Decision on best bets at Stradbally is no Picnic

Sat, Sep 1, 2012, 01:00

IT’S AMAZING what a day of half-decent weather did for the collective mood at the Electric Picnic. As this year’s festival got under way in Stradbally yesterday, the thought of a few days without rain, an occurrence almost as rare this summer in these parts as the weekend’s blue moon, lifted the spirits of the early arrivals.

It was noticeable that there were far more early birds around than in previous years. People seem to have decided to make a proper weekend of it, get real value for their €230 ticket and turn up early.

Friday is traditionally a slow-burner, with the bulk of folks usually arriving on site to pitch their tents after night has fallen. Those present to see Kormac’s Big Band open the weekend on the main stage had plenty of reasons to smile, as the ensemble’s brassy, swinging, feel-good sound got the weekend started on the good foot.

But not all the day’s main stage acts were so fortunate. There was a much smaller crowd for Gavin Friday’s set a few hours later, with the audience deeming other acts on at the same time, such as Willis Earl Beal, Metronomy and Grizzly Bear, were more deserving. At the Picnic, the wisdom of the roving crowd is king.

This is the ninth year in which this rolling, unpredictable carnival of music, arts, family activities, food, politics (you always need hot air at a festival) and imagination has set up camp at the Co Laois town. What began as a one-day music beano back in 2004 is now the premier event of the summer season, a place which has room for everything you could tag as festival-friendly.

And it really is “everything”. In the course of a five-minute stroll around the site, you’d have encountered a hissing steam engine, some superb art installations, TV fitness guru and lycra fanatic Mr Motivator slagging off Today FM’s Matt Cooper live on the latter’s Last Word radio show, and David McWilliams refereeing a debate on scrapping the Constitution and starting again.

The pop-economist is one of the regular fixtures in the festival’s Mindfield area. Here, you’ll find robust debates, poetry readings, interviews with literary types (John Banville will be talking to Joe Duffy tomorrow), theatre performances curated by Dublin Theatre Festival’s Willie White and an action-packed programme from the Science Gallery. There might also be some pantomime in the works – or maybe that’s just Ryan Tubridy’s Picnic Brunch.

You could spend the weekend in these fields and not bother with even one musician tuning up, but that wouldn’t be as much fun.

An early highlight were Cavan kids The Strypes, whose high-velocity, retro mod-pop was delivered with astonishing gusto. The fact they appeared to be performing in their school uniforms just added to the charm.

Alabama Shakes are another act trading in retro sounds, and their blend of heavyweight soul and bluesy emotional tunes like Hold On proved Picnic winners. There will also be much in the despatches about Brittany Howard’s powerhouse vocals.

London trio The xx specialise in minimal sounds and would not strike you as main stage material. Yet their set of gorgeous textures, incandescent melodies and occasional beats worked magic. Sometimes, less really is more.

Late last night, it was the turn of troubadours old and new to hit the stage and large crowds were expected for Christy Moore and Ed Sheeran. But there’s more, much more, to come in Stradbally in the next few days as such big draws as The Cure, The Killers, Elbow, Bell X1, Grimes and Patti Smith arrive. If the weather plays its part, it has all the makings of a very special weekend.