Festival Season 2011 (1): Dot to Dot, Manchester (GB)

This afternoon I have been able to leave my bed and the house for the first time in two days. My legs still refuse to use stairs without putting me through remarkable pains. All this is thanks to my early festival season start at Manchester’s Dot to Dot Festival, which took place on May 30th. In my case, it equalled a 12-hour marathon of 15 gigs in six venues. Starting in the early afternoon with minor, presumably local acts in the Academy’s smaller concert halls, I interrupted gig-going only to conduct an interview with the band Colourmusic, later attending shows by The Naked & Famous, Guillemots, Cults and Wolf Gang, successfully avoiding the headliners (namely Hurts, Darwin Deez and We Are Scientists, all of which I had seen before), until my final breakdown around 2 am at Sound Control’s roof terrace, where I had a slightly more informal conversation with the singer of Dom …

I have previously witnessed less successful attempts at SXSW’ing, namely the Reeperbahn Festival in my cherished hometown of Hamburg. Luckily, Manchester is even more well-structured for events like these, possessing three venues in the University’s Students’ Union building alone and another one, the Academy 1, right next door. With the remaining two participating clubs, The Deaf Institute and Sound Control, only two and four bus stops away, long walks were not necessary, and until 12 am I never experienced any trouble getting into the desired venue, which cannot necessarily be said for Hamburg’s counterpart. I can’t speak for the people who tried to see headliners though, because I personally am of the opinion that you don’t go to these festivals to see headliners, you want to breathe in the fresh air of something new and surprising. And the Dot to Dot line-up was crammed with things supposedly new and surprising, the advance ticket price of 25 quid being more than fair.

I hit the Students’ Union at about 2.30 pm, obtained my blue plastic wristband and joyfully threw myself into the performance of a band called Stagecoach. Although I had labelled them worthwile in my prelistening sessions, faced with their live show I found myself not in the mood for punk-pop, as I’ve got horribly high standards when it comes to punk-pop, with so many awful bands around in this genre. Luckily again, the booking of Dot to Dot did not allow for too many unsigned, local or [insert other insulting adjective] artists, which was proven by the next act whose show I attended.

Veto: pretty in flannel.

My attitude towards the Danish group Veto was mixed: Whereas their name was well known to me, and I knew people who liked them, their music had not quite sparked my enthusiasm yet. So it was quite to my surprise that I found myself dancing like a spastic throughout their set, although it consisted of pretty average indie-electro-rock of the sort you’d expect from a Danish band; the band itself consisting of pretty average, flannel-shirted beardy men of the sort you’d expect to be in a Danish band. Thus, they did not disappoint, but did not make themselves remembered either.

We made our way back upstairs to see a band called Swimming, who had pleased me last autumn opening for Carl Barât, only to find their gig had been cancelled. The only other band performing at the same time was Frontiers, who were quite amazed at the packed venue, not knowing, obviously, that the crowds had little other options than seeing them. We were positively surprised by the two songs we could catch before the gig was over, and immediately wished we had come earlier, as the neatly dressed lads on stage convinced with some mercilessly catchy indie-pop tunes. And obviously they also knew what a cool band name these days is. I mean, in the Dot to Dot lineup alone, we had, besides Frontiers, bands called Alpines, Braids and Cults. Along with up-and-coming acts such as Tribes, Mirrors and the amazing Battles who I’ll see on Saturday, I can definitely see a trend there. A trend that suddenly makes me wish someone brought the good old ‘The band’ back.

Niki and the Dove: pretty with face paint.

Following the advice by a Swedish friend, we returned to the downstairs Club Academy to catch Niki and the Dove, a Swedish group previously unknown to me. Whereas my American companion was utterly pleased with their exotic electro-folk, I only enjoyed their flutes and funny face paint to a limited degree. Not that they were bad, let alone unoriginal, but spheric sound layers with a high female voice chirping over it is obviously not everybody’s thing, I can say from personal experience.

Foreign Office: pretty with nerd glasses.

To get away from the Swedish folk fairy, I lured my friend into coming up with me and attending the performance by Foreign Office. Actually, it was him who had suggested we see them, which is why I take no responsibility for what followed. As soon as the band had come on stage and started their set, I said: ‘Why am I thinking of Weezer?’, which I think nobody in the audience didn’t. My American friend, though, had one more band in mind: Devo and their 80s trash hit ‘Whip It’. And yes, what Foreign Office played was certainly catchy and well-crafted, but it was so painfully 80s that after the second song, it made you want grab the keyboard player and shove his instrument down his throat. Maybe it would help if their singer lost those Buddy Holly glasses and they actually came up with some ideas of their own. Later that day I met the band at a fastfood place, but I didn’t dare say anything in case they asked whether I’d liked their set.

Anyway, I had to hurry over to The Deaf Institute to engage in a conversation with Colourmusic, a band that’s way friendlier than their teddy-bear-mutilating videos suggest. The interview is up now at hivemag.com; so I expect you all to head over (after finishing this lovely article, of course).

Wolf Gang: pretty in pretentiousness.

The guys in Colourmusic recommended I see Braids, which I did, but only for a track or two, which is probably not long enough to actually judge a band of their complexity. But I had made plans earlier to catch up with my friend and see a much less complex band – the properly hyped new heroes of gay pop with addictive hooklines: Wolf Gang! Having teased those in the know with singles on end for a couple of years, word on the street is they are actually set to release an album in July. We were early enough to sneak up front and to my surprise, the person setting up the stage was wearing a Fall of Troy t-shirt. In case anyone missed out on these great guys, they played amazing pop-infused mathcore, before breaking up like every obscure US band I have ever liked. Anyway, the mystery of a person presumably in a merry happy hipster gay pop band wearing a shirt of a no longer existent American mathcore act was soon solved when the five-headed Wolf Gang entered the stage and the Fall of Troy fan turned out to be nothing but their roadie whore, because Wolf Gang were apparently so very famous and signed and the like that they could not be arsed to tune their own instruments. Looking back on such a long-lived career as theirs, I can surely understand their arrogance. The same arrogance also largely kept me from enjoying the set, meaning that I danced, but at the same time secretly despised the people in front of me making me dance, due to their enormous amounts of pretentiousness.

The Naked & Famous: pretty with clothes on.

After their gig, I headed straight to Academy 1 for the first time of the night, finding The Naked & Famous already two songs into their set (the timetable had not been designed to please hipsters, with Wolf Gang and The Naked & Famous technically overlapping, if only for a few songs). When I came in, the New Zealand band sounded more hard rock than I had remembered their debut ‘Passive Me, Aggressive You’ to be, but soon the airy electro pop that had made them big took over. From what I could see, they looked extraordinarily good and delivered one of the best performances of the night (that includes those taking place during the day).

Cults: pretty in lace.

And still we were not allowed to catch breath: Cults were on next, in the good old Club Academy, my favourite of the four university venues, as it has sofas instead of a warehouse appeal, and is the only one that’s usually well-lit. Officially a duo, Cults came on stage with five musicians, basically all of them having long dark hair and beards, except the woman singer, who only had long dark hair. While on their smash hit ‘Go Outside’ she employs a feeble fairy voice, the girl can actually sing. Really fucking sing. When she eventually did, their slightly anaemic performance finally caught fire. But what clearly impressed me most was their amazing fuck-you-all stunt of playing ‘Go Outside’ – and then actually playing two more songs! While two thirds of the audience had taken the song title literally and gone outside before the next song had even started. To their defense I could say that Darwin Deez were about to start at the Academy 1, but for not having seen Darwin Deez yet there are no excuses, I’m sorry. (Although wanting to see them again is pretty fair I guess.)

Colourmusic: pretty with beards.

At this point my friend had to leave and I had to go see Colourmusic alone. Although to me, they were one of the most uniquely sounding bands of the festival, the fourpiece from Oklahoma had to perform at a near-empty Deaf Institute due to clashing with Darwin Deez and a few others, as by now all six of the venues were being played at the same time, the 18+ clubs Sound Control and Deaf Institute having started later. Plus, the generous seating area in the back of the Deaf invited tired feet to take a rest, leaving half of the crowd immobile and far away from the stage, whereas Colourmusic’s energetic set would have demanded mosh pits of epic size. (According to the singer in The Naked & Famous, people had even formed mosh pits during their set.) Besides, I doubt that most of the crowd was able to appreciate music this loud and inherently aggressive, which, played live, definitely bordered on post-rock. I am not an outspoken fan of post-rock myself, but as with most types of music, I’m able to appreciate it to some extent. Then again, Colourmusic are just as much not post-rock as they are not industrial, not stoner, not psychedelic, and not britpop. Meaning they are a lot, and being nothing purely is exactly what makes their music so utterly fascinating. Even without the live executions I expected their stage show to involve.

I met up with my Swedish friend to have a long overdue pizza break. However she was sort of desperate to see Get People, who we ironically had missed on purpose (!) when they were supporting Crystal Fighters a couple of months back, so we eventually returned to the Deaf – and saw one of the best bands of the night. From this point on I was seriously so tired that I couldn’t be bothered to take photos anymore, and we spent their set sitting on the aforementioned benches. After all, the band had a small but loyal following that danced crazily right in front of the stage, from where the London trio shot cannonballs of tasty electro sing-along tunes that reminded one of the usual suspects (Friendly Fires, Delphic, Fenech-Soler), but in a good way. (I mean, how could you possibly remind someone of Friendly Fires in a bad way?)

Then I committed a major mistake. There was a near two-hour break between Get People and the next act I needed to see, Guillemots, who were scheduled to play the Deaf Institute as well. We fatally killed the time by travelling back to Academy 2 and watching one and a half songs by We Are Scientists, a band whose relevance I refuse to see, until my legs expressed an undeniable desire to rest. Following the advice by Colourmusic’s promoter, we hit the Club Academy, where The Phoenix Foundation played melodic and incredibly relaxing alternative pop. I lay down on a sofa, shoes off, gathered some energy, and then bugged my friend until we went back to the Deaf.

As she preferred to see SBTRKT at Sound Control, I had to cope with the shock of the night on my own: the queue for Guillemots. I had failed to consider that nobody was playing the Academy venues after 12, leaving only two clubs for the (few) festival goers over the age of 18. Thus: People queuing up till Oxford Road. I tried to stay calm by telling myself that nobody would stand here longer than I would, because everybody would eventually get tired of waiting and go elsewhere. Unlike me, who had been looking forward to seeing Guillemots play since the first time I’d heard their new single ‘The Basket‘. And I was lucky to be alone. Everybody else had to give in to complaining companions sooner or later, and everyone who hadn’t yet was sent away by the bouncer with the words: ‘We’re not letting anyone else in.’ Apparently, people were queuing all the way down the stairs leading up to the Deaf’s music hall. I prepared myself for seeing only the last bits of the show, if any. As soon as everybody had vanished, I crept up to the three staff members hanging out in front of the door, pretending to pretend not to weep, and exclaiming how I had only bought the ticket to see Guillemots (which is not true, but they were a major reason). As they were among the few bouncers in Manchester who have a heart, one of them eventually took me inside, where only about six more people were actually still queuing, and as people kept leaving, we were finally let in. I don’t think I missed more than a couple of songs, and I swear I have never walked into a show happier than that moment. Being still too exhausted to bother taking photos, I simply enjoyed the set and the singer’s beautiful voice and fine piano play. Unfortunately an alleged doctor of neuroscience started talking to me during the show, which decreased my enjoyment quite a bit, as he got a little too obsessed with me and I literally had to flee the venue.

I pilgrimaged to Sound Control, where my friend was attending the Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs set. To my surprise, I was led downstairs, and not to the upstairs music hall where I had seen Friendly Fires some weeks before. The basement was previously unknown to me, and so crammed I failed to find my friend. I merely caught a glimpse of the performer standing behind a laptop with Indian face paint (I wonder if that will make its way to the high streets), but was too tired to care, although I had a feeling that under different circumstances their electronica would have been highly enjoyable. The few single chairs standing around were occupied, so I decided to explore the roof terrace, where I also found a seat. Seconds after I’d sat down I was joined by a young man with blond dreadlocks, facial piercings and glittery nail polish, who started talking to me. His name was Dom and he was American. So far, so good. Only when he started talking about bands he were friends with and he’d tour with, I noticed his green AAA wristbands, as opposed to the blue wristbands of myself and the ridiculous hipster fanboys surrounding him and loudly approving of his wish to consume a substance that reacts with a base. It turned out that Dom played in a band called Dom, and besides the aforementioned wish he also expressed other wishes, which involved me, leading to my second escape from undesired male company within half an hour or so. I finally managed to find my friend, and although it broke my heart that we could not attend the afterparty, with the music being great and the people beautiful, my feet made the decision for me once more, and we caught a bus.

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