Electric Picnic 2014. Stradbally, Co.Laois, 29-31 August 2014.
Now in its eleventh year, Electric Picnic has steadily grown to become Ireland’s number one festival. Much more than just a music festival, it caters for all aspects of the arts, spread across a multitude of stages, sideshows and installations that also feature comedy, spoken word and visual arts. With a truly world class line up fit to rival any international festival, the Picnic really does have something for everyone.
Photo: Darren Mc Loughlin
A three hour plus drive from the other side of the country, traversing the narrow laneways and boglands of the deepest recesses of the midlands means that the gigsandfestivals team isn't on site until late Friday evening. The punters clocking off for the weekend in Dublin are also just getting here, and by the time that Blondie take to the stage, the festival is really only beginning to get into full flight.
After almost forty years, Debbie Harry's status as a feminist icon seems undiminished, judging by the number of females of all ages dominating the audience. Still sassy, dressed in parallel lines of black and white (including one shoe of each colour), Harry's entrance is thrilling. Opener 'One Way Or Another' gives way to 'Hanging On The Telephone', as the singer gives a shout out to Ireland's rising heroes The Strypes who earlier took to the stage. Harry may be the rightful focal point, but behind her sticksman Clem Burke shines, putting as much effort into his performance as he does the beat. This is none more evident than during the new wave disco funk of 'Call Me'. Harry meanwhile, oozes class with every gesture, and as the set draws to a close and she opines “could this be heaven? It’s Ireland!”, the audience is enraptured.
Closing the first night are pop icons The Pet Shop Boys. Their live show may be big on theatrics and costume changes, lighting and production, but a band doesn’t get a BRIT award for outstanding contribution to music - an exclusive club that only a very select few have been admitted to (The Beatles, David Bowie and Oasis among others) - without having the songs to back it up. Opening with early single 'One More Chance' and leading straight into 'Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)' the show kicks off in galvanised electro style. Over the next hour and a half the crowd are treated to a visual spectacle, soundtracked by some of the finest electro pop anthems in music history. An early airing of 'West End Girls' prompts the loudest sing along, until the closing 'Go West', which has the entire field chanting in unison. Flanked by two hard working backing dancers for the duration, Tennant and Lowe are entertaining and electrifying headliners.
The main stage acts may have finished, but it's far from goodnight on site, as revellers party into the night at the surrounding satellite stages. As a result, come early Saturday afternoon, some subtle hangover music is needed. And it’s delivered, in the form of the lush strings of Trinity Orchestra, the first main stage act of the day. The symphonic orchestral group from Trinity College in Dublin perform modern classics with a twist. Today, instead of expectant suites by Brahms, Elgar or Beethoven, we’re treated to the works of Albarn and Hewett, better known as Gorillaz. An hour of beautiful, faithfully realised tracks performed by a full orchestra bolstered by vocals, guitars and drums is the perfect start to the day. As the lyrics to 'Feel Good inc' drift over the crowd asking “is everybody in?”, the answer is a resounding yes.
A large proportion of punters are still sleeping off the night before, as body clocks shift and 2pm becomes the new 8am. Consequently, there is initially a modest crowd for next main stage act The Stranglers. Customarily dressed in black they burst into life with 'Hanging Around'. Taking with him a cocksure northeast attitude, Baz Warne is a consummate frontman, ably filling the shoes of the departed Hugh Cornwell, as he has done for almost fifteen years. The set is littered with new wave classics, from the nice and sleazy bass of ‘Peaches’ to the summery pop of ‘Always The Sun’. The interplay between the band members meanwhile is top notch, none more so than during the extended jam soloing of 'Walk On By' which sees Warne trading solos with keyboardist Dave Greenfield. It’s the classic 'Golden Brown' however which earns the loudest cheers. ‘Whatever happened to the heroes?’ sings Warne on the closing ‘No More Heroes’. On this evidence, there’s still some around.
Taking a break from the music to explore the vast and hugely impressive festival site, a quick sojourn over to the comedy tent sees Seann Walsh finishing his well-received set, and handing over to the impishly irreverent Simon Amstell. In the past, his antics as host of Never Mind The Buzzcocks have portrayed him as seemingly sarcastically smug. Here, it's a different story and he comes over as genuinely likable, covering topics as diverse as the death of Nelson Mandella, public masturbation, and Russell Brand's ‘revolution’, in a show that comes under the umbrella heading of 'freedom'. The vibe in the tent is relaxed, ambient even, with the audience sitting (mostly) cross-legged on purple carpets whilst watching the performers on a stage dressed with giant daisies. It’s a welcome change of pace, marred only by the drifting sounds from one of the other nearby tents.
Back in the main arena tension is rising as the incredibly popular Paolo Nutini is about to take to the stage. Ireland loves Paolo, and backed by an impressive nine-piece ensemble that includes a soulful female backing singer and horn section, his band effortlessly recreate the hits from his hugely successful trio of albums. Nutini himself has graduated from the troubadour of old to bona fide frontman and musical director. Naturally charismatic, his minimal gesturing and facial expressions are enough to steer the show. The use of the big screens, with various filters, lights and flashes may enhance each performance, however, as he straps on a nylon string acoustic guitar to sing solo during 'Better Man' his raw talent as an artist is self-evident. A surprising alternative take on ‘Pencil Full Of Lead’, with its ‘Jungle Book jazz’ nuances removed however, is a little disappointing. But it’s a minor quibble, from a set that comfortably seals his reputation in Ireland.
There’s a considerable drop in numbers, but not in anticipation among the faithful who await Portishead’s first gig on Irish soil in seventeen years. A flickering screen heralds their arrival as they settle into ‘Silence’ from their 2008 album ‘Third’. Lighting is used dramatically and sparingly as Portishead weave in and out songs from their critically acclaimed catalogue. This is art, pure and simple. One punter can be heard to claim that he’s witnessing “the greatest live band in the world”, and it’s hard to argue given synergy of the musicians on stage. Beth Gibbons may be a reluctant front woman, but her voice is achingly beautiful, cutting through the introspection like a bittersweet knife through the heart. The ambient trance of their set however, clearly doesn’t suit everyone, and even if ‘Glory Box’ causes the biggest stirs, it’s doubtful they have won over any detractors tonight.
Following Portishead’s sobering set it would take a band of great magnitude with an irresistible songbook to ignite the fire in the crowd once more. It's Saturday night after all, and they’re in the mood to party! In Chic featuring Nile Rodgers, thankfully they have just that. Writer of some of the grooviest songs ever committed to tape, Rogers and band take to the stage as collectively, everybody in the field gets lost in music. This is disco, and fun, funk and good times roll, as hit after hit arrives in the likes of 'Everybody Dance', 'Dance, Dance, Dance' and of course, 'Le Freak'. Rogers also plunders his considerable back catalogue as a producer, meaning that the elated throng are also treated to covers of, among others, David Bowie’s 'Let's Dance’, Pharrell Williams’ 'Happy' and Diana Ross’ ‘Upside Down’. The musical antidote to what has gone before, the curtain comes down on an incredible day.
There are fewer bands more suited to soundtrack the morning after than The Wailers. It’s Sunday afternoon, and some might say that, given certain elements of the Rastafarian lifestyle, it’s no surprise that they’re twenty minutes late on stage. At least they’ve brought the Caribbean sunshine with them, and what better way to celebrate its own late arrival than with the reggae grooves of some of Bob Marley’s greatest hits. With a set that features the likes of ‘Is This Love’, ‘Buffalo Soldier’ and ‘Get Up Stand Up’, the only downer is that it’s criminally cut short, to avoid running over their allotted time.
As a result of The Wailers’ tardiness, Sinead O’Connor too is running behind schedule. A controversial figure, and long-time tabloid target, it’s easy to forget what an incredible artist she is. A fierce reputation that belies her angelic tones, O’Connor uses her voice as an instrument and is unlike any other performer to grace the main stage this weekend. She’s ably backed by a band who combine their considerable vocal abilities to create sublime multi-part harmonies behind O’Connor right from opener ‘Queen Of Denmark’. ‘Take Me To The Church’ meanwhile, from latest album ‘I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss’ is an early set highlight that draws woops from the audience. Forever in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, it’s a joy to be reminded of the depths of her talents.
Following Sinead O’Connor, long since passed the prime of their commercial heyday, Simple Minds are a band easy to dismiss. Yes, their star may have waned, but frontman Jim Kerr still has the voice, persona and presence of an arena rock star. The Celtic rumble of drums that heralds their arrival quickly gives way to ‘Waterfront’ and it’s clear that the band are as sharp now as at any point in their thirty-five year history. Building a great wall of love, what follows is an hour of anthems from ‘Promised You A Miracle’ to ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ to ‘Alive And kicking’. It’s simply joyous and is genuinely uplifting. Even the thankfully underworked paramedics side-stage are on their feet dancing and singing along to every word. Performance of the weekend? Simple Minds take the glittering prize.
A generation switches places as the youth who sat out Simple Minds’ set show their strength in numbers for Lily Allen. Featuring one of the most elaborate stage sets of the weekend, it’s as if a toddler had reimagined Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’. A proper ‘star’, Allen is sexy and spirited, and her cheeky between song ad libs add to the party atmosphere she’s already created by the time she’s got through opener ‘LDN’. An ode to her home town, when she sings “Oh why would I want to be anywhere else”, one wonders does that include a field in Co. Laois. Any doubts are dispelled however, as she acknowledges the rabid response she’s receiving. “What a crowd! I love the irish” she says. Set highlights include the sideways glancing feminist anthem ‘Not Fair’ and the closing pairing of ‘The Fear’ with debut single ‘Smile’. Like her or loath her, it’s difficult to take your eyes off her.
Following hot on her high heels is alternative icon and multi-instrumentalist Beck. The cheer that greets the four note intro to ‘Devil’s Haircut’ which opens the show, is truly exhilarating, and attests his evergreen popularity. Beck and band make their entrance, exploding on stage in a ball of energy, and quickly follow the ‘Odelay’ classic with ‘Black Tambourine’ and a rousing ‘Loser’. It’s striking just how energetic and charismatic Beck is. A wiry frame writhes about the stage as his band jostle for attention, in particular, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, whose antics are as almost as alluring. The show is dizzyingly entertaining, and only the most rigid could fail to be moved by it. Believe the hype, Beck is simply incredible.
Meanwhile, over in the Rankin’s Wood Stage, a devoted fan base are gathering for R&B diva Keilis’ first Irish showing in almost a decade. With so much going on elsewhere, those inside the sizable marque have made the trek across the site especially to see her. As such, there’s an intimate atmosphere within, more akin to a headline concert hall appearance than a festival slot. With a stage draped in gold lamé fit for a queen, the tent is transformed aesthetically into a bordello. Seductively dressed in a red cocktail dress, her entrance is greeted hysterically, as Kelis and band launch straight into ‘Trick Me’. ‘Millionaire’ is up next, and there’s no let-up from the elated crowd. Dripping with genuine soul, Kelis is as sexy as she is commanding. The infectious refrain from her Calvin Harris collaboration ‘Bounce’ caps an incredible first half three-song run, that is as close to perfection as anything this weekend.
It’s almost over, but not before the final main stage act takes to the stage, in what is 2014’s hottest reunion. Outkast may have been gone for a while, but they sure weren’t forgotten, and it seems that almost everyone in the festival grounds wants to see them, as standing room space is at a premium. Despite the rain, when they arrive on stage all hell breaks loose, as duo Andre 3000 and Big Boi parade up and down, spitting their rhymes. Andree is the most animated of the pair, like an over excited puppy, and his energy and enthusiasm is infectious. With a catalogue of massive hits, it’s the laid back groove of ‘Miss Jackson’ that causes the biggest stir before the predictably euphoric ‘Hey Ya!’. As the curtain finally falls on Electric Picnic 2014 at a little past midnight, with job done, Big Boi concedes “I’m going to Temple Bar. See y’all later”.
Attendees come to Electric Picnic for many reasons; the bands, the atmosphere, and the event itself, and as 2014 comes to a close, organiser Melvin Benn praises this year’s event, saying that it’s been “the best atmosphere that there’s ever been”. Electric Picnic 2014 has also been the biggest yet, and despite an increase in capacity to 40,000, it has been a sell-out. Tickets have already gone on sale for next year, and when asked how he plans to make it bigger and better Benn answers without hesitation “I’ll start by getting some sleep!”. It’s sound advice. After three days of music, culture, food, drink and more, he won’t be the only one.
First published on gigsandfestivals.co.uk, 3 September 2014.