If we had to summarize Castlepalooza in a single word, it would be ‘petite’. Claiming to be able to hold 3000, the festival often feels like it’s home to no more than a few hundred people flitting past each other in a tiny enclosed space. The campsites – amusing labeled Eenie, Meanie, Mine-E and Mo – all sit in the shadow of the towering castle, and seem diminutive in amongst the rows of trees. The two stages take no more than 20 seconds to walk between, and the bands are drawn almost entirely from within our own shores. It’s not trying to be a big deal, but it is a festival that seems to care about its punters. Following complaints about the late start times over the last few years, they’ve brought the earlier acts forward to mid morning. Admittedly it’s some iffy-at-best DJs that fill the brunch-time hole, but it’s nice to know they’re listening. It’s something that shows again in the bathrooms, which are full on flush models and cleaned on a constant rotation. Food and drinks are pretty affordable for a festival, too: it’s clear that Castlepalooza have gone out of their way to do the simple things well.
Still, the true value of a festival is always going to be measured by a combination of two things: the music, and the atmosphere. On both counts, Castlepalooza splits States’s vote down the middle. When it comes to vibes, most of the attendees are here for nothing but fun, and there’s a close-knit, friendly feel to things. Having said that, one group of nearby campers, drunk out of their mind at 8am on a Sunday morning, spend hours shouting across the campsite about the festival being ‘shite’ as most of the other punters chose to sleep. The same group spends another part of the morning vocally trying to make their mind up whether a fish is in fact a type of animal, so we’ll take it with a pinch of salt.
Musically, we’re left with mixed feelings too. We can brush Sunday off in little more than few sentences musically: it’s just a touch dull. There’s perhaps a bit too much of a focus on the downbeat, with the likes of First Aid Kit (full of stunning harmonies but still a little samey), Alessi’s Ark (heart-wrenching and lo-fi to the point of tear-jerking, but also lacking range) and James Vincent McMorrow (clearly a strong songwriter, but far from an interesting performer). Aside from the lively stints put in by bouncing folk-rockers Band On An Island and the day’s most popular early highlight Heroes In Hiding, there’s nothing grabbing us at all before 8pm. Forced to head home early due to other commitments, State’s left distinctly underwhelmed overall.
Saturday, though, falls at the other extreme, ad reads like a who’s who of Dublin scene bands, topped off with the American stars as headliners. Folky rockers O Emperor are the first of the procession, and are in compelling form, with minor hits like Po drawing us into their charming melodies. Attention Bebe, who impressed us at Knockanstockan last week, are still better this time round. The Dubliners play nothing but cheesy 90s pop covers, but do so in the most endearing way imaginable, getting the tent rocking manically by early afternoon. A sixteen-piece band reproducing the likes of N-Trance and Scatman John sounds awful; it’s sublimely entertaining.
The edgier rock side of the line up is introduced by The Cast Of Cheers, a band who’ve won a deserved place in the hearts of many a music lover around the capital. Half the crowd seems to be singing along to the likes of ‘I Am Lion’ and ‘Auricom’ already; bring on the new album. Amazingly, Adebisi Shank seem to sit slightly in the shadow of the newcomers, despite an energetic performance. TCOC’s electro edge and Adebisi’s straight up instrumental rock stylings have plenty in common when it comes to pure, vicious on-stage energy.
CODES are another great live band, far more rustic as a live group than on record, producing an edgy modern rock performance that’s the match of any this weekend. Amongst all the energy, Sounds Of System Breakdown throw out a performance that seems tame next to their usual showings, but still lights up the tent, and Fionn Regan is left fighting a losing battle against the sheer energy of it all. Regan is a different kind of performer, one with his own kind of poetic and emotional tinge to his tunes, telling the stories of all kinds of oddly twisted and bordering on literary characters. His songwriting is exceptional, and despite some of his lyrics being lost in the mix, he’s the perfect come down.
A comedown is exactly what Mercury Rev need before their set, which is all about atmospherics. Tracks drawn from two decades worth of albums seem to build on one another, fittingly fronted by singer Jonathon Donahue, whose arm-waving, theatrical stage-front showing is outstandingly fitting. The big tracks – which include a sparkling rendition of Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill alongside hits ‘The Dark Is Rising’ and the stunning ‘Goddess On A Hiway’ – polish the Saturday off perfectly.
Saturday and Sunday, in short, couldn’t be more different, but an assortment of free (non alcoholic) drinks and activities around the campsite do plenty to keep us entertained. For all its obvious effort to cater to punters, sometimes Castlepalooza is just a touch lacking in star quality. At other times, it truly blows us away, with circus shows, burlesque, and a single day line up that’s the stuff Dublin scenester’s wet dreams are made of. Given its low prices (tickets and on site, by festival standards), intimate atmosphere and original setting, there’s plenty here that’ll keep us – and plenty of others – coming back.