Festival review: Highest Point 2019

Highest Point

17th – 19th May 2019, Williamson Park, Lancaster

Words & Photography: Gary Lambert

It is never the big headline performances that make you fall in love with certain festivals.  They’re actually superfluous to making the event feel special. Instead it is the little things, the efforts made by the organisers and staff that leave you feeling that people want you to be there rather than they solely want your money.  Well Highest Point Festival went all out to get my love like I was asking the questions on Blind Date, and well let’s just say we will be seeing each other again for sure.

What were the elements used to charm me?  Well it would get pretty boring if I listed everything but I’ll tell you some of the main factors.

The venue.  Williamson Park is a beautiful park situated above Lancaster city centre.  Whilst the massive slope in the middle of the festival is going to leave you with burning thighs if you visit the Chris Glaba Memorial Stage regularly, it also means that the festival has loads of great spots to watch the bands play as well as enabling spectacular views over the city, the Irish Sea, and the soaring peaks of Cumbria.  This was also without a shadow of doubt the cleanest festival I have ever attended, hardly a piece of litter was seen across the site.

A beautiful music festival is pointless without the sound to go with it and the sound was immaculate at both the Main Stage and at the BBC Introducing stage.  The obvious consequence of this was that all of the artists seemed to be in a great mood when playing rather than worried about the quality of their output. I can’t even remember a moment of wincing feedback.  Which is rare for a gig of two or three bands, let alone an entire festival.

The staff at Highest Point have to have a lot of credit paid to them.  Whether they were in the delicious and varied food stalls (I could write a review purely on the meals I had), on the gates, the ticket office or the making sure the every aspect around the stages went perfectly, all of the staff on duty were friendly, talkative and willing to help you as best they could.  This created a relaxed and friendly atmosphere throughout and that snowballs throughout a festival. A hard nosed approach to searching people at the gates always has a knock on effect to how people start their day, so having a laugh and joke whilst you get your bags searched makes a difference.

Now on to the reason that I was there in the first place, the music.  Whilst dance music isn’t really in the Popped Music field of expertise, I would have liked to have taken in some of the offerings, but I just did not have the time to go to The Dell and throw some shapes.  The acts on the BBC Introducing stage alone would have made me happy to have caught throughout one day at a larger metropolitan festival, so to have some festival and personal favourites on the Main Stage in addition to that saw me pretty excited in advance.

One of my favourite acts at the moment are King Nun.  If you have not yet had the fortune to capture one of their ruthless live performances, I would say you need to quickly.  Musically they are most akin to the Up The Bracket era version of The Libertines but with heftier guitar sound that you would expect from bands like Wolfmother and The Raconteurs.  Given their age, it is wonderful to see how the band owns the stage too. Theo, the singer in King Nun, treated the BBC Introducing Stage as his own kingdom as he leapt and kicked whilst his band mates played furiously alongside him.  It was a performance of a band from whom bigger things can be expected. It feels natural that they are going to progress.

Generally when a photographer recommends for people to take in a band it is because first and foremost they look cool on stage.  That’s not being derogatory towards snappers, but rather because that is the first thing that naturally captures their attention.  For that reason, I was expecting anything other than a singer behind a host of electronic equipment and a bassist from Sound of Thieves as I had turned up to see them on the recommendation of a fellow photographer.  What was lost in drama and showmanship was more than gained through the beautiful and innovative sonic weavings of this duo. The basis of their work was the vocal loops created by singer Phoebe which she would then sing over along with the bass work of Jan.  It sounds relatively simple, but it was complex, layered and beautiful. Considering the artistic nature of their work, it was heartwarming to see so many of their audience stay for the entire set. It showed how creativity can be valued by a mixed audience rather than focused on a niche crowd when the end product is of such high quality.

The Friday night headliner at the BBC Introducing Stage was Cabbage.  This is generally a band I have a rather fractured internal monologue regarding.  On the one hand, I love their energetic and raucous live shows and open support for left wing politics, but on the other hand I have regularly described them as “The Fall without a tune”.  Well I can put my hand on my heart and say (not literally as it’d stop me typing) that this was the set which has made me change my mind on Cabbage.

I still stand by my earlier criticisms of the band, but they have improved their sound so much that I am looking forward to the next release from them.  It sounds like I am damning with feint praise, but it sounded to me like Lee Broadbent has been working considerably on his vocals. He still dominated the sound of Cabbage, but this time he sounded smooth and a lot more pleasurable to the ear. I had always thought of Cabbage sounding like The Most Mancunian Band Ever, but now I think they have reached a point where they are starting to sound like Cabbage rather than an amalgamation of their heroes.  And don’t worry, the changes have not been paid for with a loss of their bombastic live shows. They are still incendiary, but even more exciting.

Another exciting and energetic live act from Manchester was The Moods.  With dance-heavy cocktail of every genre the large band has ever listened to, you are not going to feel relaxed during their set.  It takes place at a breakneck speed and is a constant source of noise and kinetics, but the enthusiasm and togetherness the band show on stage soften the power of that. As long as you hadn’t turned up at the gig straight after a funeral or being dumped, I would bet that anybody would enjoy watching The Moods. If you watch them at a festival, I would suggest you go for some food afterwards as you are definitely going to need some time to chill out.

An ideal band to follow them in the future would be Ovvls.  Their gothic take on minimalistic electro would be the perfect palette cleanser after such energy.  Another beneficiary of the willingness of the Lancaster festival audience to take in acts which are more arty than party, the pair thrived on the healthy crowd watching them and put in as much power as their music would allow.  In fact, as the finished the set with the crowd in front of them rather than at the back of the courtyard, it seemed like they had grown a couple of inches through confidence.

The Saturday night headliner on this Chris Glaba Memorial Stage was Anna Calvi, and the set she provided was intense, brooding, and absolutely magnificent.  With a stage drowned in moody red lights, it was the perfect backdrop to her perfect solo performance. I had not seen Anna Calvi play before, but there is no way I’m not going to watch her again, and again, and again.  She was hypnotic and masterful, and whether it was her bluesy guitar playing or beautifully dark voice that was filling the moment, the audience was eating out of her hand.

Whilst the BBC Introducing stage was designed for an audience willing to take risks, the Main Stage was set up for people to have fun.  The earlier bands in the day were there to lift spirits with the likes of Show Hawk Duo playing acoustic guitar versions of dance music classics; and the later part of the day was filled with acts guaranteed to get people going.  That’s not to say it was a succession of safety first picks with one act in particular standing out for their daring.

I assume that the organisers of Highest Point must love Stealing Sheep as much as I do because there is no way you would put them on a bill if you wanted to encourage a singsong.  But if you want to blow people’s minds with an act that they are likely to have never seen before, then this artistic three-piece are the best choice possible. With their heavily choreographed performing, and easy on the ears tracks, you are not going to come away from watching Stealing Sheep feeling unhappy.  It might not be what you want to indulge in with a cider in one hand and a portion of chips in the other, but they are still going to grip you and slowly draw you in. This was literally true as the audience sneaked closer and closer to the stage as the set progressed so that by the time we reached set closer Shut Eye, everybody not sitting blissfully on the hill was stood underneath the band dancing.  And they were in a good shape to dance given the mid-set minute of Gig Yoga we had. Namaste Stealing Sheep. I have said over and over and over that regardless of what bill they play on, Stealing Sheep are always the greatest act that performs there. And Williamson Park in Lancaster was yet another location that this rang true.

The Friday night headliner was another all-female three piece alliterative dance act, but Sister Sledge are from completely the other end of the spectrum.  With their disco classics, which even the youngsters in the crowd know the words to, you can always be guaranteed a fun time by watching them. Even when I slipped out early to drive to my hotel, I could hear the crowd singing along to them about half a mile away.  It was probably the same earlier in the day as one of the true legends of music, Grandmaster Flash, took to the stage to drop crowd pleasing record after crowd pleasing record, remember the numerous friends in the industry he has seen slip this mortal coil, and fill the floor with energy.

The Saturday night headliner was the latest gig in the comeback of The Zutons celebrating the legacy of their debut album Who Killed….  This gig had me both excited and terrified. This was one of my favourite ever albums, but a band making a comeback always fills me with dread.  I’d say I was feeling relieved by the quality of their performance, but actually that would be unfair. I was absolutely buzzing at how good The Zutons were.  

Tight, confident and filled with personality, it was as fresh as it had been when I was younger. In fact, I was impressed with the level that The Zutons were able to push their songs so that rather than churn through the recorded versions of the tracks, they performed them like a headliner should.

Feeder have been around longer than The Zutons even and their Saturday evening set was a reminder to even someone like me who grew up with them being on every festival bill under the sun of what a catalogue of tunes they have.  It might seem like semantics, but as their set progressed and they drew in an ever expanding crowd, I kept on thinking “I’d forgotten they’d done this one” with pretty much every track rather than “I didn’t know they had done this”.  It was surprising that a band renowned for mostly for the line of “drink cider from a lemon” had so many songs which brought a roar from the crowd from the opening guitar riffs.

There was something inherently beautiful in the simplicity of Lucy Spraggan’s set.  Primarily her voice and her acoustic guitar are the only elements that you notice when she plays.  At least musically anyway. The most dominant aspect is undoubtedly her personality in which she makes songs about the importance of her wife be without cheese, songs about mental difficulties feel comfortably relatable to all (not just us who share those times), and the song she sang originally on X Factor last night (Beer Fear) seem fun rather than tacky.

The last word on Highest Point Festival 2019 has to go to a band who are known for one of the most evocative and fitting TV themes of all time, Alabama 3. Woke Up This Morning was one of the stand out elements in The Sopranos, a show that changed the art form of television massively. Whenever they play it is always the highlight for the crowd, and this gig was no exception.  Sadly, Highest Point marked the end of an era as it turned out to be the last gig that founding member Rev. D Love (Jake Black) played with the unit as he passed away a few days after the event. He was one in a million and had burn to shine.

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