Electric Picnic 2019: Best gigs of the weekend
Reviews: Florence, Billie, Charli and Christine, plus Hozier and Richard Ashcroft
Christine and The Queens play the main stage at Electric Picnic. Photograph: Dave Meehan for The Irish Times
FLORENCE + THE MACHINE: AN INCANDESCENT FINALE
Main stage, Sunday
Florence Welch is celebrating 10 years as a flame-haired pop star. She marks the anniversary with an incandescent Electric Picnic closing set containing something for everyone – even Game of Thrones fans mourning the end of their favourite show.
Welch materialises barefoot wearing a billowing skirt suggestive of a yoga teacher tired of playing it safe with her fashion choices. She sways and pirouettes, a willow in the teeth of a gale.
Her most striking attribute is her oak-hewn voice. It booms out over a Stradbally tired but happy after three days of festivalgoing.
There are a lot of hits to get through. She delivers her biggest, Dog Days Are Over, early. Welch bounces on the spot, waving her arms. At one point she appears set to levitate over the crowd. She also takes a moment to urge everyone to put away their phones and then delivers a short lecture on mindfulness (which briefly threatens to become quite a long lecture on mindfulness).
Having reeled in the years with that smash, we set sail for Westeros. As the wind gusts and the night draws in, she tiptoes through the Game of Thrones anthem Jenny of Oldstones, dedicated “to Arya Stark”.
That widescreen dirge was a highlight of the ghastly finale season of the bums’n’broadswords saga. Welch, who performed it on the official soundtrack, re-creates the song’s slightly hammy majesty. It’s essentially Frodo Baggins’s idea of a power ballad. Florence imbues it with hard-won gravitas.
She pauses to warn against the evils of toxic masculinity and those who seek to advance themselves by sowing division. That’s by way of introducing Patricia, which she dedicates to Patti Smith. “Paddy who?” says the bucket-hat-wearing man next to me.
But everything is eclipsed by her soaring vocals as she blazes through What Kind of Man and Shake It Out. Shake it she does – leaving the audience stirred and gasping for more. Ed Power
RICHARD ASHCROFT: A SPINE-TINGLING MOMENT
Main stage, Sunday
Back when Coldplay, Kodaline and Snow Patrol were in short trousers, Richard Ashcroft and The Verve were the original of the anthemic-rocker species. They were huge for about 10 minutes, only to fall apart for the traditional reasons (bickering, egos, Ashcroft’s attempt to make the Britpop-era curled mullet a statement look).
The singer is now 47 but still a fighting-fit channeller of Everydude hopes and fears. And he harks unashamedly back to his former band’s glory days in a big-hearted pre-suppertime set.
“I’m so happy to be let off my leash in Laois,” he shouts, adding. “This isn’t f***ing Dublin.” Has he caught wind of the grumbles about the procession of artists addressing Electric Picnic as if it were 80km up the M7?
The smashes start early and keeping coming. Ashcroft’s opener, Sonnet, is Oasis if they’d stayed in touch with their sensitive sides. Lucky Man is a slice-of-life rock-out from an artist who croons about getting through the day as if it were a noble victory over impossible odds.
His expansive voice is, as per his pledge, unleashed on his solo track A Song for the Lovers. But the final day of Electric Picnic is neither the time nor the place for foisting “new songs” on an audience. Wisely, Ashcroft stays in greatest-hits setting throughout.
Bitter Sweet Symphony, The Verve’s enduring singalong, is the thrilling, chilling closer. “Come f***ing on!” Ashcroft yells. You can tell he means it, as he has whipped off his camouflage jacket. (The mirror shades and grey hoody remain in place.)
All around, men, women, children, livestock, inanimate objects etc are putting their arms around each other and bawling the words. As well they should: they’re witnessing one of the weekend’s spine-tingling moments. Ed Power
THE 1975: STAR OF SATURDAY NIGHT
Main stage, Saturday
In recent years, The 1975 have established themselves as some of the most compelling commentators on the present state of the world.
Their Electric Picnic set kicks with their new song People. Sonically, it’s an abrasive number at odds with the lush synth pop they’re best known for. The song is intended to serve as a call to arms to young people to wake the hell up and bloody do something. You have our attention, lads. Continue.
Normal service quickly resumes and the audience is treated to some of their signature hits, including It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You) and I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes).
Politics are never far away, though. “We need to band together not just to fight the rise of the right wing, but to not get set on fire,” frontman Matty Healy tells the crowd. At one point, they broadcast a message from climate change activist Greta Thunberg.
Later, they perform last year’s Love It If We Made It. The song is a sort of modern-day We Didn’t Start the Fire, which references everything from Donald Trump’s tweets to the refugee crisis. It’s one of the night’s standouts.
That’s not to say it’s preachy. In fact, there’s something endearing about how sincere it all is and it’s difficult not to get swept up in the swoonworthy saxophone solos.
Visually speaking, this is a technicolour feast that never overwhelms the show. Think neon lights and busy backdrops. The true star of the night, however, is Matty Healy. As a frontman, he’s second to none, as liable to make a self-deprecating remark as he is to thrust his hips without making you feel scarlet for him. “We’re the greatest rock band in the world and we’re not even a rock band,” he tells the crowd. And you know what? You almost believe him. Amy O’Connor
CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS: ‘STAY FREAKY, MY FRIENDS’
Main stage, Saturday
Fresh from making a cameo at Charli XCX’s show, Christine and the Queens skedaddles over to the main arena for her own set. One of the most eagerly anticipated acts of the weekend, her set coincides with when many punters depart to line their stomachs for the long night ahead, meaning it’s not as packed as one might expect.
Nonetheless, she pulls out all the stops. Unlike the guitar-strapped singer-songwriters who have taken to the same stage this weekend, Christine and The Queens doesn’t scrimp when it comes to showmanship. Confetti, pyrotechnics, dance breaks – it’s all here. The songstress performs songs like Tilted and Doesn’t Matter accompanied by a troupe of dancer performing intricate choreography worthy of Bob Fosse. At times, it’s like watching a minimalist stage musical.
It’s a standout show from an utterly singular performer. Intense, earnest, sultry, captivating – Chris is all of the above.
During the set, she notes that it’s the final date of her tour. It’s bittersweet that more aren’t here to see her off, but she can be satisfied that the show will live long in the memories of those who witnessed it. Her parting words to the audience? “Stay freaky, my friends. Hard times, stay freaky.” Amy O’Connor
Main stage, Saturday
Charli XCX struts out on stage wearing an all-black ensemble and looking like she’s starring in a reboot of The Matrix. Far from making niceties, she immediately implores the crowd to “make some f**king noise” and breaks into the anthemic Blame It On Your Love, followed by I Love It.
There is an urgency to her set and it soon becomes clear why as she welcomes Héloïse Letissier, aka Christine and the Queens, to perform their recent duet Gone. Watching the pair vibe and bounce off each other is something akin to pop nirvana. Some artists might struggle to follow up such a moment but Charli XCX has the crowd in the palm of her hand. She cycles through hits – Fancy, Boys and 1999. Thrillingly, she performs a cover of Wannabe, fitting given Charl XCX exudes the same sass and mischief the Spice Girls once did.
It’s a perfectly pitched pop set and a reminder of Charli XCX’s credentials as both a performer and songwriter. The crowd laps it up and they show their appreciation by sticking everything from their middle fingers to their phone torches in the air. Everyone leaves buzzed and hyped for a wild Saturday night. Job done. Amy O’Connor
INHALER MAKE THEIR OWN NOISE
Rankin’s Wood, Saturday
Using Pink Floyd’s Breathe as the intro music prior to setting foot on stage may not have been the most subtle move on the part of Inhaler, but if any Irish band needs to make an impression, a connection, it is this one. They need to do so in order to dissociate themselves from a fact of birth (lead singer Eli Hewson is Bono’s son), and any perception of a helping hand.
Truth is, Hewson and his four friends make a really good fist of marking their own territory – the music is remarkably well structured rock/pop that, wisely, owes little or no debt to lineage. The good news is it’s so early in the band’s development that - unless fate determines otherwise - they can only get better and even more individual. And look how far Inhaler have come in the past 12 months. At EP last year, they played a very small tent. This year, with just themselves to thank, they pulled a really good gig out of the bag in a sizeable space. Main stage for year three? Don’t bet against it. Tony Clayton-Lea
SCARY ÉIRE PARTY LIKE IT’S 1991
Salty Dog stage, Friday
Every generation likes to believe that it got there first. That’s certainly true of Ireland and hip hop. The country is surfing a swell of exciting new rhymers and producers (and some controversial ones too: search Twitter for Versatile and then take cover).
But there was life in Irish rap before Gen Z dropped its first mixtape. Here to remind us with an Electric Picnic reunion are Dublin-Tullamore crew Scary Éire. Years – decades actually – before it was fashionable to rhyme in a semi-Irish accent, the group put the genre here on the map as the first Irish hip hop outfit to sign to a major label (and to play arenas, which they did supporting U2).
They were ferocious value as they stormed the Salty Dog at 1am. It turns out that a pirate-themed stage deep in the County Laois woods is the perfect backdrop for their witty and fist-clenched take on gangsta rap. The boyos were in the ‘hood.
“You want to see a real DJ? Try this on your laptop,” declares frontman Rí-Rá introducing an onslaught of scratching.
Because they came of age in a more closed off and misanthropic time, Scary Éire have a complicated relationship with Irishness. The bell-chimes of the Angelus usher on Rí-Rá “hypeman” Mr Browne and DJs Mek and Dada Sloosh; later a bodhrán makes an appearance.
There are also chants of Up the Dubs – the punters on balance would prefer the Dubs stayed where they were – and, during a technical glitch, a chorus of that old school classic Come Out Ye Back and Tans.
There are some irrepressible raps too. “Howld Yer Whisht” they chant during the song of the same name. The (rather careworn) audience parties like it’s 1991. Ed Power
BILLIE EILISH: KNOCKOUT TURN FROM A FORCE OF NATURE
Main stage, Friday
Billie Eilish is the pop-star equivalent of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit or the opening credits to David Fincher’s Se7en. Her scary, cathartic music has conjured with industrial rock and grunge even as the 17-year-old has emerged as 2019’s heavyweight new chart contender.
Eilish’s already immense drawing power is apparent long before her arrival. It feels as if most of Electric Picnic’s 57,000 or so attendees have gathered around the main stage ahead of her early-evening performance.
Their reward is a knockout turn from the force-of-nature teenager. She materialises sporting dyed green hair and white T and shorts and plunges with the crepuscular synth bopper Bad Guy.
Later, there’s a dash into the crowd for Bellyache, a catchy ballad from the perspective of a serial killer. This is pop with venom in its veins and an undertow of darkness that evokes a chill even on a clement Stradbally evening.
Eilish’s real name is Billie O’Connell, so Irish roots are a given. (Scientists have calculated there’s a 50 per cent chance you went to school with someone named Billie O’Connell.) She of course references this: “I’m part Irish, dude… This is my home.”
But she doesn’t overdo it. Preening isn’t really Eilish’s thing, as she demonstrates sliding into the Nine Inch Nails froideur of her megahit Bury a Friend. Surfing on chain-rattling beats, the track is more than mildly disturbing. What’s truly frightening is how big Billie Eilish could yet become. Ed Power
HOZIER: A STIRRING HOMECOMING
Main stage, Friday
Time flies when you’re number one. The last time Hozier played a headline show on the Electric Picnic main stage he was an up-and-coming singer-songwriter with one huge hit – Take Me to Church – in his sails. Five years later he returns with a US-chart-topping album to his credit. (It went to number one in Ireland too, obviously.) He can plausibly lay claim to the title of the country’s biggest rock export this side of U2 and The Cranberries.
It’s a stirring homecoming from the Co Wicklow singer. With darkness having definitively descended, he opens with Would That I. Half-chanted, half-sung, it’s one of the more storming numbers from his second album, Wasteland, Baby! He sings into the teeth of an invisible gale, his band summoning sheets of noise.
He has come to play as well as beseech. Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene, perhaps his best song, is a gothic caper that fizzes with baroque glee. It’s Emily Dickinson trapped inside an anguished power ballad, which turns out to be exactly what Electric Picnic is in the mood for. “I can’t put a name on being in front of a home crowd,” he says, his voice pulsing with emotion. It’s obviously a big moment for him – as is a duet later with Lisa Hannigan.
Hozier is photographed deep underwater on the cover of Wasteland, Baby! With the rain holding off, the good news is that he is spared re-creating the shot at Electric Picnic. But dark clouds are acknowledged as Hozier croons his lungs out on Nina Cried Power. It’s a song about standing up to oppression and powerful figures trying to keep you down. “I want to say thank you to everyone who is making Ireland what it is,” he declares by way of introduction. “I love you.”
He wrote it in the shadow of the election of Donald Trump. Here and now, with Ireland staring down the barrel of a hard Brexit, it feels more relevant than ever. As everyone sings along, the chorus rises into the Stradbally night. Ed Power
JARVIS COCKER: NO GOING BACK TO THE YEAR 2000
Electric Arena, Friday
Styled more recently as Jarv Is, the former lead singer and signature figure of the UK band Pulp has always been an odd yet acutely intelligent pop star. So it continues with a stage show that features little more than Cocker throwing spidery silhouettes and singing-talking his way through a variety of new (Must I Evolve?, C***s Are Still Running the World) and old material (including Pulp’s His’n’Hers, and lesser tracks from his solo albums). Cocker is a creative, witty songwriter who has rarely if ever compromised, and this latest incarnation carries on that tradition. Long-time admirers would, therefore, readily accept a show that could clearly benefit from being experienced in a smaller venue. Alas, those eager to hear those very well-known Pulp songs remain untouched by Cocker’s adherence to the new. And yet you have to respect the man’s decision to renew his creative vows: few highly regarded songwriters of his generation have the nerve to leave the past behind. Is this a crowd-pleaser? No. Is it an inside look at a maverick’s progress? Yes. There’s no going back to the year 2000 for this guy. Tony Clayton-Lea
DERMOT KENNEDY: A HARD-PUNCHING PERFORMANCE
Main stage, Friday
The hit parade of musicians who have graduated from busking on Grafton Street to playing arenas has welcomed a raw-throated new member. Dermot Kennedy is a white-knuckled rasper in the tradition of the heart-on-sleeve truthsayers Damien Rice and Glen Hansard (spied earlier grooving to Billie Eilish).
The difference is that he’s a young man coming of age musically in an era of playlists and genre-splicing. (He shares a manager with Lana Del Rey and Dua Lipa.) So hip hop and soul are part of the weave as he delivers a hard-punching main-stage performance.
Kennedy troops on after the Dundalk singer-songwriter David Keenan and ahead of Hozier. Welcome to the evening Electric Picnic finally achieves peak Irish troubadour. And yet this 27 year-old from Rathcoole, in Co Dublin, is nobody’s soundalike.
His voice, unvarnished though never ragged, is the driving force behind Lost. “The devil hit his second stride,” Kennedy croons against a stabbing white spotlight. His tone confirms that this is on balance a bad thing.
“I played here four years ago to a tent of about 50 people,” he announces. “The year before that I tried to sneak in – and failed.”
The nugget in his pocket is Power Over Me. It’s one of those anthems best sung with eyes closed, head tilted towards the horizon. With Ed Sheeran on open-ended hiatus, there are opportunities for ardent young men with guitars. Kennedy’s chances are as good as anyone’s. Ed Power
DAVID KEENAN: THE MAN CONNECTS
Main stage, Friday
As Irish as a game of hurling and as smart as a fox, David Keenan is playing on the biggest stage of his career so far – and he is, frankly, licking his lips like a bunch of Cheshire cats after a dozen slurps of cream. In other words, the size of the stage suits him: the Dundalk man can’t help but revel in the occasion (and it so happens it’s his birthday, which is surely the congratulatory cherry on the cake). It helps that his band consists of some of the most experienced musicians in Ireland, but that’s only part of the picture. It helps that Keenan’s songs are mini epics that know when to ebb and flow and never outstay their welcome, but that too is only part of the picture. The clincher, of course, is Keenan himself. We have seen him on tiny stages, also, and both there and here he shows no fear or inhibition. “Are we not delirious?” he sings imperiously during his brazen walkabout off the stage and across the barriers close to the ever-growing crowd. A tad OTT? Perhaps, but the man connects. Money or PR hype can’t buy that. Tony Clayton-Lea