ELECTRIC PICNIC 2012: THE REVIEWS

Originally published in The Irish Times, September 3rd 2012.

FRIDAY

GRANDADDY
Electric Arena
4/5

Where do you start after a six-year absence? If you’re Grandaddy, you start with the hits. The Californian indie-rock quintet have made Electric Picnic one of the stops on their month-long reunion lap, but rather than forcing new material on an expectant audience, this was a complete exercise in crowd-pleasing.

Opening with El Camino’s in the West, Jason Lytle and Co may not say a whole lot to the crowd, but with tunes like a Now It’s On, AM 180 and The Crystal Lake in your canon, why waste time with niceties?

Aaron Burtch amusingly puffs away on a cigarette hands-free as he drums, and Lytle swigs from a bottle of wine between songs; they’re having fun and it’s like they’ve never been away. How about you stick around a little longer, guys?

**

WILLIS EARL BEAL
Cosby Stage
3/5

As you approach the Cosby Stage, it sounds like a James Brown CD has been cranked up to full volume. Once your eyes have adjusted to the mid-evening gloom, it becomes apparent there is but one man on stage; and although he’s wearing a T-shirt that declares himself as ‘Nothing’, he’s certainly making enough noise to lure a hundred or so punters in.

Willis Earl Beal may be part-performance poet, part-soul man, part-preacher, part Wesley Snipes-lookalike – but the Chicagoan is an unbelievably compelling performer, throwing himself onto his knees and writhing around the stage like a man possessed.

He belts out tunes to an analogue backing track with an undoubtedly amazing voice, but his persona treads a dodgy line between prophet and parody. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt this time.

**

PATRICK WATSON
Cosby Stage
3/5

Best known by some as the man – or more accurately, the band – that beat Arcade Fire to the Polaris Prize (Canadian Album of the Year) in 2007, Patrick Watson’s success in his homeland hasn’t really translated to this side of the Atlantic.

Still, a decent-sized clutch of loyal fans mingle with intrigued observers drawn into the Cosby Tent by Watson’s brand of quirky indie chamber pop.

This is the sort of gig that would sound great in a venue like Vicar Street, where the charm of songs like The Quiet Crowd wouldn’t be lost amidst the chatter of a tipsy late-night festival crowd.

Even when the scruffy, baseball cap-attired musician moves from behind his lightbulb-adorned piano to tightly cram around one mic stand with his four-piece band for the normally beautiful Into Giants, it seems like a case of the right songs in the wrong place.

**

ED SHEERAN
Electric Arena
2/5

Who would have thought that one man and his guitar could draw such a crowd? While Christy Moore did his ‘elder statesman’ stint on the Crawdaddy Stage, and Sigur Rós plied their ‘thinking man’s indie’ amongst the main stage masses, a young man of Irish heritage drew a huge crowd to his Electric Picnic debut.

There were plenty of scratched heads when Ed Sheeran was added to the Picnic bill, but the young Londoner undoubtedly how to work a festival crowd, eliciting wave after wave of ‘Hell yeah!’ and ‘Oh-oh-ohs’ from the stuffed tent.

And sure, it’s fun to sing along to a (particularly apt) Drunk, Grade 8 elicits some ill-advised beatboxing, and Small Bump encapsulates Sheeran’s Damien Rice-influenced sensitive singer/songwriter schtick succinctly.

But does it actually mean anything? A cover of Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars is the piéce de resistance – a horribly hollow cover of an overrated, saccharine tune that sums up Sheeran’s appeal as a purveyor of sappy ballads that places melodic hooks over real emotion. Dreadful.

**

SATURDAY

THE CAST OF CHEERS
Cosby Stage
4/5

“This is the soundest crowd we’ve ever had – honest to f**k!” exclaims Conor Adams, right after his band had done their best to blow the roof off the Cosby Tent.It’s easy to be sound when a band is this sharp. After establishing themselves in their native Dublin, The Cast of Cheers relocated to London last year to pursue their dream – and their new environment has apparently done wonders for the quartet’s confidence.

They’re visibly surprised by the fact that the tent is stuffed, but why wouldn’t it be with songs as spiky as Family, as groove-tastic as Human Elevator and as gloriously euphoric as Animals? A brilliantly robust and spine-jitteringly thrilling performance – with a special mention to drummer Kevin Curran for one of the tightest displays behind the kit that we’ve seen all weekend.

**

WILD BEASTS
Main Stage
4/5

Wild Beasts may hail from the UK’s Lake District, but it’s always sunny in Ireland. At least that’s what co-vocalist Tom Fleming thinks; in fact, he’s so convinced of his propensity to sunburn that he publicly claims Irish lineage somewhere down the line.

They’ve played outdoor gigs here before, but their sunshine-imbued mid-afternoon slot felt like a precarious positioning for a band with deep, dark and often gloomy grooves.Nonetheless, they pulled it out of the bag, springing from the sublime ’80s-influenced Bed of Nails to the rambunctiousness of crowd-pleasers All the King’s Men and The Devil’s Crayon with aplomb.

Their last gig before they go into the studio to record a new album, it was a solid gig by a band that deal in both light and shade with poise and flair.

**

CRYSTAL CASTLES
Main Stage
1/5

Alice Glass doesn’t sing: she shrieks. The frontwoman of Canadian electro-experimentalists Crystal Castles also regularly throws herself into the audience, bounces energetically around the stage and looks suitably cool from behind her purple hair and white-rimmed sunglasses.

The problem is, Crystal Castles have zero tunes to back up Glass’s uber-hip posturing. The only explanation for the huge crowd accumulated at the main stage is their presumed enthusiasm to get their Saturday night dancing shoes on early – but even the extravagant light show and the addition of a live drummer to Ethan Kath’s synthesized soundtrack does nothing that a Clubland compilation couldn’t better.

This is horrible, empty nothingness masquerading as music. Their set also finishes a whole twenty minutes early; if it wasn’t so terrible, we might have cause for complaint.

**

RICHARD HAWLEY
Electric Arena
4/5

Considering Richard Hawley’s latest album is the epitome of a slow-burning affair, it doesn’t exactly bode well for a festival crowd in no mood to sit back and be patient. Yet something happens as the Sheffield crooner ruminates on tunes like Standing at the Sky’s Edge and Don’t Stare at the Sun; looking every inch the cool 1950s rocker in slick quiff, sunglasses and leather jacket, his moody songs shimmer into shape and create an intoxicating fume that spreads across the Electric Arena and turns non-believers into full-blown zealots.

Tonight the Streets are Ours picks up the pace beautifully, while gorgeous Haagen-Dazs ad tune Open Up Your Door sends a hundred people running to the nearest ice-cream van for a 99 with a flake.

**

VILLAGERS
Electric Arena
4/5

Often, the addition of unknown songs into a festival setlist spells one thing: disaster. Just as well, then, that pretty much every new tune that Conor O’Brien’s Villagers disclose tonight is stamped with a seal of quality.

An uncharacteristically patient audience nod along to the swinging sixties vibe of Judgement Call, serenely absorb the acoustic flourish of The Bell and tap feet to the electronic undertones of The Waves.

They’re rewarded by a smattering from of tunes from Becoming a Jackal, and even though the sound of 8,000 voices singing the dreamy refrain of its title track is a real heart-sweller, it’s the memory – and the anticipation – of the new material that resonates the loudest. We can’t wait for the new album.

**

GRIMES
Cosby Stage
3/5

Just when you though interpretive dance was the last outpost of the jazz fraternity, along comes Claire Boucher.

The 24-year-old has hired – or at least dragged along – a man in a vest who squirms and squiggles around the stage with an inflatable rubber tyre as she plies her dreamy electronica to a wedged Cosby Tent.

It’s all good, though; Boucher needs a diversion from the fact that she’s using new equipment, since all of her gear was stolen in Manchester on Thursday night.

“This might get a bit weird,” she says, but that’s no bad thing.

After a slow-building introduction, the throng comes alive for Oblivion – complete with an unleashing of balloons – before sinking back into a blissful reverie for the duration.

The set’s a bit slow to get going, but builds nicely to an even groove by the time she leaves the stage.

**

SUNDAY

SQUAREHEAD
Crawdaddy Stage
3/5

It’s early Sunday afternoon, and Picnic patrons have a choice: ease themselves into the festival’s home strait with the soothing sounds of the Dublin Gospel Choir, or blow away the cobwebs with some vigorous rock ‘n’ roll, courtesy of Dublin’s Squarehead?

We choose the latter option and we think it’s a good ‘un. The addition of a guitarist to the Dublin trio’s live set-up gives their laidback slacker-rock an extra bite; in fact, everything about the trio seems punchier, tighter and even louder than the last time we saw them.

A smattering of tunes from their great debut album Yeah Nothing are mixed with a clutch of promising, punk-tinged new songs – but closing their set with a brilliant rocked-up version of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby is an inspired move, sending punters back out into the sunshine feeling a little better prepared to face the day.

**

OF MONSTERS AND MEN
Crawdaddy Stage
2/5

A sunny, Sunday afternoon festival crowd is an easy-to-please one; bands find easy pickings amidst the thousands of punters in search of a band with feel-good songs to sing, clap and stamp their feet along to.

Suppliers of this year’s afternoon anthems – presumably in the absence of Mumford and Son’s availability – are Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men, another folk-rock band intent on making accordions and trumpet solos cool.

Yet while Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir and co’s appeal can’t be underestimated – they have drawn a crowd that is twenty deep outside the Crawdaddy Stage – their formulaic tunes differ only in their euphoric, mid-song refrains (‘Hey/Oh-oh/dada-dum’). Even their cover of The Cure’s Close to Me saps the pep from the original, rendering it a sluggish and lifeless affair, and while the lively Little Talks breathes life into the set, it’s not enough to rescue it from mediocrity – even in the face of enormous popularity.

**

SEAMUS FOGARTY
Body & Soul Stage
3/5

Something tells us that Seamus Fogarty would never have envisaged playing his first Electric Picnic set to a group of under-5s more interested in kicking a beachball around than listening to his music, but festival gigs are an unpredictable beast.

Although a decent crowd have accumulated on the hillside at Body & Soul to watch the Mayo man and his three-piece band perform songs from his fine debut God Damn You Mountain, it’s a shame that his folky ruminations were mostly drowned out by crowd chatter and the bass thud bleeding from the nearby Little Big Tent.

That’s not to mention the young man that repeatedly approaches the stage to request Mumford and Sons songs (!), apparently confusing Fogarty for a human jukebox.

The set gathers momentum towards the last few songs – which sound great, by the way – but we’ll catch Fogarty in a bricks and mortar venue next time. You win some, you lose some.

**

ELBOW
Main Stage
4/5

If there’s such a thing as the quintessential festival band – the sort of band with an endless supply of feel-good, all inclusive, hug-your-neighbour songs – it’s Elbow. Each time the Mancunians play Electric Picnic, they progress to bigger and better time slots and their billing this year (just below The Killers) feels like something of an occasion. Sure, Guy Garvey may ramble a little between songs – we hear more than a few grumpy folk wishing he’d ‘just shut up and get on with it’ – but there’s enough of meat on the bones of this set in the form of top-class tunes like Leaders of the Free World, Grounds for Divorce, a swoonsome Mirrorball and perky opener High Ideals.

Even when he commits the cardinal sin of clichés by proclaiming Irish audiences to be “the best in the f**king world!’, it’s a forgivable clanger. Besides, how could we hold a grudge with songs as euphoric as One Day Like This (brilliantly backed by the Irish Youth Choir, no less), hitting just as the sun comes down on a beautiful day in Stradbally? If there’s any justice, they’ll be top of the bill next time.

**

TINDERSTICKS
Crawdaddy Stage
3/5

There’s a man in the front row with a large pair of antlers strapped to his head, but it speaks volumes for Stuart Staples’ cool composure that he doesn’t even flinch when confronted by the sight of the strangest headpiece we’ve ever seen at a gig. That sense of sang-froid is Staples’ default setting; leading Tindersticks into a setlist speckled with tunes like If You’re Looking for a Way Out, it might as well be a Sunday night jazz club gig, and not a performance at the tail-end of a festival weekend. The problem is that much of what makes Tindersticks great – Staples’ syrupy voice, the sense of sinking into their songs – is too much for weary feet and fuzzy heads to fully soak up. A decidedly rocky I Know That Loving injects some life into the set as Staples takes his mic in his hand and sways around stage like an old-time crooner – but while it’s lovely stuff, it’s for another time and another place.

**

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Seán on September 5, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Crystal Castles was one of the best acts of the weekend and Alice Glass put on probably the best single performance of the weekend. I don’t know where you were during the gig, but 5 rows from the front was amazing and to give them 1 star out of 5 is simply outrageous.

    Reply

    • Posted by Andrew Lambert on September 5, 2012 at 2:49 pm

      Can’t understand the Crystal Castles review at all- Everyone who I’ve spoken to and everyone who was at the gig had an amazing time, they were by far one of my highlights of the weekend. Very biased and unfair review. To me, it just seems like you have a personal agenda with Alice Glass.

      Reply

    • Posted by Robert on September 6, 2012 at 12:35 pm

      I totally agree with Sean – Crystal Castles were incredible and from my vantage point on the front row Alice Glass was out of this world. It was like seeing Iggy for the first time in the Stadium in 88. Other honourable mentions to the XX, Sigur Ros, Richard Hawley, Laterns on the Lake and Bat for Lashes.The Cure, as usual, were brilliant. 6 Stars for Crystal Castles******

      Reply

  2. Posted by Lauren on September 5, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    Andrew – I’ve also spoken to a number of people who were at the gig, and they agreed with me – so who is right? How could I have a personal agenda with Alice Glass? I don’t know her. No personal agendas here, just a critical opinion.

    It’s an opinion, guys… and one that I stand by 100%. The gig was appalling, vapid shite.

    Reply

  3. It’s clear that the reviewer has no experience of Crystal Castles. First time I heard that first album I could hardly pick out the music from the noise. But repeated listening revealed the genius hiding behind the shrieks, sound fx and frantic beats.
    I saw Crystal Castles two years ago at Big Day Out in Sydney and they were awesome. Most reports from E.P. seem to concur. If you are there to review a gig for other people to read please leave your preconceptions at the gate. A one star review because it’s not to your taste? Maybe you’re in the wrong gig, in every sense of the word.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Lauren on September 11, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Andrew – thanks, will have a read of that now. It was indeed a shame I missed Sigur Ros!

    JohnPaul – I’m afraid you’re wrong. I’ve seen Crystal Castles live twice before (once in Germany and once here in Ireland), and am familiar with both of their albums – so to say that I have ‘no experience’ of them is incorrect. It’s true that they’re far from my favourite band, but as I said elsewhere (on Jim Carroll’s blog), I went to see the gig with no preconceptions. Being a journalist means that you get sent albums/to gigs that you might not be naturally inclined to ‘like’, but it’s your job to keep an open mind. I went to Crystal Castles’ set completely willing to be won over, but it was hands-down the most awful thing I saw all weekend. Unbelievably bad. I won’t make the mistake of seeing them a fourth time.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Sober Colm on September 12, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    Why would someone who doesn’t like the music of a musician even bother to review them? I hate death metal. I wouldn’t review a death metal gig but I appreciate that there are those who love the music so someone who can relate to the music & appreciate it should review such a gig as surely they could compare it to other death metal gigs/ records etc. Crystal Castles were one of the best acts of the weekend (I only wish they’d stayed longer). They did what they do; play bangin choons, scream & go a bit menal. That’s what we wanted & that’s what we got. For you to even bother to review it is an embarrassment to journalism.

    Reply

    • Posted by Lauren on September 13, 2012 at 8:56 am

      Hi Colm,

      I “bothered” to review it because I was told to go and review it by my editor. Simple as.

      Lauren

      Reply

      • Posted by Sober Colm on October 12, 2012 at 2:47 pm

        Apologies Lauren, not your fault. The IT has gone down the tubes the last 5 years. A job is a job, not something to be sniffed at so sorry, all my angst is towards the IT/ your boss… bloody clowns!

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