Festival Review: Kendal Calling 2017

Kendal Calling 2017

Words: Gary Feeney
Photos: Trust A Fox Photography

In my preview of Kendal Calling, I mentioned that organisers have a habit of claiming every year that that year’s edition has been their biggest and best. It seems, however, that reviewers do exactly the same thing because each time I’ve been at Kendal, I’ve came home insisting that it’s been by far my favourite yet and this year’s was no exception. It’s not just that it’s the freshest in your memory, it’s simply that it really, really does get better each time.

Sadly I wasn’t able to make the Thursday’s festivities, which was a real disappointment given the line-up which would have been impressive for one of the main days, never mind one for which only a limited number of tickets are sold. From top new acts like the Shimmer Band through to the legendary Happy Mondays and headliner Franz Ferdinand, it was a perfect bill to get those lucky enough to have been there right in the mood for the rest of the weekend.

After the rather muddy trudge to the campsite on the Friday though, we wasted no time in getting in to the thick of things. First up were Australian indie darlings the DMA’s who delivered a solid enough set without ever really setting the heather alight, although the closing pair of Delete and Lay Down made sure it closed on a high note.

After that, I scurried off to the Woodlands Stage for the night’s main Popped attractions, Ninth Wave, The Vegan Leather and Neon Waltz who were on back-to-back. The Ninth Wave made an immediate impression both with their most recent single Reformation and 80’s clothing – singer Haydn Park-Patterson is a particularly eye-catching presence – and by the time they closed with Human Touch you could tell they had well and truly won over the small crowd gathered in the picturesque clearing which hosts the stage. The Vegan Leather were equally quick out of the blocks with a storming version of Shake It, and from the first notes it was clear why the band are so highly rated with a blistering performance showcasing their unique electro-art rock sound. Not to be outdone were Neon Waltz, who had the good fortune of taking to the stage as darkness descended, allowing the Woodlands lighting installations to shine. For a band which excels in soaring, sweeping melodies, it was the perfect backdrop as the music washed over the crowd with the warmth as the lighting. This was my first time seeing all three of the bands, and they more than lived up to their reputations as being amongst the finest new acts Scotland has to offer.

Saturday was something of a marathon, with a list of around 20 bands who I wanted to see – suffice to say, the full set wasn’t achieved, but nonetheless, it was a very busy day indeed, with a dauntingly early start for Colonel Mustard & the Dijon 5 opening the main stage. Any cobwebs were immediately blown away as the Colonel and co delivered one of the most downright fun and engaging sets I’ve saw at a festival, a feat all the more remarkable for being on at 12pm. As I arrived, the band were mid-way through Dance Off, and the Colonel cajoling the sizeable crowd to join in with their dance moves as one poor security guard was lambasted for not driving his car. As you do. It didn’t get any more sensible from there as the next song, Cross the Road saw few thousand bodies move en-masse across the main stage to the soundtrack of a lesson in the Green Cross Code. The standout of the set for me was the sprawling, swaggering These Are Not the Drugs You Are Looking For, a sweeping Happy Mondays—esque groove which again had the whole crowd, down to the bar staff involved, but in truth the whole set was a bit of a masterclass in how to put on a festival show with too many memorable moments to mention. The Colonel is one of the most uniquely engaging performers you’re likely to see and I couldn’t recommend the Dijon 5 highly enough.

It was going to take something special to top, or indeed even match, such a captivating set, but it didn’t take long for just such a band to appear in the form of fellow Glaswegians White who turned in an incendiary performance to a crowd which grew considerably in size throughout their set. Opening with Be the Unknown, the band tore through a fantastic set including Living Fiction and Step Up with a style and energy which very few of their contemporaries can match – every member is entertaining to watch, including new guitarist Ruaraidh Macfarlane who fills the departed Hamish Fingland’s shoes with aplomb and every song is a stormer played as if it’s their last. It’s a crying shame White were on so early, but their performance at will surely have gained them a number of new fans.

Up next was the most painful clash of the day between Eat Fast and Declan Welsh & the Decadent West, a choice I ended up bottling and instead decided on a mad dash between the two. My first stop was Eat Fast in the Calling Out tent, where the Newcastle band turned in an energetic performance including the fuzzy goodness of Public Display of Affection and Immortal Kombat; as the latter drew to a close, I scooted round the Woodlands Stage for Declan Welsh. I had heard some of his work when he first emerged and was neither here nor there about it, but after hearing the brilliant punk-poetry of No Paseran I was impressed with the change in direction and was curious to see what he’d be like live. I was not disappointed. Although I only caught three songs, including a spoken word one which is the first time in my life I’ve ever really enjoyed such a thing, I was well and truly won over and will be going out of my way to see them again.

Another trip back to the main stage beckoned for Feeder and & Editors playing mid-afternoon slots which seem perfectly suited to them. Feeder were entertaining enough for the most part, although at times Grant Nicholas’ telling the crowd “you know this one” when it was clear most people actually didn’t at times made the set feel a bit forced. That said, when you finish with two of the ultimate festival anthems in Buck Rogers and Just a Day, any minor quibbles are quickly forgotten! Editors always largely passed me by at the time apart from the odd song, and so it was here too – apart from Munich mid-way through, not a great deal really seemed to happen and so off I trotted to try to catch an all-too-brief glimpse of the wonderful Honeyblood.

The star attraction of Saturday’s line-up was undoubtedly Brian Wilson, and even before he took to the stage you could sense the anticipation in the air as a huge crowd awaited one of music’s greatest ever talents performing one of its most timeless albums, Pet Sounds. Opening with Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Wilson and his band delivered an utterly breath-taking performance, a true lesson in pop music that at times left you awe-struck, particularly when it came to God Only Knows and Good Vibrations – the latter in particular is surely one of the finest pieces of music ever written, a symphony in three minutes. It was an absolute pleasure and privilege to watch such a master at work and a moment which will live long in the memory.

The Manic Street Preachers were clearly in no mood to be outshone by anyone though, opening with a ferocious version of the majestic Motorcyle Emptiness – the song I was most excited about seeing over the weekend – and for the next hour proceeded to turn out one of the finest headline sets I’ve saw. Having never saw them before, I was utterly blown away by the power of their performance, from more recent numbers like Your Love Alone Is Not Enough to old classics like Kevin Carter which sounds every bit as fresh today, but a surprise stand-out was James Dean Bradfield’s solo section. Proving his worth as one of the most charismatic front-men of 90’s, Bradfield had the crowd in the palm of his hands with acoustic versions of The Masses Against the Classes and Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head before the band returned for a storming version of You Love Us. The Manics proved here that they’ve still got more fire in their bellies than most bands half their age and remain one of the most vital acts around, signing off with the mass sing-along of A Design For Life.

After Saturday’s marathon, Sunday was an altogether quieter affair which was only to be expected given the bewildering number of good acts the previous day – as well as the ones I saw, the lack of a Popped TARDIS meant we had to miss a good few too, including The Jacobins, She Drew the Gun and Indigo Velvet. It seemed to be widely acknowledged that the Sunday was quite thread-bare in comparison, and if you’ll forgive the minor gripe, the scheduling could have been a lot better in that regard.

My first set of the day was the mighty Slaves, who I’m not sure I’d have entertained at all had it not being for seeing them in Glasgow’s ABC2 last month. As it was, I was looking forward to seeing them on a bigger stage and just like everyone else over the weekend, they didn’t disappoint – in fact, if anything the pair seemed to brim with even more energy in this setting. Powering through their arsenal of ridiculously aggressive punk numbers, the crowd was as wild as you’ll see at a festival with a sea of pyro on show throughout, although particular mentions need to be made of Fuck the Hi-Hat and Cheer Up London. There’s something ever so slightly ridiculous (for want of a better word) about Slaves, such as when as Isaac Holman demanded a group hug between the front-of-stage security crew, but it’s part of what makes them so captivating and in all honesty, they’re just about my new favourite thing in the world these days.

After Slaves, the day was mostly spent strolling around the site’s many nooks and crannies, although I did stop by the Calling Out tent to catch some of Blanaevon and Palace. I haven’t really heard much of either, but after Slaves, their relatively chilled-out melodies were just about perfect for the circumstances and I made a mental note to check both of them out when I got home which is surely the mark of a successful festival set.

Last but not least was the Coral who closed the Calling Out tent which seemed a perfect way to finish the weekend. As it turned out though (and it pains me a little to say this as I’m a massive fan of them), their set was a bit hit and miss, largely due to the presence of three or four songs from Distance Inbetween, an album I just can’t take to: the drawn-out instrumentals feel flat and unimaginative, and even the middle section of the otherwise brilliant Goodbye doesn’t really feel quite right without the invention of Bill Ryder-Jones. That said though, songs like In The Morning and Jacqueline are pop gems which make up for any wobbles elsewhere and closing with the stupendously brilliant Dreaming of You, it was a thoroughly enjoyable set and a fine way to finish off the weekend.

If I had to pick a highlight I’d probably have to go for Brian Wilson or the Manics, but as trite as it may sound, the festival itself is the star turn. This was my fifth time there, and every year I’ve loved every minute of it. It feels like every little detail has been worked on until it’s perfect, from never having to queue at the bars to the fact that almost every member of staff you come genuinely seems happy to be there. The food’s great, the music’s great, the site is packed with a seemingly endless range of things to see and do, from the magical Lost Eden to the secret sets in the Tim Peak’s Diner. There’s never a dull moment.

If festivals are your thing, make sure you get yourself to Kendal Calling next year.

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