Live Music + Gig Reviews

Festival Review: Mutations Brighton 2021

4-7 November 2021


The Brighton festival was better than measly fireworks: with Yard Act, Scalping and Pillow Queens on the bill, this was dynamite, and the directions for where to stick it

Yard Act

Yard Act

Starting out as a scrappy one dayer in an abandoned office building less than a decade ago, Mutations has evolved into a sprawling mini sensation that takes over the Brighton music world once a year. Spread deliberately across small to mid sized venues across the city, whilst it boasted headline sets from established performers like Anna Meredith, Working Men’s Club, Baxter Dury and This Is The Kit, this year’s festival held over firework weekend was fiercely co-opted by a number of much smaller bands who made it their own.

Eager not to peak too soon, the festival curators made sure that Thursday’s programme was a relatively stress free affair for all the festival virgins. Taking place at rave cave Patterns, dive bar Latest and jumbo gig cavern Chalk, AK Patterson’s boiler suited pop abstractions Holiday Ghosts’ wonky indie disco and Holly Macve’s narcotically tinged Americana offered an intriguing tease of what was to come over the next three days. But it was Dutch native Tessa Rose Jackson, who performs as Someone, who emerged as the day’s unlikely victor. Melding Laurel Canyon harmonies and crisply resonant fingerpicked guitar with zippy Wurlitzer jazz licks, her introspective folk had people excitedly pontificating. Such was her mesmeric power that whilst sound checking you could hear people applauding.

Probably the most talked about person to perform was Bill Ryder Jones. Seemingly grappling with demons in his personal life, he made fun of his shabby appearance and engaged in verbal tug of war with boisterous attendees all the while breaking everyones hearts with spartan songs of love and anguish. Such was his polarising sombre yet hilarious effect on the audience that numerous messages of love and support were shouted out to the scally sad sack as he departed. Whilst headliners This Is The Kit, whose very own Rozi Plain had performed earlier in the afternoon, played an obviously brilliant set it, was Someone and Ryder Jones that left the biggest impression.

Friday’s line up upped the ante somewhat. Battling with capacity issues, the Brunswick’s two stages brought in huge crowds who wedged themselves in tightly to see the feisty Peeping Drexels, Pavement-esque Low Hummer and Glasgow’s best kept secret Memes. Relatively unknown, dressed in pathology lab white suits, the Scottish duo shook the cobwebs away with brainiac power violence and thick-skinned techno hijinks. Heading over to The Old Market, our minds a little frazzled, expectations were high for the rest of the night. First up was Billy Nomates in what should have been a career defining moment, but watching her dance alone in a fevered state on an empty stage, to a backing track mixed way too low for those at the back, it felt like being privy to your neighbour’s mid morning aerobics routine, impersonal and a bit awkward. Poor Tor Maries lived up to her name.

Headliner Baxter Dury knew that things had been a bit hushed so far, and so his band jacked up the volume, each kick drum hitting like a jump scare as he prowled the stage in desert camouflage and with flashing neon maracas, getting louder and more obtuse. Of course the crowd lapped up his antagonism and by the time he finished with a giddily psychotic Baxter (These Are My Friends) it wasn’t just ear drums that had been eviscerated, it was the memory of what had just graced the stage.

*

Options, options, options. By the time Saturday’s fun began, the choice of venue had grown to six locations, so checking out groups meant running around like proverbial headless chickens. Wife Swap USA brought forth their patented naked mullet madness upstairs at punk Valhalla The Prince Albert, then a dash over to Green Door Store got you Laundromat’s mid ’90s lo fi downer vibes. Down the road provided a peek at The Goa Express’s loopy take on Madchester, then it was back up to the Albert for TV Priest. Sadly it seems six hundred people had the same idea, wanting to see the Sub Pop noiseniks and with a one in, one out policy sadly most folks missed them.

With various cancellations due to covid and visa troubles, a slow saunter brought the masses back to Patterns for Pillow Queens who quickly woke everyone out of their reverie. Their charming on stage personalities and Throwing Muses inspired jangle pop helped to lift any lingering disappointment. Rushing back and forth between Patterns and Chalk, scrappy underlings Porij surprised many with their ’90s dance grooves and Mush did a great job with their take on Mark E Smith style cerebral post punk.

But it was Leeds artrockers Yard Act that made jaws drop. Bemoaning the fact they’d travelled five hours just to play the gig for a paltry sum only to have to go back to London afterwards to play Later… with Jools Holland, frontman James Smith, resembling Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down when he finally slips into psychosis, cheekily fucked with the crowd, telling them they weren’t putting enough effort into showing the group the love they deserved and at one point getting people to throw money at him. Working Men’s Club were in the unenviable potion of having to follow suit, and did their best to get the crowd dancing, but Smith and co’s snark created a legend.

*

And so things should have calmed down for Sunday. Another six venues, with a variety of genres, from Wu Lu’s hyper personal fusion of grunge rock and hip hop to Death Crash’s nihilistic post rock and Beak>‘s dub motorik, again the biggest surprises came in the middle of the afternoon. First came Lynks, the anonymous queer drag punk sensation. Having just finished choreographing their set on the beach minutes beforehand, they wowed with catchy songs about tedious straight men and gave an impassioned cover of Courtney Barnett’s Pedestrian At Best. Acknowledging that they were more used to partying at 3am than 3pm, their sassy provocations and politicised glamour had people panic buying tickets for their upcoming solo show in the city.

Another cover, slower in tempo but no less evocative, came from Big Joanie and their take on Solange’s Cranes In The Sky. Crying out for a revolution in the face of systemic abuse from the police towards people of colour, women and other marginalised groups, their rough and tumble feminist anthems left many people rightfully riled up. Elsewhere Mandrake Handshake and The Umlauts gave us campy mysticism and schlager synth pop quirkiness respectively, and critical darlings PVA did a damn fine ‘Portishead drop out of uni and go to I-Bee-fah impression’.

But the day, nay the weekend, belonged to Bristolians Scalping. Silhouetted in front of a wildly hypnotic video installation of acidic body horrors and insectoid paranoia, the various band members locked themselves into a disciplined yet chaotic distortion of acid house and grinding tribal beats. So engrossed in the magic they were creating, they looked genuinely confused when the poor venue had to cut them off for overrunning their allocated slot. Trying to briefly resuscitate their set, it felt like they were giving us a much wanted encore, a strange sensation for a band three quarters on the way up the bill. Fellow West Country boys Beak> and multi instrumentalist Anna Meredith, who followed, never really stood a chance after that revelatory experience. As their name attests, not only did they rip the flesh from the heads of those present, they revealed the pulsing brain within.

There were a couple of minor grumbles regarding venue size, programming conflicts and volume levels but that’s to be expected with any festival anywhere. What Mutations did was gave us something better than measly fireworks: dynamite, and the directions for where to stick it.


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Festival Review: Mutations Brighton 2021