After hatching as a wormhole at Electric Picnic where you could lose yourself in offbeat gigs, theatre, holistic therapy and various other beatnik mischief-making, Body & Soul is now a tentpole attraction on the Irish festival scene in its own right. Now in its third year, the 2012 outing has scaled up, but still easily hangs on to that ‘boutique’ tag that’s been dropped by its big brother in Stradbally. Never mind that Ballinlough Castle in Co Westmeath looks like the fakest fortress in Ireland with its B&Q cement turrets – the picturesque rolling hills, walled gardens and woodlands have secured a loyal following. The 5,000 tickets finally sold out on the opening day of the festival this year, leaving scores of ticketless unhappy campers outside the grounds as we pull up on Saturday. In fairness, people had hesitated buying tickets becasuse the signs weren’t good in the lead-up: every weather forecast and online prediction was a litany of black rain clouds and storm predictions that had come true by Saturday at 5pm.
So it’s lashing rain, and half the heads at the festival probably sat in a cramped back seat in a traffic jam, nursing plastic bottles of decanted vodka before wrestling in the lashing rain with a tent caked in last year’s Picnic muck. A pick-me-up is needed, and that pick-me-up is Shangaan Electro, the South African dance movement that’s livened up many festivals since a compilation of the scene’s top acts sprung up on Damon Albarn’s Honest Jon’s label in 2010. Forget the techno 130bpm, wild-eyed Shangaan producer Nozinja is hollering, “One… eight… NINE!,” as he ramps up the synthesised marimba beats and palpitating kickdrums for a rubber-limbed workout. With two hip-shaking female dancers in tow, and a pair of acrobatic slapstick Tshete Boys wearing orange jumpsuits, fake pot bellies and clown masks, Nozinja and his crew force the Soweto sunshine over a mucky Westmeath evening.
Django Django are a bit more refined, but they’ve still turned up the party dial. They’re worth every bit of goodwill for their self-titled debut album, one of the most hyped releases of 2012 so far. Looking like four Urban Outfitters mannequins in matching maroon and grey print t-shirts, the Scottish/Irish/English troupe weave through their psychedelic take on garage rock and Silver Apples-style analogue synth meanderings. They’ve got their eyes firmly on the pop prize though – three-minute gems like ‘Hail Bop’ and ‘Default’ cause a wave of synchronised handclaps from the front of the Main Stage to the top of the hill at the mini amphitheatre.
A short walk from the Main Stage through a wooden beam walkway and ivied garden walls, the Upstage is a haven for quality bleeps and beats over the weekend, with its pristine Funktion One soundsystem and glacier-shaped performance booth. Body & Soul curators cover loads of bases on the electronic scale: over the two days we have sleek techno from German Patrick Pulsinger, frantic beats and 8-bit skits from Numbers’ Redinho, theremin-fuelled electronic dub from Gaudi and a two-and-a-half hour ‘decks and efx’ afternoon jam with dub and reggae dons Trojan Soundsystem. Gold Panda is the first banging set to knock some sense into us at the Upstage. The UK producer rips up tracks from his Lucky Shiner album, and builds them back up again with reinforced industrial steel. Like Four-Tet, Gold Panda’s live set takes the recorded DNA and fleshes it out into a 4/4 assault. Airy kaleidoscopic album faves like ‘Marriage’ and ‘Snow & Taxis’ tear through the tent like a suckerpunch, with the 3D mapped rainbow and fractal projections adding an extra sensory jolt.
After getting rattled by Gold Panda, Choice Cuts’ Jook Joint stage takes it down a notch as the Nu-Bromantics dudes dish out the rare funk, disco and electro 12-inches, and a few hundred Irish folk in wellies try out some slinky dance moves like they’ve just rode into Studio 54 on the back of a unicorn with Grace Jones. There’s plenty of mucky bump & grind going on – 99% of the Nu-Bros’ records are definitely about the old in-out, after all. Across the way, the midnight decadence is in full flow at Boundless Bathing, as pals, couples and would-be festival lovers relax in wood-fired hot tubs, sipping on prosecco and home-made lemonade while incense and ambient electronica wafts through the woods. The bathers look ridiculously smug, but we’re just jealous – all the hot tubs are booked out for the weekend, bar a one-hour slot during M83’s headline performance on the Main Stage on Sunday. There’s always next year.
We missed out on the hot tubs, but Boundless Bathing saves Sunday with a hot shower early in the morning – the best €4 you’ll ever spend at a festival, and a far cry from splashing your armpits at a trough in the campsite. Feeling our Sunday best, we catch hip-hop upstart SertOne’s early Upstage set, one of the weekend’s highlights. The 21-year-old from Portadown has made a name for himself with his J-Dilla-inspired instrumental EPs and free Soundcloud remixes of rap’s heavy-hitters, earning himself a State ‘Face of 2012’ slot. He throws down leftfield hip-hop with erratic beats and synth swathes but he defers to his lineage – dropping reggae toaster MC samples and echo chamber effects, as well as immense remixes of Busta Rhymes’ ‘Gimme Some More’ and Kanye West’s ‘Mercy’. Oh, and he collects a bonus point for that shoulder-shrug dance in between twiddling knobs.
And what a difference a day makes – by early afternoon on Sunday, the sun has got his hippie hat on, the temperature has doubled and it’s time to explore some of the “one hundred nooks and crannies” that the organisers boast about. And wherever there are nooks and crannies, you’ll find kids – loads of them, having a buzz at drum circles, trampolines, wishing trees, rolling down hills and bopping away in ear-protectors at afternoon sets from pop-reggae gal Hollie Cook and a brassed-off Kormac’s Big Band, whose 10 members add a touch of 1950s swing to their hip-hop, soul and house beats.
Another perfect hazy Sunday breeze is New Jackson, aka David Kitt and Diamond Dagger, whose woozy deep house and vocoded vocals induce a good-natured hay fight at the front of the stage, with people stripping to the waist and throwing handfuls of the stuff around. Kitt is goofing around asking for “more reverb” on the vocoder, as the pair introduce the title track of the ‘Night Mail’ EP – one of 2011’s standout 12-inches – and the punter at the front in the acid smiley face mask hits the mood on the head.
And for the millionth time over the weekend, a drunken group is squawking that manic synthy vocal howl intro to M83’s ‘Midnight City’. It’s been sang, whistled and roared non-stop, from the campsites to the walkways and beyond. This latest ‘choir’ at the Main Stage bar has the schedule mixed up – it’s Little Dragon who’ve walked on to kickstart an electro-pop party, handpicking the nuggets from their ‘Ritual Union’ album and their calling card nearly-hit ‘Looking Glass’. The Swedes are no mere M83 warm-up act though – singer Yukimi Nagano is pogoing, hectoring the crowd to “make some fucking noise”, and she gets her way in no time.
State caught M83 at Primavera a few weeks ago, marvelling at how Anthony Gonzalez and co had, over a decade, transformed from bedroom shoegaze dream-pop into a stadium/festival juggernaut, all broad electronic brush strokes but no cheese. It helps that they’ve got last year’s epic 90-minute album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming loaded up, and the two-prong attack of ‘Intro’ and ‘Reunion’ cue up the Ballinlough sunset nicely. It would be easy for Gonzalez to fall back too easily on Hurry Up…, but he has five previous albums to plunder and juggle with. We get the soaring ‘Teen Angst’, ‘Skin of the Night’ and the 10-year-old ‘Sitting’ early on, as he steers his band while jostling between bass, guitar, keys and effects. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the 12,262,752 people who’ve watched ‘Midnight City’ on YouTube, so you’ll know it’s a fully-formed classic. All those who’ve been hitting the karaoke version of it all weekend get their moment near the end of M83’s set. It’s arms aloft and air-saxophone time as they play what’s set to be the montage tune for flicking back through the Body & Soul scrapbook in our head all this week. We’ll still be humming it while pitching our tent in Ballinlough next year. Photos by Emma Rooney. [nggallery id=610]