Four days to rock, four days to roll
Live music left, right and centre over the weekend with Longitude, Springsteen and Matthew E White
Is there a more perfect outdoor venue for live music in the capital than the Iveagh Gardens? It ticks so many boxes: slap bang in the centre of the city, bucolic, pastoral, contains trees. Even for those agnostics (like this writer) who thinks live music is rarely best served in the outdoors, the Gardens do hit the mark.
That’s where this weekend began with Matthew E White opening proceedings for Grizzly Bear. While the latter have become somewhat predictable through familiarity, White’s a cat of another colour entirely. “Big Inner”, the boss debut album from the man from Richmond, Virginia, has become one of the year’s reliable go-to items, a record rarely far from the stereo.
What White does is remarkably simple: a musical gumbo of soul, funk, country and pop. How White does this – and why – is something else. It’s smart, clever sweet and so, so funky. As someone remarks later, if it’s so simple, why did no-one else think of doing the same thing before now?
White and his band strike out for the wildlands from the get-go. They certainly know where they’re coming from – those signposts leading to Dr John, Sly Stone, Allen Toussaint, The Band, Beach Boys – but they take their sounds further, wider and deeper than others have done in an age. “Brazos” is the keeper on this occasion, a song which rises and rises into a gospel hosanna before taking off and sailing even higher into the sky. A winner.
Marlay Park is another Dublin green space which has become used to the blitz und donner of live music over the last couple of years. Yet these SoCuDu acres haven’t experienced an event like Longitude before. Besides a big main stage, there’s also a rash of smaller stages cleverly hidden in the woods. If you’ve been to any of the festivals from which Longitude takes its bearings (Electric Picnic, Latitude, End Of the Road, Body & Soul, Glastonbury etc), you’ll recognise and appreciate the shorthand and semiotics of what the promoters are trying to do here. Top marks for sure for effort and execution.
From Friday’s musical menu, we were very taken with Matt Corby’s emotional pitch and drama. The Australian was one of our SXSW 2012 picks, a man who impressed then with an extraordinary voice and some tough-but-tender songs like “Brother”. What was evident from this appearance is that he’s added considerable muscle to his music and the tougher, more robust nature of the material suits him to a T. What’s also evident is that the Irish who go to Australia have found him and they filled the Woodlands’ tent, a tent which looked like one of those weddings marquees from the Celtic Tiger era, to the door.
AlunaGeorge were the other big ol’ hits on the night. Aluna Francis and George Reid’s “Body Talk” debut is a study in wonky pop, an album of impressively glitchy noises and superbly poised pop melodies. Live, they’ve got the trick right too, Francis out front stropping away like a diva in the making, with Reid and two session lads on drums and bass driving those quirky, offkilter beats. A sweet-as cover version of “This Is How We Do It”, a massive blast of “White Noise” and a winning slam-dunk of “Attracting Flies” is what we’ll take from this, along with some musings about where and how this packed tent found out about AG. It sure wasn’t on Irish national radio. Meanwhile, Jessie Ware’s set on the same stage got better and better as the gig went on, especially as it moved through the gears and upped the tempo to get to “Running”.
On the main stage, Django Django seemed a little lost and would have been far more suited to a venue with a roof on it, a problem which didn’t hinder or hamper Foals in the slightest. While their new album “Holy Fire” is not quite as strident or bold as previous efforts, it’s a different matter when they pull out all the stops with it live. This was a muscular, punchy set, where the songs were turboboosted to the max. They’ve become to the main stage born. As have headliners Phoenix, the French for fizz. One of the pre-fest questions was how Phoenix have become so big and that was answered pretty damn fast with “Lisztomania”, “Entertainment”, “1901″, “Girlfriend” and other big, meaty, catchy indie clatters. Songs plus the chic elan to carry them off with scruffy, unfussy nonchalance.
Few will ever attach the “lovely” adjective to the King’s Hall Arena in Belfast, a fairly utilitarian patch of rough ground beside the big venue of the same name on the city’s Lisburn Road best suited to showcasing tractors and other agricultural machines to Ulster farmers. But add the sun, 30,000 people and Bruce Springsteen playing his third of this month’s Irish shows and you’ll quickly forget the location. You can forgive anything when the sun shines and Springsteen and the E Street Band roll into town.
This was a Springsteen show of a much different stripe to the one caught in Limerick earlier in the road. Digging deep from “Nebraska” (for one thrilling moment, you thought he was going to do the full album, a la “Born to Run” by the Shannon) and “The River”, it hit a lot of those emotional spots which Springsteen’s Belfast shows to date have always done.
Keen-eyed observers will have noted the lack of any flags billowing from the top corners of the stage (and the absence of the principal wielding a lambeg drum on this occasion for “Death To My Hometown”), but there were subtle notes to the city nonetheless in the shape of “Reason to Believe”, one of five tracks from “Nebraska” tonight, and “Rocky Ground”.
Other highlights: a slamming two-step with “Cadillac Ranch” and “Darlington County”, a magnificent “Prove It All Night”, a rasper of a “Badlands” and the you-could-hear-a-pin-drop solo rendition of “Thunder Road”. Roll on the end-of-tour razzmatazz in Kilkenny next Sunday – our hunch, for some reason, is on “Born In the USA” from top to tail, but we’re probably wrong.
Back to Marlay on the Sabbath for more Longitude and some iPhone notes before some poinyheaded big picture scratchings. Half Moon Run were robust and reliable, though not as likable or as impressive as on their debut album “Dark Eyes”. Drenge were good value for their garage rock racket, SOHN has discovered even more blue sadcore notes since initially encountered in Groningen six months ago and Flume’s thumping bass-pop ripped through the tent and had bodies moving throughout, with “Holding On”, in particular, making one hell of a splash.
Over on the main stage, Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the homecoming queen and kings, a set of remarkable power, entertaining twists and some fabulously well-tooled and well-honed big gig songs. Kraftwerk’s 3-D show provided delicious eye-candy, but the overall effect was a little flat with many departing for the woods or elsewhere as the set progressed. Again, a set which would have benefited from the band playing in a room with a roof on it.
The only problem – and this was something which Longitude suffered from all weekend – was there was little or no alternative. By the time Kraftwerk jogged onstage at 9.15pm, looking like middle-aged men in lyrca fresh in from a Sunday spin on the Wicklow hills, most of the other stages had come to a close. Longitude eneded shockingly early for a music festival, an inevitable drawback when you’re dealing with a non-camping urban festival in the ‘burbs. Sure, there were various post-show parties around town to contend with, but the festival seemed to end just as it was getting going.
Then, there was the not insignificant matter that the festival lost 10 per cent of its line-up between announcement and weekend, with Modest Mouse, Laura Mvula, Petite Noir, King Krule and Tribes all no-shows. There were no replacements and, in the case of the latter three, no explanation about why they were dropped/didn’t show (I met several people who were wondering what happened to King Krule, in particular). No 10 per cent reduction in ticket prices either to compensate.
Little either to suggest that Longitude was, as the promo bumpf kept saying, “more than just a music festival”. Apparently, there was poetry, comedy and burlesque, amongst other things at the Speakeasy stage all weekend, but the organisers didn’t think the stage worthy of listing along with their main stages on their website. Perhaps they could call it “just a music festival” next year? After all, there were few who parted with their cash for a bit of burlesque in the woods or a radio station-sponsored stage belting out great tunes that you’d never ever hear on that radio station during daytime hours. I think there’d be a lot up for “just a music festival”.
There will also be grumbles from the punters about queues for the loos (you can’t have a festival without a queue for the jacks), queues for the bars (and about the price of the gargle when people finally got to the end of the queue) and queues for the grub (no doubt here that the pies and wings were worth the wait). Queues are inevitable at festivals, sadly. Hey, at least it wasn’t raining.
Such grumbles are relatively low-key because, make no bones about it, Longitude hit a sweet spot with the target market, as judged by the increasingly desperate pleas on social media outlets over the weekend as those who’d left it too late scrambled for a ticket. The weather naturally helped but, as Forbidden Fruit has been showing for the last few years, there is definitely a demand for a city-based, non-camping festival in a safe environment. Longitude stole attention and crowds from Forbidden Fruit and the weekend’s Iveagh Gardens’ gigs by dint of having 90 per cent of the best musical line-up of the summer. You can confidently expect it to return next year and probably expand a little too so expect the rivals to up their game too. The 10k or so who turned up every day will certainly be back for more.