“Happy Knockanstockan my friend…” State has just made a new acquaintance while sheltering from a, thankfully, brief rain storm late on Sunday night. It’s not the first such conversation we’ve had over the past three days in the beautiful spot nestled between the Wicklow mountains and the Blessington lakes – a remarkably regal and elegant location to hold a festival that, at its core, is the very opposite of this.
There’s a frenzied calm to proceedings, enhanced by the sense that you are surrounded by multiple moving pieces or cogs, experiencing and drawing from their own individual purpose for the event. It’s hard not to note how quiet it is in comparison to other music festivals. Relaxed, alternative, spacey and a totally different beast from other such gatherings, over ten years Knockanstockan has grown from what was essentially a party in a farm house to build a a reputation to rival any event on the summer calendar – all the while sticking true to its remit of promoting Irish music and equally managing to maintain an intimate, friendly atmosphere.
While the music has sometimes played second fiddle to the vibe of the weekend, this last year before they take a break in 2017 takes everything up a level. Ash are the biggest name to be found amongst a series of special guests staggered across the weekend but, while they take a spirited dash through the hits on the main Burrow stage late on Friday night, they’re oddly out of place. This isn’t where you come to see a big band revisit their history, it’s more about watching an act like AE Mak take a major step up earlier in the evening or Bitch Falcon rage and roar directly after. With only three stages of note to choose from (although the new Animal Barn delivers its own delights) it’s easy enough to catch most of the action and the opening night provides its fair share of highlights. Moving from genre to genre, the tidy little Faerie Field area moves from the glitchy solo electronica of Wastefellow to Cut Once’s more expansive take on beat driven tunes. It’s Jafaris who first gets the place up on its feet however, exuding a charisma that is sorely missing in most of the hip-hop acts who swan in, pick up the cheque and scarper having done as little as possible. The packed crowd respond by losing their collective shit, mobbing the singer when he ventures offstage to meet his public.
Over in the Dimestore Tent, there’s no such eclecticism. This stage will all be about loud guitars for the entire weekend, in the process providing some of our favourite moments of the weekend. Two of those come tonight, with Thumper first performing in an expanded format that is a little rough around the edges but still immensely exciting. Chewing On Tinfoil won’t feature on many Irish festival bills this year, a state of affairs that seems all the more ludicrous when you watch them own the moment tonight with a set of emotional punk rock that lies in the gutter and looks to the stars.
And the stars is what we get on a second day that repeatedly reaches incredible heights. We arrive to the sounds of Elm drifting across from the Burrow, yet another band who are dealing with the task of an early main slot with ease. AikJ is clearly used to a more interactive reaction to his funked up R&B. He doesn’t succeed in getting the sizeable audience off the grass but there’s no doubt that he’s proved a hit, especially as ‘Suite Life’ fires up to to cheers of recognition. He’s certainly a match for the more hyped Sample Answer, who’s missing the fuller sound of his records yet works well in a more stripped down format.
Back in the Dimestore Tent, Spines are wrapping up their splendidly sparky set in impressive fashion. It’s clearly still early days for the four piece but they fizz with energy and punk rock and we like them very much. They also set us up nicely for a staggering set from Not Monsters, who have stopped being the meeting of two bands and started being a great one in their own right. The volume and power are more than matched by a string of brilliant songs, embedding hooks that you find yourself singing for the rest of the day. A bone crunching cover of ‘Sabotage’ is just the icing on a rock cake.
Farah Elle couldn’t possibly be more different but, over at the Faerie Field, the standing ovation she receives at the end of her turn is an indication that she too has produced one of the performances of her career to date. Opening with ‘Silk’, her only real recorded song to date, isn’t the the gamble it might appear as it’s a striking call to arms and easily matched by the rest of her material. Filling out her live sound with a rhythm section has helped hugely and it’s not just charm, but immense talent, that carries her through that thoroughly deserved reception. Back in the Burrow, Sinead White is continuing her reinvention as White_Mice and doing a fine job of it too. Essentially the addition of a band to her acoustic persona, she has the songs and the personality to see her through any situation and wins out with ease here today.
There’s not such success for Fangclub and Squarehead however, who are both strangely ineffective tonight – the latter in particular sounding worryingly off the pace amongst the plethora of new acts. No such problems for Come On Live Long, however, who are in magnificent form, unleashing beautiful swathes of sound that draws the Burrow audience in until they’re up on their feet and grooving to this most unlikely of dance bands. An incredible return and the new album can’t come quick enough.
As the evening wears on, it rapidly becomes clear that there’s no better place to be right now. Raglans certainly tap into the atmosphere, finishing an impressive set by hurling a drum into the pit. Special guests Wyvern Lingo are also in a happy place, plunging into a Destiny’s Child cover as early as their second song and generally looking delighted with life. Throw in what is virtually a Hot Sprockets’ show plus impressive turns from Enemies and Vameel and you sense that Knockanstockan will be partying long into the night as we take our leave.
That feeling is confirmed when we arrive on Sunday to find a kind of hush descending on the site, both musically and in terms of energy levels. Everywhere you look, bodies are strewn across the grass and music seems to be the last thing on their mind. On the Burrow Stage, Paddy Dennehy & The Red Herring are busting out a feedback-heavy, almost orchestral nod to old Elton John performances. Yet, despite the fact that they were on stage killing it, if you were to ask the majority of those in attendance who they were, you would be met with a lazy nod and a friendly disposition. August Wells are also faced with a similar response, although their lyrically deft storytelling and tasteful melodies do incite some rather inappropriate and unsteady dancing from a few festival goers. That state of mind certainly makes Robocobra Quartet an even more challenging proposition, as drumming vocalist Chris Ryan himself cheerfully acknowledges. They’re fantastic as ever, yet maybe this was just the right place at the wrong time.
Next on the ticket is Candlelit Tales, a group that is distinctively difficult to define – at first they offer a gospel reminiscent tune that seemingly gets cut short for one of the members to then engage the audience in a Brave Heart style speech, setting the scene for their next song. It’s like watching interactive theatre and the people LOVE it, getting suitably riled up as if they themselves are also heading into battle.
Which is exactly what is happening over at the Dimestore tent, where Ilenkus (pictured) are absolutely tearing up the place in a frenzy of lights, smoke and astonishing noise. We’ve seen a lot of great performances this weekend yet this one might just take the top spot, helped by the thrill of a new discover and the sheer power of their grinding post-metal. It helps give the evening a much needed lift and, while nothing will really match it, the final few hours see things back on an even keel.
Taking solo electronic music to a main stage is always a tricky task, yet Bad Bones has a good go – embellishing her dark sounds with a bright light and a pair of masked dancers, although it’s not nearly as much fun as Mixtapes from the Underground, who bring us funky rhymes all the while donning a native Indian head dress. Anywhere else this would have been said to be lame or gimmicky, some might even perceive it to be mildly offensive, but not here. Here the social codes that exist on the outside are shut out, here judgement and prosecution are left at the as you garb yourself in your finest unicorn apparel, here you stumble across old classmates from school who were acquaintances then but within these mesh fenced gates are now your new best friends.
Like headliners Meltybrains?, the festival has made a name for itself on its own terms. The atmosphere is not something that can be quantified, therefore Knockanstockan cannot be quantified. It is a place that doesn’t exist in the ‘real’ world but rather is an aura experienced in a metaphysical group excursion, which may sound a little too flowery and hippy dippy for your taste, but trust us if you were at Knockanstockan right now it’d make perfect sense. Roll on 2017.
Reporting: Dafe Orugbo & Phil Udell