospherically well-known singles, provoking “Shit, I forgot they did this one too!” facial expressions, song after song. Whilst the very slim hope for a Bob Marley hologram doesn’t come to pass, Sunday is truly initiated.
Shortly afterwards, with Sinead O’Connor storming through her set on the Main Stage, Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks play to an insultingly meagre crowd in the Rankins Wood stage. Despite the calls for Pavement track “Summer Babe” (met with a wall of silence), their set is full of original material, “Lariat”, “Shibboleth” and “Chartjunk” from recent album Wigout at Jagbags all standing out. As impressive as the set itself - an audible Godsend for many in attendance - Malkmus wields his legendary wit throughout, touching upon Van Morrison, Hull City Tigers and - for his sins, one presumes - having had the misfortune of once seeing John Lyndon’s arse. Although the tent is only a third full, the set and Malkmus himself don’t suffer.
Over at the Main Stage, Simple Minds delve straight into a set that culminates in - wait for it – “Don’t You Forget About Me” and “Alive and Kicking”. The crowd, spanning every age and persuasion, are all smiles - and very kindly forgive one or two comparably new tracks that are all but gushy pastiche. “We’re a little-known band from Glasgow,” the band’s frontman, Jim Kerr, bellows, tongue firmly-in-cheek. “Seriously though - we’re just starting out. We’re not going anywhere. We’ll always be playing - even when we’re dead,” he continues, momentarily forgetting what “dead” means. No matter - you can’t knock their enthusiasm, and the singles hit home.
That said, such (harmless) retroism pales totally in comparison to what lies in store in the Electric Arena at 7pm: St. Vincent, who returns to the festival a year on from her unforgettable appearance with David Byrne. Going one better on this occasion, however, she delivers the performance of the festival, blaring through an eleven-song set, almost peacocking her frighteningly assured musicianship and singular on-stage charisma. As much a theatrical performance as it is a show, the set sees the masterfully fucked-up “Bring Me Your Loves” and “Birth In Reverse” sit alongside the more sober “Cheerleader” and “Prince Johnny”, Clark taking the time to pronounce, rather cryptically, “The reason you’re here is despite any blow to the face, any fist or any hardship. You didn’t give up hope. We didn’t give up hope. Neither us have ever given up hope to keep living.” Ending by entering the crowd with her guitar, beaming a maniacal grin, wearing a luminous green mask taken from the audience and disappearing into the night, St. Vincent reigns supreme. Standing ovation.
Having had the sheer misfortune of missing Beck on the Main Stage due to queueing for a whole hour for the festival’s only ATM area (it was pretty traumatising, okay?) it’s perhaps more opportune at this juncture to relay a very selection of things overheard in said queue relating to the career, music and life of Beck Hansen:
“Screw him - he’s a Scientologist. I’m not going to watch a Scientologist.”
“Isn’t he a Scientologist? Loser - no pun intended.”
“He’s already played “Loser” and “Devil’s Haircut” - what else is there?”
“Is this Beckett on now?”
And you wonder why “jabbering, onesied clusterfucks” made the first paragraph.
With the end very much in sight, Electric Picnic 2014 culminates in what can only be described as a crushingly unfortunate scheduling clash: Mogwai, shoegaze pioneers Slowdive and almost definitely the most highly-anticipated act of the festival, Outkast. “We didn’t come to lecture you all - we came to jam,” says the latter’s Andre 3000, following an exceptional opening one-two of “B.O.B.” and “Gasoline”. With what feels like the entire audience of the festival watching on - thereby creating an almost insurmountable human blockade of the smaller stages - your reviewer makes the painful but completely necessary long haul journey to catch Slowdive, via a cursory peek at Mogwai - a decision, one should probably add, not taken lightly.
But almost two decades on from parting ways in 1995, Slowdive deliver the goods and then some, weaving their vast, lulling, tremolo-driven dream-pop to a small mass of ardent aficionados and smitten newcomers. “They sound just like Mogwai,” says someone to the left, laughing, having assumingly popped over from the Electric Arena; Slowdive’s marked legacy on innumerable bands since their formation in 1989 brought into sharp focus once again. Concluding on a brooding cover of Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair”, the band - two of whom wear Mogwai shirts, you understand - peak on the ensnaring drift of “Machine Gun” and the thundering shoegaze glory of “When The Sun Hits”. It feels nothing short of a cleansing; a cathartic rupture and release, powerfully drawing the curtain on a weekend of ceaseless wonder, words, art and song - all in the name of that innate human desire for connection.