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.
Above all else, it was clear that the duo and their fine backing band were having a lot of fun. This was no po-faced, posturing NME photoshoot (their collection of headgear and costumes would rule them out Vogue’s September issue, too) but even though The Duckworth Lewis Method don’t particularly take themselves seriously, their infectious songs are more than just a throwaway side project for either musician. Even the sun is bowled over, poking through the clouds. Wicket, chaps.
Crowd-pleasing sets are all well and good, and an essential part of festivals. But when an act aspires to high art, delivers it without compromise, and manages to produce the most engrossing, bewildering, and straight-up thrilling set of the festival, it’s a privilege to witness.
Björk comes on stage in a dress that looks like Alexander McQueen designing for a cosmonaut, and she’s brought along a 14-strong choir of unearthly looks and voices. Mark Robinson is marshalling a phalanx of sounds and samples while Manu Delago wrestles frenetic lyrical beats from his kit, bank of samples and two hangs (a sort of metal hand drum that resonates to gorgeous effect).
For her part, Björk starts off in almost contemplative form, but it’s not long before the enormous Tesla coil in the roof is lowered and fired into crackling life, and the full scale of the Icelandic musician’s intent is revealed. I’m the Hunter slithers its way into biological life; Thunderbolt touches down to explosive effect; Joga could tear up the fields of Stradbally with its emotional charge alone. All of this is played out to an electronic backdrop of soaring galaxies, tectonic plates splintering and shunting, vector graphics spinning. Some of these have been around the block, but they’re so original they still look fresh.
This is a challenging show, and like Björk’s music, it shifts and turns, snarls and snaps. One minute Björk is crouched low to a solitary beat; moments later bursts of fire tear up the back drop, and the choir is raising an unholy noise. If it weren’t so engrossing, it would be terrifying, and it’s got enough kinetic charge to level a small city square – ora small festival in Laois, for that matter.
6. Irish acts in Body &Soul
The Body & Soul area of Electric Picnic makes a lot of its organic and holistic approach to everything from shamanic journeys to raw chocolate. But its greatest achievements are that home-grown feel to the music. Festivals can make a burgeoning Irish act. An epic gig or brilliant discovery spreads from mate to mate, the Chinese whispers of the “best gig ever” taking on a festival mythology that feeds back into an increased size for the next show. Last year, Le Galaxie rose to the occasion, becoming champions of the late-night slot, and this year rewarded with the coveted Sunday midnight slot at Body & Soul. And once again, some of the best gigs at the festival were from Irish acts. On Friday evening, Daithí, who has been growing and morphing into some kind of dance-pop supernova, hauled a crowd into the amphitheatre, with several people who’d never even heard of him going away singing his praises. That’s what you want from an early-evening gig. The next day, this time at a set in a bigger tent, the crowd had increased. Another Irishman, Donal Dineen, probably lost count of the number of DJ sets he doled out over the weekend, but his brilliant level of quality control means punters keep coming back to hear what he’s going to play next. Again: word of mouth, respect, quality.
One of the gigs of the weekend, wasn’t particularly well-attended, but those who were there were mesmerised. Again Body & Soul, again a fairly below the radar Irish act. Lisa O’Neill delivered a set of such stunning poise, humour, depth and emotion that it was almost hard to digest. Body & Soul with all its little corners and cafes and seating areas was a good place to be to come to terms with her brilliance.
7. A better range of bars
Festivals are increasingly homogenised in terms of what alcohol is available, with beer brands monopolising what pint a thirsty punter can sip on. But this year at the picnic, a diversity of tipples was noticeable and welcome. Tiger beer had a new bar at the main stage, meaning Heineken wasn’t the sole lager of the day, as it has been at most of the outdoor events this summer. Still, at pints of beer ranging from €6 to €6.50, festival bars need to get real on the value – or lack thereof – they offer. Mindfield hosted its usual wine bar, with plastic half-litre bottles of wine available for €15, which is a decent price.
The prosecco bar outside Body & Soul was a great spot to hang out, and up at the trailer park, another bar offered rum drinks. The Bacardi bar was as usual packed all weekend. It’s a great setting with brilliant guest DJs meaning that people hang out for a dance as well as their order. Red Bull continued their rise as a mainstay of festivals, emphasising quality in the programming of their dance-music orientated entertainment. Their music academy stages at various festivals show what you can do with some imagination and good bookings while not shoving a brand in people’s faces.
While the range of drinks available widened, it’s still a shame festival bars don’t offer the same “full bar” capacity as indoor venues do. Pouring rights and brand presence are a valuable revenue stream for festivals, but the punter loses out.
And there’s still the contentious approach to stopping people bringing alcohol into the main arena. Considering most Irish festivals are allergic to allowing a BYOB policy because of the perceived impact it would have on bar takings, it leads to binge drinking in the campsites, as people consume their alcohol in a short period of time before heading in to catch a band. That needs to be addressed.
8. John Grant
This was the festival slot that John Grant was born to play – late night Saturday to a packed tent full of festival patrons ready to dance, not tucked away inconspicuously on a tiny stage in the woods at 2pm.
Once upon a time, the former Czars frontman’s songs may have been more suited to a more serene setting – indeed, the majority of the tracks on his remarkable solo debut Queen of Denmark are intimate, heartbreak-driven beauties – but with a new collection of dancefloor-ready tunes and a fine backing band drawn from musicians from his new hometown of Reykjavik, he turns in a set that is both deep and dirty, slick and sexy, propulsive and personal. Oh, don’t worry, Grant is still writing elegies for the eternal outsider, as he testifies to with the magnificent Pale Green Ghosts and Blackbelt – it’s just that this time, his sneering ripostes and achingly succinct reminiscences have a snap and a groove in their tail.
Midway through the set, the packed crowd at Rankin’s Wood Stage is amped up and ready to party, so when Grant introduces Sinéad O’Connor – who provided backing vocals on the new album – things get a little crazy. The waifish singer is greeted like a returning heroine, but even she cannot steal the thunder of the burly Colorado man. The pair run through spinetingling ballads Glacier and It Doesn’t Matter to Him like they’ve been singing together all their lives, while Grant’s grin is almost as broad as ours as he clearly delights in her presence on the gleeful thud of raucous closer Queen of Denmark.
His hour-long set isn’t long enough, but it’s just about enough to engender that feel-good buzz that usually only happens once or twice at a festival. Outstanding.
9. Disclosure’s pop life
This is what pop music is all about in 2013. It’s 1am on Sunday and the main arena is jumping. For the first time this weekend, nearly every blade of grass in this open-air theatre is populated by shiny happy people who are dancing and pulling variations on the big-fish-little-fish shapes with their hands.
Onstage, there are two brothers standing at their consoles and hopping from foot to foot. Guy Lawrence is 22 and his brother Howard is 19. They are Disclosure, they’re playing to their equally youthful peers who’ve colonised the festival this year and everything in the world is alright.
You could hear the brothers’ touch over and over again at the weekend.
Earlier in the day, Sam Smith, the vocal star on Disclosure’s Latch, warmed hearts with his robust, soulful solo turn in the Electric Arena. White Noise, the duo’s collab with AlunaGeorge, battles Get Lucky in the ubiquity stakes in terms of music blaring from food stalls and sideshows.
In 2013, the brothers and their guest vocalists have bossed the charts and pop radio playlists with their debut album Settle and its grand parade of tunes.
Onstage in Stradbally, they set the picnic alight by simply doing what no-one else saw fit to do. They take house music’s four-to-the-floor foundations and nonchalantly turn the structures upside down and inside out with panache and poise to create something which looks familiar, but sounds wholly unique and fresh.
The music, fused with shards of disco, techno, electro and r’n’b, works like nothing else. Be it White Noise, Stimulation, or Latch, the only thing to do is lose yourself to the euphoria. The kids are more than alright.
10. 10 years of Electric Picnic
When it comes to open-air music festival shenanigans in the current economic climate, 10 is a big number. At this stage you’ve laid out your stall, you’ve done the spadework and people have voted yeah or nah with their feet and wallets.
Get to 10 and you’re established. You’ve survived slings, arrows, recessionary ill-winds and food poisoning from that dodgy burger stall from a few years ago. It’s telling that very few Irish festivals of comparative size have made it to double figures and maintained their bona fides (just look at the woe-be-gone Oxegen, for instance).
But the Electric Picnic, that weird, wired and wonderful arts and music carnival of the bizarre, bemusing and beautiful, has done so. When Electric Picnic founder John Reynolds shook hands with Thomas Cosby to strike a deal to use Stradbally Hall for a one-day festival at the end of the summer of 2004, neither man could have predicted what was to come.
The most memorable thing about that first year was that it was a fierce hot day and there were long queues for the bars. In 2005, the zeitgeist came crashing to earth in a field in Co Laois. That year the picnic provided highlights which still burn bright in the memory banks. Arcade Fire played out of their skins in the big tent and put in one of the shows of their career. It’s an event which is now Irish music’s GPO 1916, with more people claiming to have been there than could have possibly fitted in the big tent.
Since then the picnic has established itself year after year as the leader of the pack when it came to festivals in Ireland. In 2006 you’d Pet Shop Boys, Basement Jaxx and New Order stealing the show.
The following year the Daily Ticket made its first appearance and the Beastie Boys put on a thumping show.
Grace Jones provided the big wow in 2008, while 2009 was the year of Chic making their Irish debut and turning the Electric Arena into the biggest, loudest, most glammy disco in Co Laois.
We’ll remember 2010 as the year we saw the late, great Gil Scott-Heron, while Janelle Monae showed her smarts with two shows on the first night. In 2011, it was Santigold’s mesmeric funk in the big tent and PJ Harvey’s spooky folk on the main stage which dominated.
Last year? Well, last year’s highlights were provided by Orbital and the Roots, with Gavin Friday taking the rosette for the worst main stage appearance ever.
But those are just the headlines from the despatches. Our Picnic memories all blur into one giant, giddy, gleeful, gregarious mush of stuff. Catching the likes of Laura Marling and Lisa Hannigan on tiny stages, the stuff that goes bump-bump-bumpity- bump after midnight on Saturday night in the woods, the parallel universe that is the Body & Soul area, the brilliance of an
unplanned and unlisted disco in a yoga tent, brain food to store for the winter months from the assorted gatherings in the Mindfield area, enlightened conversations with randomers: you could probably draw up your own list along similar lines.
Over 10 outings, the Electric Picnic has become an essential part of Irish cultural life. Other fests may attract more people – the Fleadh in Derry drew 10 times as many, for instance – and others may be more bespoke in their bookings – come on down Longitude, this year’s most impressive new arrival – but the picnic has the X, Y and
It’s the big one on the calender for many and you can understand why. So, 10 more picnics? Sure, why not?