Thursday, 30 July 2009

Wickerman Festival 2009

Wickerman Festival, Dundrennan, 24-25 July
festival review for the skinny

Strangely, but thankfully, the Wickerman Festival near Dumfries is a Friday-Saturday weekender, not a Saturday-Sunday affair. That's fortunate because when The Skinny got up on Sunday morning to pack up the tents and head home, the gusting winds and lashing rain soaked us skinwards within minutes. We were lucky - other than some brief showers on Friday afternoon, Wickerman was blessed with long spells of gentle sunshine, particularly on Saturday. All music festivals are dependent somewhat on favourable weather, but it seems particularly important for Wickerman, because this year's packed line-up was still pretty bare of appealing acts. That puts more emphasis on the ancillary pleasures of camping and drinking with friends, and on the non-musical entertainment, because there's fewer bands to get excited about. In theory, at least; we got excited about plenty of bands.

Much of our weekend was spent in the Solus Tent, a long and narrow marquee dedicated to up-and-coming Scottish bands. But when we first walk in 5 minutes before the start of Meursault, it's completely empty bar the sound guy. Singer Neil Pennycook isn't a quiet performer, so his bellowing voice soon draws people in to a set which focuses on highlights from last year's debut album. As great as that record is, it's new song Crank Resolutions which has been the standout of recent sets, its pulsing beats and racing rhythm contrasting with Pennycook's distressed vocals.

The Seventeenth Century play to a slightly bigger crowd, but they leave me unconvinced. They seem to adhere very closely to the Arcade Fire's eloquent brand of melodrama, using long maudlin violin lines and wailing vocal outros to convey a vague melancholy that doesn't quite match the mood of the evening. Perhaps they'd suit a dusky bar setting, but their self-seriousness today doesn't connect.

On the other hand, the always-impressive We Were Promised Jetpacks know exactly how to play to a festival crowd. They warm us up with, eh, Keeping Warm, and then Quiet Little Voices entices the quiet little crowd to begin using their own, eh, voices, in support. By the fourth song everyone has got it, so wild finale Short Bursts is served to a crowd on the verge of climax. It's a perfect set closer, shifting between quiet and loud moments with ecstatic energy. Jetpacks are getting better with every gig.

Headliners The Human League bring a touch of glamour to this very modest festival. Singers Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall still look gorgeous 30 years into their careers, while Phil Oakey commands the stage in a tight black lab coat, looking like a slender Dr Evil. They reel out hit after hit -- Tell Me When, Love Action, Open Your Heart, Seconds, Mirror Man -- and to finish, Don't You Want Me, which is incredible, of course. Even those who came with high expectations left fully enamoured.

Saturday's schedule kicks off with a Solus tent show from Bronto Skylift, who are really not the kind of band you want to soundtrack your hangover. So instead of being gently eased back into life, we're smacked around the chops by the savagely loud Glasgow duo, who play their instruments like they're trying to kill them. In "the closest thing we'll ever get to a love song", screeching feedback and vicious drumming underpin what I think is the repeated romantic yell "I'm a tiger, I'm a tiger!". A family with three young kids look a little perplexed, but three cooler boys aged about 10 start their own moshpit at the front. Shame on us for leaving them to start it.

The afternoon provides a good opportunity to sample some non-musical fare. Down at the spoken word tent, a middle aged man recites Bill Maher's comedy routine about translating rap lyrics into "white" - watch that here - and then tried a rap of his own, which we'll generously call 'spirited'. Then we try the nine-hole crazy golf, which was only crazy insofar as it was pitch 'n putt with no putters and no fairways. So the first 20 minutes were spent looking for missing balls in deep, rough grass, and the next few minutes were spent trying to tap them into the hole with sand wedges. A once-over with a lawnmower, and some putters, would've made the golf far more enjoyable.

Back at the main stage were Norwich's The Kabeedies, who fulfilled just about every stereotype of meaningless art school post-punk you can think of. They looked cool and they danced a lot, but their patter was terrible. "How do you pronounce this place, is it Dun... Dun... Dundrennan?". Not. Hard. "She hit me on the arm, I have a bruise! That's amazing!". Not. Amazing.

Candi Staton seems to be best known now for her vocal on The Source's 1991 hit You Got The Love, but her biggest solo hit was Young Hearts Run Free, and in the late 60s she recorded some beautiful soul ballads, like What Would Become Of Me and I'm Just A Prisoner. But after trumpeting how many hours she'd travelled to be here, her set may as well have been torrented in. A lacklustre cover of Suspicious Minds is followed by a wedding singer performance of Stand By Your Man, cheapened to novelty status by a calypso beat. Clashes call.

Punch and the Apostles are much more fun, if a little ridiculous at times. Most of the time it's a cacophonous din, as each song is built up towards a big melodramatic climax and then brought down to earth again slowly while the saxophonist wails free-form solos. Occasionally, moments of glorious clarity break through the headache-inducing fug, suggesting that there is method behind the apparent madness after all.

But by far the best show of the day, and possibly of the whole weekend, was still to come: Drums of Death, in Solus, face painted like a zombie panda bear. He's hopping around a laptop and mixer, running to the barrier, working the crowd, rapping and singing, and I've no idea what he's saying but his beats are just brilliant. They seem to incorporate bits of everything -- electro which leans to Italo, to house, to punk, to techno, to grime, to indie-rock -- and he's putting everything into riling the crowd. There's a piano-based interlude, like recent LCD Soundsystem, which bangs back into life with astonishing force, and unbelievably he moves onto something even better. Who is this guy? He's called Colin, he's from Oban, and he's jaw-dropping live.

At midnight, the 30ft Wickerman which has stood watching over the site is ceremoniously set alight and fireworks are let off, but it's not the end of the festival yet. A DJ set from Utah Saints on the main stage is surprisingly brilliant, because their song selection is a perfect mix of big-hitters (Justice, The Killers, MGMT) and lesser-known maintenance beats. Finally, Edinburgh's William Douglas and the Wheel perform classic rock covers and originals to a raucous crowd in what was earlier the spoken word tent. We stumble back to the tents at 3am, actually get to them at 4 (don't ask), and thank the heavens for waiting until the end of the festival before unloading on us.

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