8-9 June 2019
David Edwards reports back on a soggy, occasionally baffling but ultimately life-affirming Parklife Festival. Even if that life is one significantly older than the attendees he shares the experience with…
I turn 38 this summer. I attended my first music festival a full two decades ago; therefore, as I find myself walking into Heaton Park in the steady but determined rain, I am in no doubt that I am way too old for Parklife Festival. And not just slightly too old. No, I am so far out of the demographic that it might as well be on a different time zone. Everyone around me looks fresher than me, trimmer than me. Better dressed than me (not difficult) and filled with a sense of unbridled confidence and optimism that belies the tumultuous and potentially terminal state of our nation at this particular time.
And yet, by the end of the weekend, I’m seeing things through their eyes and understanding. From the initial bout of Fear And Loathing In Heaton Park – doubtful of my own kin and my own skin – I come to realise that to blindly scoff at the festival is to expose oneself as the sneering and snooty person we despised in our teenage years; mocking our music and trends. There is much that can be constructively criticised about Parklife but it is also important to acknowledge for many people, this weekend is a highlight of their year. And despite the rain, the drop-outs and the incessant sound bleed it just about manages to pull it off.
First up on the main stage is Col3trane who does a decent line in floaty, jazzy hip-hop. He’s a charismatic sort and does his best to get everyone excited and involved as the rain continues to lash down. However, George Fitzgerald’s Sounds From The Near Future set is the weekend’s first standout moment – beautiful, delicate and floating electronica with hypnotic visuals and a powerful female vocalist over the top. It is a gorgeous thing to behold and the first reminder that this festival has some truly superb acts bubbling just underneath the main bill.
Little Simz struggles with a field only half-full: most of the crowd have decided to head into the cavernous Hangar tent to escape the incessant pummelling from the heavens above. Nonetheless, her set is taut, sharp and on point; trying to encourage the bedraggled crowd with a series of eclectically-inflected tracks, with recent single Selfish and a stunning Boss being particular highlights. Recent record Grey Area is one of 2019’s strongest releases to date.
Slowthai, in the Sounds Of The Near Future tent, is absolutely spellbinding. Following up on the release of his tremendous Nothing Great About Britain record released just the other week, he is a furious tornado of energy, anger and sheer kinetic force. Spitting as much as speaking, ranting as much as rapping, yet eloquent and brilliantly capturing the fissures running through British society, it is the work of a genuine breath of fresh air on the scene. Raps about poverty, Grenfell, Brexit and crime (as well as a savage expletive-filled broadside against Theresa May) are met with a mixture of cheers, applause and sheer amazement from the crowd – yet much of his message is also greeted with nods of the head and murmurs of “yep”. Tyron Frampton is genuinely one of the finest new talents of 2019 and on the back of this, the sky is his limit. This is punk in 2019. Stupendously good.
Earl Sweatshirt seems to be here for the party. Clad in a black rain jacket, he seems thrilled at the long catwalk set up for Christine and the Queens later – persistently roaming up and down and insisting that “you’ve gotta try this sometime”. As he reminds us on several occasions he is a veteran of Parklife, yet he genuinely looks delighted to be here. Many of Earl’s performances can be defined in terms of whether he can be bothered, yet today his mumbles are intense and well-refined and the beam on his face tells its own story.
We come out and it is STILL raining. So we dash inside the faux-greenhouse that is The Palm Stage to hear Ben UFO b2b with Call Super. It’s a flow of deep, floaty house cuts that may be better suited to the early hours of a dazed morning than 5pm on a Saturday afternoon, but it is endlessly enjoyable and a chance to recharge for Loyle Carner back at Sounds From The Near Future (we mostly camped out there all day). There is an element of familiarity to Loyle Carner’s music in that his format is somewhat tried and tested from song-to-song, but there is a genuine joy and warmth to him and you cannot help but get swept along in his charisma. Ain’t Nothing Changed could come straight out of a smoky jazz club and No CD is an absolute riot, with a cheeky reference to “Some Cardi Bs…” being thrown in to acknowledge the bizarre and farcical absence of today’s original headliner after having cosmetic surgery (I’ll say no more, but SERIOUSLY?). It’s a familiar journey, but a profoundly enjoyable one.
There is however, nothing familiar about Christine and the Queens‘ live set, which as ever is an utter revelation in every way. Heartbreakingly, the enormous tent is 70% empty by the time she and the band arrive – the majority of attendees having drifted off to see Mark Ronson or Disclosure. Those who do stay however, have their minds and souls suitably rearranged. I’ve written recently about the ability of Héloïse Adelaide Letissier and her songs to gloriously invert sexuality, sensuality, gender and love into the origami-form of perfect electronic pop songs, but in a live setting this truly comes to life. “This is a safe place for you all to be what you want to be” she implores to the adoring crowd who remain – tied to every word and every note. To do this at your own gig is one thing but to do it to a festival crowd who are hardly the demographic for such strange, obtuse music is something close to alchemy. The cheer that greets Tilted makes you think for a second that the crowd has suddenly packed the tent behind you (they haven’t) and a stunning cover of David Bowie’s Heroes brings tears around me. By the end, there are a new set of converts to this glorious modern pop star. A girl next to me – muddied, bruised and somewhere over Saturn – turns to her friend on the way out and says “that’s the best f**king thing I’ve ever seen”. As a way to round off the day, it’s pretty hard to think of anything more perfect.
There are still frequent outbursts of rain around the site but patches of sun are fighting their way through and although the site is boggy, organisers have clearly been working hard overnight to put down woodchip and make the site walkable. First up on the Sounds From The Near Future tent (sorry, I know it’s repetitive but the line-up was just so damn good!) is Pusha T, which is going off in all directions. There is a palpable excitement in the tent as the DJ primes everybody up for the set with much hype and hyperbole, which then proceeds much in the same way. It’s an excellent set with Pusha’s tight flow and panning drawl dragging everyone forward over a series of swirling samples and incessant skittering beats. The tracks from last year’s excellent Daytona are greeted with rapturous acclaim and the whole thing skips past in the fervent blink of an eye. One thing notable from this year’s Parklife is how much live rap has cleaned its act up in recent years – from half-baked and shambolic sets only a few years ago, this year’s crop of live sets are on-point and so much more thrilling for it.
As we walk past the main stage, Blossoms have a huge crowd – telling the crowd how delighted they are to play a “home festival”. That’s cool, and the fact that the crowd are enjoying it so much is a fine thing to behold, but their music is absolutely nothing to write home about so I’ll skip on. Much more impressive is Todd Terje in The Bunker – a man who can seemingly do no wrong. His sets always bring a wicked sense of humour and a total lack of any pretentiousness meaning that a party is almost guaranteed. Highlights include a huge singalong when he drops John Paul Young’s Love is in the Air and of course, everyone goes bonkers for Inspector Norse. Fantastic fun, communal joy and a reminder that there are few who do this kind of set as well as Todd Terje.
The last time I saw The Streets was 2011. It was off the back of that year’s desperately disappointing final album Computers And Blues and the “farewell tour” was stilted, pallid and lacking in any of the energy and enthusiasm that made Mike Skinner and his crew’s early shows so life-affirming. As someone who holds that band dear in his heart, it was such a sad way to bow out. I am therefore highly unsure about whether today’s set will alleviate the miserable memories of that time.
I shouldn’t have worried.
Tonight, The Streets are ours. And bloody hell, they are magnificent. Mike Skinner genuinely seems a man reborn – trim, full of his old geezer enthusiasm and yelling at the crowd like there’s no tomorrow. “I brought the f**king sun out for you” he yells, as indeed he does (he paid God apparently), before leading us through a short but highly potent greatest hits set. They open with four tracks from 2001’s Original Pirate Material (Turn the Page, Let’s Push Things Forward, Don’t Mug Yourself and Has it Come to This) that still sound timeless and peerless, before everyone sings along tearily to Dry Your Eyes as if it is an old friend. A stunning and throbbing Blinded By The Lights sends a chemical ripple through the crowd before we get not just one, but TWO pogoing renditions of Fit But You Know It. Skinner swigs champagne throughout and looks genuinely delighted at the reception he gets, though his influence is felt so clearly through the festival and everyone clearly knows this. It’s a rebirth and a reformation that doesn’t feel tacked on or cynical, but actually necessary for resurrecting the legacy of what made The Streets seem so vital in the early 00s. An absolute joy, a triumph. Welcome back Mike.
It is therefore left to Solange to bring us home. Backed with a full band and brass section, she emerges onto the stage with a broad hat on. Initially she struggles somewhat with the sound drowning her out, but once this is resolved it is a captivating set of dark and light – rumbling and rolling bass lines balanced out with gossamer layers of vocals, synths and melting brass. It is dynamic, thrilling and emotionally healing – messages of solidarity, self-love and empowerment ringing all around. In a similar way to Christine and the Queens last night, you feel that for many unaccustomed to the glorious live show she puts on, tonight is a revelation. And to those who have seen before, it is still uncompromisingly brilliant. Her sister may get the headlines, but there is no doubt that Solange Knowles is currently making some of the finest, most fascinating pop music on the planet.
So as I walk back through the crowds to the already bulging Metrolink queues, what have I learned? Parklife is one of these divisive lines within the older and younger generation of the Manchester party scene. And it’s certainly true that I fall on the older side of that line, by a long way. But you know what? Strip away the cynicism, delve into the setlist and there are some utter gems to be found. And that is what Parklife does so well. For those who just want the mainstream, it delivers. But for those who want to seek out electronic and hip-hop nuggets within the smaller stages, there is much to admire. And more than that, why would you laugh and sneer at people who are clearly enjoying themselves. The cynical and jaded side of me does hope that one day, the kids will go and explore other festivals to make them aware of what else a music festival can provide (it’s certainly true that aside from the music and a single Ferris wheel, there is little else here to entertain) but the carefree side of me looks at everyone having a great time and thinks that isn’t my place to judge – they are here, they are happy, they are living their damn life the way they want to. Parklife is what it is, and it will never be to many people’s taste. And I did spend the entire weekend wishing that I didn’t look so conspicuously older than pretty much everyone else there. But as I walk away, I ask myself one simple question: did I have fun? And the honest truth is, yes I did. And aside from some tremendous sets, there is an important lesson in not pre-judging. People have always, and still do sneer at me for going to festivals in my holidays rather than finding time on a beach somewhere, and I think they’re absolute snobs for doing thinking that. We shouldn’t make the same mistake with those who go to Parklife. Each to their own in this world. It may not be for us, but for a generation of kids this is what they look forward to all year. And frankly, good for them.
Photo credits courtesy of and copyright to Joshua Atkins, Richard Johnson Justine Trickett, Steve Turvey, Giles Smith and Andrew Whitton from Fanatic Creative 2019 https://fanaticcreative.com/
You can read more of David’s writing for Louder Than War in his archive