Wide Awake Festival, 28 May 2022

Primal Scream on the main stage

Not quite summer yet, but the festival season has begun. Wide Awake festival takes place in Brockwell Park, Brixton. Nearest station is Herne Hill. It made its debut in September 2021, delayed by the pandemic. In this, its second year, the music was spread over two days, Friday and Saturday. Friday was headlined by Caribou and erred more towards dance music; Saturday mixed dance and indie/rock, with a bit more emphasis on the latter. Primal Scream were the headliners, featuring a rendition of their classic album from the early 90s, Screamadelica. I was tempted by both days, but settled for the Saturday. Primal Scream was too good to miss; Floating Points and Overmono offered some interesting electronic options; the Comet is Coming are always hugely entertaining; and I was looking forward to renewing acquaintance with Faye Webster after a few years. Of course, when making that assessment, I didn’t think about the curse of all festivals – the line-up clash. In the event that did for everyone on that list except Primal Scream and Faye Webster!

Jon G and I managed to get to Brockwell Park half an hour before the festival gates opened, at midday, so we went off to Herne Hill to get a cup of tea. We met Louis and Gab at the entrance just before 12, along with Gab’s brother Finlay and his friend Georgia. As we entered, we were all given a token for a free can of Beefeater gin and tonic. What could we do but go up to the stall and get our freebie? Made a change from starting with a fizzy lager! It was amusing to see all the early birds at the first shows, which began at 12.15, wandering around with their G&Ts.

First up were the Golden Dregs, in the big tent, sponsored by the Moth Club* – which we love – and DIY Magazine. This is a band that I’ve missed a few times at previous festivals, so it was good to catch up with them. They’re a south London-based band, but singer Benjamin Woods is from Falmouth in Cornwall, a place I know well, as one of my daughters has been at university there. His sister Hannah plays saxophone in the band, amongst other things. I’d read that they played Americana-style music, but it was rather more than that. The band all came on dressed in white and played a very slick set, with plenty of musical variety. Benjamin played a bit of guitar, but mostly just sang – or, I should say, crooned. I was getting the National, Lloyd Cole and maybe Tindersticks in the sound. Or even Gene – remember them? All good stuff and a very enjoyable start to the day’s music. I’ll be checking out their albums at home.

I split with the rest for the next show. They stayed in the tent for Crows, the ear-splitting rockers. They were amazing at Latitude in 2019, but I fancied something a little lighter at lunchtime. Katy J Pearson was on the Windmill* stage, the main arena.  I’ve heard a bit of her country-tinged pop, and really like her recent single Talk Over Town, which takes you into Angel Olsen territory. In the sunshine she started with that song, and proceeded to play a set that suited the sunny, breezy day. It got people dancing – when they weren’t taking selfies. A refreshing aperitif of a show.

Back to the big tent after that to meet up with the gang and take ourselves back to the electropop of the mid-80s. One part New Romantic, two parts Depeche Mode. With a dash of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. All the way from Brooklyn, New York, Nation of Language. Their second album, A Way Forward, had quite a lot of airplay on 6 Music last year. It was one of Jon’s favourites of the year; I never quite got round to listening to all of it. I liked what I heard, but having grown up with the originals, I didn’t feel the urge to investigate further. But, I have to say, the show was excellent, and really grew on me as it went along. The beats were so redolent of all those 80s classics that you couldn’t help but love it. The singer Ian Richard Devaney had a bit of charisma and threw himself around the stage. He occasionally picked up the guitar, and that provided some of the outstanding moments for me, particularly the last song Across That Fine Line, which is one of their best known. The guitar, with that live distortion that you just can’t capture on record, melded perfectly with the electro-beats. A dramatic end to an absorbing set.

And I’ve listened to the album since – I really like it!

I stayed in the tent for the next show, one of those I was most looking forward to: Faye Webster. The first time I saw her was in 2017, when she was supporting Julia Jacklin at Shepherd’s Bush Empire (as was Nilufer Yanya, who is also doing well). Her self-titled second album had just come out. It’s a beautiful album of bittersweet country-pop. Since then her sounds have become ever more lush, and just as poignant. Check out Kingston and In a Good Way, both songs I absolutely love. Live, her music works best in a small venue, which allows the understated melodies and the embellishments of the steel guitar to shine through. Faye’s demeanour is quite modest too, which is fine when you are close to the action; today, with a large (and appreciative) crowd the sound was somewhat overwhelmed by the buzz of chatter, which is an inescapable part of the festival experience. Having said that, I was delighted to hear both In a Good Way and Kingston for the first time live, and She Won’t Go Away, one of the highlights of the Faye Webster album. An enjoyable set, but I should have stood a bit closer to the stage for a better appreciation.

The next two to three hours were a bit of this and a bit of that. In the meantime, I managed to miss The Comet is Coming, but I’m sure I’ll see them again soon, for more of Shabaka Hutching’s amazing sax-playing. After Faye Webster I wandered down to the Windmill stage for the second half of Yard Act. They’ve been winning a lot of plaudits recently, and are appearing everywhere, but I found it all a bit wordy, and after a couple of rants from James Smith, I decided to go and get a burger. Product placement alert – Cheeky Burgers, very good quality!

Afterwards I wandered up to the small Brixton Brewery stage, open but with one of those big canopies. A band called Modern Woman (aka Mordern Woman) were about to come on. They looked interesting: a dark-haired, rather striking woman guitarist in a long diaphanous red dress; and three men, including one who had a violin as well lots of electronic kit. They looked quite Mediterranean in appearance, Turkish maybe, and I wondered whether we were going to get an interesting clash of musical styles. So I stuck around, even though the band, especially the woman, seemed to be taking an age tuning up. I’m glad I did, because the music was intriguing – a clash of sounds indeed, but folk rock and post-punk jarring guitars and violins over jagged bass lines. Fairpoint Convention meets Black Midi! And quite a lot of shrieking too. There was a sort of suppressed wildness about them. It was all over quite quickly – probably because of that prolonged sound check – but not before a previously innocuous young man just in front of me began to leap about crazily, dragging one of his friends and a few bystanders into his improvised mosh.  I moved away to keep out of it and try to focus on the music, which was reaching a frenzied climax – before it ended suddenly. All a bit surreal.

It made quite an impression me though, and I looked afterwards to see what information there was on the band online. The singer and guitarist is Sophie Harris, the violinist/synth man David Denyer, who has Armenian heritage. The band are south London-based. Of course they are! Jon and Louis later said they’d seen them at End of the Road last year, which I missed. There’s an EP from 2021 called Dogs Fighting my Dream on Spotify, which summarises their recorded output so far. I shall keep an eye out for future shows – I’d like to see more of them. I’ll try to avoid that lone mosher if he’s there though!

After that excitement, I thought I’d give Billy Nomates a go. She’s another artist I’ve not got around to seeing at previous festivals. I liked the duet she did with Jason Williamson on Sleaford Mod’s catchy single Mork and Mindy last year. What I’d heard of her own music sounded like 70s rock/soul melodies set against a modern electronic backbeat. Could be interesting live, I thought. And it was – sort of. Billy was very energetic, leaping around the stage, as the laptop pumped out the sound. I could see why she was a fit with Sleaford Mods. But it was a bit karaoke for me – onstage. The music itself was fine. I decided to go up to the Bad Vibrations/So Young stage across the way, where the delightfully-named Tropical Fuck Storm were about to play.

TFS – let’s call them that – were bound to rock, I assumed. I was right about that! They looked the part, too. After the shenanigans at Modern Woman, I was impressed by how the band were all standing in their places, raring to go, for about five minutes before they were due to start.  No-nonsense professionals. They are from Australia, and clearly know how to entertain an audience. I didn’t know any of their music, but it was easy to enjoy the riffing, the shaking heads and the general (controlled) mayhem. Judging from the crowd they also have a diehard fanbase, who were at Wide Awake to see them today. Good fun – might not listen to their music at home, but would be happy to see them again on the stage.

I left before TFS’s set ended to return to the tent for the Horrors, and to hook up again with the rest of the group. I have good memories of this band – their show at my first Latitude, in 2012, was the highlight of the weekend. They were three albums into their career, having recently released Skying. They combined Goth, post-punk, shoegaze and electropop effortlessly and had the classic rock’n’roll look, singer Faris Badwan in particular. Fast forward to 2022 and what did we get? More of the same? Not really, not for me, anyway. It might partly have been because the lighting and imagery wasn’t anywhere near as good as that Latitude show; but mainly it was the music. It all seemed like a rather turgid wall of sound to me, with some thumping beats. Where had the melodic underpinning, the brilliant guitar sound, that stylish grandiosity gone? Ten years ago… things obviously change. The band have had some successes, but haven’t really dominated the indie scene in the way that  might have been expected. A very loyal following, for sure, but I felt that something had been lost. Some of the swagger. I didn’t stay on to see if it got better in the end, as I had an appointment with some proper rock’n’rollers…

Amyl and the Sniffers don’t make any pretences. They are a straight up hard rocking Aussie punk rock’n’roll band. Almost a cartoon version of the genre. They have the feisty, foul-mouthed, female singer, the mullet-haired guitarist, straight from the AC/DC school of rock, the booted skinhead bassist – he used to have a mullet too, I’m sure – and the drummer… the bloke who holds it altogether, but no-one knows. When I first came across them, at End of the Road in 2018, I couldn’t stop smiling. They just brought back so many youthful memories of metal, rock, punk – and they were clearly having a great time. A big rock’n’roll celebration. I saw them again, at Heaven in Charing Cross a year later, and the attraction had palled a bit; but when their new album Comfort to Me came out last year, my interest revived. There are one or two terrific rocking tunes on that, notably Guided by Angels and Looking for Love. And on the Windmill Stage they gave the crowd exactly what they wanted: a big slug of no-nonsense up-yours rock’n’roll. After the gloomy dirges of the Horrors, my smile was back! Highlights included the two songs already mentioned and the old favourite I’m not a Loser – great to hear that again. Amy Taylor strutted around the stage, taking everyone on, as she always does. Rock’n’roll grew from rebellion, but it’s a reassuring presence too, these days. Forget your worries, drink some beer and punch the air. Amyl and the Sniffers are the perfect accompaniment.

One of interesting and laudable features of the Windmill stage was that there were a couple of people to one side providing a sign language version of the songs for those who might need it. I couldn’t help but wonder what they made of Amy Taylor’s language!

I caught a few minutes of Overmono in the big tent – looked like a big rave was happening inside – and then rejoined Jon and the gang for the final show, Primal Scream playing Screamadelica. On the way down Gab took issue with my dismissal of the Horrors – she thought they were brilliant and said they had played plenty of their best songs. So there you go – a bit of BBC  balance for you.

As we waited, you could feel the anticipation in the air. We were talking about who we’d enjoyed most during the day, had a group photo taken (not a selfie!) and then the lights changed and on walked Bobby Gillespie, resplendent in white suite, flanked by his band and a gospel choir. They launched straight into Movin’ On Up and the celebrations began. There was a lot of love in the crowd for this song, this album, this band – even though a lot of the audience wouldn’t have been born when Screamadelica was released in 1991. It was one of those albums which brought rock, pop, soul, dance and rave together in an unprecedented way. It set a benchmark for others in the future. The great and late, lamented producer Andy Weatherall was, of course, at the centre of it, setting the controls for the heart of the sun, as Pink Floyd once sang.

There are three big songs on Screamadelica, with everything, especially the singers, in full flow: Movin’ On Up, Come Together and Loaded. Movin’ On Up kicks off the album; the other two are bunched together in the middle, if you listen on anything other than the vinyl, which is a double album. On that Come Together ends Side 2 and Loaded begins Side 3. That makes more sense; but if you listen all the way through, the album peaks in the middle. Around that are some pretty mellow, psychedelic tracks, some ballads. How do you deal with that in the live environment? It could all be a bit anti-climactic. What Primal Scream did was to take Loaded out of the middle and put it at the end – though not the end of the main set. That did end a bit tamely – but we still had the encore.

The whole set was brilliantly put together. A lot of the songs were given quite a different reading to the original album versions. More dance beats would sum it up. That worked for the crowd, of course. The band and the choir were superb, and Bobby was ever the showman. The lighting, the backdrop, playing on the album cover for the first part of the show, made it even more spectacular. And then came the encore…

At first, just a Scots piper, playing that familiar motif from Loaded. Teasing us. A brilliant touch. And then they all came on and piled in. A triumphal rendition of an absolute anthem. The festival anthem?

And then a switch of gear. If Amyl and the Sniffers could do rock’n’roll, then Primal Scream could do it even better. If you know the band then you can guess which three they played. In order: Jailbird, Country Girl, Rocks. Just magnificent! The only issue was fending off the bodies of some pretty beefy blokes in front as they leapt around. But yeah, what a wonderful celebration – first, of a landmark album and then the best live music of all: 100% pure rock’n’roll.

Meanwhile Liverpool were playing Real Madrid in the Champions League final. Did we care? I think you know the answer.

* The Moth Club is an excellent music venue in Hackney. By day it is a military veterans’ club. The Windmill is a Brixton pub, well known for its musical roster of up-and-coming bands. I went there for the first time this April to see Enola Gay – a great evening.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
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