How time flies. Body and Soul reaches its fifth year and as each summer passes so too does the chance to see it in its chrysalis stage. Once a small, relatively niche festival, Ballinlough Castle’s annual clarion call to party goers has grown louder, further reaching and less likely to be drowned out by the noise of other more established boutique shindigs. The attendance has grown from 2,500 to 8,500 and with camping tickets sold out and dwindling Sunday-only tickets left before gates opens, Body and Soul might have arrived.
Music aside, for now, the layout of the festival is meticulously detailed with installations (some of which survived, some sadly didn’t), a walled garden, decent food, fairground rides and child-friendly interactions. In addition, the campsites for the most part are clean, maintained and generally in full working order and the old festival chestnut of bad scheduling and overlapping acts is conspicuous by its absence… so all things considered, only the weather, a bad line-up and force majure could hamstring the three days. None of which materializes beyond somebody somewhere’s bad dream.
Opening the main stage for the first time on Friday night for Nicholas Jaar’s Darkside is a master stroke as it establishes a general, natural flow over the course of the weekend from day one – we’ll explain later. The sheer intensity of Jaar and Dave Harrington’s gothic, dubbed funk is all encompassing and as the set goes on, clouded by dry ice and orange light, the first headliner of the weekend has already elevated the festival beyond its parameters. By the end of that night most, if not all, attendees have already ventured into the forest, that fabled bolt-hole for those unwilling to yield to festival excess.
By Saturday morning, fittingly the summer solstice, if the lure of coffee, music or the sheer intensity of the sun hasn’t emptied tents, the sound of Young Wonder might have done for sleep entirely. An early afternoon main stage set means that the Cork trio have a relatively spritely if not fully sober audience to engage. Which they do. With aplomb and only an ill-fated cover of All Saints’ ‘Pure Shores’ misses the mark. The Booka Brass Band keep her lit from here, playing a mix of covers and originals before Jape – a last minute addition to the line up – steals the show from beneath them. Richie Egan and co. have what they do sewn up, playing tight, bouncing, funky electronic rock built from the ground up. Egan unnecessarily thanking the crowd for listening to new tracks before playing a masterful, slight re-working of ‘Floating’.
So, John Grant then. Making his umpteenth appearance on Irish soil, Grant’s appeal shows no signs of diminishing. Taking the majority of his set from his Pale Green Ghosts album, the former Czars frontman uses his earnestly written and heavily synthesized tracks to add some humanity to the weekend. Grant’s voice sounding better than ever, he is joined onstage (as was Jape before him) by Villagers’ Conor O’Brien for breathtaking versions of ‘Glacier’ and ‘Queen of Denmark’. Axel Willner’s The Field in the Midnight Circus tent is an exercise in minimalist, slowly focussed techno which sounds as if each sampled layer is being filtered into existence. The build-ups are slow and deliberate but the payoff is massive. UK Duo Mount Kimbie, a big draw to the tent for many people, are next but their slightly less graspable, hazier, smaller beats not having the same effect. So back to the main stage and, perhaps unfairly, Gary Numan provides the first genuine WTF moment for a fairly age-diverse audience. His middle-aged moody teenager shtick proves a little less than comprehensible for the younger heads in the crowd. ‘Cars’ and ‘Our Friends Electric’ making waves without ever shaking things up.
As Saturday night closes, and to explain the natural flow hinted at earlier, the main stage starts to lose its appeal as people utilize the site’s other areas. Perhaps deliberately, perhaps not, the site is laid out with only two real directions to go in; forward and back. Obviously the place is sizeable enough but as each area fills up the impetus to move along the pathways becomes more and more alluring. The forest becomes more and more dense with people and by Sunday the Walled Garden, the furthermost spot on the map, reaches an attendance zenith. But before all of that, on Saturday night, Jon Hopkins provides the benchmark for the weekend’s DJ sets. His rich, atmospheric junket leaving a fully enticed crowd to find their own delights further afield.
Into Sunday. As tents start disappearing across the campsites and the day-ticket holders arrive looking a damn-sight cleaner, fresher and smarter than the weekenders, the less trodden and more relaxing confines of the lushly grassed Walled Gardens is where we find ourselves for the sunshine hours. As the crowds start to ebb back towards the Main Stage for reggae legend Max Romeo’s late evening appearance, there is a real and palpable sense of expectation starting to emerge for Sunday night’s headline act, Caribou. Romeo’s appearance, as tends to be the case with a lot of reggae acts at festivals here, and despite some 25 albums to his name, is less than stellar. In fine voice nonetheless, he makes hay while the sun shines and just before it disappears, Daniel Snaith and band arrive to absolutely nail the final slot. Caribou, no stranger to these shores, with a full line-up, are by far the highlight of the weekend and once again the Main Stage is the centre of the universe. This is an absolutely flawless, blemish free and inspired set from an act that everybody should see in this setting.
So that was Body & Soul. Bigger and better than ever before and with a growing reputation, the festival provides an excellent alternative to, well, everything. Held on the most exquisite of weekends, if the organisers are lucky enough to have the weather again next year, this might just be the future of Irish festivals.
Photo: Derek Kennedy