Wednesday 26 April 2017

Review: Are You Listening? Festival 2017

Reading is the largest town in the UK, with a population of over 230,000 and yet despite its size is not classified as a city. In that respect it has often felt like a bit of an under achiever. Of course, there’s always been the Reading Festival, but despite its 90,000 capacity it does little for the local music scene, its infrastructure, or really giving back to the city. This is where Are You Listening? steps in. 

2017 marked the fifth birthday of AYL festival and found it occupying 8 venues (one with two stages) in and around the town centre, with its biggest and best line up to date. There was a mix of national touring acts that included the likes of Anna Meredith, Spring King and Tom Williams as well as the cream of local up and coming talent. It’s this support of local artists that is one of the key ingredients of Are You Listening – giving them the opportunity and exposure to play at a bigger event, to people who may not have seen them before. Its other beneficiary is Reading Mencap, Are You Listening’s official charity partner since the first event, with the festival raising an incredible £34,000 before this year for Mencap.

What impresses most about AYL is its sheer value and organisation. I purchased a super early bird ticket for £10 last year and for that saw 8 full sets at a leisurely stroll, with breaks for food, plus received a programme and tote bag for the price. There were no over-capacity problems, no queues to get in venues, all the soundsystems sounded great, everything ran pretty much bang on time and everyone involved in the event from the wristband collection point to venue stewards seemed very friendly.

Two local bands that have played AYL in previous years who have gone on to have national recognition were Sundara Karma and The Amazons, and it was The Amazons who opened this year’s festival, not with music, but doing an interview with Radio 1’s Huw Stephens in Sub89 nightclub. It was quite amusing to see three of their number and Huw on stage on stools looking like the rock version of Boyzone, but the interview was a good way of drawing punters in early with something a little different. 

For anyone with even the slightest interest in the music industry it was a good session, even if you don't like the band, with the group explaining how The Amazons got to where they are, from their small beginnings as teenagers in their previous group Peers through to playing on Later With Jools Holland this coming week. The band stressed how important playing the local scene, uploading music to BBC Introducing and being honest (they never pretended they were from London) was. It was also interesting to learn that before they even engaged a manager they took on a lawyer – possibly something not every band would think of – but this seems to have helped them make the right decisions.

Over in the wonderfully named Purple Turtle, Reading based No Feathers offered the first music of the day and it was something of a challenge - with a slightly more left of centre experimental edge. There was an essence of something akin to what Alt-J do in terms of their throw it all in and see what comes out approach, even if they sound nothing like them. Their songbook might still be developing, but at least it was an interesting one with an arty mix of indie, rock and electronics.

Milk, a cosy loft space bar found above a cafĂ© down a side street was the next port of call, mainly because Breaking More Waves goes from blogger to DJ. Yes, I spun some tunes in between a couple of acts (poet Becci Louise and acoustic guitarist and singer Matt Turner), the first time I’ve done so for a couple of years since rocking out the Big Top at Bestival as part of the Sunday Best Forum Allstars a few years back. It’s probably the only time that Are You Listening will ever have a DJ play Nicola Roberts from Girls Aloud and Popcorn by Hot Butter amongst their set, but I also managed to squeeze in some LCD Soundsystem, MIA and Grimes to keep the cool kids happy.

After DJing it was back to Sub89 which was packed for The Big Moon, who delivered a headliner worthy show. They were raucous, powerful and dirtily loud but despite this, their boisterous indie rock was jammed full of big sing-a-long anthems. With buckets of summer powered ‘Oo-ee-oo’ harmonies, bouncy grunge meets Brit Pop songs and a punk rock cover of Madonna’s Beautiful Stranger The Big Moon put on a cracking show. Although there was a large crowd to see them, it felt as if they could and will play to even bigger.

Following on from The Big Moon was a tall ask and despite a slightly reduced in size audience Dream Wife were fully up for the challenge. Having started out as a ‘fake girl band’ art project for a gallery exhibition, things have now turned full circle and Dream Wife have become the real thing, gigging, releasing music and generally tearing up wherever they go. Lead singer Rakel bounded around the stage with a petulant energy, a mocking mix of devil child and innocent but knowing angel in an Adidas top whilst Alice and Bella chugged out aggressive riffs and bass with equal amounts of snarl. Highlight of the set was the gloriously animated F.U.U, it’s mix of nursery rhyme hooks, Spice Girls steal, non-radio friendly “gonna fuck you up, gonna cut you up,” lyrics and pure aggression sounding as invigorating as five expressos downed in one.

After that something calmer was in order and it was found at South Street Arts Centre, where in the MacDevitts Studio Emily Underhill, who goes by the name of Tusks played a set of room silencing beauty. This was downtempo ambient pop at its finest – from ghostly digitals to understated guitar slow-jams. With shades of The XX and Daughter, Tusks was just the ticket.

“I played here 2 years ago when this room didn’t have the nice laminate floor. My songs were a bit shit then, I think they’re better now,” Matt Maltese told the room after Tusks. With just a voice and a piano Maltese could at face value be just another middle of the road singer songwriter. But when the songs are about the downfall of England, kissing someone else’s girlfriend and Theresa May and Donald Trump having an orgy whilst the world blows up, you know there’s something a bit more going on. Maltese might be a traditional songwriter, but there was an appealing oddness about him and his velvety loungecore songs.

And so it was left to Flamingods to finish things up in the boozed up Oakford Social Club. The intoxicated atmosphere worked for the bands brand of global psychedelia – a kaleidoscopic mix of shamanic vocals, trippy instrumental wig outs and experimentalism that enabled those at the front to lose themselves in both a musical and alcohol induced haze. A fine and fitting end to a day full of highs with absolutely no lows.

Are You Listening? is a small gem of a music festival with a huge sparkle. Next time you’re standing in a muddy field watching bands from half a mile back that you’ve paid £200 quid for and begin to think ‘what am I doing here?’ maybe it’s time to consider something else. Are You Listening? could be your answer.

Super Early Bird Pre-Sale tickets are available for the 2018 edition of Are You Listening? for just £10 by clicking here for a limited time.

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