26th May 2018
En route to Bristol city Centre, it’s rather concerning for one to note that the callow revellers – clad in glittery festival garb and clutching cans of alcohol – bound for Love Saves The Day at Eastville Park are surely getting younger every year. It has the vibe of a slightly obstreperous youth club taking an early afternoon constitutional. Considering this, it feels only right that I should be heading in the opposite direction towards Dot To Dot Festival 2018 and hopefully some generational common ground at the wristband exchange at Thekla.
The festival organiser’s decision to open the exchange at the earlier time of 11am has apparently assuaged the usual midday mass queue and, in absolutely no time at all, wrists are adorned in luminous yellow plastic. This has also addressed the problem of the day’s earliest acts suffering depleted audiences due to unrealistic expectations of scoring a speedy wristband and Usain Bolting it over to the nearest venue in good time.
So, with over 150 bands playing on 18 stages across 14 city centre venues, it’s time to consider how to crack into this expansive musical monster. With the majority of venues dormant until slightly later in the afternoon, the day’s first decision is rendered somewhat easier –it makes sense to skedaddle over to Mr Wolf’s for a double header.
London rock trio Berries are already into their set upon arrival. The frontwoman sports a Blondie T-shirt and coolly wields her white Stratocaster with noodling riffs and string bends. “It’s absolutely frickin’ boiling up here” she says before launching into ‘Dangerous’. (Kudos to her for cleaning up the language at this family friendly early hour). The young band meld rock influences from punk to grunge to indie and, certainly within the introductory riff to ‘Wild Vow’, a touch of 80s rock. While promise lies within the strength of their songs and energetic stage presence, it’s also a little raw; there are moments of looseness and a drum pedal malfunction forces the band into an improvised breakdown during ‘Stormy.’
After returning to the bar and embarking on some dynamite interim chat, it’s time for the 2pm set from hometown duo Elter. The two musicians – a fella on drums and a red-haired frontlady who, in pure ‘The XX’ fashion, uses her guitar as essentially a bass instrument – combine live instrumentation with pre-recorded sound effects and electronic percussion. It all serves to create a large, spacey and atmospheric pop music, full of yearning vocals and sonic crescendo. It’s elegantly moody; ‘The Dirt’, for instance, features Elter’s most accessible chorus and the lyrics “the shadow guides you through the dirt”.
We’re then back to the boat and Malena Zavala’s 3pm set at Thekla. It results in the day’s first sighting of the ubiquitous music consuming honey monster that is Jeffrey ‘Big Jeff’ Johns; right hand aloft, he sways along gently to Zavala’s romantic, soft rock offerings. Though a pre-festival listen to her standout tune ‘Should I Try’ revealed a songwriter with promise, there is something that isn’t quite making the transition to this current moment in Thekla’s busy main room. In the surroundings, the grace and gentleness of Zavala’s music seems too easily construed as somnolent, middle-of-the-road folk/rock. ‘Should I Try’ closes the set but it’s hard to escape the fact that it sounds better emerging from my laptop speakers.
Next up it’s a jaunt over to The Fleece and a 4.15pm set from Californian surf punk quartet The Frights. An audience member is spotted mouthing the words to the band’s opening song and thus evidence of bona fide Frights fans amongst the crowd. The blue haired guitarist sports a Bart Simpson T-shirt and is apparently prone to incongruous, almost tourettic high pitched yelps between songs. Listening to the band’s latest record You Are Going To Hate This, there’s a satisfying and somewhat kooky blend of surf rock, punk and even doo-wop ish harmonies.
On the live stage, however, The Fright’s occasionally sound far more like 90s US pop-punk merchants like Green Day. Unhappily, attention is drawn to this when the band segway into ‘Basket Case’ and then an overlong medley featuring TLC, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Shaggy. With decent tunes like ‘All I Need’ and the exhilarating, harmony-laden title track from their latest album, it’s a tad frustrating that the band took such a lengthy excursion into the land of the medley. A fun and upbeat set but The Fright’s don’t quite capture the off-kilter edginess of their records.
A one pint pit stop at The Gryphon provides the opportunity to catch a couple of tunes during local band The Fumes’ 4.30pm set. To forgo entering into the small, crammed gig room our photographer stands high upon the counter betwixt band and soundman to capture the youthful four-piece hammer out their boisterous garage punk. Standout tunes ‘Jar of Greed’ and ‘Cut It Out’ sound like a halfway house between The Fall and The Stooges; it’s a fleeting glimpse of a promising young band.
The venue’s toilets are also worthy of mention; the walls are chock-full with punning graffiti around the word “cistern” – so we have “cistern of a down”, “smash the cistern”, “cisterns of mercy” etc. However, the immortal scrawl of “Anal Spatula Disembowelment” lay proudly among the puns. It’s a rather incongruous and off-theme bit of graffiti. Maybe it’s the name of a band. Perhaps we’ll be hearing from the ASD boys at Dot To Dot 2019?
Hailing from just down the road in neighbouring Bath, good time five-piece Bad Sounds have already established a healthy Bristolian fan base with their upbeat melding of indie disco, 70s dance and hip-hop. There’s further evidence of this as their 6.45pm set at the O2 Academy sees the festival’s largest capacity venue gradually fill up with an impressively sized crowd. Having released a new album since their last visit to the city, the band throws in a couple of new tunes amongst old favourites.
‘Avalanche’ – centred on its fuzzy guitar lines and infectious pitter-patter keyboard figure – is irresistibly catchy while ‘I Feel’ could be the band’s best party anthem. Interestingly, co-frontmen and brothers Ewan and Callum Merrett (the latter donned in orange Guantanamo one-piece) largely use the occasion to indulge in some playful onstage wrestling; there’s plenty of grappling, a tambourine is thrown and at one point there’s a real danger of Ewan slapping the figure-four leg lock on his brother. Fun as always, Bad Sounds will surely have ensnared even more Bristolian music admirers.
Immediately hitting the toilets upon arrival at SWX, there’s an overheard lamenting of missing the Champions League Final and subsequent news of Liverpool’s Mo Salah departing the game early through injury. For anyone interested in what is transpiring in Kiev, Marika Hackman’s somnolent 8.15pm performance is hardly enough to take one’s mind off of the footy. Despite her clear talents, the London based artist’s melancholy folk and dark lyricism doesn’t seem to fit the musical requirements of a room full of mostly inebriated gig-heads. It’s a little too stagnant and Hackman’s songs are perhaps not the most immediate.
There’s a lesson in the importance of familiarising oneself with an artist’s songs before witnessing a live performance as ‘Boyfriend’ – a familiar track due to pre-festival listens – shines forth atop the otherwise drowsy atmos. For one with intimate knowledge of Hackman’s work there would no doubt be much to appreciate here; however, it’s just not upbeat or engaging enough in its late festival context.
Who would’ve thought that Rough Trade Records on Nelson Street has a bar and a dedicated gig room? The expectation of cramming beverage free amongst the bargain bins and the vinyl is replaced by the reality of clutching a can of Thatcher’s inside an approx. 200-300 capacity performance space. Nashville alternative rock band Bully are exponents of a 90s flavoured rock sound, a grungy slacker rock soup somewhere between Pavement and The Breeders. Peering out beneath her sweat-ruffled blond mane, frontwoman Alicia Bognanno looks fairly fantastic as her voice veers from a delicate Nina Persson-like caress to a full-blown feminine Cobain.
There’s the late Saturday night vibe of boozy nattering amongst the audience as Bognanno’s sparse badinage is drowned out by the sounds of chatter. ‘Trying’ is a standout tune and Big Jeff, rather than his romantic swaying hands of earlier, is in a more familiar head-banging domain. In both Bognanno’s voice and each player’s attack on their instrument, Bully play with a passion and ferocity that makes one care rather less about any criticism of their derivative nature. Rough Trade Records proves a cool addition to the festival’s line up of venues and Bully a resounding punctuation point at the end of Dot To Dot 2018.
Live photographs by Alex McGough