Sarah Poulten reveals the ups-and-downs of the Cowley carnival
Hey Sholay have only a twenty five minute set in which to impress, and waste a good fifth of it tinkering with the same buttons and wires they’ve been fiddling with for a quarter of an hour already. But their outfit choices entertain in the interim, with checked shirts, swathes of clashing pastels and the odd Cliff Richard t-shirt making up a motley assortment. Hey Sholay are not only musicians, but also filmmakers and artists; this overabundance of creative appetite is evident in their music. They essentially play indie pop, but with psychedelic, shoe gaze and experimental elements thrown in. Their set starts off promisingly. ‘Burning’ is all rippling keyboards and shimmering multi-layers, whilst ‘Wishbone’ builds from an elusive and subtle verse into a raucous chorus. But they, presumably, then get bored. Microphones and guitars are neglected whilst they play with their collection of musical toys instead. After tolerating this game for a bit, I begin to wish they’d just get back to singing. With melodies left to float by the wayside, we too get bored and head off to listen to Bastille instead.
Without a full length album to their name Bastille, a.k.a. Dan Smith and backing band, have still garnered much critical praise and established a fan-base of post-adolescents wearing the skull masks featured in their ‘Flaws’ video. In stark contrast to the nonchalant pint-swigging onlookers watching Hey Sholay, here in the O2 the crowd are going crazy. But whilst the audience are frenetic the band themselves sound a little…flat. Bastille’s EPs are filled with lush, energetic songs, but here the frenzied ‘Icarus’, majestic ‘Flaws’ and throbbing ‘Of the Night’ sound hollow and dull. With his hair spiked up as if he’s been electrocuted and then dragged through a bush backwards, Smith bounces around the stage like a kid on a sugar high. Yet his songs cannot be said to do the same. Far from reaching the heights heard on the records, they struggle to even take off. I finally realise that the levels are all wrong. With the bass racked up to the max, everything else becomes muddled. Poor mixing hinders what should have been a great set.
Rounding off Gathering’s offerings at the O2 are Dry the River. The East London band look like an emo Kings of Leon fronted by a choirboy who’s raided his hipster older brother’s wardrobe. Musically, they play a folk rock hybrid. Imagine taking away Mumford & Sons’ banjos and mandolins and giving them electric guitars with the amps turned up to the max instead. Lead singer Liddle’s delicate tenor soars into extended falsetto passages, with the rest of the band turning his vocals into an emotion-wracked chorus. But it’s not all Christian guilt and broken hearts as they excitedly announce that they’ve got a brass section joining them on stage for the first time. Unfortunately they make little difference. As with Bastille, Dry the River’s music sometimes blurs into a wall of sound, swallowing the brass up. No matter, there’s enough variation without the added trumpets and horns. Tender passages are interspersed with gloriously heavier breakdowns. Shredding their guitars and backlit by an orange glow, the band look like demonic angels. But they soon switch back, bravely stepping away from their microphones to play acoustically. It should be fantastic. If we were in a cathedral. Or at least a venue that wasn’t half-populated by jagerbomb-chugging revellers eager for Propaganda to start. In fact I’m sure it does sound fantastic. But I can’t hear it. Drowned out both by the people talking and those shouting at them to “Shut up”, Dry the River persevere on, wincing in the knowledge that they’re playing only to the twenty people standing at the barrier. They don’t learn their lesson. Their next party trick is frustratingly more of the same, performing in the midst of the crowd themselves. We stand just a few people back from their intimate circle, yet are only privileged with faint strains of their vocals. Their final song struggles to compensate for this let down, and we leave feeling far less elated than we ought to be.
Our next mission is to infiltrate the East Oxford Community Centre. With the festival presumably unable to afford the fee to oust Propaganda from the O2, some of Gathering’s best acts are oddly confined to a tiny room with a struggling PA system. After pushing our way through the crowds, we finally get to see Lucy Rose. If you’ve not heard of her, you should have. My friend aptly analogises: “She’s to Bombay Bicycle Club what Laura Marling is to Noah and the Whale”. Whilst she and Marling share the same haircut and folk genre, Lucy Rose looks and sounds like she’s having more fun. NME likens her album to a soundtrack to The Great British Bake Off. She worries about the people left queuing outside in the rain, is genuinely chuffed that people are singing along, and sells homemade jam and her own blend of tea at gigs. Some may find her a tad too saccharine, but her songs have an intelligence and restraint that undercut this sweetness. Her backing band give her music a fullness and bombast and, despite technical issues, she completes a set of fragile but gutsy songs. At times heartbreaking and poignant, at others warm and endearing, Lucy Rose provides a cheering and charming end to the night.