Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Festival Feature: Dot to Dot Nottingham 24-25 May 2008

Dot to Dot Nottingham, Various Venues, 24–25 May 2008

While Brighton and London might be leading the way for inner-city festivals, which have already seen gig-goers crawling the streets of Camden and escaping to the coast this year, Nottingham plays host to the humble Dot to Dot. Now in its fourth year, having spawned a Bristol franchise and premiered London’s Hox to Dot along the way, Dot to Dot has become a major draw for both new and established names across the musical spectrum. The line-up gets better every year, but the festival hasn’t yet lost its charm: spread across just a handful of venues, the gigs maintain a level of intimacy that strips many acts of their pretensions.

Which is more than can be said for the crowd. We queue for wristbands in a rabble whose appearances range from the overdressed to the plain ridiculous, with a large proportion of the turnout appearing to have spent Saturday morning flapping around in their mum’s dressing up box before wandering in for an afternoon’s entertainment. Perhaps this is the greatest downside of the inner-city festival: returning scene kids to their wardrobes every night allows them to concoct even more comically unsuitable outfits for the next day. Thankfully the pouting indie-princesses and overly-backcombed boy-barnets aren’t visible in the gloom of the Rock City Arena, as we shuffle our way to the front to catch our first act of the weekend, Metronomy. It’s only 4pm, but there is a sizeable gathering as the trio take to the stage with trademark circular nightlights pinned to their chests. Never an act to disappoint, Metronomy slot the weirdness of Klaxons’ falsetto into the playfulness of Talking Heads’ basslines over well-paced electro-pop that sets heads in the crowd involuntarily nodding. ‘Radio Ladio’ is accompanied by tongue-in-cheek superman dance moves during the sing-a-long chorus, whilst a squalling sax solo adds diversity to dystopic computerised glitch-pop. The set ends on morbidly raucous new single, ‘Heartbreaker’, as bashful frontman Joe Mount thanks the crowd for taking time out of their day, and we stumble out into the daylight ready for a party, surprised to find it’s barely teatime.

A few feet around the corner, Rescue Rooms play host to Ex Models. This Brooklyn three-piece may have overturned convention with their Eno-esque industrial noise, but opener ‘My Psychosis’ is so heavy with distortion and so deafeningly loud that much of the audience are blown back out onto the decking outside, not quite primed for such an aural assault so early in the day. We opt instead for a pint or two with Metronomy’s Joe. He’s pleased with his set but feels, like the rest of us, that they would’ve been better received a bit later on in the proceedings. We flick through the programme for the weekend (which cost a rather excessive five pounds) and Joe picks Ladyhawke, Ghost of a Thousand, and A Trak as his ones to catch before being dragged away for interviews and the like.

A little later on, Dot to Dot showcases musical diversity with the Lancashire Hotpots, whose hilarious brand of cynical comedy-folk manages even to make a fair few sullen scenesters crack out a smile. Flat caps and a thick northern dialect prove a winning combination as these three grumbly granddads bemoan the modern world with the best possible wit. It’s then back over to Stealth to catch the highlight of the day, the underrated Mae Shi. Creeping onstage to some chanting and a cowbell, this band of beardy hippies proceed to unleash what can only be described as apocalyptic experimental punk, incorporating harmony laden harmonic rock with plenty of screaming and good measure of electronic noise. It’s the kind of cacophony that hits you in the face and swallows you whole, and suddenly the entire crowd is transformed into a dancing mass. At one point the guitarist is actually sitting on the audience, who hold him up with outstretched arms as he impressively completes his solo, before frontman Jon Gray flips onto his back to be passed around for the entire chorus. Songs dissipate into random bleeps and vocal blips as the tracks fly by with incredibly brevity, but the music never stops, retaining an electric atmospheric tension that is intensified as the band throw a dust sheet over the audience, which turns into a party under a parachute. ‘Run To Your Graves’, Mae Shi’s new single, is the most melodic offering of the set and sees a deranged moustached groupie storm the stage and leap about in an epileptic hysteria: even the bouncers can’t get him out. But the Mae Shi don’t seem too fussed, embracing the enthusiasm rather than taking offence at the intrusion. Afterwards, chatting to bassist Bill Gray, he’s obviously thrilled with the reception, confiding in his LA drawl that their self-titled ‘boogie-krunk’ is really all about a collective belief in God. Their set hits the high water mark for what has been a day of few stand-out gigs, but with Sunday still to come there’s plenty of time to catch some of the more impressive acts on the bill.

The weather turns on festival-goers on Sunday, as do security. Smokers are pushed out of venue entrances to gather in bedraggled vintage-clad clusters in the rain, whilst heavy-handed bouncers riffle through every handbag to pass under their noses, binning innocent water bottles and scanning for drugs. Nonetheless, once inside the day gets off to a highly promising start with the enchanting double-vocal of Peggy Sue and the Pirates at the Rock City Arena. Rosa and Katy are done out in charity-shop chic but their nervous grinning does away with any hint of pretentiousness as they hurtle through lyrically wounded love-songs executed with pitch-perfect vocal power. Their voices have a Winehouse intensity and a Nash charm, set over instrumentation that incorporates an acoustic guitar passed between the two of them, a few percussion pieces and a odd-looking keyboard attached to a tube that requires air to sound. The twosome is well-received and climb down from the stage to meet fans and sell CDs as soon as they’ve finished closer ‘Escargot’.

Just downstairs Irish four-piece, Fight Like Apes, splice headbanging heavy rock with digital sampling and thick distortion to prove that there are musical gems to be found amongst the unsigned acts. This becomes especially clear when we head back up to the main room to see Parisian icons The Teenagers. The filth-pop trio, who were conceived on myspace before they’d even written any music (apparently through a shared love of thick black rimmed specs and cardigans), take to the stage with added drummer and female keyboardist. There’s a good turn out, but The Teenagers’ performance quickly (and somewhat unsurprisingly) belies the hype. What is witty and well-produced on record is dreary on stage. Spoken verses are barely audible, choruses are sung with little effort at staying in tune, and the three French frontmen themselves are devoid of charisma in a lacklustre set that fails to convince even the teenagers in the crowd.

Thankfully the best is yet to come. We trudge off to Nottingham Trent Student Union through the puddles to see Caribou perform in one of the most hotly tipped shows of this year’s Dot to Dot. Dan Snaith and his live band don’t disappoint, filling the high-ceilinged hall with mesmerising psychedelic melodies concocted from the unusual combination of double drum-kit, twelve string and guitar. Dan hops between glockenspiel, guitar and kit, creating electronically organised soundscapes that are offset by swirling acid coloured visuals. Caribou’s musical dexterity alone is worth the price of a weekend ticket, especially when Snaith joins Brad Weber on percussion in an exhaustingly impressive rhythmic interchange. ‘Melody Day’ is particularly glorious and infectiously cheerful, whilst ‘Crayon’ is dug out from the Manitoba back catalogue, sitting well alongside more pop-friendly tracks like ‘She’s The One’.

Back at Rock City festival-goers are squashed like peas in a pod into the main room ready for the Mystery Jets. The four-piece are minus Miss Marling for the first time in a while, but the boys carry themselves flawlessly, with Blaine filling in for Laura on ‘Young Love’. They chat amiably with the audience, advising us not to miss Santogold’s later set, and embrace the cheesiness of all the lighters that start swaying along in the dark to ‘Flakes’, as lead guitarist William Rees waves his own lighter with the crowd. By the time ‘Umbrellahead’ and ‘Two Doors Down’ come around the audience are leaping about in giddy euphoria to the Mystery Jet’s special brew of sugary eighties pop.

With nightfall fast approaching, we take a pit-stop at the burger van on the corner to share greasy chips on the walk back to Stealth and Rescue Rooms. Whilst the Sunday line-up more than justifies the price of the ticket, there’s a marked lack of festival atmosphere that’s not helped by the bad weather. Scream Bar, fortuitously located right between Rock City and Stealth, profits from hungry gig-goers, but apart from that there is little on offer by way of food close to the main venues, and the streets seem grey in the absence of street performers or buskers who might have habitually entertained on the walk between gigs. Thankfully Santogold is up next to add a little glitz and glamour to proceedings. Rescue Rooms can barely accommodate the expectant audience, who spill out of the venue. It is the first time this weekend that we’ve seen a queue, testament to the festival’s good organisation. Those who make it inside bust a few moves to Dizzee Rascal and The Smiths while we wait; the atmosphere is static and when Santi White creeps on stage five minutes ahead of schedule the audience breaks out into enthusiastic whoops. “I’m just here to mic check!” she giggles, obviously excited, before sneaking off again. Flanked by two dancing girls, Santogold puts on an explosive show, dropping heavy urban beats into her intoxicating trademark electro-ska. The scene kids are transformed into a sweaty grinding mess by the time they push back outside into the Nottingham drizzle, ready to party on into the night to the likes of A-Trak, Primary 1 and The Shoes.

Though the line-up is heavily weighted on the Sunday side, there’s an eclecticism about Dot to Dot that gives less prominent artists valuable stage-time alongside the bigger names. The smaller scale of this weekender facilitates face-to-face time with the artists themselves (we spend most of Sunday night rubbing shoulders with Mystery Jets to a heavy set by A-Trak), while the venues are close enough in proximity to catch loads of acts. Whilst the turn out, in their fancy dress, are reminders of the skin-deep veneer that comes as a by-product of the modern music machine, the humility of most of the musicians on the bill gives the industry a human face, which makes Dot to Dot a firm favourite in an ever growing festival market.

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