It’s a time of change for Sheffield’s Tramlines Festival. Once the biggest free music festival in the country, a mixture of drastic funding cuts from the local council and the withdrawal of some major corporate sponsorship meant that this year’s festival saw a charge for some venues for the very first time (a still very reasonable £6 a day or £15 for the full weekend pass).
This inevitably affected attendance figures – approximately 70,000 revellers attended this year’s festival, compared to last year’s 150,000 – but there was certainly no lack of atmosphere in the Steel City. Pubs were overflowing onto the streets, and live music echoed from just about every door you walked past. While it would be a stretch to describe Tramlines as “the urban Glastonbury” it’s impossible to put a price on the boost in morale it gives the city every summer.
This year, probably due to those aforementioned funding cuts, there was no main stage action on the Friday night, so it was left to festival-goers to explore the many venues which were offering entertainment. The City Hall’s ballroom was our destination for the evening, with Without Feathers kicking off our Tramlines experience.
The trio, consisting of ex-Standard Fare singer Emma Kupa, Nat Johnson and Rory McVicar are still in their nascent stage, having only played a handful of gigs and released some demos online. Yet already, you can sense the chemistry beginning to evolve – with just three voices and three acoustic guitars (plus some pretty charming synchronised finger-clicking), the trio take turns on lead vocals, with Johnson’s gorgeous Red Little Heart a particular highlight. With a cover of Teenage Fanclub‘s Ain’t That Enough amongst the new material, it was a short set but one that sated the appetite for more.
French singer Melanie Pain was next, who may be best known on these shores for singing with Nouvelle Vague. Her solo material is a different beast entirely, smokey blues-rock backed by a two-piece band, with the charismatic Ms Pain throwing herself around the stage dramatically. Songs like Bye Bye Manchester and especially the smouldering torch ballad Bruises were greeted with enthusiastic cheers.
Finally for Friday, Newcastle’s Lanterns On The Lake had the job of headlining the City Hall. It was a task they were more than equal to, with their orchestral post-rock sounding utterly hypnotic. Lead singer Hazel Wilde (both looking and sounding a dead-ringer for Laura Marling)’s soft vocals made for a pleasing contrast with Paul Gregory’s intense guitar playing, and although the band were obviously struggling with some technical issues (a loud bang at one stage signalled the end of the group’s laptop’s involvement), it made for a wonderfully atmospheric end to Tramlines’ first night.
Typically, as daylight broke on Saturday morning, the heatwave which Sheffield had been basking in for a fortnight had decided to disappear. That didn’t spoil the atmosphere on the main stage though, where Eliza & The Bear‘s anthemic indie-pop, Lulu James‘ soulful pop and Ty‘s articulate hip-hop made for the perfect afternoon on Devonshire Green. Over at the City Hall, veteran rockers The Enid were delighting a loyal army of fans, before iLiKETRAiNS gave a typically atmospheric performance of doomy brilliance, with a backdrop of Fox News footage adding a particularly menacing touch.
Over at the Academy, where the ‘second stage’ was being held this year, Katie Harkin’s trio Sky Larkin were in blistering form. After a couple of years away (and a stint for Harkin touring with Wild Beasts), they’ve recently recorded their third album and sounded better than ever on the Academy stage. There’s an urgency and confidence about the new material which is thrilling (new single and set closer Motto sounds particularly huge), and Harkin makes for an engaging presence, easily chatting with the audience when not furiously stepping on her effects pedals.
A more relaxed air rules at the city’s Cathedral, which was host to two stages of mostly acoustic music for this year’s festival. Young Bristolian George Ezra showed exactly why there’s a bit of a buzz around him – just 18 years old, but with the voice of a grizzled bluesman, his track Broken could easily turn him into a very big name. Following Ezra was Nat Johnson, this time in her guise as a solo performer, and with her Without Feathers bandmate Emma Kupar backing her up. Johnson has been a regular face on the Sheffield music scene for around 10 years now, first with Monkey Swallows The Universe and then with The Figureheads, and her set mixed old favourites from her two bands, with a group singalong of the lovely Sheffield Shanty providing a highlight of the weekend.
Elsewhere across the city, the tiny pub that is Sheffield’s legendary venue The Harley was packed to bursting point (so busy in fact, that we couldn’t gain entrance) for an enticing double-bill of Public Service Broadcasting and Misty’s Big Adventure, while Lianne La Havas was the big attraction over on the main stage – with Forget and Lost & Found being particularly effective tracks as the sun set over Sheffield.
Sunday’s main stage was opened by much-loved local troupe The Everly Pregnant Brothers who entertained the assembling crowd with some wry Yorkshire humour, but the afternoon was given over to a barrage of indie-pop. Theme Park were one of the day’s biggest winners, their irresistible blend of funk and indie pop making perfect weather to soak up the sun to – Tonight and Jamaica already sound like anthems in waiting. Veronica Falls, all clad in black, followed with their jangly, fuzzy guitar pop sounding slightly lost on a big, open-air stage in the sunshine. Teenage and Waiting For Something To Happen are great songs, but sound more effective in a small, sweaty club.
Then, it was time for two local favourites – firstly, Tramlines regulars The Crookes, who have played every year since the festival’s inception, were greeted like conquering heroes: the crowd singing every word of every song back to them as the smile didn’t leave singer George Waite’s face. With a setlist taking in old favourites like Back Street Lovers and also new tracks like Sofie and Where Did Our Love Go, it was a real feel-good set from the local lads.
Slow Club have come a long way since their first Tramlines appearance in 2009. Then, they played a local pub on Division Street, this year they’re third from top of the bill on the main stage. No wonder lead singer Rebecca Taylor exclaimed “God this is scary” as she bounded onto stage. With a third album being recorded at the moment, the set was heavy on new material (with no tracks at all from debut album Yeah So) but luckily, the band’s new songs are amongst the best they’ve ever done. There’s a real Philly Soul atmosphere to the heartbreaking Queen’s Nose (augmented here by a full brass section) while Paradise tracks like While We’re Still Alive and Where We’re Waking sparkle brighter than a newly opened bottle of Prosecco.
As ska veterans The Selector headlined on the main stage, it was time to go slightly off the beaten track to the Queen’s Social Club – this charming little venue has gone from strength to strength as a live venue in recent months, and this year made its Tramlines debut. Although the lack of air-conditioning meant that the Queens felt rather similar to a sauna, there was an inordinate amount of people packed inside to see Sweet Baboo. After playing three gigs in three days, and doubling as Slow Club’s bass player, it was no wonder that Steven Black was fighting a losing battle with his voice, sounding very croaky as he launched into the irresistibly bouncy The Morse Code For Love. Although White seemed a bit under the weather, he still threw himself into the set with gusto.
Sweet Baboo pretty much consists of Slow Club’s touring band, and it’s no coincidence that their songs hit the same bittersweet spot – If I Died, C’Mon Let’s Mosh and especially the yearning Let’s Go Swimming Wild were all huge highlights, enhanced by the odd, feedback-inducing, guitar solo from Black. Lovely stuff – now, go home and have a rest, Steven.
It was left to Summer Camp, making their first UK appearance of the year, to bring the curtain down on this year’s Tramlines. With the addition tonight of Three Trapped Tigers‘ Adam Betts and Bombay Bicycle Club‘s Louis Bhose, the old favourites from Welcome To Condale sounded even more muscular than ever. Mixed in with all those tracks (an exhilarating Down, a raucous Losing My Mind and a mass singalong of Ghost Train) were the new songs – and these songs seem set to push Summer Camp up another level. Chief amongst them was the exuberantly funky Fresh which, if there’s any justice in the world, should be as ubiquitous as Daft Punk‘s Get Lucky, with Jeremy Warmsley‘s guitar lick chiming perfectly with Elizabeth Sankey’s sweet as honey vocal.
With the entire Queens Social Club dancing along to Better Off Without You, and a final rendition of I Want You, it was the best possible end to what had become, against the odds, the best Tramlines so far. Long may it continue, free or otherwise.