Occupying the second Bank Holiday weekend in May, Neighbourhood Weekender returned for its sophomore run with a packed schedule of live music, performance and fairground fun. The festival benefits from its central location and easily accessible site, taking place in Warrington’s expansive Victoria Park the event is uniquely staged and administered. Covering all forms of indie rock and popular music, a host of new names and familiar personalities convene across two days and three brilliant stages. The weather could have easily put a downer on proceedings (with a mixed forecast and a practically all-outdoor agenga) but luckily for us, day one was the only blip in the system.
Heading into a festival for the first time brings a mixture of feelings: excitement, curiosity, adventure, nervous energy, anticipation. It’s like the start of any new experience, the knowledge of what’s around the corner is just on the cusp of achievement, possibility is fragrant and anything could happen. Walking to the main gate in amongst a herd of people, you feel the spirit of British summertime and you hear the fruits of the festival, Sea Girls are opening the Main Stage and it’s blissful. They’re a band that have gone from strength to strength in recent years, building on the traditional indie rock mantra they started self-releasing singles first, and as momentum began to build they caught the attention of industry bigwigs and are now proudly signed to Polydor Records. They play all of their recent singles – and it’s an anthemic, roaring, soaring masterclass. The hooks are festival clickbait, the sound is huge and it isn’t rocket science that this band are destined to occupy much bigger slots.
Overlapping with Sea Girls on the Viola Beach stage, is Shadowlark. A three piece turned four piece (at least for this show), they maintain crowd interest throughout, the atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable. Probably the best stage of the whole lot, a good size and a good vibe. All of the bands playing here are on the lower end of the billing but all should be regarded in the highest esteem, we spend a ton of time watching bands on this stage – and they give us some of the best experiences of the whole weekend. Back to Shadowlark; they have class, they have style, they have presence. It’s easy listening, time passes very quickly when they’re playing. Each song is new to me but it’s clear that the band are testing out new material from their upcoming, yet-to-be-announced debut album. The vocals are sumptuous, Ellen Smith has a voice that tells a story, you’re invested in every word, you want to stay close, touch the magic. It’s a powerful attribute that sets Shadowlark apart from the rest. Sonically it’s a combination of soft rock and deftly rapturous pop, offset by a darkly pervading moodiness. The music oozes sophistication and beauty, it also feels timeless yet modern in the sense that musos of all ages could easily find shared obsession.
Shortly after on the Main Stage, a blistering set from Yonaka revs up our energy levels and confirms why this band are such a hot topic. On the eve of releasing their debut album the four-piece have built up a strong live set, complete with a host of high octane renditions and emotive heart-to-hearts. Their sound is rare, they don’t make music like anyone else, they fuse genres together and keep it personal, they go heavy but stay weightless. The lyrics go deep and sinuous, they speak a true message. The hooks are as big as the grooves. The stage presence is kinetic and dangerous. No question about it, Yonaka deserve success – a great British band making great music with a great live show.
Heritage bands like Primal Scream, Maximo Park and The Charlatans fill in the gaps on the Main Stage throughout the weekend, making way for rising acts like Jade Bird, Clean Cut Kid and The Slow Readers Club to get their shot at playing to a crowd that stretches beyond eye reach. Manchester’s Slow Readers Club particularly had the sweet spot in the end, the mid-afternoon Sunday slot. With the sun high in the sky, a bustle of punters (turnout must have reached peak on Sunday) and a well constructed setlist, the band had everything in place to make it a successful debut. And that it was. Covering all bases the material showcased spanned all three of their albums, the connection between audience and band was there and the atmosphere was warm and fuzzy. Their songs work well in big open spaces as they do in venues large and small, they have versatility on their side as well as relatability. Not too long ago they were just another overlooked but talented local band, after the right opportunity came along it gave them the chance to display their music on an elevated level, finally the obscurity faded, now many doors are now ajar and recognition is starting to grow. This was just another step in the tale of The Slow Readers Club’s beautiful arc, a sign of continuing prosperity.
The Howl and The Hum played the Viola Beach stage, not only do they rock out but they do it with humour and pizzazz. It’s a fun, varied set and it flies by; they play big – it’s not just a stand-to-attention and repeat motion, the whole body is activated in movement and motivation. When introducing songs Samuel Griffiths tell stories like film pitches and when addressing potential listeners visiting the surrounding food vans, he muses, ‘Think of us like a side.’ It’s entertainment in every way possible. The music, though, is wholly serious. Taking hints from all over the shop, from the National to White Lies to Muse, the result is a sound that is recognisable but also unfamiliar. A sign of a band etching out their own voice, tone and style. ‘Vitamins’ is dynamically unadventurous allowing for the performance to express a hurricane of dramatic inflection and ‘Godmanchester Chinese Bridge’ on the other hand, is a luscious carousel of longing and evocative melody that rallies to an epic finale of dissonant grandeur. We thought it the first time that we saw The Howl and The Hum play, and this performance only strengthened those initial promisings: they’re the real deal.
Continuing the Viola Beach stage theme, we watch back-to-back performances from Fuzzy Sun, Zuzu and Kawala. The Stockport natives keep it upbeat, dancey and euphoric. Fuzzy Sun blend synthesisers with indie and disco pop for a scintillating and sensual ride through the ’70s, ’80s and now. Even though they’re still a relatively new band, the songs (once you’ve heard them a time or two) feel like instant hits, the band’s ability to match a bright melody with a hitting beat and a slinky groove and centre in all with an honest, raw lyric is what hits a chord, and ignites the senses in the most potent of ways. And the live show takes it steps further, ramping up the energy and the feel-good factor it’s a display of unwavering passion and animated invigoration. Definitely a band not to miss.
Zuzu is a jolt of adrenaline, backed by a three-piece band and fronted by the creative mastermind behind the music, it’s a set that blurs high octane numbers with mid tempo swooners. Zuzu’s voice is the mantle that brings it all together yet it’s also what sets it apart, her scouse accent is revelrous and intricately subtle, she has a powerful range and her songwriting is so multi-dimensional that every song zings a poetic reliability alongside its equally disruptive charm. Guitar music with an openness and a directness, full of excellent one liners and firey comebacks. A joy.
Closing out the Saturday, Kawala ensured that no one would leave without a spot of rejuvenation. A duo that morphs into a five-piece for live shows, Jim and Daniel create music based around natural acoustics, uplifting tropi grooves and vocal synchronicity then they whisk those influences together for a best of both worlds cornucopia. Full arrangements and a capella intertwine giving us big, soaring moments beside gossamer intricacies of control and restraint. A song like ‘Mighty River’ gives you chills, the precision of their vocals and the glorious result is something impossible to top. It’s a set of peaks and troughs, varying structures, sentiment and technique – with each performance Kawala are prospering more and more, go see this band live.
The final day brought APRE and Our Girl to the Viola Beach stage, two great bands offering very different shows. First, APRE in a mid-afternoon slot, with an armada of jams to their name, reeled off every release so far. It’s quite humbling when you think about it, the duo only started this project a year ago and the quality of the output and strength of their live show is uncanny – each song is an impeccable piece of poise, vibrancy and prowess. The level they’re working at is unusual for such early starters, but I guess it’s part of the reason why they were picked up so quickly by Polydor Records. You can’t deny talent when you see it. Get to know this band, you’ll be happy that you did.
Our Girl played a bunch of songs from their debut album, Stranger Today. The three-piece blitzed through their runtime, remarking they either go dramatically under their allotted twenty five minutes or over, not wanting to upset the organisers, they chose the former. But the time they gave us was electric. Slinky dark grooves envelop songs like ‘In My Head’ and Soph Nathan’s voice is a kind of perfection you don’t realise you need until you hear it. This song is particularly interesting, as a totem of what the band are about it captures their essence well – modest, honest and visceral. The dynamics are off the charts, the low end serpentines just beneath the surface while the beat keeps propulsion and forward motion steady, before heading towards a climax of ever narrowing claustrophobia and quickening pace. We like the nonchalant vibe they bring, it’s a revival of indie cool and a burst of grunge freedom. A big, glorious yes to Our Girl.
In other areas of the festival, Circa Waves competently closed out Stage 2 with a stunning headline set on Sunday night, while billed at the same time as Richard Ashcroft the long-trusted indie band maintained a packed tent throughout. The Verve frontman dressed in a bejeweled jacket closed out the weekender, the setlist was fairly standard but offered many incensed sing-alongs by way of ‘Sonnet,’ ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ and of course, ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony.’ A triumphant finale to a weekend of musical reverence and neighbourly pursuits. Neighbourhood Weekender is just that, a collection of people sharing an experience, bonding over the power of live music. Beautiful.
Photo Credit [Circa Waves]: Niall Lea
Neighbourhood Weekender will return in 2020 – Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th May. For more information, head here.