More field than Fields, Dumfriesshire’s two-day music and arts shinding was unquestionably a humble affair. But while the “arena” at Electric Fields, which was situated at the foot of Drumlanrig Castle, perhaps felt more akin to a country fayre than the grounds of premiere music festival (a tent offering introductory workshops on baking sourdough probably reinforced that impression somewhat) the line-up at Electric Fields was anything but quaint. Across 4 stages – an open-air main stage and three smaller tents, all no more than a few hundred metres apart – this year’s edition boasted a well curated mix of local and international talent that, while generally skewing toward indie rock, did offer a fair degree of variety. I can’t imagine it’s very often Dizzee Rascal and Liz Lochhead share a bill for instance.
Though the weekend sold out, it never felt crowded and it was possible to roll up even to the biggest draws at stage time and still get decent spot, eliminating a lot the nail biting rushing around and pre-show camping out that usually comes par for the course at festivals. And the strain on the toilets seemed fairly moderate too, which is always a plus.
The festival’s programming credentials were apparent out the gate with the selection of Rolling Blackout Coastal Fever, who’s performance at Electric Fields marked their first ever UK show and preceded a run of sold out shows in London. Yet to record a debut album, the Melbourne five piece are the epitome of a hot tip, possessing a familiar yet distinctive sound and a punchy live show that spell big things around the corner. Julie’s Place and the title track from this year’s well-received EP The French Press went down especially well, the interlocking guitars and propulsive drums in the latter bringing to mind the frenetic grooviness of bands like The Feelies or a slicker, equally anxious Josef K.
A much less exclusive get given she must have played nearly every major Scottish musical engagement since releasing her SAY- Award winner debut Varmints, Anna Meredith’s set was nevertheless an absolute treat. Having her on this early into the programme was another flash of inspiration from the organisers; there could be few better tracks to get you pumped for a packed weekend of music than the towering Nautilus, the musical equivalent of slowly climbing the initial hill of a roller coaster. The sound from Meredith’s seven piece band, which included two cellos and a tuba, sparkled as clearly and brightly as the golden sequins of their matching uniforms, the lighter touches like pizzicato strings and highlife guitar neatly coexisting within her meticulously arranged chaos of drum wallops and glitchy arcade game synths. There can be few acts going – Battles, maybe? – making similarly unconventional and structurally imaginative pop music that’s also as fun and accessible as the riot Meredith brought to Tenement TV’s Discover Stage.
Speaking of which, naming the their tent the “Discover Stage” was probably a bit disingenuous on Tenement TV’s part given the cachet of many of the performers booked to play it (which, admittedly, is hardly a complaint). It was obvious, for instance, that plenty were very much familiar with Car Seat Headrest (it’d be hard not to be, given Teens of Denial was among last year’s most buzzed about rock records) and even before Will Toledo and crew had taken the stage, I’d already spotted a handful of t-shirts and heard Fill the Blank leaking from a nearby tent in the camping grounds. When the chorus from that very song rang out before an eager audience a few hours later, the packed tent erupted in unison, hollering back the Toledo’s self-skewering mantra “you’ve got no right to be depressed” as if it was always destined to be a festival anthem. Contrary to his royal reception, the frontman’s stage presence was muted. The songwriter, currently based in Seattle, barely spoke a word from behind his chunky, chemistry set goggles, leaving his bandmates to handle the pleasantries. Indeed, the entire affair seemed to have been coordinated so as to allow Toledo to do as little as possible, perhaps a canny attempt to shift some of the attention away from the man himself and highlight the contributions of his touring partners, who knocked the scuzzy riffage of Destroyed By Hippie powers and scintillating slow burn of Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales out the park. But if that was the plan, it backfired. Watching Toledo limply poke a stray beachball back at the audience with a look of something between confusion and contempt, I couldn’t help but be even more intrigued by this awkward, unlikely rockstar who, on account of his withdrawn demeanor, only came across as more of an enigma in person.
Kate Tempest, the poet and fierce, discerning rapper from South East London was anything but reserved during her headline slot on the Discover Stage. Over dissonant synth growls and the kind of bass you feel in your chest cavity, Tempest recited the disaffected slice of life vignettes that made up her 2016 album, Let Them Eat Chaos. While the words alone are stirring enough on record, the urgency and great expressiveness with which Tempest narrated these tales – stories of individuals living under austerity politics and corporate power, in which the mundanity of pints down the pub and mindless TV after gruelling double shifts crashes head to head with the impending apocalypse of climate catastrophe – was utterly breathtaking. While a reference to piggate and an easy dig a selfie culture earned easy cheers, Tempest’s show was anything but pandering it would be hard to imagine anyone coming away from her set anything but utterly incensed at the state of modern Britain and filled with a feeling of personal responsibility to demand change. Performing in a constituency that recently voted Tory, Tempest’s message of “love at all costs” resonated with a violent urgency, leaving little doubt as to what those costs might be as justice continues to disintegrate on a global scale.
With unexpectedly frigid temperatures overnight having left little doubts that autumn is very much upon us, I was glad to have Sacred Paws kick my day off my second day at Electric Fields with a last hurrah of summery sunshine. Guitar and drums duo Rachel Aggs and Eilidh Rogers performed an energetic, if initially shaky set of upbeat tracks from their debut Strike A Match, proving more than capable of entertaining the mainstage crowd on their own. Some reinforcement via additional lead guitar and bass was occasionally brought in, presumably to more closely replicate the full band sound heard on the record, but the set’s best moments were when Aggs and Rogers were locked together in near telepathic coordination, ricocheting off each others’ rhythms and passing yelps back and forth. I could only assume the festival laid out coffee by the tankful backstage because Aggs moved with the energy of a child in a ballpit,
jogging in circles and doing star jumps while laying down guitar lines that sounded like a bag of marbles bouncing down the stairs.
“I can’t even begin to tell you what happened before we got here,” said a bedraggled looking Aldous Harding, after arriving onstage a good fifteen minutes into her allotted set time. “Anyway, I’m going to do my best for you.” The songwriter from New Zealand proceeded to grapple with two guitars that weren’t hers, neither of which she especially liked judging by the grimaces she made at the reverberated metallic scrapes that clung to each of her finger-picked notes. But two songs in, the misfortune of these less than perfect conditions couldn’t have mattered less. Harding gave her all during her condensed recital of tracks from her beguiling second album Party, demonstrating the full range of her viscously contrasting timbres while making eye contact with the audience that was so intense it was borderline frightening. A faraway sounding mellotron added subtle colour and texture to her set, but sadly just as things started to get really interesting, it was time up. I left desperate to hear more
The same was doubly true of Real Estate, who I could have listened to all night. Any fears as to the continued viability of the best melodic guitar group in the business following the departure of founding member Matt Mondanile can be put to rest. While a little underwhelming on record, the material from this year’s In Mind made for the best moments of their set, including an ebullient performance of lead single Darling, in which bassist Alex Bleeker’s irresistible syncopated playing stole the show, and an spacy extended jam at the end of epic closer Two Arrows. As for Real Estate’s past, there’s no getting away from the fact that new recruit Julian Lynch has a distinctly different playing style than Mondanile – where the latter would play terse two-finger slides or hammer-ons in Had to Hear, for instance, Lynch opted for a looser approach, plucking the notes out of fuller chord shapes. As such, it was hard not to hear the ghost of the former guitarist’s leads on the likes of It’s Real and Crime given they were such a crucial part of the band’s sound. Still, the new line up turned out the best live version of Days cut Out of Tune I’ve heard yet (this was my third time seeing them) and it was a nice surprise to hear Bleeker take a turn on the mic to sing his best Real Estate original, Wonder Years.
I knew there was a strong poetry presence at Electric Fields going in (I don’t really have the expertise to say anything of value about the goings on at the Neu! Reekie! stage, but I did catch a bit of Hollie McNish and Liz Lochhead and thoroughly enjoyed both) but no where on the programme was I told to expect a cabaret. That’s exactly what Foxygen delivered however; a theatrical, preposterously bombastic hour of Broadway-worthy antics complete with costume changes and props that was like no festival set I’d seen before. For something so cynical, founding members Jonathan Rado and Sam France performed their decade-spanning pastiche of rock and roll decadence with so much affection. There’s is the kind of parody that refuses to wink at its audience – the closest we got was when France was handed an acoustic guitar, neither plugged in nor miked, with which he posed furiously – the kind that dares you to enjoy it.
Well, I fell for every facet of their trap – the tooth rotting flower power ballads, the coke-fueled blockbuster show tunes, the bad trip psychedelic freak outs. And judging by the hollars left and right, I wasn’t alone.
Arab Strap, on the other hand, specialise in a different kind of cynicism. Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton’s brand of disaffection is the perversely welcoming kind, the sort that invites you wallow in disappointment and self-pity alongside them, the musical equivalent of commiserating over a pint (or twelve). It’s no wonder they’re a national treasure.
Much like their sold out shows reunion shows at the Barrowlands last year, their set at Electric Fields offered a thorough career overview that was obviously exhaustively rehearsed, all of their material reworked with a consistent palette of sweeping dystopian strings, synths and drum machines. The more considered electronics employed by this older, wiser Arab Strap make more of the tongue-in-cheek happy hardcore and eurodance beats on which anchor a number of their songs, no doubt a source of nostalgia for many in the audience, and the violin brings out an almost traditional element that makes a case for their place in the greater pantheon of Scottish music. Moffat was on top form (“that sounds like the bloody theme tune to Friends” he commented of Middleton’s idle twiddling between songs) but wisely kept the banter, focusing instead of getting through as many songs as possible. While not quite reaching the heights of their astounding reunion shows, if only because they only got to play for half as long, Arab Strap closed out Electric Fields with a solid, uncharacteristically uplifting set – a fitting end to the last big weekend of the summer.
For more on Electric Fields click here.