Few festivals have the power to unite quite like Electric Picnic. While the rest of the Irish festival landscape is divided by its own particular cultural or geographical niches, EP is the one gathering where you will find representatives of every Irish archetype existing in perfect harmony. From the battle-ravaged hippies speaking with misty eyed reverence for Picnics past, to the sleep-deprived, wide-eyed ravers still bopping around the campsite as the sun rises to the young professionals escaping the eternal cycle of the 9-5 and after-work drinks. For a few days and nights every September, all of Ireland exists within a microcosm under a few sheets of tarpaulin in Stradbally.
Not that everyone is a fan of course. While there have always been dissenting voices, this year, the jury has been out on Ireland’s biggest festival more so than ever before. Some argue that the increase in size has led to the dilution of some of the magic while others debate that the ease with which the recent Picnics have sold out have led to a decline in the quality of acts. There is some credence in both claims, but regardless of the arguments, it’s hard to think of any place you would rather be when the first weekend in September rolls around. State were on site to see if this year’s edition would measure up with the best of them.
Oh Boland kick start the weekend at the Earthship Stage of Body & Soul, an always potent live force, with a set focused on a new LP to be released next year, a follow up to 2016’s excellent Spilt Milk. Theirs is a raucous noise but never at the expense of the hooks at the core of each song. There’s always much to be enjoyed in the economy of a three piece band on form, and that’s the case here. A cracking first show of Electric Picnic. Later, Myles Manley brings his enigmatic pop music to the Salty Dog stage, his is an idiosyncratic presence but the songwriting is undeniable. Customary set closer ‘I’m In Love With Myself’ is a standout but Manley and band are an act to be seen at all costs when in a town in your locale.
There’s just about time to catch the tail end of a delightful performance from The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon and company follow up ‘National Express’ with ‘My Lovely Horse’(‘I hope that made you happy’ – Hannon) before concluding matters with ‘Tonight We Fly’.
Shookrah deliver a slick, soulful set at the Body and Soul main stage, replete with a dash of synchronised dance moves. The Corkonians are a tight unit and while early single ‘Woman’ stands tall above other efforts, that’s no slight on the remainder of what is an endearing and ambitious performance.
Proceedings in the Electric Arena kick off with a homecoming of sorts for Rejjie Snow. The Dublin rapper proves his versatility by rapping nimbly around the jazzy beats of his earlier tapes before picking things up for the more aggressive tones of recent single ‘Flexin’. ‘Blakkst Skin’ gets the crowd hyped up while ‘Keep Ya Head Up’ shows off the young MC’s softer side. Fittingly, the evening ends with a tricolour flashing across the screen while the crowd call for one more tune.
When The XX first emerged back in 2009, along with their all black get outs and skeletal take on R’n’B, one of the most distinctive things about the band was their statue like poses on stage. It’s a far cry from the 2017 version of the band with Romy and Olly having developed a new drunken waltz with their guitars that is goofy as it is endearing.
There’s nothing funny about the tunes however. There is a reason traditional opener ‘Intro’ has become a fixture in football stadiums around Europe and it sounds just as massive here tonight as it does rattling around the Allianz Arena. The new material work particularly good in a live setting and gives Jamie XX a chance to show of his knob twiddling skills. ‘Loud Places’ sounds absolutely massive and recent single ‘On Hold’ teases outs its Hall and Oats sample before exploding into its gloriously glitchy chorus.
Vince Staples casts a long shadow on the Electric Arena stage, where the setup is positively Spartan. Alone but for a backdrop lit blood orange and the occasional burst of dry ice, he proceeds to rip through as intense a show as there was to be seen across the weekend. Staples paces from side to side, whipping the crowd into a frenzy despite scarcely saying a word between tracks. On record, his is an intense noise, and in the live setting this is even more so the case. The likes of ‘745’ and ‘Lift Me Up’ underline the sense of urgency inherent in his output, and though issue could be taken with the lack of engagement, this is otherwise a statement performance from an artist on the rise.
There are bands that are simply built for festival stages and Madness certainly fit this profile. Their jaunty ska anthems help the crowd shake off the last remnants of the previous night’s hangovers within moments of taking the stage. The hits starts coming thick and fast. ‘Baggy Trousers’, ‘House of Fun’ and ‘It Must Be Love’ lead to mass sing/shoutalongs before an inevitable stage invasion of children living out their parents’ 2-Tone dreams.
Run the Jewels are next up and seem right at home on the Main Stage. Over the course of a few short years, Killer Mike and El-P have gone from a primarily underground concerns to staples of the Irish live music scene. They know how to work a crowd with their good natured double act that veers between goofball absurdity and social consciousness. Run the Jewels 2 bangers ‘Oh My Darling (Don’t Cry)’ and ‘Blockbuster Night Part One’ spark the usual pandemonium and mange to open up impressive late afternoon mosh pits.
Mura Masa attracts a major crowd over at the Electric Arena. It’s quite a challenge recreating an album as feature-heavy as Alex Crossan’s recently released self-titled debut, but the one-man-band gives it his best shot. A couple of the early numbers don’t quite live up to the magic of their recorded versions, but a Bonzai-assisted ‘What If I Go?’ and ‘Love$ick’ are received rapturously and leave the crowd on a high.
The first drops of the rain have already started to fall by the time Phoenix have taken to the Main Stage but it doesn’t appear to make much difference to the Parisians. The French six-piece bring enough energy and enthusiasm with ‘Lisztomania’ and recent single ‘J-Boy’ to make the crowd forget their woes, at least for the length of a four minute pop song. Frontman Thomas Mars earns the eternal love and respect of the crowd after an impressive stage dive during an extended ‘1901’ that leaves him floating around the crowd for a good five minutes.
The storm clouds grow darker as the crowd gathers for A Tribe Called Quest. The New Yorkers were always a strange booking for headliners and Q-Tip and his midnight marauders struggle to breathe life into the sozzled crowd with their jazzy excursions. It isn’t until later on that rousing renditions of ‘We The People’ and ‘Can I Kick It?’ prove that they still have it, but ultimately it’s hard to feel that Tribe wouldn’t have been better fitted somewhere else on the bill.
Having spent their last Picnic performance looking out of place under the sun on the Main Stage, everyone’s favourite NYC vampires Interpol are returned to their rightful home in the dark gloom of the Energy Arena as midnight headliners. Somehow fifteen years has passed since the release of Turn on the Bright Lights but thankfully neither the band nor the tunes appear to have aged even a day. The band strut on stage a good half hour behind schedule but as soon as the opening reverb heavy chords of ‘Untitled’ hit all has been forgiven. The crowd watches on, hypnotised, as they rattle through the sound of New York in early 2000s with ‘Obstacle 1’ and ‘PDA’ proving to be particular highlights. Following a final one-two punch of ‘Evil’ and ‘Slow Hands’, the crowd is left reeling and in need of some cooling down.
Though outside there is a downpour of biblical proportions, Pete Tong has drawn a defiantly enthusiastic crowd over on the Main Stage for his orchestral interpretations of Ibiza classics, the risk of hypothermia doing to little to cool off the Balearic vibes.
Over on the Body and Soul stage, Le Boom are handed the task of wrapping up proceedings. Somehow they pull it out of the bag, their infectious grooves and falsetto vocals managing to get cold and stiff bones moving. Having played just about every festival this summer, Le Boom have made a name for themselves as one of the go to bands for a late night boogie. The band have so far only released one single, but expect to see them graduate to bigger stages and bigger crowds by this time next year.
Sunday, as ever, slowly splutters into life. To the relief of all weekend ticket holders, the overnight deluge abates in the early hours, leaving behind dry, humid conditions for the anticipated influx of day ticket holders. Clonmel via Cork quintet Pale Rivers get Sunday’s proceedings underway at the Rankin’s Wood stage. Having released three stellar singles over the last twelve months, the quintet look at ease on the large stage, with new release ‘West Point’ a stand out track.
Later, Goat Girl deliver a woozy, swirling, gnarled performance at the Cosby Tent. Theirs is a dissonant noise, the darkness of their two guitars plus bass minor key scratchings amplified by a doomy trio of voices best embodied by ‘Country Sleaze’, a group laden with potential, if not yet fully realised.
Over at the Salty Dog (itself a real highlight of the festival, as ever) No Monster Club deliver another in a stellar run of festival shows over the last year or so. Bobby Aherne has been releasing a new single each month this year, the latest of which (‘Rabbit In A Hat’ // ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’) can be found here, along with the rest of the year’s output to date. Whether it’s their riotous covers or stellar cuts from Aherne’s extensive back catalogue such as ‘La La Land’, ‘Arms Across America’ and ‘I’ve Retired’, this set (and Friday’s turn at the Trailer Park) represent two significant high points of the weekend as a whole.
With Sunday bringing a welcome respite from the occasionally wild conditions experienced on Saturday evening and overnight, there is none more perfect a group for the balmy occasion than Real Estate, who turn chorus and flanger pedals to 11 in a melodic tour de force, culminating in a hearty singalong to the ear worm chorus of ‘It’s Real.’ Contrary to an amount of Sunday’s timetable, this was a scheduling tour de force, and a wild tonal contrast with the wild scenes to be seen at the adjacent tent, where Hannah Wants delivers a set to a packed tent, with a significant overspill crowd to boot, the majority of whom (source of power and energy unknown) sprint from far and wide to take up their vantage point.
Continuing a stellar run on the Cosby Stage, Parquet Courts are back for their third appearance in this part of the site. Their canon is a monument to efficiency. Where more recent output has taken the pace down a notch, with the likes of ‘Human Performance’ and ‘Instant Disassembly’ positively languid but weighty nonetheless, and calling to mind to varying extents The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, New York Dolls and Jonathan Richman, the assembled crowd are inspired to take things up a level by more frenetic earlier cuts such as ‘Master of My Craft’ and ‘Borrowed Time’
It’s the last date of their tour, and things start to get a little looser later in the show. “It’s our third picnic, not our first picnic”, we are reminded. “Who saw all three?” they ask. Spotting an opportunity for some audience participation, hands are enthusiastically offered to the sky. “At least thirty of you are lying”, opines Andrew Savage.
Later still, when Savage breaks strings on both guitars, bass player Sean Yeaton determines to fill the dead air with a rendition of the theme from Jurassic Park on bass. This is a prelude to a later reprise acapella performance. Parquet Courts are a vital band, offering an abundance of energy and equally feeding off that offered by the crowd. Seek them out.
Father John Misty takes to the Electric Arena with a stage looking closer to full capacity than the tent, there’s a string section, keys, several guitar players and more and duly commences with ‘Pure Comedy’, the title track of this year’s LP. This is a track which nails the apparent record vision statement of meshing the bravado of the FJM persona with a bombastic, over the top musical production, and when the string section and other auxiliary musicians kick in, it all makes glorious sense. At this song’s conclusion, there is a much healthier size crowd in attendance, and on the set rolls through ‘Total Entertainment Forever’, better known for a Taylor Swift reference in its lyrics than for the song itself, which underlines the conflict at play with how this new record has been received. Irrespective, this performance is one welcomed with open arms, and any set that can culminate in ‘I Love You, Honeybear’, ‘Holy Shit’ and ‘The Ideal Husband’ (from debut effort Feat Fun) cannot be denied. Josh Tillman is a consummate performer and spends the duration of his time on stage (when not tethered by a guitar) racing across every inch of it, swinging his microphone (and stand) this way and that. He leaves the stage blowing kisses, evidently pleased with the response from his audience. There are suggestions that a new record is at the mixing stage, and where Father John Misty goes next will be a narrative to be followed with no little interest.
Meanwhile, Car Seat Headrest proceed to almost lift the roof off the temporary structure in which they are housed. Will Toledo has seamlessly made the jump from home recording (12 albums and EPs released on Bandcamp in a frantic few years of activity prior to signing to Matador Records) to fronting a fully-fledged rock band functioning here before us, inspiring mass singalongs for ‘Destroyed By Hippie Powers’ and ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’ and generally making a case for a slot a few more steps up the bill in the years to come.
Pond are a wildly psychedelic tinged, prog indebted group from Australia, best known to many as an offshoot of Tame Impala, but very much for the most part a distinctly individual proposition. There are elements of Kevin Parker dusted over the latter portion of the set as the pace slows down, but equally close to the surface is the influence of James Murphy and assorted DFA acts in synth tones and more. A rapturous, invigorating show to see so late into a long weekend of camping.
And so, to the last show proper of the weekend, Ash take to the stage late and proceed to utterly lay waste to The Jerry Fish Electric Sideshow. It’s a short set dominated by 1977, with a killer opening run of ‘Lose Control’ followed by ‘A Life Less Ordinary’ and ‘Goldfinger’ swiftly setting the tone. Later there are airings for the lesser heard ‘Numbskull’ (from Nu-Clear Sounds) and ‘Arcadia’ (of the A-Z series) plus an array of further classics as the temperature inside the small tent rises to virtually intolerable levels. A now shirtless Tim Wheeler duly rounds off the set with ‘Burn Baby Burn’ and those gathered ramble off into the cold autumnal air, though disappointed for the show to be at its conclusion, relieved for the opportunity to recover.
Electric Picnic 2017 delivered many more positives than negatives. Yes, it’s largely unrecognisable from the laid-back affair of years gone by. However, many of the same key points of difference endure. The likes of Body & Soul, Mindfield and Salty Dog remain and with a few small lay-out changes to address borderline criminal noise pollution from a few branded installations, there’s much to like. Organisationally, the site was well equipped to deal with Saturday night’s adverse conditions and security were reasonably vigilant while seldom heavy handed. Though the line-up was received with scorn when announced months ago, it proved to be plenty strong when augmented by a rich array of Irish talent across stages big and small. Roll on 2018.
Electric Picnic 2017 reviewed by Sean Ryan and Robert Higgins. Photos by Leah Carroll.