At the end of June, Tramlines Festival once more brought a veritable smorgasbord of musical delights to the Steel City
The penultimate weekend in June saw Songwriting trekking up to Sheffield for the Tramlines festival. Now in its eighth year, Tramlines has been getting bigger which each successive event – these days, it’s a veritable beast. How else do you describe a festival whose line-up ranges from the most fragile and delicate of folk to the gnarliest, snarliest dubstep and D&B?
Not having been to Tramlines before, we’d been told “the whole city goes crazy”. Crazy it does indeed go, but that simple statement contains another truth about Tramlines: it really does take over the whole city. And Sheffield’s quite a large city, so be aware that, while Artist X finishing on one stage at 7pm and Artist Y starting on another at 7.15 may not look like a timetable clash, when you realise those two venues are a two-mile uphill walk apart it can suddenly become one!
That’s not a moan, just a word of warning that with Tramlines, as with Glastonbury, there’s little point planning an itinerary with military efficiency. Better to just go with the flow, follow your ears and see where you end up. With 26 official venues and stages, 17 ‘fringe’ venues also listed in the programme and just about every other bar/pub/club/concert hall in town staging gigs and club nights as well, you’re not going to struggle to find music to your liking.
So, here’s what we found…
Due to travel complications, Songwriting arrived later on the Friday than planned, and hence managed to land at the main stage in Ponderosa Park just as the Dandy Warhols were finishing, which was a shame. But still, we were in plenty of time to catch the closing set by Dizzee Rascal – and we were very glad we did, simply to note what a polished and confident performer he’s become. The awkward misfit from the Bow ‘ends’ is gone; in his place stands a true pro who had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand as he rattled through big hits like Fix Up Look Sharp, Jus’ A Rascal, Bassline Junkie and of course, Bonkers, which provided the day with a suitably boisterous finale.
That brings to another thing to note about Tramlines: it’s very much a festival of two halves. In the daytime and early evening, pop, rock, indie and acoustic acts predominate; by night Sheffield grooves to an altogether more electronic beat. So after Dizzee, all that was really left for Songwriting to do was check out DJ duo Huddle throwing down some classic and contemporary disco in the Town Hall basement, before retreating home to bed.
Saturday afternoon really couldn’t have been much more of a contrast to Friday night, as we headed to the Folk Forest in Endcliffe Park. The clue’s in the name here: this is a much more sedate corner of Tramlines with an altogether more laidback vibe. We arrive just in time to catch acoustic two-piece John Gheni & Toby Hay doing their thing – if you just can’t get enough of cascading, fingerpicked guitar, then this folk-inspired duo could be your new favourite band! But we were really there to see Laura J Martin, who’d so impressed us at Shambala a few years ago.
The crowd were getting slightly restless during an extended soundcheck (maybe we should have gone to check out the “antique crafting workshops” in the next field after all!), but once Laura began her first number with an extended, frantic flute solo, all was forgiven. Now operating with a full band in tow, her electronically augmented prog-folk proved one of the highlights of the whole festival as far as Songwriting is concerned – even if it did only run to six songs!
Once Ms Martin had finished, we hightailed it across town back to the main stage, where legendary reggae songstress Dawn Penn was about to perform, her lilting, soul-infused lover’s rock providing the perfect soundtrack for a superbly sunny afternoon. Predictably it was closing track No No No that got the biggest crowd reaction, with an inspired choice of encore in Fever ensuring that she went out on a high. Special mention must also be made of her drummer – close-ups of whose face featured on the large, stage-side LCD screens for much of her set, revealing him to be evidently the happiest, smiliest man on Earth!
Next up – in a surprisingly early slot given their headlining status – were George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic ensemble. A broad-ranging festival like this perhaps isn’t the best place to catch Clinton and co, because compared to their solo shows audience participation was, inevitably, a little muted. But they’re still one of the greatest live shows on Earth, and with up to 17 musicians on stage at any one time, demonstrated once more that they’re just as adept at providing hardcore hip-hop and Rage-esque rap metal as they are lowdown, sleazy funk. This writer has made the mothership connection live many times; if you never have, you’re missing out. Nuff said.
Given the unenviable task of following Parliament-Funkadelic were eclectic Scottish hip-hop outfit Young Fathers. Drawing a younger crowd, they fused rap, industrial, Celtic and world music influences in a set that brought to mind the likes of Gary Clail and Leftfield, even if it could veer into out-and-out pop territory at times, and that was interspersed with fiery inter-song polemics – eg, “If you aren’t standing up for the oppressed, you’re one of the oppressors”.
That left just Kelis. Though treading a slightly more grown-up and soulful musical path now than in more strident younger days, she certainly didn’t fight shy of giving the crowd the big hits they wanted to hear, from Caught Out There (“I hate you so much right now”) via Milkshake and Trick Me all the way through to 4th Of July (Fireworks). A little more audience interaction might have helped – she barely spoke, other than to say “thank you, God bless” at the end – but the crowd seemed generally content, even if they weren’t leaping around quite the way they had to Dizzee 24 hours previously.
After two days of trekking up and down hills, our Sunday got off to a slightly later start, but we were back at the main stage in time for alternative hip-hop legends Jurassic 5. DJ Nu-Mark, Chali 2na, Cut Chemist, Marc 7, Zaakir and Akil may have been in the rap game for nearly a quarter-century but their Tramlines performance showed there’s plenty of life in the old dog yet, as they served up party-style rap with plenty of audience interaction and, in the case of How The West Was Won, a little bit of onstage pantomime. Concrete Schoolyard, their biggest UK hit, unsurprisingly got the biggest response, but they had the crowd jumping from start to finish.
Public Service Broadcasting, who followed, really couldn’t have been much more different. Billing themselves as an AV collective rather than a band, the ostensible “multi-instrumentalist duo” varied in number from two to seven as they served up the accompaniment to video montages that played on the big screens. Veering from brass-y funk to dense art-rock soundscapes à la Muse or Radiohead, via shimmering, New Order-ish synth-pop, they’d perhaps have been better placed before Jurassic 5 on the bill but they’re undoubtedly a spectacle to check out for yourself if you can. They are not as other bands.
With Public Service Broadcasting finished, it was then up to Catfish & The Bottlemen to close the main stage. I’ll be brutally honest, they’re a little too cookie-cutter indie-rock for these ears… but the Tramlines massive certainly didn’t seem to agree! In fact they sang along to every word, so much so that by the end, lead singer Van McCann was dedicating songs to “anyone who’s got any voice left”. He also made numerous mentions of the support Sheffield has shown the band since their earliest days, which went down well, dedicating one track to “anyone who came to see us at The Frog & Parrot”.
With the main stage done and dusted, Songwriting headed right back across town again to The Leadmill, where a late-night solo show by Gaz Coombes was proving pretty much a roadblock. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and vox using looping pedals and various electronic gizmos, his heartfelt, Americana-tinged songs certainly struck a chord with the crowd… but it was getting just a little bit claustrophobic in there so Songwriting opted, after getting the taste of a few numbers, to head out for one last wander round the streets of the Steel City. Which was just as well, or we’d have missed The Japanese House at Bungalows & Bears… a band we’ve never come across before but whose melodic, Fleetwood Mac/Haim-esque pop-rock lured us in and kept us there!
And that, dear readers, was Songwriting‘s experience of Tramlines 2016. In retrospect, we’d have liked to get to a few more venues and catch some more up-and-coming acts: the all-day drone/post-rock showcase at the Town Hall looked interesting, and we’d also have liked to see Hinds, Dan Mangan, Field Music, High Hazels and Marika Hackman. But we had a 12-year-old in tow who spent the entire weekend glued to the barriers at the front – and perhaps said 12-year-old describing Saturday afternoon/evening as “the best six hours of my life” says more than we ever could anyway!
All told, Tramlines comes heartily recommended, boasting as it does a bewildering array of music, sensible ticket prices and a safety-first approach to event management (there are, for instance, steward-lined ‘safe walking routes’ between all the key venues). Just accept that you’re not going to see everything, and that you’ll do a lot of walking, and it’s hard to imagine any music lover not having a great time.
Words: Russell Deeks Pictures: Rash Yaman (except where stated)