Monday, 22 September 2008

London Airwaves Festival - 19/9/08

Music festivals, as the mainstay of the revelrous masses, have come a long way in the last five years. The well-worn formula of a long weekend dedicated to rural rebelliousness of the most extreme and exhausting variety has become pummelled, condensed and morphed into newly enticing manifestations. One such variety, the urban one-day event, has become vastly popular, this year especially, as a way of getting some of the best in new and smaller acts onto a festival bill for just a fraction of typical prices for the punter.

Airwaves is but one example of the one-day festivals that have emerged in this climate of live music diversification. Planned to celebrate the ten year anniversary of Iceland’s veteran Airwaves Festival, which has featured a range of high-calibre headline acts including everyone from Klaxons to The Kills, Airwaves branded itself as ‘an all-day extravaganza of cutting-edge music and culture’. But the reality of the event was somewhat different. Plagued with entry queues, schedule-clashes and street-level congestion, most ticket-holders were left feeling more than a little frustrated at a line-up that promised top-end entertainment, without much regard for the practicalities involved.

Even for those who managed to rock up straight from work, the eight venues earmarked for the night stretched right across London’s trendy East End – from Hoxton to Brick Lane – a fair distance on foot. Gigwise spoke to one girl who, in a fix about to get from Metronomy’s 9.30pm set at Hoxton Bar and Grill to Young Knives at Vibe in Brick Lane by 11pm, jumped in a taxi, only to find herself paying an extortionate £18 fare at the end of the five minute drive. For newcomers to the East End the risk of getting lost in a back lane and missing nearly every act on the bill was a very real possibility.

As such, gig-goers found themselves pigeon-holed into one or two similarly-located venues. For Gigwise, this meant missing the illuminated electro-pop innovation of Metronomy and the entrancing sequenced electronica of A. Human so that we were in the right place to see Young Knives at 11pm, which rather unfortunately meant suffering the poker-faced pouting of These New Puritans for a good half a set. Their heavily punctuated art-rock was lost on the dingy confines of the upstairs at Vibe, where clean lines of sound blurred and fuzzed into the humid central space of the sparsely populated venue, rendering the set messy-sounding and underwhelming.

The same sound issues plagued Young Knives’ subsequent set. With a band like Young Knives, however, personality alone is enough to counter technical imperfections. The unlikely-looking trio, done up in an assortment of clownishly large trousers, oversized specs and handlebar moustaches, played a set of overdone enthusiasm and unpretentious, commercial hooks and harmonies that induced a sudden bout of joyous, if not slightly odd, dancing on the floor. Between songs, lead vocalist Harry Darthall spouted comedic one-liners of varying profanity, at one point declaring, “The only fucking reason we’re here is because we get to go to Iceland –we’ll send you a postcard!” But their live set belied their proclaimed apathy, characterised largely by monosyllabic staccato nonsense held together by impeccable rhythm. They ended on a cacophonous blend of vocal and distorted guitar that was somewhat lost on the Shoreditch audience, who, in various states of inebriation, was only vaguely listening.

Last minute line-up addition, Digitalism, raised the festival spirit of the evening with their DJ set opposite, at 93 Feet East. The venue was soon bulging at the exits as people squeezed their way onto the dancefloor, overspilling onto the main stage and infesting tables and chairs in a jubilant and unrestrained display of nocturnal festivity. Musically, though, Digitalism offered little by way of interest, instead choosing to utilise their undoubted talent to mix crowd-pleasing fodder like Run D.M.C. and Nirvana into more enticing digital dance-numbers. It went down well, but critically did little but cement Digitalism as the poor man’s Justice in the electro pecking order.

For those still standing at the witching hour, there was little to do but trek to Hewitt Street carpark for an organised rave. Organised being the operative word, as kids queued in their fancy outfits to get through the barriers, queued for drinks tokens, queued for drinks, and then sat huddled in corners by corrugated metal fences, looking fashionably bored. We took the safer option, and headed for home.

On paper Airwaves and its urban festival cousins look like the ideal way of getting new music out to the consuming masses in one dense evening line-up. But in practice, the implications of switching venues eight times in a night to see just a fraction of what’s on offer left most punters wishing they’d spent their twenty quid on a proper gig, instead. Unlike Young Knives, we didn’t even get a trip to Iceland for the trouble…

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