An Urban Glastonbury? Sheffield's Tramlines Festival Reviewed

It's a free festival in a city currently undergoing a huge musical resurgence, but does it deliver on its owners claims to be an inner-city version of the Worthy Farm institution?
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It's a free festival in a city currently undergoing a huge musical resurgence, but does it deliver on its owners claims to be an inner-city version of the Worthy Farm institution?

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What makes a festival a festival? Music? Certainly.  Alcohol? Yeah, obvs.  A massive field in the countryside somewhere? Well, traditionally yes – but that tradition is changing.

Sheffield’s Tramlines is the latest addition to the growing number of city festivals.  The past decade has seen the likes of The Camden Crawl, Live At Leeds and Brighton’s Great Escape bring the party to the urban environment, with multiple venues across a city linking up to host weekend-long celebrations of bands ‘n’ booze.  The Steel City jumped on t’bandwagon in 2009, and Tramlines – described by its directors as an “urban Glastonbury” – has snowballed in size and profile since then, winning Best Metropolitan Festival at the UK Festival Awards last year.

So how does this festival vary from its competitors? The big difference is the ticket price – at Tramlines, there isn’t one.  Marketed as “Sheffield’s free for all music festival,” punters simply turn up on the day – or days – and queue for whichever events they want to see.  It’s a ploy which has proved successful in luring people to the city – there were 155,000 visitors in 2011 alone.  The only drawback is those queues do sometimes get a bit long – and at the Main Stage, or for gigs by hotly-tipped up-and-coming bands in smaller venues, they can be well over an hour.

The weather outside may have been miserable, but in here it was pure summer vibes.

But anyway – what about Tramlines 2012? Was it any good? Is that non-existent entry fee still a bargain? Well, with We Are Scientists, Roots Manuva and Alt-J as just some of the headliners, the answer is – as they say in Yorkshire – aye, lad.


Friday

And so to the first watering hole, The Great Gatsby, to watch Mother’s Ruin .  The foursome play angular indie-rock akin to Gang Of Four or Maximo Park.  They have a suitably monochrome dress code, and a general air of moodiness to match – especially bass-playing singer Tom O’Hara, whose intense stare was straight outta Kubrick.  Some songs showed promise – especially the gloomy soundscape of ‘Rehabilitation’ – but others fell a little flat.



Whispering Dolls frontman Joe Hudson shares two traits with Sir Mick Jagger – an ability to make any crowd eat out of the palm of his hand, and lips which seem to be made of latex.  He used both of these things to great effect at The Forum, whipping the audience into frenzy with his arm-waving antics, and wrapping his gob around his band’s gutsy blues numbers, like the terrifically raucous ‘Play With Fire’.

Sheffield’s Seize The Chair have a Liquorice Allsorts approach to music – a pick ‘n’ mix bag of tastes, textures and styles.  Their set at The Forum on Friday took in krautrock influences, jerky art-punk and, in the case of drummer James, rampant toplessness.  All of these things went down a storm, with the first crowd-surfer appearing by song five, a mosh pit emerging by song six and people literally being dragged out of the venue by their ankles by song seven.

The clock ticked into the AM, and local DJ/producerMuskman Benji  took to the decks upstairs at DQ.  His garage-and-grime-based set saw him spinning classics (Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Jus’ A Rascal’, Artful Dodger’s ‘Moving Too Fast’) alongside newer sounds.  The weather outside may have been miserable, but in here it was pure summer vibes.

Saturday

And, lo – the sun, verily, did appear.  By Saturday morning, the clouds had parted and the city got hotter than the Olympic flame.  Today was the day when summer finally arrived in Sheffield, and it made the seven cold, grey months which preceded it seem almost – almost – worthwhile.

Warming up for Ms Dynamite on the Main Stage was Sheffield polymath Danny Beck, who spun The Bangles, The Strokes and – almost literally – everything in between.  A DJ/promoter/graphic designer, Danny has his fingers in more pies than Sweeny Todd’s Mrs Lovett – remember the name, because this boy’s going places.

Leeds rockers Black Mothplay “mothic horror”...not a typical July soundtrack, perhaps, but with song titles as brilliantly fun as ‘Chicken Shit’ and ‘Spit Out Your Teeth’, it didn’t matter.

Over at The Leadmill, it was time for more local talent in the form of Vegas Child.  Recently reformed after a short hiatus, their melodic indie-punk is making waves in the city once again.  Singer Danny’s voice is warm and passionate, while songs such as ‘Photograph’ and anthem-in-the-making ‘Crossed Wires’ fell on very appreciative ears.

Leeds rockers Black Moth play “mothic horror” (arf, arf).  They’re definitely dark enough to fit that description – replace Moth with Sabbath and you’ll have an idea of their sound.  Their set at DQ was heavy on the doomy vibes – not a typical July soundtrack, perhaps, but with song titles as brilliantly fun as ‘Chicken Shit’ and ‘Spit Out Your Teeth’, it didn’t matter.

Wet Nuns  play blues with the brakes off.  Championed by the likes of Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders – who wore a Nuns t-shirt on his group’s most recent Jonathan Ross TV show appearance – the Sheffield duo are on the up.  At DQ, singer Rob and drummer Alexis played songs such as the irresistible ‘Heavens Below’, and at such volume and with such lasciviousness that it kind of made you want to go and have a shower afterwards.  Filthy, in the best possible sense.


Sunday

As always, numbers dwindled on Sunday, as those who were facing the prospect of a return to the daily grind on Monday stayed at home.  The rest-the wasters, the unemployed and the over-enthusiastic- nursed sore heads from the previous evening’s antics and soldiered on.  The sun even had the good grace to stay out and join them.

Outside Sheffield City Hall on the New Music Stage, Let’s Buy Happiness had come over all polite.  “I won’t swear, but this is a song about someone who’s... MUGGED you over,” said singer Sarah Hall.  “See how P.C I’m being?!” The Newcastle quintet had the tunes to match their good manners – their chiming, off-kilter pop songs like ‘Fast Fast’ and ‘Woodrings’ were, frankly, perfect.

Ask most music-loving folk round ‘ere, and they’ll tell you that Mad Colours are the best thing to come out of Rotherham since The Chuckle Brothers.  The trio’s take on art-pop is a messy one, but scratch beneath the dirt and you’ll find some fabulous melodies, like those of ‘Antique Guerilla’ and ‘Hot Wet Sticky Flowers’.  At their show at SOYO, they bashed those tunes out with ferocity, before unleashing 'Sailor Boy', their best cut by far.  Bassist Del – wearing tiny paisley shorts and little else – performed an elaborate mid-song-stage-dive-singalong across the hands and bodies of the amassed throng, microphone in hand.  Clambering back onstage afterwards, he deadpanned: “I think I’m pregnant.”  That’s Tramlines for you – defying the laws of nature, physics and decency since ’09.

Putting on any large-scale city-wide event is a massive undertaking, but a music festival that costs nothing to attend? It’s ambitious to say the least.  It’s all the more impressive, then, that the organisers and partners of Tramlines have managed to keep crime, violence and anti-social incidents under control throughout the festival’s short history – figures aren’t in for this year yet, but crime rates actually fell during the first event, so the record is good.  And though there was a small contingent of city-dwellers who were, shall we say, less-than-desirable attendees – basically, vagabonds, n’eer-do-wells and, erm, crackheads – even they managed to behave and keep themselves to themselves

The most impressive aspect of Tramlines is the overarching spirit of the thing – and that’s something that can only come from the people who visit it.  This year, and in the three which came before it, there has been a genuine festival atmosphere in the air – a weekend’s worth of undeniable good vibes.  Walking down the city centre’s Division Street on Saturday, past children blowing bubbles, teenagers whizzing around excitedly and middle-aged couples smiling at you broadly in the afternoon sun, Sheffield felt a bit like a latter-day Woodstock.  And just because you were surrounded by 20th century architecture instead of green fields didn’t make it feel any less so.   The hippy ideals of peace, love and unity transported to an industrial capital in the north of England? It shouldn’t work, but it does, and it did.


Adam has got a blog, which you can read here

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