Saturday 24 March 2018

Music: A bit of a Blur: the Picnic's top picks

Throwback to the 90s: Alex James (left) and Damon Albarn performing with Blur in Australia
Throwback to the 90s: Alex James (left) and Damon Albarn performing with Blur in Australia
John Meagher

John Meagher

The 25th anniversary, last month, of the very first Féile got a lot of festival goers thinking about how far we've come since 1990. The polar opposite of that fondly remembered but rudimentary gathering in Thurles is Electric Picnic, the latest instalment of which kicked off yesterday evening and remains, by some distance, the best Irish music festival we've ever had.

While Féile 90 was all about one stage in a GAA stadium, and 'catering' supplied by enterprising locals, the jamboree up the road in Stradbally, Co Laois this weekend offers such a cornucopia of choice, aural and otherwise, and in a gorgeous setting, that's as if it has been beamed in from another universe.

And yet, there's one way in which the first and second Féiles stole a march on the Picnic: they had that properly communal finish each evening, where everyone was there for the headliner, rather than the crowd splintering a hundred ways as they do today.

The sheer volume of Things To Do is part of the beauty of Electric Picnic, and yet it's remarkable how two attendees comparing notes afterwards might feel as though they were at entirely different festivals.

Tonight's headliner, however, may well render all other attractions redundant: Blur. As soon as they had announced their first album in 12 years, and their first with Graham Coxon since 1999, it seemed certain that Electric Picnic would be on their live itinerary.

And so it's proved. The Magic Whip was well received although, in truth, song-for-song it's one of their weaker efforts.

But when you consider the quality of their back catalogue, and the showmanship of renaissance man Damon Albarn, who seems incapable of releasing a bad album in any of his musical incarnations, few would bet against them turning in a memorable performance.

They played an outdoor show at Dublin's Royal Hospital Kilmainham and after a ropey 20-minute start, they settled into their groove and delivered a blistering finish capped off by a wonderful rendition of 'The Universal', one of those bittersweet anthems that takes on a curious sense of profundity when experienced with a large crowd and will probably get an airing tonight.

If the weather holds up, it has the potential to be one of the great EP moments - up there with the buzz that greeted Arcade Fire when they made their Irish live debut back in 2005, or the strange pop majesty of Grace Jones in a packed tent a few years ago. (The 67-year-old art-pop icon was on the bill again this year.)

If mention of Blur offers a throw-back to the 1990s, nostalgists for the music of that decade may have been just as enthused by the prospect of seeing a reformed Ride, who played last night. They would have been a good get for Féile 90, when they were in their shoegaze pomp, but they fizzled out and faded away pretty quickly.

Somebody who has thankfully not faded away is James Murphy, the New Yorker behind LCD Soundsystem. That project my have been retired, or on hiatus (it's hard to know which), but Murphy has busied himself with a myriad of projects including his latest preoccupation, Despacio, which sees him team up with the Dewaele brothers of Soulwax/2manydjs-fame for a vinyl-only DJ sets.

Think six hours of music on a special hi-res audio set-up that should knock socks off - Murphy is on the decks tonight and tomorrow.

New kid on the block, Mac DeMarco, won't be delivering a marathon set tonight, but his charmingly lo-fi brand of songcraft is well worth a detour, as is Scottish trio Chvrches, who will be showcasing material from their second album, out at the end of September.

Those of you with Sunday-only tickets no doubt hoped that Blur would be playing the last night of the festival. It wasn't to be. But think of the bright side: you weren't lumped with the frightfully dull Sam Smith, the mystifyingly popular Londoner who takes to the stage before Blur tonight.

Instead, there's an opportunity to catch some bands who've been on a crest of a wave after a fallow few years. Manic Street Preachers have delivered two exceptional albums in a row and were certainly up for it when they played Dublin's Olympia last year, and Interpol, whom many had given up on, really impressed with last autumn's El Pintor album, their first without bassist Carlos D (who has taken a few pot-shots at his erstwhile bandmates in recent weeks).

The pick of tomorrow for many will be Tame Impala, the Australian psych-pop outfit under the leadership of Kevin Parker. Latest album Currents is likely to be in all those best-of lists come year-end, and its hypnotic lead single 'Let It Happen' is trashing it out with Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' 'Uptown Funk' for song of the year in my book.

On the home-grown front, it's hard to look beyond Jape, whose sixth album, This Chemical Sea, is a contender for Irish album of the year, although he's been spreading himself very thin this summer - Electric Picnic is one of a multitude of Irish festivals he's played. Gavin James is making inroads into the US this year and his debut album will be out soon. There's a lot of industry excitement around this 24-year-old Dubliner but he's a little bit too like his mate Ed Sheeran for my liking - and I'm not just talking about hair colour. Anyway, he'll be flying the Irish flag tomorrow and hoping to have a fraction of the impact Wicklow native Hozier had at last year's festival.

Intriguingly, Florence + The Machine, who are tomorrow's headliners, will return to Ireland in a matter of days for a Thursday date at Dublin's 3Arena.

That's quite a commitment to the cause, although when one considers the muted response, critical and otherwise, garnered by third album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, perhaps Florence Welch is grateful for every chance she can get to connect.

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