I thought I wasn’t going to get to a festival this year – though my trip to the MHM conference in Helsinki back in June more than made up for that – but a few weeks ago a friend rang me up with an offer of a volunteering job at Electric Picnic. How could I refuse? The job involved picking up cans and convincing festivalgoers to do the same – an idea most of them were surprisingly open to, given the reputation of festivals and Ireland’s generally poor record on recycling.
My main impression of Electric Picnic is that there is so much to do there; as well as a huge array of music – there are a dozen or so stages listed on their website, and that list doesn’t include some of the smaller venues! – there is a great selection of food, arts, fairground rides, and diverse other attractions.
What with getting ready to return to my teaching jobs and trying to sort out my office, I arrived at Electric Picnic with only the vaguest notion of who was performing. I knew Blur and Florence + the Machine were two of the headliners, and that was about all. I had really no idea what to expect from the weekend’s lineup. After getting set up for the job and collecting the necessary gear, the very first song I heard at the festival was Fetty Wap’s Trap Queen, played from a giant novelty radio. I took that as a good omen for the rest of the weekend.
My first shift had me collecting cans on the campsite within earshot of Trenchtown, EP’s reggae-dub-ska area. I’m not a huge reggae fan in general but it makes great easygoing background music so the afternoon passed pleasantly.
The only actual act I managed to see on the first day were Irish post-rockers The Redneck Manifesto. I had never listened to them before the gig, and was extremely impressed with their expansive, rhapsodic songs. They also seem to consciously play with genre as a musical element – some sections in their set seemed to deliberately evoke the conventions of dance music, funk, or other genres, without ever straying into full pastiche. This added an interesting postmodern element that I’ve not heard in other post-rock bands.
The rest of Friday evening was spent strolling around the festival. In the Body and Soul site we caught some odd reverb-vocals-and-drum-machine music on a side stage and heavy drone-rap on the main stage, while we came across two separate sets of circus performers playing with fire; one at Trenchtown and one at Jerry Fish’s Electric Sideshow. After completely failing to find the rumoured Rave in the Woods, I realised it was 1:30am and that I should probably get back to bed if I wanted to work in the morning.
Saturday’s morning shift had me collecting cans at the Salty Dog stage, a 40-foot pirate ship that somehow got beached in the forests of landlocked Laois. The music only began in the last hour of my shift, but I caught some of The Darling Buds Of, a folk ensemble with lovely vocal harmonies and arrangements, as well as a Gamelan ensemble playing in Trenchtown.
Over my lunch break I managed to see the ever-excellent Yurodny, a Dublin-based Balkan folk jazz band, with all the rhythmic changes and sleazy sax solos the name could imply. I also got to the Science Gallery tent in the Mindfield site, where I played with a neat exhibition; a graphic representation of the solar system that worked as a keyboard, with each planet’s note being derived from its distance from the sun.
An afternoon collecting cans in the campsite meant I didn’t get to hear any acts – though I did encounter some festivalgoers busy getting schwifty. The first performance I got to see in the evening was The Rubberbandits, who have a pretty good comedy routine to string together a selection of their excellent, insightful, and masterfully satirical musical numbers.
Jerry Fish’s Electric Sideshow provided the venue for Fight Like Apes – who played with energy and enthusiasm even if it felt a little forced. Early 90s Cork punk rockers Sultans of Ping followed up with a fun set, with more gusto than you’d expect from a band of that age, and naturally finishing off on their hit Where’s Me Jumper?
Saturday night headliners Blur were good but not exciting, though that may be because the atmosphere at the back of the crowd made it difficult to hear the music and really engage with the band. After seeing the last half of Blur’s set, I saw the end of Róisín Murphy‘s performance in the Electric Arena – an intense affair of heavy percussion, complex musical layers, and strobing visuals. This heaviness was matched by seeing R.S.A.G. at the Salty Dog stage – a band that seemed to have four drummers, a bassist, and a guitarist. This made for an experience more cerebral than exciting, but in my book that’s not really a criticism.
The main benefit of staying in the staff camping, I have now realised, is that the showers don’t have a horrifically long queue in the morning and they’re slightly less disgusting than other festival showers. I would recommend volunteering at EP just on the basis of the glorious, warm shower I had early on Sunday.
The first act I saw was Dublin-based folk duo Ye Vagabonds. In the interests of full disclosure I will say that the two brothers in the band are friends of mine; allowing for this, I still feel confident in saying they are well worth checking out. Performing a mix of original compositions and older folk songs, between them they play about six instruments, have beautiful vocal harmonies, and brought the audience on a shamanic journey featuring throat-singing as good as any I’ve ever heard live.
Sunday was also the day I remembered I had moustache wax in my bag, so feeling refreshed after the shower I curled my whiskers into points and went about my day. The afternoon saw me stationed at the main entrance to the arena making sure people didn’t put things-that-are-not-cans into the bins intended for cans. I passed the slower parts of the shift by attempting to invent tricks with the discarded cans (I have a brief digression on how to flip a can and catch it with a litter-picker, if any one is interested). I got a lot of moustache appreciation from passersby, though one surly chap told me to “Get a real job”, which wasn’t very nice.
Interpol took to the stage in the evening – they are a band I enjoy but haven’t spent a lot of time listening to, so their set was pleasantly familiar in its overall sound, but refreshingly new in terms of their material. Heading back to the campsite for dinner and a powernap meant I missed the beginning of Manic Street Preachers – though they were quite audible from my tent. Motorcycle Emptiness appeared surprisingly close to the beginning of their set, though the main tracks I wanted to hear – Kevin Carter and Everything Must Go – were the first ones they played when I arrived at the main stage.
On the Trailer Park stage I encountered a peculiar group from Galway, Aindrias de Staic and the Latchikos, who describe themselves in one of their tracks as “Irish gypsy gaelic hip-hop”, performing entertaining and very Irish songs, featuring rambling storytelling and plenty of crowd banter.
The heavier end of rock is one genre that’s notably absent from Electric Picnic, which is why I was pleasantly surprised to come across Kilkenny’s Duende Dogs, a three piece dealing in desert rock and dirty guitar sounds. Though I was on my way to see Florence + the Machine at the time, I was impressed enough by this group to sit down and listen to their entire set, though it meant missing the start of Florence. I really hope to catch them again some time soon.
I arrived down to main stage for Florence, and though I was prepared to be a long distance from the stage itself, I was disappointingly close to another stage, meaning that much of Florence’s performance was drowned out by kick drum sounds from an entirely different act. That the middle section of her set was heavily reliant on her vocals, and used only very sparse instrumentation, didn’t help. I pushed a little further forward a song or two before the full band returned to the mix, and the concert blossomed into a glorious, exuberant affair. Florence has limitless energy and charm as a frontwoman; twirling about on stage, running down into the crowd, and urging us to love each other. She ended the set with Dog Days Are Over, after reminding us to enjoy life (and unless I misheard her, telling us to take our clothes off, which at 1am in September, after three days of a festival, in a field in Laois, does not sound like any fun at all).
As the festival was coming to a close, I decided to take a last trip around and explore the areas of the arena I hadn’t yet seen. The Body and Soul site was wonderfully chill, full of lovely tents and artistically-designed seating areas, well integrated with the landscape. Definitely a place I would spend more time if I attend EP again. The last act I caught, in Jerry Fish’s Electric Sideshow, was the eponymous Jerry Fish himself, and his band. They were relentlessly fun, and Fish is a great frontman, running down into the crowd, climbing the tent poles at the back of the arena, making sure to thank every member of the band and the production crew. I was too tired to stay until the end of the show – it was due to last until 4am after all! – but had I been more awake and able to engage in the fun, it would certainly have been a highlight of the festival.
All in all, Electric Picnic 2015 was a great experience. I heard a lot of music I wouldn’t normally go to, and made a few discoveries I’m excited to explore further. As I said at the start, there’s just so much stuff there. There’s music for most tastes, but you could undoubtedly pass the entire festival without seeing a single musical act. It offers such variety in terms of comedy, crafty projects, spoken word, and other arts, that you could happily go just for those attractions and have a great time.
I definitely want to go to a metal festival next summer; but Electric Picnic isn’t off the cards either.