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Two days at the races
Prodigy, Oasis, a cast of thousands and you - the full story of Witnness 2002
The Hot Press Newsdesk, 31 Jul 2002
So, it’s finally here. After what seems like months of build up, Witnness 3 – arguably the best festival line-up ever assembled in Ireland – is upon us. Things, however, are not going well. The queues to get on site are horrendous, causing grief to both bands and punters alike, and things at the festival are not much better. The open air Upstage and the covered Dance and Rising stages are waterlogged, unable to open and plunging the schedule into chaos.
Several bands come a cropper during it all. Creative Controle play their set anyway, despite the fact that no-one is allowed in to see them. Berkeley, Desert Hearts and The Parkinsons all have the biggest gigs of their careers pulled. Decal are shifted to accommodate the rather dour Electric Soft Parade. Gemma Hayes arrives after an eighteen hour drive from Switzerland to find she has no show to play. Likewise, The Bluetones, who arrive late. Hundred Reasons are another major casualty. All is not going well and the festival has a slightly surreal atmosphere, with thousands of people hanging round with not much to do.
Undeterred, we charge across the field – well, we plod, but allow me some poetic licence here – to where Turn are getting this Witnness off the ground.
Sharply dressed in their trademark black suits, Ollie, Gavin and Ian are in rip-roaring form. Gavin looks like he was born to spend two hours a night on stages such as this, possessed as he is of that indefinable ‘rock star’ gene.
Frontman Ollie Cole is in fine fettle, engaging the already sizeable crowd in an early afternoon singalong to ‘Queen Of My Heart’, and making numerous bottom references during the course of their set. Turn are getting better all the time, so much so that even the majestic ‘Beretta’ is overshadowed by their new songs.
Jimmy Eat World are the first real draw of the day and succeed in giving spirits a much needed lift. Although the joyous pop bent of their records is given a bit of a battering in these conditions, they give us what we need right now – catchy songs played at high speed and plenty to jump around in the mud to.
Over in the Café Rising tent, Superskin are providing more rock, this time of an old school variety. Watching the headbanging, pointing, feet on monitors and – yes – devil signs, it could be Monsters Of Rock from the late ’80s all over again. Full marks though for approaching the whole thing like it was a headline slot on the main stage as opposed to a couple of hundred soggy onlookers.
The sun eventually comes out and, unsurprisingly, it comes out for The Hives because, hey, everyone loves The Hives don’t they? Even God. And it can’t be denied that they do give the whole thing a massive lift. The entertainment factor is huge, not just in Howlin’ Pelle’s uncanny Mick Jagger impression but from the whole crew. The between song banter is great, the moves perfectly choreographed and the crowd whipped up to fever pitch. But as the set wears on, their shortcomings start to become more and more obvious. These aren’t songs as such, more a jumbled collection of half ideas and if you don’t buy into the whole thing, the effect is far from as devastating as many would make out. If they could repeat the awesome ‘Hate To Say I Told You So’ at least a couple of times then maybe it would be a different matter, but at the moment it’s the only time when they live up to the hype. That one trick pony is starting to look a little wobbly on its legs.
Oddest billing of the day has to be Sandra Bernhard in the Rising Tent. Much of her set seems to consist of some sort of free form improvisation over equally unstructured jazz noodling. She lectures the audience at length about the nature of love before berating them for being drunk. Then she starts to sing and the tent starts to empty.
We make our way to the Café Tent, where Derry’s Clearshot are already in exuberant form, blasting out spiky, guitar-driven punk with big shouty choruses. The kids up front are indulging in logs of good old-fashioned jumping around, despite the large orange ‘NO MOSHING’ signs. The trio on-stage are expending even more energy than their fans, though, with their taut, three-minute wig-outs. The guitar nips and tucks around big, meaty basslines and a punishing drum pattern, while they still retain an inherent tunefulness, such as recent single, ‘Keep Her In A Box’, with more syllables per second than your average rap rant.
At the same time, we have it from a reliable source that the Rising Stage turned into hip-hop heaven as Peaches joined Gonzalez for a seriously funked-up finale, complete with smoking jackets, enormous fake cigars and numerous coloured sparklers.
While bludgeoning guitar music is definitely the order of the day, a few more adventurous souls are providing an alternative. Stripped of their inventive visual aspect, The Warlords Of Pez aren’t much to look at but still deal in a neat line of electronica, even if it does get a little too close to Ozric Tentacles at times. Quite when The Beta Band turned into such an effective live force is unclear, but they are one of the day’s surprise highlights.
On paper, an hour of Sonic Youth playing mostly their new album in a tent ankle deep with muck does not sound like anyone’s idea of the perfect festival experience. In actuality it was one of the weekend’s highlights. Murray Street landmarks like ‘The Empty Page’ and ‘Disconnection Notice’ sounded a hair harder live; lucid and hallucinogen sharp, while the 20-foot waves of guitar extrapolations rivalled Godspeed for end-of-the-world ambience. All this plus oldies like ‘Bull In The Heather’ and ‘Kool Thing’, with Kim Gordon playing the post-rock Patti Ciccone. One sexy mother.
Desert Hearts, undeterred by the fact that they didn’t get to play on the Upstage due to the rain, instead take to the TV stage for an extremely short but loud set. Both the guitar and bass make ample use of distortion pedals as they tear into songs from their brilliant Let’s Get Worse album, alternating between dreamy indie soundscapes and bursts of pure white noise.
The good news is that Ian Brown is back making some of the best music of his life, post-Roses anyway. And he’s got the right band to help the material sparkle. The bad news is that he’s still crucifying it live, bellowing his way through a set that consequently is robbed of the subtleties that have informed his best solo work. That he still cuts a charismatic and enigmatic figure is undeniable and to the sizeable gathering he is very much the hero, but it’s all a bit too painful.
By the time The Frames take to the Main Stage, the sun has decided to join us for the first hint that there might be a real summer on the cards. As one punter remarks, you have to thank the weather for coming along to see the gig.
Hansard & Co. are that rarest of musical beasts, a band equally at home in an intimate 100-seater venue or playing to 40,000 people in a field. Standards like ‘Revelate’, ‘Pavement Tune’ and ‘God Bless Mom’ are joined by a Nirvana cover and a kicking take on Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’, where Colm Mac Con Iomaire’s violin amply fills in for the synth frills of the original.
At one point, a beaming Glen Hansard urges everyone to “engage with the mud” if we’re to really enjoy the weekend. To prove his point, he leaps from the stage into the security area between band and punters, and proceeds to roll around until his t-shirt is a lovely shade of shite-brown. Then, still smiling, he bounds back on stage for a rousing finale, including a stunning take on ‘Fitzcarraldo’. Brilliant.
The Frames are nothing if not industrious and immediatley make their way to the TV Tent, where David Kitt’s young brother, Robbie joins them for a tune or two, the band eventually breaking into an impromptu version of ‘Robbie Wonderland’, before a suitably storm-laden ‘Santa Maria’ sails into view.
Given their roots in the world of DIY punk labels and clubs, it’s ironic that Green Day do the big gig thing so spectacularly well. This is a consummate lesson in how to do a festival right. Their set has everything – pyrotechnics, humour, a brass section dressed as chickens and bees. It’s also stuffed full of Grade A hits, each one guaranteed to produce a mass pogo from the huge crowd. Billy Joe waves the national flag, leads a chant of ‘Olé Olé’ and encourages the mud flinging before signing off with a Billy Bragg-style dash through ‘Time Of Your Life’.
Foo Fighters are one of the hippest rock bands on the planet right now and it’s easy to forget just how many classic songs are in their repertoire. Until you hear them played back to back, that is. ‘The Only One’, ‘Generator’, the rapturously received ‘This Is A Call’: they are all present and correct. And the band is giving it serious socks.
In fact, Grohl has matured into an engaging frontman, even if his very droll between-song banter contrasts with his energetic performance, as he tries to convince us of his Irish ancestry and remember “that weird blood thing” that he had for breakfast – black pudding, Dave.
There is no let-up in the pace: this is straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll from its spiritual home in America, served up with few frills but enough energy to give the Duracell bunny a run for his money. Grolh is a denim-clad bundle of adrenaline as he works his way though a mixture of new material and old classics like the brilliant ‘Monkey Wrench’, which are lapped up by thousands of adoring fans.
As they leave, a huge fireworks display explodes into life over the stage, illuminating an already glowing arena as faces turn skywards in wonder… and there’s still The Prodigy to go.
And there we were thinking that Andrew WK had Gig of the Year sewn up. It’s 12 noon, the hangover is pounding away like a hyperactive jackhammer and, fucking hell, what’s that on the Main Stage? Dressed in matching Southern Baptist Minister smocks, the 24-piece Polyphonic Spree are a gloriously demented amalgam of Mike Oldfield, Brian Wilson, Grandaddy and The Manson Family. No, really.
Fresh from their triumphant Meltdown appearance - David Bowie is a big fan – the Dallas outfit do things with kettle drums, cellos, French horns and tubular bells that you just know Brian Wilson would approve of. With 10 backing singers, it’s a big, multi-layered wall of sweet, sweet noise which is about to come your way courtesy of a new Fierce Panda album. Like White Stripes last year, Polyphonic Spree are the Witnness unknowns who won’t be for much longer.
Next up on the big ’un is Maria Doyle Kennedy who draws a sizeable crowd to her lunchtime set. Doyle is in fine voice, concentrating on the heavier, almost Led Zep end of her material. It works well enough, but is eclipsed by the soaring balladry of ‘Stars’. A deserved triumph.
With their reputation preceeding them, The Libertines face a stern test but breeze through it in a blaze of energy and attitude. The punk and new wave reference points are clear, and in truth they have nowhere near enough good songs to really stick in the mind, but for now it’s an entertaining victory of style over content.
Rival Schools have a hell of a US punk history to live up to, but shoulder the burden with ease. Their Upstage show is a mid-afternoon highlight and a shock for those expecting an hour of earnest, chin-stroking hardcore. Arms are waved from side to side, beachballs kicked inexpertly into the crowd and the whole thing is a celebration as opposed to a chore. None of which should draw attention away the music which – as best typified on current single ‘Good Things’ – distils their not inconsiderable experience into a melodic yet aggressive whole.
The Redneck Manifesto’s bone crunching four piece noise machine is in full devastating effect. Their scorching instrumentals 'Please Don't Ask Us What We Think Of Your Band' and 'Sweet Pot' are the mid afternoon kick up the hole so many of us badly need. A new composition is dedicated to everyone over in the signing tent by Richie and awarded with the provisional title 'Suck Our Fucking Cocks'. It’s a refreshing revelation to see TRM triumph at their biggest gig to date, playing to an audience several times larger than the small but very dedicated coterie that currently follow them. Expect those ranks to swell significantly at forthcoming shows.
After two days largely spent in the company of sweaty men in t-shirts with guitars, the appearance of Gwen Steffani introduces a much needed note of glamour and the first sight of a proper pop star. As with Green Day, No Doubt have honed their festival set to the finest of degrees. What falters on record works a lot better live, boosted by the exuberant performance of the extended band. Steffani puts in more than her fair share of effort, covering every inch of the stage before scaling the scaffolding. With a closing run of ‘Don’t Speak’, ‘Hey Baby’, ‘Just A Girl’ and ‘Spiderwebs’, victory is ensured.
The ‘no moshing, no crowd surfing’ rules receive their biggest battering during Californian ska punks Less Than Jake’s smash and grab raid on the Upstage. The purists would probably disapprove, but this is huge fun – from the bouncing brass section to the frantic crowd, who throw anything they can get their hands on into the air (including beachballs, plastic bottles, the now ubiquitous mud and each other). Music to drink beer while underage to.
Coming on stage to a sun setting magnificently in the sky, energy levels are not exactly high for Gomez and their set never really takes off. Blame it on a long day for both band and audience, but it’s something of a non-starter. Their bluesy ramblings drift pleasantly enough across the field but it proves all too easy to head off in search of more rewarding pleasures.
Damien Rice, meanwhile, is receiving what can only be described as a hero’s welcome in a rammed Rising tent. Despite a year which has had more than its fair share of highlights, Rice looks visibly blown away as each song is greeted with a roar from the assembled throng. It’s all very reminiscent of The Frames last year, a defining moment in a career already on the rise.
If any band would seem doomed to struggle on a sunny summer’s evening it would surely be Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Their decision to wear all black on a black stage may make them a touch hard to pick out from a distance, but thankfully there are no such problems with their music, which seems to have gained an individuality previously lacking. Certainly all those thoughts of late eighties British indie bands are banished as ‘Whatever Happened To My Rock ’n’ Roll (Punk Rock Song)’ and ‘Spread Your Love’ fill the open air stage with a mass of feedback and droning guitars.
The sun’s still beating down, we’re mind-expanded and Primal Scream are on the Main Stage. Life really doesn’t get any better. Lined up alongside each other in battle formation, the Scream Team tear their way through an hour-long set that favours their last two albums. And, of course, their new one, Evil Heat, which is represented by the gloriously trippy ‘Autobahn 66’, the Iggy-tastic ‘Sick City’ and ‘Miss Lucifer’ which might just provide them with their biggest hit since ‘Rocks’. Which, fact fans, is the only pre-Vanishing Point tune that gets an airing. Not a problem if you’re a diehard, but a bit of a bummer for the floating voter who is denied Screamadelica’s holy triumvirate of hits. What we do get, though, are Kevin Shields-driven versions of ‘Accelerator’ and ‘Swastika Eyes’ that rattle yer’ fillings. Like the booze company that brought them over, the Scream are pure genius.
Only Gary Lightbody could badger not just one, but two Scottish legends to share a stage with his ever-growing bunch of musical vagabounds, The Reindeer Section. Consistent to the pop explosion of beautiful starburst melodies on Son Of Evil Reindeer, this is a quantum leap or two up from the delicate lo-fi sit down affairs of the first album. 'You Are My Joy' is a towering moment. Gary is getting totally carried away with the intimate euphoria of it all, bounding around the small stage strumming his heart out like a man completely possesed by love.
Eschewing his solo Glastonbury format, Badly Drawn Boy has arrived with a full band in tow and an audience worshipping his every move. Gough is, as ever, a joy to watch – knocking his mic stand over before saluting the faithful with a pint in hand. The muscular band allow him to continue his Springsteen transformation before our very eyes, even reproducing the famous back to the audience, guitar aloft stance. The difference being of course that, instead of the bombast of ‘Born In The USA’ we’re treated to the mass singalong that accompanies ‘Something To Talk About’ – and it proves really quite touching.
If the reviews are to be believed, Morcheeba have abandoned their rather ill-advised disco forays in favour of a return to the studied atmospherics of ‘The Big Calm’. Not that this is evident live, mind, where first glimpses recall the grizzly spectre of M People. It’s not that bad, though, as the likes of ‘Be Yourself’ provide the cue for the Dance tent to party like there’s no tomorrow. Still, those studied atmospherics are a bit of a nuisance here and we spend them wishing that Skye Edwards would go back to jumping up and down and shaking her arse at the crowd.