Upon our first quick look around, festival site at Blessington Lakes, it’s clear that Knockanstockan has grown in popularity over the last few years. What was once a tight little bundle of stages is now a sprawling circuit of teepees and cheeky venues. In addition to the four main stages (Sun, Moon, Circus, and Faerie Field) there’s plenty to behold at the Bog Cottage, Jimmy Lee’s Juke Joint, Guilty Boy DJ Dome, and Natasha’s Living Food. Even the Gamepak collective managed erect a hut where anyone can stroll in, start pushing buttons, and twisting dials on any of the numerous toys that have been manipulated into producing raucous 8-bit tones.
In terms of actual music, Knockanstockan is mostly a weekend made up of small independent and unsigned (if that still means much these days) Irish bands, which may sound unimpressive on the face of things but it gives a wandering vibe that you just don’t get with bigger festivals. Because there’s no Red Hot Chili Peppers or New Orders to be scampering to, you immediately adopt a much more relaxed attitude to proceedings and a glorious waft of aimlessness takes over. Chances are, you won’t recognise most of the bands on the line-up but almost all of them are of a high calibre. So much so that you’re left wondering where all these bands have been hiding – who’s been concealing The Altered Hours, Tongue Bundle, and New Secret Weapon all this time?
The unknown aspect of the festival also allows for a lot of leeway with regards to collaborations and multiple gigs. Many bands join others on stage and play numerous times throughout the weekend. The haunting folk duo Twin Headed Wolf seemed to be ubiquitous, playing everywhere but the car park, which seemed to be reserved for a different breed altogether singing about cheap yokes. The camaraderie between the musicians is infectious and soon enough everyone at Knockanstockan seems to be buddies. It’s not very often where you go to a festival to find that the soundest people there are the staff. They have more fun than anyone and that alone makes a huge difference to the general atmosphere.
Seemingly in cahoots with the staff for creating a buzz around the festival are the eccentric, balloon orientated antics of The Amazing Few. Hectic as always, the 10-piece brass, strings, percussion, and confetti ensemble flare their way through the evening with untold enthusiasm. The band is undeniably perky but most of the zeal comes directly from front man Keiron Black who seems to be gathering monstrous amounts of energy from an unknown power source. Not satisfied with mere singing he soon resorts to crowd surfing and synchronised flailing with any willing participants. Throughout the gig the crowd is implored to do the dolphin dance for ‘Rick O’Barry’, karate chop wildly for ‘Bruce Lee Movie’, and plant metaphorical seeds of goodness on the Knockanstockan grounds with a level of audience participation that’s usually only seen at Dan Deacon shows. The music itself – a mixture of high tempo ska and brass heavy pop-punk, reminiscent of Pixies and The Fiery Furnaces – takes a back seat in light of the theatrics, which is probably for the best. No doubt The Amazing Few don’t expect to be taken too seriously, that seems to be their whole ethos, but this also means that it’s difficult to look at the music as weighty in any way. In terms of recordings there’s not much to shout about but the live show is like watching a deviant in a fireworks factory.
In contrast to the bubbly showmanship of The Amazing Few is the simplistic duo of The Rag and Bone Stomp. Working an understated setup of a double bass player and a guitarist with a solitary bass drum for an extra punch, the two musicians delivered captivating no-frills set. Despite the rain, some stragglers couldn’t help but be drawn in by the wolfy guttural vocals of singer Bob Glynn. Mixing a sweet blend of country, bluegrass, and good old fashion stomping, The Rag and Bone Stomp is a great ice-breaker before the night descends.
In similar ilk but with a completely different angle is The Hip Neck Blues Collective, a group whose members hail from both Limerick and Portlaoise. They offer an odd combination of country blues with hip-hop draped on top. It’s like Canned Heat meets Atmosphere. The vocals flip between a husky voiced harmonica player and the confident bluesy rhymes of rapper Calsifer Howls. The H.N.B.C are basically slamming two opposite ends of the spectrum into one bag with a bottle of whiskey and imploring them to get busy, which inevitably fails to work on occasion. Given the peculiar mixing of genres this doesn’t always click like you want it to but when it does it’s beautiful. A folked up version of J5’s ‘What’s Golden’ shows the band in their element and proves that the cello is a perfectly acceptable instrument for hip hop. They don’t necessarily get the crowd but anyone who is there gets a slice of something new.
Anyone within earshot of the main stage on the same morning may have been drawn in by some monster metal riffs only to find a group of children on stage. The turbulent family band aptly titled Nursery Crimes is lead by dad Rama (undoubtedly one of the coolest parents on the Dublin music scene), who’s backed up by his kids Bala, Nitai, and Radzee on bass, drums, and guitar. As well as some original material the band deliver near perfect covers of System of a Down, AC/DC, and Rage Against the Machine. Granted, there is a fair degree of novelty but the kids (aged between 6 and 12) are surprisingly tight. Plus, it’s always nice to hear a 6 year old shouting “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!”.
As bizarre as the Nursery Crimes setup is, they weren’t even the only youngsters to play the weekend. The Strypes, a 4-piece rhythm and blues outfit with an average age of 15, were the absolute highlight of the festival. Upon hearing of the upcoming gig by a teenage band from Cavan many punters may have rolled their eyes in disbelief but after the first couple of minutes it becomes clear that these are no ordinary adolescents. The level of skill offered up by the band is unprecedented, and not just in terms of their age. The Strypes aren’t just good for a bunch of teens, they categorically destroyed pretty much every band at Knockanstockan. Difficult classics like ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’ and ‘Come Back Baby’ were tackled with a new kind of venom. Where some bands look jaded at strumming out the same old tunes, these guys attack the old era with passion. How 14 and 15 year olds have managed to gain that much soul is a mystery but it’s clear as daylight, those kids have the blues inside them. Not that they have much strife to be moaning about, we are talking about a bunch of suited white-boys here. That fact seems to be lost however amidst the wailing technical solos of guitarist Josh McClorey and bassist Pete O’ Hanlon’s unquenchable enthusiasm. The Strypes are much more than a gimmick, they’re raw bluesy talent, a new kind of old. If these guys don’t make it big then there’s definitely something wrong.
Another group of unsung talents in the form of Earthship blasted the face off an unsuspecting scatter of about 20 people later in the night. With a sheer onslaught of funk, the band slapped, plucked, and strummed their way into technicolour ridiculousness. Adopting the name Earthship presumably because of the interplanetary undertones that are evident throughout the gig. Almost all their songs feature a solo from each member. As they bound from solo to solo it’s almost too much at times. It’s like being attacked from all sides by relentless bouts of funk, you feel disorientated, like you’ve received a savage beating from the jazz police. There’s unbelievable performances from both bassist Karl Clews and guitarist Eoghan Judge (“the best guitarist in Ennis!”) but overshadowing everyone is the ghoulish David Bowie Willem Dafoe love-child of a keyboardist Mark Farrelly. He’s so incredibly adroit that at times it seems like his fingers are possessed by some kind of funky sorcery. Add that to some gratuitous 360 twirls and you’ve got yourself a gig of epic entertainment.
As with all the nights at Knockanstockan there’s an unavoidable lull somewhere between 00:00 and 02:00 where most of what’s available is Tesco Value techno or cheesy drum ‘n’ bass. One of the only sore spots of the festival was the poor selection of electronic music on offer. Granted, Knockanstockan isn’t an electronic festival so you can’t expect anything major in that field but considering the sheer amount of talent Ireland has to offer it’s a shame that many were subjected to an endless stream of subpar DJs. Dublin alone has a plethora of festival standard drum ‘n’ bass DJs, yet the tacky Pendulum style antics of gbk still rained over the Faerie Field stage on Saturday night. If it wasn’t for an unreal all vinyl acid house set by Simon F in the Dome then the festival would’ve been an electronic disaster.
While trying to avoid DJs it’s most likely that the Bog Cottage will be your destination. On the festival’s closing musical hours it was the only place to be. Flaunting a fantastic folk hootenanny from The Eskies, complete with soothing mandolin work courtesy of Rob Murphy, the Cottage reeled Knockanstockan back to its roots. All that was left then was a lively Django Reinhardt style 1930s set from The Bog Frogs, peaking at ‘Limehouse Blues’ and that’s all she wrote.
Photos by Michelle Geraghty