Live Music + Gig Reviews

Festival Review: Field Day 2023

19 August 2023

The capital’s foremost expression of electronic music experimentation returned to Victoria Park under the All Points East banner, bringing Aphex Twin, Arca, Fever Ray and many more together before like minds

Arca, live at Field Day 2023

Arca, live at Field Day 2023 (Photo: Sarah Louise Bennett)

• Co-written with Alasdair Sladen

In its storied evolution, from its origins as an independent London music festival, through variously pitching up at Victoria Park, Brockwell Park and Tottenham’s Drumsheds, to returning whence it all began but under the auspices of American corporate money in the form of All Points East, Field Day has perhaps surprisingly turned out to be one of the music festival scene’s great survivors. Notionally it holds on to its independence – All Points East’s speaker stacks gain additional Field Day banners at their summits, and artist booking points eclectically away from the mainstream – but it’s secure, too. 

Part of the reason for this is surely that Field Day knows what it is and who it’s for. It is – even in official press notices – acclaimed as “the leader in all things experimental”, and when up against the rest of this year’s All Points East bills, clear blue water is in evidence. There’s an indie rock day (The Strokes!), an urban day (Stormzy!); careful and commendable curation is in evidence throughout to attract the largest audience of like minds for each of the offerings. As in previous years in the All Points East x Field Day tie-up the logistics are left to those best placed to deal (All Points East is run by the same people responsible for Coachella across the pond), meaning Field Day can concentrate on what they do best – bringing challenging electronica in its many guises to the fore on a lovely summer’s day in Hackney. And with this year’s bill, the only quibble is the inevitable horror of clashes, which will keep us from Bonobo, Actress, Jon Hopkins, Moderat and more.

We arrive early at one of the two big outdoor stages to witness another of Johnny Jewel’s apparently limitless projects, this one called Desire. While it’s not new – they debuted in 2009 before appearing on the influential Drive soundtrack – their second album Escape came out just last year. All sunny smiles and knowing looks, singer Megan Louise commands the stage, variously dancing, posing and mugging with a skull a la Hamlet. For his part Jewel mooches about behind assorted decks and synths, with face make-up matching her frilly black sleeves, looking like a long lost member of The Rolling Stones and occasionally taking time out to photograph her. As per Jewel/Italians Do It Better stuff generally their set is by turns dark, melodic, atmospheric, dancey and set in a hazily pop-adjacent hinterland. There’s a sad banger about Ibiza, an Omar S collab called Hard Times and a somehow completely in keeping though no less surprising cover of Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. And they hand out roses at the end. Who could ask for more?

At the opposite end of the site but on a remarkably similar stage, Juliana Huxtable is bringing breakneck beats and neon colours to a spot centred just between your eyes and ears. The New York via Berlin multi-disciplinary artist has been fringing on a scene (or three) for over a decade, having performed in the video for the Hercules And Love Affair song My Offence, which features excerpts of conversations with the likes of Honey Dijon. She’s collaborated with the late and much missed producer SOPHIE – they formed a duo called Analemma and released an acid techno concept album through Nina Kraviz‘s Trip Records. Amidst a wild audio-visual storm brought about by her hi-NRG beats and matching frenetic camera and visuals work we catch a snippet of Peaches’ Fuck The Pain Away dropped mid-set. Here lies all the luminosity, all the possible body moves and, on that understanding, the perfection of stillness of the mind, and a real moment. 

Fever Ray, live at Field Day, London

Fever Ray, live at Field Day, London (Photo: Danny North)

Clashes have meant we’ve missed the uncategorisably excellent Sudan Archives, who we covered at Primavera Sound earlier this summer. But if a joyful embodiment was required to help revellers shake off their inhibitions and forget the world outside Victoria Park, Jayda G was up for being that woman. Leading through example by vigorously dancing throughout her set featuring House-y tracks from her recent debut Guy, she worked up quite a sweat in a green sequinned number. Perhaps a Jane Fonda-style exercise empire awaits? This was a well-scheduled welcome in the proceedings, hitting just as many people arrived, and seemed to go down a treat.

One of the joys of festivals is being able to experience developing talent live and adding TSHA to the bill was a wise promoter move. Teisha Matthews’ project has slowly but surely built up a profile since first emerging in 2018 and the release of her debut album Capricorn last year meant that there were many euphoric confections to choose from. Much of the crowd seemed familiar with such tracks as Giving Up and OnlyL which meant that TSHA and her Fiorucci-clad band (uniform or sponsorship deal?) had plenty of encouragement as they provided an ensemble experience that was reminiscent of Rudimental’s festival sets. With the assuredness of a much more seasoned act, it will be exciting to see what places this act goes to in future.

There was a hush of expectation ahead of the unsettling manifestation of Fever Ray: what would Karin Dreijer be pulling out of the bag this time? Previous live experiences from the sometime half of The Knife have featured gloomy goth-ish lampshaded sets and, latterly, a He-Man costume, reflecting the psychological spaces Dreijer has inhabited during the release of each of their records. Materialising onto the stage in an outsize suit looking like an undead version of David Bowie’s Thin White Duke, they came accompanied by equally striking dancers and instrumentalists, with the synth player sporting a cloud on their head: a basic festival rave this was not. 2023’s Radical Romantics is mostly a slower-paced beast, and the performance art helped reveal its charms. But when tempo increased with the likes of Carbon Dioxide, the dancey rework of I’m Not Done and Wanna Sip from Plunge, the crowd stopped behaving like spectators and joined in the party. But then If I Had A Heart, the darkly downbeat opener of their debut album, inauspiciously ends the set. Odd, even contrarian to the last, and purposefully so.

Kelela Mizanekristos is renowned for her soothing, honey-like tones gliding over techno beats and R&B production, and her second album Raven is making a claim to be one of the strongest releases of this year. Despite being a natural fit for this year’s line-up, the North Arena tent was not the correct space for this set. The visual intimacy of the performance was counterbalanced by the sound echoing discordantly, like it was taking place inside a cave. Some additional screens or visuals might have compensated but without these, everything felt distant as opposed to the warm closeness that characterises her work. Scheduling this set on the outdoor West Stage could have been a better fit and given this artist the chance to shine. Proof here that when it comes to festivals, space is as important as material.

Bedecked with floral blooms, Venezuelan one-off Arca’s stage promised something a lot more Village Fete than the X-rated event we found ourselves witnessing. Appearing in a cut-out number that demonstrated her commitment to #freethenipple, there was a sex sling (of course there was) into which she managed to fling herself back and forth in thigh high boots with impressive stamina that was at least the match of the pulverising beats. There was also much hair-flicking to match the glitchy visuals. The audience, predominantly of East London Cool Kids, did not bat an eyelid, probably more from concentration as tracks from her KiCk release series chaotically merged into one another. There’s a curtailment at one point – she remonstrates about the sound – and things became somewhat theatrical as she smeared fake blood over her midriff, but as the crowd chanted the chorus to Rakata it felt like the bringing together of art, rave culture, and festival spectacle; there’s a sense that for Arca, music is but an equal part of a greater artistic whole.

Perhaps the appeal of Aphex Twin as a headliner is Richard D James’s uncharacteristic quality as a headliner. More of an enigma than a performer and lacking the usual accessible hooks that a festival audience might be looking for after a day’s indulgences, it was a bold finale fitting of a brave bill. With a complex arrangement of beats and samples, it was a delight to be kept guessing what was coming next while staring at fast-moving lights and screens, James’s silhouette amidst the whirl somewhere. The essence of Field Day has always been about offering something for people who deeply enjoy experiencing music as opposed to just have it on for a bit of a bop, so this was a perfect way to end. Purists might argue that this was not a particularly accessible set, but it should hopefully inspire deeper exploration of this influential artist, even if intrepid explorers end up preferring Selected Ambient Works 85-92 to the psychedelic maelstrom they experienced in Victoria Park. At one point James’s face on screens merges with SOPHIE’s, and in so doing confirms her as a talismanic touchstone of this scene.

Challenging the mind to the world beyond the skinfulled singalong now seems where Field Day is at, building out fearlessly from its foundations and bringing together an audience entirely at ease with esoterica alongside electronica if it sounds different, presents a point and goes somewhere new. Field Day’s programming always could readily be described as cutting edge, bringing together much that was breaking new ground and of the moment. But the 2023 edition went further – this was a festival of music as manifesto, creating moments that mattered as much as they moved.

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