Header image by Jason Broadhurst
Perhaps the best things in life really are free. Or so you may think after Tramlines weekend in Sheffield. Now well established as the jewel in the city's musical calendar by its fourth year, the festival attracts established acts from far and wide and has every band in the city honing their set and looking to secure the best possible slots to showcase themselves to huge crowds of non-paying punters.
This year, the place to see in the festival was The Forum, where at six we are treated to Guardian-championed neo-folksters Low Duo. The percussionless twosome may not have kickstarted proceedings so much as ushered the occasion in gracefully with their haunting vocals and effective, sparse atmospherics, but they prove uncannily entrancing to those few able to resist a feverish chat over their first pint of the weekend.
Having had my taste for intimacy piqued, I decided to go check out Juffage over at the Cathedral. His stripped down 'one man and his guitar' performance was as charming as his sincere appreciation at being allowed the opportunity to grace the venue, even stopping to take his own snaps of the pew-bound crowd as memento.
By this point, it was time for something completely different in the form of Essex Jazz-Math instrumentalists, Suffer Like G Did, over at Dada. Playing on a lineup put together by Small Ideas, Sheffield Uni's alternative music society, they possibly benefit from a crowd of musos and musicians who can more openly (and open-mouthedly) appreciate the twists and turns and 'how did they time that?!' elements to their loosely structured pieces. However, ludicrous name aside, they retain enough appreciation for melody to deflect any suggestion of inaccessibility and prove likeably humble and unpretentious.
Continuing in a math-rock vein, they're followed onstage by the far more direct NGOD, whose set of emo-tinged alt-rock is played with intensity and passion. Vocalist Sam Augustine deserves particular praise for managing to nonchalantly shrug off falling on his arse during their climactic crescendo. It's not all about the fun of the performance however; the songs are there too, with new single 'Better Man' being a particular highlight. By now the party has arrived at Tramlines 2012, and we're left looking forward to day two as we drift homeward.
After a nice lie-in in preparation for the first full day of the festival, with the blazing light forcing its way through the cracks in the curtains, Weston Park seemed the place to be just as on any other sunny day in Steel City, particularly as local indie-pop favourites Screaming Maldini were to grace the bandstand. While it's difficult for them to be as captivating as usual in the outdoor setting, their catchy melodies and brass were surely made to soundtrack the gathering of friends upon grass.
In contrast to the chilled atmosphere of the park, I then decided to battle my way down to Devonshire Green's main stage, for what would turn out to be the only time all weekend, to catch Clock Opera. Kudos to whoever booked these guys as they prove to be the perfect festival warm-up act, blending the electronica of their recorded output with a more guitar-led live set-up and plenty of hooky whoa-oh moments to get those down at the front dancing at 3pm, and those further back noting the name as they nod along.
Now there may be a bit of a conspicuous gap in the diary at this point as I rushed off to make preparations for, and play, a set with Likes Lions down at Beg, Borrow, Steal. Despite our rustiness, it was a fun set and great to play material from our upcoming EP for faces both new and familiar.
There was no way I was going to miss the vitriolic display of Future of the Left however, whose rousing anthems allow great opportunity to spend some pent-up energy. The band follow suit, throwing their all into every minute and with Andy Falkous on form, one minute sharply berating an audience member for the 'classiness' of throwing white cider stageward, the next musing upon how he'd like to bring Andre the Giant back from the dead. Their set spans their recorded catalogue as well as a McClusky cut, breaking up their "shouting over guitars," as Falkous neatly coins it, with a synth-heavy middle section. By the close, they've reached fever-pitch, with Jimmy Watkins handing his guitar to a crew member so he can fling himself into the crowd, while Falkous and bassist Julia Rusicka take to dismantling the drum kit as it's being struck and gradually reassembling it at the front of the stage. Raucous.
Later that night, the place to be is Yellow Arch, by trade a practice studio, but kitted out for the day (and night) as Signals, a festival-within-a-festival celebrating the electronic music heritage of Sheffield. Part-funded by Arts Council England, the event features four rooms that cover all sorts of bases, from the minimalist to the bombastic, and earlier in the day, a series of panel talks on digital music culture. Any other day of the year, it would be prudent to spend the whole day, but with so much to see and do elsewhere, it more than serves its purpose of providing a one-of-a-kind night out to end the day.
On any other weekend of the year, the Sunday after the night before may have been written off as a duvet day, but with the prospect of an even stronger day of live bands and even stronger sunshine beating down over the decimated city, it would have taken resolve not to get up.
The most interesting and varied line-up of the day was that curated by Rolo Tomassi down at the New Music Stage outside City Hall, so I ambled my way down there for the first act of the day. Unfortunately unaware that Vales had been forced to pull out of the event due to transport issues, instead of being violently shaken awake by their angular hardcore, I get to bask in the sunshine and quietly acclimatise myself to being awake and hungover before art-popsters Kappa Gamma take to the stage. Recent signings to Rolo's Destination Moon label, the shockingly youthful four (sometimes five) piece captivate the audience with their complex, yet hooky, sometimes frail, sometimes huge dynamics and prove their place on this lineup as ones to watch.
Later in the afternoon, Let's Buy Happinessprove a little underwhelming on the same stage. Perhaps more suited to an indoor venue, while their melancholic indie-pop is charming enough, it never reaches out to the mostly seated audience, rather floating above them on the breeze.
Meanwhile, over at The Bowery, a considerable crowd are gathering for the debut of local outfit Dens, four very smartly turned out young men who play a set of driving anthemic rock, inspired by early 80s radio-Americana. Astonishingly accomplished for a first performance, particularly as they apparently formed just two weeks ago, they please the huge numbers of friends in attendance and the casual drop-ins alike.
Numbers had swelled dramatically down by City Hall in time for today's hosts Rolo Tomassi. It is testament to the city's appreciation that such a challenging band can draw such a huge and diverse group who receive them so very well on home turf. Eva Spence emerges to a cheer in a sparkly little black number, and is a wonder as ever as she races between shrieking and howling and lullaby sweetness. The sound isn't really on the band's side for the opening songs, with vocals in particular getting lost amid the guitars on the wind, at times leaving Eva and brother James appearing to have a silent, yet violent fit, but these issues were soon smoothed out in time to really give the kids something to jump around to. The pit upon cold concrete was both ambitious and hilariously dangerous, and was no doubt appreciated by their onstage ringmasters.
By the time Rolo step down and make way for fellow hometown heroes 65daysofstatic, the feeling is that this could (and in an ideal world perhaps should) be a main stage. The entirety of the fenced off arena is filled and there is a palpable sense of expectation. Thankfully, 65days more than live up to this vibe, opening with all four members engaging in a percussion workout, building up to a high-intensity run through of the first few numbers with absolutely no let up to the unmistakeable glitch-dance/post-rock they've made their name with. They clearly ride the wave of excitement and revel in their position atop the bill, with 'frontman' guitarist Joe Shrewsbury in particular displaying an uncommon level of showmanship for an instrumental band, clowning around, joking about the ubiquitous Nando's sponsorship and even organising mass jump-arounds and Mexican waves. They also do poignant as well as ever; 'Dance Dance Dance' and closing duo 'Radio Protector' and 'Tiger Girl' prove contrasting highlights, the former putting the bounce in the crowd, while the latter have arms invariably around shoulders if not aloft. After having to call off their appearance two years ago at the expense of a pesky fire alarm, this year the weekend belongs to them.
Ever keen for more, there was still time to catch a couple of late performances. First up was Toy, who packed out The Harley as a result of being featured in the official programme, but prove an anticlimax considering what has just gone down. It's easy to see the allure of their kraut-rock psychedelia in instrumental passages, but they often seem distant and lacking in feeling. Over at The Green Room however, local act Elephant prove rewarding to those further putting off the onset of Monday morning, with a set of soulful, danceable alt-rock.
And so unfortunately that's it for another year. Minor gripes about queue times aside, it has been gloriously uplifting to experience a festival like no other yet again, where all venue doors are left wide open and attract people of all ages and backgrounds besides more typical live music punters. There's just enough time to grab fish and chips from Betty's round the corner and take one last wistful look at Sheffield in all-embracing urban music utopia mode before the swift return to normality by morning.