The best bits from Electric Picnic
Björk on the main stage at Electric Picnic. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
1. The Electric Picnic Parliament at MindField
If the Electric Picnic is a template for a new society (see my introduction) then The Parliament at the Leviathan Tent will be its revolutionary government, a dictatorship of the people headed up by Mary O’Rourke.
Here rabble-rousing ideologues speak for five minutes under her stern glare, before the discussion is opened to the floor and a democratic vote is taken on the ideas they’ve proposed. At the end of it all a manifesto is drafted.
This is followed, if I understand correctly, by purges, executions and a “re-education” programme.
The tent is rammed. Camembert Quartet’s Paddy Cullivan wants to “abolish the Parliament.” (“We’ve only started!” says Mary) and goes on to argue for a benign dictatorship headed up by himself. He is stymied by the liberal groupthink of the traditional festival crowd. “It’s funny that Labour decided to have a re-enactment of the 1913 Lockout today when all the 35,000 socialists in Ireland are actually here,” he says.
Abie Philbin Bowman wants boring terms like “climate change” and “global warming” replaced with the words “terrorist weather.”
Barry Murphy’s Gunther is schooled in German by a teutonically literate audience member. The journalist Carol Hunt argues for a separation of church and state. She wants us to replace every mention of God in the constitution with the words “our republic and citizens of our republic.” She ends up having a back and forth about “natural law” with a philosophically inclined audience member.
Everyone is engaged and good humoured. Incursions of music remind us that it’s a music festival. And O’Rourke presides over it all, 50 per cent school teacher and 50 per cent post-apocalyptic warlord, ready to take the helm when civilization collapses.
Next door at the Science Gallery young people in lab coats, goggles and quarter length shorts wow children with interesting goo and soldering irons.
Nearby Sinéad Gleeson is quizzing literary figures like JP Dunleavy and Paul Murray at the Arts Council’s Literary Tent. There’s spoken word. There’s theatre. There are cookery demonstrations. For lots of people, MindField is what Electric Picnic is all about.
2. Billy Bragg at The Electric Arena
Sometimes I am gripped by cynicism, even at the Electric Picnic. During these dark times it seems like music is just one component in a carefully constructed lifestyle package generated for me in a focus-grouped petri dish by nefarious marketing boffins.
The antidote to this, it turns out, is Billy Bragg in the Electric Arena Tent. It’s not the most auspicious set-up. The place isn’t quite full. I mean, up against the high art spectacle of Björk on the main stage, what can a post-punk troubadour with a countrified backing band do? But as he says himself, “Björk has a chorus of Icelandic Valkyries, but I have you.” And he really does. The audience dance and sing along as this 55-year-old man with a new beard (“It hides a multitude of chins,” he explains) demonstrates what a socially engaged artist looks like.
He knows that it’s been 100 years since the 1913 lockout and dedicates a stripped down There is power in a union to the “sons and daughters of Jim Larkin and James Connolly”. He asks us how the campaign for equal marriage is going and performs an absolutely groovetastic version of Sexuality.
He buoys up the spirits of weary old lefties with Woodie Guthrie’s All you Fascists bound to Lose and his own wonderful Waiting for the Great Leap Forward. He also delivers the most heartfelt tribute to Seamus Heaney that I’ve heard all weekend, talks about how the man’s poetry resonates with him and then reads some lines: “History says, don’t hope, On this side of the grave, But then, once in a lifetime, The longed-for tidal wave, Of justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme.” Then he sings Goodbye, Goodbye. It’s lovely.
3. A man makes a wooden bowl
To escape the bustle and noise at Electric Picnic, and the drunk young men who shout at me about my beard (“Hey it’s the guy from The Hangover!”), I wander towards the Greencrafts Village, where blacksmiths and woodworkers and jewellery makers make stuff with their hands. “Have these chumps never heard of IKEA?” I think at first, but before long I’m completely mesmerised by their old-fangled ways. My favourite thing at The Green Craft Village is to stand on the wood chippings that surround Terrence McSweeney, a Waterford born 20-something, who spends the weekend hollowing logs into wooden bowls using a pole lathe. This is a large contraption built with ash branches and rope pulleys and involves him repeatedly pumping his left foot on a pedal. I could watch him making bowls from logs all day. But it would be weird to just stare at him so I make conversation.
This is how all wooden bowls were made once upon a time. “Until the industrial revolution really, when they made steam-powered lathes and water-powered lathes,” says McSweeney. “The Vikings used to do this a hell of a lot where I come from.”
What does he like about it? “The fact you go from a log, a piece of a tree, and within an hour between axing it, turning it and taking it off the lathe you have something you can eat your dinner out of. It’s just brilliant. It’s lovely to eat out of wood. It has a much nicer texture than ceramics. Everybody from the poorest man to the kings ate out of wood once upon a time but you go to a museum and wooden bowls just aren’t on display.” Can you make a wooden bowl from a log, Björk? I didn’t think so.
4. The Duckworth Lewis Method
Everyone could use a bit of Jiggery Pokery on a Saturday afternoon – or at least that’s what The Duckworth Lewis Method maintain. Neil Hannon poses a valid question when he asks what business ‘cricket-pop’ has being on the main stage of Electric Picnic? But the fact that the Divine Comedy man, and his co-collaborator Thomas Walsh, write songs so irresistibly likeable renders the subject matter inconsequential. Who is Shane Warne, and why do they hate him? Why was Meeting Mr Miandad such a big deal? And how on earth have the duo manage to base not one, but two concept albums on the topic of cricket? It doesn’t really matter – you’ll probably sing along, anyway. This whole project could so easily have been an exercise in self-indulgence or an in-joke funny only to friends, cricket fans and each other, but the quality of these tunes only serves as a reminder of Hannon’s status as Ireland’s greatest living songwriter. This was the perfect Saturday afternoon set, with the unlikely lads freely indulging their love of bands like ELO with songs like Meeting Mr Miandad, Sticky Wickets and The Sweet Spot and generating a feel-good effect.