New York Johnny and Still Burning both take the day off work to enjoy Day One of the North Easts very own music festival.
So the FnS team arrive at Wizard around about 2pm on the Friday and set about checking over the site and getting our bearings. It doesn’t take too long as there’s not too much to it. Main stage one end, small fairground the other end with a road running up the middle between the two. The smaller Banshee stage is in a tent on one side with the Snafu dance tent at the other up by the fair. There’s a small kids area at the back of the Banshee stage and assorted food and drink stalls, the bar and assorted festival tat stalls line either side of the central area which has a number of tables and benches dotted around for weary legs to be rested. Compact is the word I suppose.
Still Burning and I comment about the worrying lack of people here so close to kick-off time. However, things kick off bang on time at 3pm with the intriguingly named Celtallica. I had naively thought that this lot may have treated me to a bagpipe and bodhran version of Master Of Puppets or something but this wasn’t the case. Other than the ironic play on the name, the band has no other links to the metal gods. Instead, they simply provide a contemporary set of traditional Scottish music to the handful of people dotted around the arena, mainly young parents dancing with their toddlers. I satisfy myself that the sound system and engineers in the Arena are pretty much on the money then head off in search of something a bit more rockin’.
Next up on the main stage is The Travelling Band who have apparently, erm, travelled up from Manchester for a return visit to the festival. They start their set with a cover of an old blues standard, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s One Dime Blues. The arrangement is stunning, with great vocal harmonies matched by great interplay amongst the musicians. It’s just a shame there’s not more people here to witness it. Probably a hundred at most, sparsely dotted around in wee clumps on the grass. It’s a great shame because the band are in fine form, and their expansive alt-country sounds ideal for lazing around on the grass on a sunny afternoon. Well, maybe not quite sunny, but warm and dry at least.
The numbers have swelled a little by the time Glasgow rockers Gun unfurl their backdrop and take to the stage. By now, there’s an encampment of fans a few deep gathering along the front of the stage, as well as the little pockets on picnic blankets further back in the arena. Gun may have lost their original vocalist Mark Rankin along the way but this current line-up, now fronted by one of the band’s Gizzi brothers, has lost none of the swagger from the early days as they ably trawl their way through a selection of rockers old and new. With just enough pop in their rock to give them a broad appeal, the band soon has the crowd singing along with the likes of Steal Your Fire and debut single Better Days. They’re on excellent form and provoke a great reaction from the swelling numbers at the front. The biggest cheer of the day of course is reserved for Word Up, a song they took from Cameo and made their own. Today they play it with all the swagger of old and it goes down a storm. They’re the first highlight of the day.
There’s an influx of youngsters to the arena as the stage hands set things up for the arrival of Jon Fratelli, swelling the crowd so it starts to feel more like a festival now. To be honest, I was unaware that he was going solo now, having been put off his previous band by over exposure to that song, so was approaching this set with somewhat mixed feelings. I was intrigued to see two drumkits being placed onstage, Jon’s name emblazoned on the twin kick-drum skins. I think to get the most from this set up, you need to tailor the material to suit it a la Glitter Band or Adam’s Ants. Things start promisingly with the glam stomper She’s My Shaker, the simple rhythm really maximising the effect of the twin kit. It really sounded great. However, after that, apart from looking good, to my mind the second kit was largely superfluous. That’s not a reflection on the quality of the songs Mr Fratelli treated us to, just a personal observation. In fact, I was mightily impressed with the set. Fratelli is obviously a talented lad and has a healthy dose of “star quality” to him as a performer too. He looks good and is just cocky enough to impress but not annoy. The set drew from both Fratellis albums as well as Jon’s current solo offering and I was both surprised and impressed. He can play a bit, Mr F and his cracked vocal suits the material to a T. Second highlight of the day.
The penultimate band of the day on the main stage was The Magic Numbers and the arena has a healthy sized crowd in it, though far from being packed. Testament to the lasting impression The Magic Numbers have made on the public consciousness since they burst onto the scene with their 60s California influenced indie-pop sound back in 2005. Since then, the band has broadened their sound somewhat and the bulk of tonight’s set is drawn from their latest album, The Runaway. The deft musicianship is still very much intact as are the sweet vocal harmonies, but the songs themselves are darker, more downbeat that the early happy-go-lucky material. There’s as much of a nod towards The Flaming Lips as there is to the Mamas And Papas. As the sun sets over the back of the stage, it’s all very atmospheric. Of course, it’s not all sombre and serious as sunny singles Forever Lost and She Don’t Love Me Like You remind us. With the jangly guitars and syrupy sweet vocal lines, these songs are perfect pop, infectious and uplifting. Unsurprisingly they go down a treat with the Wizard crowd who voice their approval with gusto. There’s one final song before the band take their leave to a great reception and strangely, as soon as the summery music is over, a chill breeze seems to blow through the arena and I have to pull my jumper up round my neck.
There’s not too long to wait before the iconic Stranglers logo is hung at the back of the stage and the drum risers and keyboard racks wheeled into place. A cheer goes up as the lights go down and the haunting strains of Waltzinblack swirl from the PA ushering the band onstage. They’re quickly into their positions and straight into a rocking I Feel Like A Wog and, from my vantage point beside the mixing desk, I can see that the crowd at the front is really bouncing in time with the music. The sound is excellent. All instruments distinct with Baz Warne’s vocals crisp and clear above them.
Peaches, with its unmistakeable lead bassline, is despatched early in the set to a great response and it’s followed by (Get A) Grip (On Yourself). Any concern I have about this being a festival hits set is dispelled as they launch into a new song, Freedom Is Insane. Starting slowly with keyboard effects like waves on a beach, JJ it changes tempo half way through into an old-school Stranglers rocker. If this is indicative of the new material they’re writing, I look forward to the next album when it arrives.
Always The Sun is up next giving the crowd the chance to sing along on the chorus, before the one everybody knows, Golden Brown, gets trotted out. Baz gets a rest from the guitar for this one as he tenderly sings the lyrics, only playing on the lightly picked solo. Disappointingly, almost as soon as the song is finished, people start to trickle away. As the simple drum intro signals the start of Nice And Sleazy, Baz asks we wish Jet Black a happy birthday tonight. (I later discover that it’s his 73rd!!) It’s always been a favourite Stranglers tune of mine and tonight it’s played to perfection. The non-hits set continues with Tramp and Baroque Bordello getting a rare outing, keeping the hardcore fans at the front happy. They’re even more pleased as they play Threatened later in the set.
Their latest album Suite XVI is represented by a stunning Spectre Of Love and album closer Relentless, while only Lost Control is featured from the previous one, Norfolk Coast. The atmosphere is soured somewhat as some idiot catches Baz on the chest with a full pint of (hopefully) beer. He continues the song without a blink but, when it’s done he announces “Great shot. Ya cunt! Try that again and I’ll come looking for you.” Perhaps this is the reason he disparagingly changes the opening lyrics of Sweden to “Let me tell you about Scotland…” I can’t say I blame him. In the eight hours or so I’ve been here today, I’ve seen more falling-about-drunk people than I did in five whole days at the Rebellion punk fest in Blackpool. More than I’ve seen at any other festival in fact. Bizarre.
Nuclear Device is the surprise set closer but, with several notable songs not having been aired yet, it’s obvious there will be an encore. After a couple of minutes cheering, the band returns to the stage. All Day And All Of The Night gets a great crowd response and a mass outbreak of dancing right up to the back of the crowd. Duchess is next up and, while it’s played well, it’s somehow unsatisfying. Maybe the weakest song of the evening. There’s another short break before the band come back for the final encore, treating us to a wonderful version of Hanging Around before JJ bangs the strings on his bass before a spidery run down the strings kicks off a final No More Heroes which gets everyone dancing again and shouting out the chorus. It’s the perfect end to a decent days entertainment.
Over at the Banshee Stage, there was a stream of pretty much nondescript indie-pop acts from the south of Scotland split up only by a Johnny Cash tribute act, Hard Cash & The Folsom Four, who drew the biggest crowd of the night to the tent. They’re OK although I’ve seen better. Props must go to The Crayons for putting a bit of effort into their set and at least trying to be a little different. I’d also give a shout to The Shores who, despite drawing the short straw and being on first (and looking like they were about twelve years old), held their own against the rest of the bill and got my feet tapping.
The sound in the tent was generally good across the day but the attendance was pretty poor throughout. Also, everyone left the tent between each band as the soundchecking was going on so every band was starting their set to an empty tent. Not good, for either the band or the few hardy souls who came in to watch them. One other thing. When the break between bands on both stages coincided, which happened a few times over the day, there wasn’t much to do. Maybe I noticed it more than most as I wasn’t drinking due to having to drive home, but maybe a third stage, timed specifically to cover those breaks might mean better crowds all round. Food for thought maybe?
Words by New York Johnny and pics by Still Burning.