You know when you’re watching a sexagenarian with the air of a particularly uppity ostrich hula-hoop furiously to a drum solo and you’re thinking “I kinda saw this coming – even if nothing quite prepared me”? No? That’s the incredible GRACE JONES at FESTIVAL NO. 6, in a Sunday-ending Slave To The Rhythm in which she’s dom of all she surveys.
This we expected; it’s the starlings in the slipstream of known unknowns that make such a revelation of this weekender in Wales.
If you seek disorientation, why not D R O H N E ft. NATALIE McCOOL? It’s a testament to the D R O H N E lads’ overriding vision that initially McCool’s vocal blends into their regurgitating collage. What they eventually offer, though, is escape from the chaos: in Sample Pictures and Feral Child, the final two tracks, they hit a clubby stride that brings unforeseen structure to McCool’s coos and cries. It’s as if Burial or ponytail-era Thom Yorke has blundered into this chapel-like tower, then gone “actually, wrong room”, not before allowing a thrilling glimpse of another side of all involved.
There’s nothing concealed about the first-night closers. Pop music at the moment is about hooks, right? Motifs more than songs – after hip hop, after digital recording, after pins, posts and shares, that’s the currency. THE 2 BEARS get this, and come loaded: Hot Chip’s moonlighting Joe Goddard et al reel off catchlines and dirty synths in ringtone-length chunks that, laid end-on-end, are a lesson in modern songcraft. With tunes like Bear Hug and Sexy Donut, how can they fail? Foot-shifting, playful and pimped by a gaggle of drag queens, they demand your best moves and never, ever lose the floor.
And yet, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. GRAHAM MASSEY’S TOOLSHED – rock-detonating tools therein: axe, bass, drums and sax – leave their audience (90% bearded, 1,000% committed) just as delighted. If the 808 State dude and co. are a hug they’re a scruff-of-the-neck grab, and if they’re a donut they are undoubtedly jam. Massey on axe duels with, on charging four-string, Paddy Steer, liberated from his short-circuiting-machine-operative solo mode but, naturally, bringing the shiny outfits. Their collision of Sun Ra Arkestra and MC5 has both the 90% and the 10% losing their shit: some admit urges to go home to listen to jazz, but it’s only Saturday teatime. Others are delirious, demented.
Then FN6’s refined vibe is toasted as another fuzz-face has a wobbly when the band are told to wind up. “No, all weekend,” he howls. “Fuck everybody else.” Quite.
But wait. HOT VESTRY, like Grace Jones, know how to make an exit. Macclesfield’s black-clad finest leave their gig in single file before anyone knows it’s over, which doesn’t half pique the interest. The aforesaid tower – housing the Tim (Burgess) Peaks Diner and acts championed by his O Genesis label – had been empty when they entered. Harry Ward, twin brother Joe, Will Taylor and Tilly Florence look like a gothy security firm and proceed to play fast and loose with health and safety regs, as H Ward hares off outside to assail Portmeirion with his loudspeaker. With one EP out, spring’s A Scene In Between, they occupy a space equidistant to S.C.U.M. and The Rapture that’s all theirs. They’ve just visited Berlin to “get inspired”, and play dates in November at which they’ll inspire you, too.
Across a square in a tiny room in the Town Hall, the No. 6 ENSEMBLE are reworking bands, among them JAMES, to audiences of about 50. Tim Booth’s voice suits the treatment, particularly on Say Something and B-side The Lake, which Booth recalls was voted off the Laid album despite his and producer Brian Eno’s protests.
Dissent is imminent here in the local corridors of power, too, as the tourist village’s temporary residents refuse to let Booth leave until strings, woodwind and harp are cajoled into an unplanned, improvised take on Laid. People queued for four hours, so no wonder, but what should disturb them is living in ignorance, year upon year, without chancing upon PAPER DOLLHOUSE, whose set creeps from a woodland clearing as if they’ve just woken there after nuclear war. Astrud Steehouder and Nina Bosnic have been doing this – this anaesthetised machine-folk/witch-drone/creeping-out after nuclear war – since Steehouder made the 2011 debut album A Box Painted Black. At times they lean towards a Broadcasty robotism, heard on the corrupted call centre and response of Helios, and at others it’s the vocal layering of Julianna Barwick or Grimes, notably on Mermaid Song. There are faint traces of Telepathe, Fever Ray and Salem but really Paper Dollhouse evoke only their own haunting of this space, and your dream matter, for some time to come. In fact, a lot of this festival can feel like one huge dream, and that hula-hoop is still going…