The Electric Picnic festival means nothing to most people beyond the island of Ireland. While BBC Northern Ireland heads down to cover the festivities, for the mainland, EP is the musical festival that slips under the radar not close enough to London for an easy blag and not nearly as exotic as a jolly to Benicassim or chilly stop off at Iceland Airwaves.
Just a short flight away, Electric Picnic gives the British festival fan (and everybody else) a brilliant bill every year and the kind of arts, science and foodie-pleasing sideshows that you expect to find at Latitude. Glastonbury addicts can even find solace in a similarly eclectic approach though the size of the site cannot possibly compete with the medieval tent city that lays siege to Pilton.
Though local lads, Kormac’s Big Band, opened the show on the main stage with a set of big, bold hip hop jams, things really took flight with the appearance of Alabama Shakes and front woman Brittany Howard bedecked in an Indian headdress a popular look at this year’s festival and channeling the spirits of Tina Turner and James Brown.
Wandering across the unaccountably dry site Electric Picnic’s charms are not built on the reliability of the weather led to Little Roy delivering reggae takes on Nirvana and Jeffrey Lewis quickly building a small crowd into a sizeable audience with his skewed tales of life of the indie rock road. Minor classic Roll Bus Roll stood out in a typically charming set which also included Sonic Youth‘s Goo in sonnet form.
Grizzly Bear treated their set as an opportunity to further road test songs from their new album Shields. The extended wig outs sounded grand as the local vernacular would have it but the crowd really got interested when the cabinet marked In Case Of Boredom was smashed to reveal Two Weeks and drizzled with a few local references, a hat tip for Cork and some judicious slagging of Electric Picnic’s commercial rival, Oxegen (think V but even more bestial).
Stopping only to be frighteningly accosted by a large man in a sparkly Michael Jackson glove, we braved the questionable delights of Gavin Friday. The former Virgin Prunes man drew the sparsest crowd of the weekend for a main stage act but got plenty of press attention by proxy thanks to the presence of his ‘close personal friends’ Bono, Ali Hewson and The Edge. That Bono sat through the moaning dirge-ridden set is the mark of a true friendship. Thankfully, The Edge, at least, got to see some great tunes in a sparky set from Metronomy earlier in the day.
Cleansing the palette of main stage watchers, The xx played beneath a vast perspex X but didn’t strain to fill the space offered to them. Instead, like someone whispering to draw you closer, they threw a pocket of intimacy out around the audience. Opening with the gossamer light Angels from second album Coexist, the band slinked and shivered through a set that forced onlookers to really listen. There’s no doubt that The xx are a band best seen within four walls but even in the cooling late-summer air of Stradbelly, the remarkable qualities of their songs were unmistakable.
Moving from The xx to The Vaccines is a harsh gear change. Where the former are following a path of their own making, the latter already feel like a nostalgia act for indie past. No doubt the newly crowned princes of landfill have a few anaemic anthems to bash out but their set felt so phoned-in they could have been appearing via satellite link.
Sigur Rs felt disconnected in a different way. As a main stage headliner, the Icelandic act were enthralling but their considered beauty hardly makes for a fierce Friday night. Instead the effect was almost soporific, though the sleep at least promised beautiful dreams thanks to Jnsi Birgisson’s mesmerising voice.
Elsewhere, Ed Sheeran competently controlled a large crowd while Christy Moore, a far more deserving would-be headliner, played to an audience that spilled out far beyond the canvas. At an Irish festival, an artist of Moore’s pedigree and longevity deserved a bigger stage, certainly more than the titanically tedious Gavin Friday.