ELECTRIC PICNIC 2011: THE REVIEWS

Unfortunately, many of my reviews on IrishTimes.com and in Monday’s newspaper were published under the wrong name, so here are the ones that I wrote over the course of last weekend.

My highlight was a gorgeous set by John Grant and the delicious chickpea and spinach stew I had from the tiny Dux & Co. stand. It was ALMOST worth the 20-minute-long queue.

M. WARD: CRAWDADDY STAGE , FRIDAY

Atmosphere:  Muted, no thanks to a surprisingly scant crowd. Matt Ward probably isn’t used to such a small audience, particularly at festivals – but the couple of hundred people that cluster together in the Crawdaddy stage to see the male constituent of She & Him won’t have noticed, given the chorus of chatterers pinging around the tent. It’s not the only thing engulfing Ward’s smoky blues-folk, though; the thumping bass from next door’s bar prompts the visibly annoyed singer to snarl “Is there a disco upstairs?”.

High:  That gorgeously textured voice – unfortunately underused

Low:  The thud of bass from the bar outside drowning out Ward’s sound. What gives?

Quote:  “Is there a disco upstairs?”

Verdict: Although a highly proficient guitarist, Ward’s subtle tunes seem lost in translation in a festival setting, leading to an underwhelming set, although not for want of trying. Perhaps a full band would have made for a louder, grittier performance. Could have been better.

Star rating:  3/5

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PJ HARVEY: MAIN STAGE, FRIDAY

Atmosphere: Eerie, not helped by the first rain of the day blowing in mid-set. PJ Harvey knows how to make an entrance, and with her flamboyant feather-topped hat and a leather-gloved get-up that made Adam Clayton’s Glastonbury garb look normal, it was made all the more spectacular. You may have noticed the ostrich burger stand on your wanderings – well, at least now we know where the feathers have gone.

High: That head-piece – would put the most ostentatious of mother-of-brides to shame.

Low:  Aforementioned rain.

Verdict:  Stellar. Opening with a sucker punch of ‘Let England Shake‘ and ‘The Words That Maketh Murder‘, Harvey’s set got progressively louder, fiercer and more intense as it progressed, her eerie quiver sending shockwaves of sound across the crowd. A true individual rock icon in every sense – including fashion.

Star rating:  4/5

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INTERPOL: MAIN STAGE, FRIDAY

Atmosphere:  Murky, mechanical and you could even say ever-so-slightly ‘Evil‘… Interpol are probably one of the tightest bands to grace the main stage this weekend, but is it to their detriment?

High:  A euphoric rendition of C’mere.

Low:  Ah, c’mon lads – give us some sense of personality!

Verdict: The cool New Yorkers are indubitably a well-oiled machine, as heard on the CD-perfect versions of modern indie classics Evil, C’mere  and Obstacle 1; but when your frontman’s between-song banter consists of basically naming the songs, you know you’re missing something. Perhaps the loss of bassist Carlos Dengler has had a bigger impact than anticipated – at least the lanky George McFly lookalike provided a vocal point. Things chug into second gear with the languid swing of Rest My Chemistry, but don’t really progress from there. It’s a neat and tidy end to day one, but doesn’t quite capture the euphoria necessary for a headline act.

Star rating:  3/5

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TOBY KAAR: LITTLE BIG TENT, SATURDAY

Atmosphere:  Tentatively excitable. Hangovers? There’s no time for hangovers at Electric Picnic, but Toby Kaar’s set was enough to drive (sorry) the cobwebs from the minds of even the mouldiest of minds. The Cork man drew a small but appreciative crowd, getting them revved up (again, sorry) nicely for day two.

High:  The sheer enthusiasm emanating from the stage – you won’t see an artist happier to be flicking buttons and dancing behind a desk all weekend.

Low:  A bigger crowd would have made for a really electrifying ambiance.

Quote:  A clearly delighted “This is fookin’ great!” (insert thick Cork accent here).

Verdict: A groovalicious set that gently propelled us into Saturday, with beautifully colourful flourishes of electronica mixed with propulsive beats. It’s no surprise that Kaar is the current wunderkind of Irish electronica – and there’s no indication of a crash anytime soon.

Star rating: 3.5/5

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JAPE: ELECTRIC ARENA, SATURDAY

Atmosphere: An expectant air hung over the Electric Arena early this evening; after all, the last time Jape played the Picnic, it was one of the weekend’s highlights, a packed-to-the-rafters set that came in the wake of his marvellous album Ritual . This was a very different experience. A setlist drawn largely from promising new album Ocean of Frequency, it made for a mixed atmosphere, although the crowd were brought to life by the hits.

High: Main man Richie Egan’s new songs sound spirited and synthesised, particularly the excellent Hands of Fire.

Low: Perhaps a little too much noodling when the crowd, eager to dance, wanted some full-on beats and tunes to sing along to.

Quote: “Thanks for your patience; the hits are on the way!”

Verdict: Egan’s band are perfectly capable of stepping up to the second biggest stage of the weekend, but the crowd seemed impatient for the tunes they know at times. Nevertheless, it’s easy to imagine mass sing-songs of these very songs at EP 2012.

Star Rating:  3.5/5

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THE UNDERTONES: CRAWDADDY STAGE, SATURDAY

Atmosphere:  Is it a bird? Is is a plane? Is that…. errr, Morrissey on stage? With his greying quiff, lean physique and some spectacularly flamboyant stage moves, Paul McLoone proved he wasn’t just a voice behind a Today FM microphone. Add to that a packed tent and a crowd baying for (and receiving) some brilliantly tight tunes, and you have a lot of happy campers. Literally.

High:  It’s difficult to imagine an Undertones gig where Teenage Kicks  isn’t the highlight – but they came close with faultless renditions of My Perfect Cousin and Jimmy Jimmy. We’ve been waiting all weekend for a set like this.

Low:  None.

Quote:  Paul McLoone’s “Mars bars in Limerick” story. Maybe you had to be there.

Verdict:  As rock formulas go, this one’s a no-brainer. Brilliant blasts of timeless punk songs, superb musicians who show no signs of fatigue or irritation at playing the hits, and a crowd eager to bounce and pogo: we’re sold. You don’t need spacey synth experimentation, skinny jeans and trendy haircuts when you’re a band as good as this.

Star rating:  4/5

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JOHN GRANT: COSBY STAGE, SATURDAY

Atmosphere:  Intense with a generous side helping of dour humour. John Grant excels at pinpointing the hard facts of life – heartbreak, familial estrangement, the bad accents of film stars like Winona Ryder – and spins them with a wit that is surpassed by few modern songwriters. The crowd loved it, too, surprising the Denver man by singing along with gusto to his droll tunes.

High:  You’d have to have a heart of stone and a face of gargoyle to remain impassive at the sound of a thousand people enthusiastically sing the lyrics “Baby, you are where dreams go to die. I regret the day your lovely carcass caught my eye“.

Low:  Too short. We could have listened to Grant’s swoonsome baritone for another hour, at least.

Verdict:  Easily one of the best sets we’ve seen so far. Piano maestro Grant has one of the most unassuming, likeable stage personas imaginable – even his friends in Midlake, who watched, took photos and cheered from side-stage, looked like they were having a good time.

Star rating: 4/5

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YUCK: COSBY STAGE, SATURDAY

Atmosphere:  The sort of riled up, ready-to-rock vibe you always wish for on Saturday nights at festivals. Yuck are young, fun and far from dumb.

High: They may only have one album, but this London foursome sound as practiced as a band who’ve been together for a decade. Ok, maybe that’s got something to do with the fact that their sound is hugely derivative of bands like Pixies and Sonic Youth – but boy, we defy you to resist the squealing riff of Get Away or the jangly yelp of The Wall. It’s been pinging ’round our heads ever since.

Low: Drummer Jonny Rogoff’s gigantic afro, which verges on a health hazard – we wouldn’t like to be stuck behind that crazy mane at a gig.

Verdict: Loud, grungey squalls of sound that got us fired up for a raucous night of rock ‘n’ roll. Yum.

Star rating: 3.5/5

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OH LAND: ELECTRIC ARENA, SUNDAY

Atmosphere: Started with a mixture of curious onlookers bemused by the veiled singer’s debut Irish performance, and finished with a couple of hundred new converts to the Oh Land cause. The Danish diva isn’t that well known in these parts yet, but by the time her second album is released in October, expect her sparkling synth-pop to be filling every available radio crevice in the country

High:  The theatricality of Nanna Øland Fabricius’ show; it’s no surprise to learn that she was a trained ballet dancer in her former life. Although she was accompanied by just two musicians, she knew how to make her set visually appealing. OK, that meant making her band wear wolf and bird masks, but at least it looked good to us, right

Low:  It’s hard to find fault with tunes as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as this. A generous helping of fizzy pop to energise campers and day-trippers alike.

Verdict: There are shades of Goldfrapp in songs like Voodoo  and Son of a Gun, and even the quirkiness of an artist like Bjork at times, but Oh Land is commercial enough to tick the Scando pop box aptly filled by Robyn at last year’s Picnic. Expect to hear a lot more of her.

Star Rating: 4/5

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EVERYTHING EVERYTHING: ELECTRIC ARENA, SUNDAY

Atmosphere:  It’s not just their name that Everything Everything take from Underworld; the Manchester-based quartet’s sound borrows heavily from the rhythmic template of the dance duo (also playing later tonight), too. Their first Irish performance is an enjoyable mix of thrashy electro-indie and jerky beats, although their set builds too slowly for a mid-afternoon slot.

High:  They may take a frustratingly long time to get around to their best song Photoshop Handsome, but when it comes, it’s worth the wait. Jonathan Higgs’ voice is as vivid as his fashion faux pas of  bright yellow wellies and the grey boiler suits that each member is wearing. But who are we to judge? We’re using plastic Tesco bags as rainhats today.

Low:  Some of the songs sound messy in the mix. Opener Qwerty Finger is a bit sloppy, and even though their sound eventually settles down, there’s too much arm-folding and not enough dancing.

Verdict: One of several bands nominated for this year’s Mercury Music Prize (to be decided on Tuesday) there’s no question that their album Man Alive  is a musical odyssey. Their live show needs to be better structured to keep the crowd on their toes, though.

Star Rating: 3/5

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THE UNTHANKS: MAIN STAGE, SUNDAY

Atmosphere: We have The Unthanks to thank for the sunshine that briefly broke through the crowd this afternoon. It’s just as well, as their time-honoured English folk tunes wouldn’t sound nearly as swell underneath a blanket of drizzle. There’s a pleasant laid-back vibe at the Main Stage, with most onlookers choosing to laze on the grass and drink in the elegant sounds of Rachel and Becky Unthank and their fabulous band.

High: One of the most elegant band set-ups of the weekend, with tap-dancing singers, a grand piano, a string quartet and some beautiful lilting close harmonies. Their cover of the Tom Waits tune No One Knows I’m Gone was pretty nifty, too.

Low: While this sort of music was made for a sunny day, it’s a bit lost on the cavernous Main Stage arena

Quote: “They look like they should be in the crafts area, doing a workshop on knitting” – Random punter

Verdict: Lovely stuff, but their set this evening in the Body & Soul area is sure to be infinitely more magical.

Star Rating:  3.5/5

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BEIRUT: MAIN STAGE, SUNDAY

Atmosphere: Chilly in temperature, but not in ambiance. Zach Condon’s gypsy troupe brought a lively air to Main Stage in the early evening, as an icy wind swept across the arena. Brrrr.

High: Condon’s new material sounds immense; it seems as though the New Mexico man has stepped up his game with The Rip Tide. Where once the globe-traipsing youngster may have been shunted into an early afternoon slot in a tent, these mature songs can fill big spaces while keeping the frosty crowd toasty, too. Nantes, from his second album The Flying Cup Club, was a particular highlight, while the perky electro undertones of new tune Santa Fe provides contrast to his brass-laden material.

Low: That said, it would have made for an infinitely more intimate feel in an enclosed stage. That’s not Condon’s fault, though.

Verdict:  They’re not quite at headline status yet – but at this rate, and with a setlist as strong as this, Beirut are on their way to great things.

Star Rating:  3.5/5

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THE DRUMS: CRAWDADDY STAGE, SUNDAY

Atmosphere: It’s a bustling Sunday night at the Crawdaddy stage. OK, that may be largely due to the fact that there’s not much else for fans of indie music to gorge on during this particular lull in the timetable, but the New Yorkers take their moody surf-pop into a field in Stradbally and invite the… ahem… ‘spirited’ crowd along for the ride. They respond with delight.

High: Jonathan Pierce is one of those love-him-or-hate-him frontmen. You’re either repulsed or endeared by his ‘unique’ stage dancing – think baby dinosaur crossed with a tipsy 1980s-obsessed hipster – but we can’t get enough of his flamboyant boogying. ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ and ‘Best Friend’ sound terrific and ‘Down By the Water’ incites one of the first ‘lighters aloft’ moments we’ve seen all weekend.

Low: We love their morose jangle, but like new album ‘Portamento’, their lack of variation becomes a real problem and keeps their set from reaching boiling point.

Quote: “Thank you so much. We really needed a crowd like this tonight”

Verdict: Enjoyable, but one moody bassline bleeds into another and we really needed a lift towards the end of the set. A bit flaky, really – but they are called The Drums for a reason (ooof!).

Star rating: 3/5

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