Stepping through the mindfield of exotic festival characters


ALL HUMAN life is here in abundance. You’re likely to bump into the strangest of folks when you wander around these 600 acres in the middle of Stradbally as the Electric Picnic takes up its annual three-day residency in the Co Laois town.

It’s the best music festival in the country so there’s no surprise that rock stars and would-be rock stars are out in force preening, pouting and occasionally performing. You’d expect that. In fact, you’d be worried if you didn’t see them here at work and play.

But at this music festival, it’s another cast of characters entirely who are the exotic ones. We don’t mean the hundreds of families and kids bouncing around the fields, a rare sight at most Irish music festivals of this scale, but one welcomed with open arms by the organisers here.

No, these characters populate the Mindfield area, which houses the festival’s spread of debates, lectures, workshops and talks. On Friday evening, you’d have come across politicians, economists, scientists, poets, historians and writers here.

You’d usually only come across such a gathering of rabble-rousers, mischief-makers and spoofers at a summer school or TV3’s green room before the Vincent Browne show.

In Stradbally, though, David McWilliams and Luke “Ming” Flanagan are star attractions and part of the reason people have paid good money to be here.

Of course, Picnic-goers are unlikely to have paid €240 just to hear McWilliams moderate a debate about economic violence and civil unrest featuring the Roscommon TD Flanagan, blogger Guido Fawkes and activists Eamonn McCann, Kate Tempest and Dylan Haskins.

But such a gathering is now as firmly part of the Picnic mix as a bunch of trance DJs spinning tunes in the forest at 4am. You come for the music headliners and you get food for thought about why London urchins rob widescreen TVs and branded sportswear to boot.

Expect much more Mindfield banter and headlines over the weekend with topics to come including a discussion on the IRA and the Nazis, Miriam O’Callaghan chatting to John Banville, and Bob Geldof discussing the past, present and future of the music business.

Speaking of music, there has been plenty to keep the thousands who arrived early in good form.

Sinead O’Connor was in strident, confident, powerful voice on the main stage with a fine, tight, rocking band in tow. A superb reading of I Am Stretched On Your Grave, dedicated to the late Amy Winehouse, was probably the highlight of her set.

But it was that voice, something that has never lost its lustre over the years, which reminded you of all that’s still great about O’Connor.

A flamboyantly bedecked PJ Harvey provided a superbly idiosyncratic performance, with tunes as striking as the black feathers on her headpiece.

Over in the Electric Arena, it was the turn of Santigold, American singer Santi White and her band, to throw down the funk. Playing songs from both her classic debut and forthcoming second album, this was a show to savour.

An artist like Jimmy Cliff was always going to be a winner in these fields, the reggae veteran letting the bass and those weatherbeaten classics put everyone on the good foot. Further proof reggae will always be a winner at an Irish music festival, regardless of the weather.

Yesterday evening was also an opportunity for many revellers to get to see the new school of Irish acts. It’s to the Picnic’s credit that it puts so many homegrown bands in the frame on every stage.

But Friday is also about settling in for the weekend and pitching tents.

The Picnic has begun. There will be no budging anyone here ’till Sunday night at the earliest.