Simple Things Festival
Colston Hall and other Bristol venues.
23rd-24th October 2015
It’s October in Bristol, that must mean it’s Simple Things Festival time. In it’s fifth year in Bristol and third year basing itself from the illustrious confines of the Colston Hall, whilst spreading itself all over the city at venues such as: The Firestation & Courtyard, the O2 Academy, The Lakota, The Coroner’s Court and The Island.
In true Simple Things fashion, today’s line up is a smorgasbord of styles and genres. Where new artists come to break new ground and get the tongues wagging, whilst the big names (big in underground terms anyway) come to prove their worth, nailing their proverbial colours to the mast. So, who rose to the top?
The best place to start once you have your wristband is the Foyer of the Colston Hall. This is the heart of beast. Where you can watch the bands and performers from numerous vantage points. Be it on the ground floor with easy access to the outside smoking area, or up the stairway to watch from above. Directly above if you so wished. It’s one of my favourite parts of the festival and a great place to catch up and coming new acts.
Firstly I catch local boy, Tamu Massif filling the space with his simply beautiful acoustic songs. Presumably named after the world’s largest volcano that lurks beneath the Pacific Ocean, Dave Dixon has a smoothness in his delivery, catching you a little off guard. Similar to George Ezra in some ways and very different in others. He starts the day’s music on the right foot indeed, leaving me with a warm fuzzy feeling inside. It is just after midday, so there aren’t many people here to watch but with each moment more arrive, getting in the beers, excited at the day ahead.
Opening up the main stage at Colston Hall early on at 2pm was Bristol’s own local celebrity, Oliver Wilde. You’ve probably come across the scrappy-haired Wilde at Rise Music, where he’s most likely sold you some Sparklehorse or Elliott Smith records, but today he takes to the stage to represent the intimacy and diversity that makes the Bristol arts scene so very, very beloved by all. A more fitting opener could not have been picked, as Mr. Wilde hovers around the stage, joined by his massive six-piece backing band comprised of more equally-talented Bristol musicians. Wilde even invites Harry Wright of Giant Swan (who later plays the Quietus stage in The Lantern) on stage to play some extra backing guitar. The instrumentation is lush and fruitful as a string trio gracefully blends with skittering electronics and ambient guitars. It’s a set that nimbly saunters through fan favourites like ‘Perrett’s Brook’, as well as ambitious new material. Wilde’s last major performance in Bristol was a solo acoustic set in support of Alex G at The Cube Cinema. But this set doesn’t just feel like a homecoming, it’s a statement of solidarity and harmony within the community.
A botched soundcheck caused the next Colston Hall set, Penguin Cafe, to run late which doesn’t bode well for our Simple Things experience. Running late by around fifteen minutes, Penguin Cafe frontman Arthur Jeffes deals out a humble apology to a modest crowd which only appeared to grow larger and larger as the set played out.The Colston’s stage thankfully has more than enough room for Jeffes’ eleven-piece band, a grand piano, harmonium, oodles of string instruments and two decorative penguin heads at the front. Sentimentality is the key word for these songs, as Jeffes introduces a large handful of the set’s compositions as “ones written by my father”, referring to the late Simon Jeffes, who founded the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra far back in 1972. A band cursed with the Faustian trade of a wealth of successful and famous compositions, but often with little accreditation in mainstream pop culture. Tracks like “Perpetuum Mobile”, “Telephone & Rubber Band”, and “Air à Danser” appear to invoke nostalgia from unknown and long-unvisited places. The band jaunts back and forth between modern classical, Latin, Tropicana, barrelhouse folk, and contemporary jazz. Jeffes’ continuation of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s legacy is a moving, inspiring one. A celebration of all the world’s most beautiful eccentricities, and well and truly a set made in heaven.
The Quietus stage in The Lantern hosted some of the day’s most unequivocally eclectic performers, with London’s Sex Swing delivering a sinister concoction of sludgy, murky noise rock and foreboding drones. A rudimentary combination of bass and drums is joined by an imposing contrabass saxophone, breaking the band away from the contemporary moorings of punk and jazz. Far from the chaos of noise jazz acts like Naked City, Sex Swing’s chaos is more controlled, composed, like a premeditated assault on the senses that refuses to yield.
The Lantern continued to house the festival’s most experimental acts throughout the day, with one of the most peculiar sets coming in the form of Grumbling Fur. The London duo dressed the stage in all manners of synths and pedals, sporting Ganesha stickers, sweater vests, and burning incense. Their hazy, heavily-processed sound served as a perfect pit stop at the half-past five mark, giving the audience a breather between some of the more challenging sets. The duo’s set lurched back and forth between their older pop-based material, and their more recent spaced-out psychedelic jams, and oozed with passion and spirituality. They harness all manner of oddball instrumentation, melding children’s clapper toys with violin and pounding, Skinny Puppy-style bass beats. Multi-instrumentalist Daniel O’Sullivan bears the geeky looks of a Napoleon Dynamite-like character, but conducts himself like a yogi caught in a dance mantra, resulting in a performance which exudes a harmony between humanity, technology, physicality, and spirituality.
Hoofing it over to the O2 Academy, I manage to catch the second half of Chastity Belt’s set. The influence of their Pacific Northwestern home state, Washington is evident all over their music, channelling the early 90’s indie bands such as Sleater-Kinney, Sebadoh and Autoclave. Their slacker dream pop is really enjoyable especially the slacker vocal style of lead singer, Julia Shapiro. They seem to be having fun and not taking things too seriously.
Baltimore band, Lower Dens on the other hand, are a tighter, more professional affair. Similar in style but obviously more seasoned in their delivery. This band is a side project of singer, songwriter Jana Hunter. Her voice and charisma are given a place to shine here, as do the songs. Their energy reminds me of Canadian band, The Organ. The driving bass lines of Geoff Graham fuse perfectly with Abram Sanders’s fluid drums, and the shimmering guitar of Will Adams are best shown in the song, ‘To Die In L.A.’.
Back in the Lantern, Liturgy are perhaps one of the most bizarre choices in Simple Things’ line-up this year. The self-described “transcendental black metal” troupe continue to spark controversy among metal traditionalists for their hyper-progressive, de-constructive attitude towards metal. Their 2015 release, The Ark Work, stripped away much of the moorings of black metal which defined their early sound, instead eschewing them for programmed drums, synth horns, and atypical, anti-headbanger poly-rhythms. Their eclectic fusion of electronics and metal is what likely sparked the interest of the Simple Things promoters, little did they know how little this would represent their live show. The group abruptly explodes into blast beats and wailing tremolo-picked guitars with ‘High Gold’, quickly moving back and forth between their recent material, which is completely stripped down to rudimentary rock instrumentation. Three songs in, and their phenomenal drummer Greg Fox has burst his bass drum. For a few minutes, the set slows into an improvised drone, before a hastily-repaired drum is brought back to stage to rapturous applause. The band quickly shifts into a rendition of their intense 7-minute instrumental ‘Generation’. Liturgy are an easy target for criticism, but between the unrelenting bass and snare hits, repetitious, atypical song structures, and songwriting that favours melody and atonality in equal measure, the “transcendental” aspect of their music soon begins to make sense.
Savages are one of the main reasons I am here, as are many others by the look at how packed the main hall is. They never fail to amaze and delight my ears. They always were a tight, dynamic little band. Tonight shows they have transformed themselves into a band that can step up to the next phase of their career. They always looked serious about what they do. Now they are deadly serious! Songs such as, ‘The Answer’ and ‘Adore’ off the new album, ‘Adore Life’ are meaner and leaner. The band sound massive. No-one takes their eyes off them. Especially Jehnny Beth whose commanding presence dominates the attention from us all. At one point, she stands astride the audience as they hold her up. The level of trust the band and the audience share is astounding. It’s unsaid and understood that we’re in this altogether, so lets make it the best it can be. For me, It was the best.
The air in Colston Hall is wet with anticipation as we neared the set of co-headliners Battles. The New York supergroup is known for their array of influences and styles that are as comprehensive as they are bizarre, with the performers’ résumés showing off experience in Lynx, Don Caballero, and even Helmet. Their live setup appears as unique as their music, almost comical, with Ian Williams’ set of double keyboards parallel to him at a thirty-degree angle, and drummer John Stanier’s ride cymbal set so high up that one wonders how he can even reach it. Guitarist Dave Konopka begins the set with a smooth drone of guitar loops before the band breaks into material from their new record La Di Da Di, which soon melts back into a soft ambient loop. These loops are tinkered and toyed with between songs, before growing organically into the next track, often met with applause when the audience connects the dots upon hearing the introductions of ‘Ice Cream’ and ‘Futura’ . The main highlight of course, is the band’s signature track ‘Atlas’, which sends the crowd into a barrelling tempest of energy. Former vocalist Tyondai Braxton’s vocals are replicated live by a recording of a choir singing the incomprehensible vocal melody, which the crowd too attempts to join in with. The crowd’s energy pleases Konopka, who satisfyingly yells “yeah baby!” back at the galloping masses of Colston. Soon after, I bump into a friend who’s beaming with excitement. “That was the most fun I’ve ever had at a rock show!”, he declares. From the expressions of each patron’s faces as we filtered out of the hall, it’s easy to tell that this sentiment is infectiously shared.
Bristol babes BEAK> continue to bring the chaos in The Lantern past the midnight mark with their hyper-experimental crossovers of ambient, krautrock, and post-punk. The parallels between the haunting, meditative ‘When We Fall’, and the anarchic drone-rock of ‘Wulfstan II’ says it all really. The border between the band and the audience is completely shattered via some hilarious back-and-forth heckling. “For a Bristol crowd you’re alright… I’ve got a brand new combine harvester”. The atmosphere is as casual and intimate as any homecoming show can be, between the band’s self-deprecating jabs at how they can’t play their own songs, to maestro Matt Loveridge’s takedowns of some drunken agitators in the front row. Loveridge was spotted at Liturgy’s set earlier, launching himself into headbanging, fist-pounding ecstasy during ‘Generation’. It’s a joy to see festivals like Simple Things dissolving the barriers between artists and listeners.
All words by Philip Allen and Sunny Baglow. More work by Philip can be found in his Louder Than War archive. More features from Sunny can be found at his author’s archive. You can find more writing by Sunny at his blog, Death Of An Absurdist. Sunny can be found making bad puns on Twitter as @sjbaglow.