Rockaway Beach 2024

I think this may be becoming habitual. As other festivals fall out of my favour, my fondness for Rockaway increases. My annual visit to Butlins in Bognor is a good way to start off my new year of musical journeying. This year’s festival was pretty much perfect on paper with many of my favourite discoveries from the last few years.

Despite flooding in the South, the journey to Bognor was straightforward with no delays. Given I had suffered a really poor night’s sleep – I think due to food poisoning, the train gave me a chance to recuperate. On the way down, it is fun spotting the Rockaway crowd amongst the commuters and travellers heading to Gatwick. We are really easy to spot, basically a tribe of middle-aged indie kids who have never grown up and that is part of what makes Rockaway so great. Lots of like-minded people, out to enjoy new music.

As is usual, the rooms were ready before the advertised arrival time and I was able to unpack and have a rest before hitting Reds. The start time in Reds was later this year. I think this was a change for the better, as it meant the room was busy from the start.

Starting our weekend of music and new discoveries were Ghost Car, a new band for me. The majority of songs came in around the three minute mark. Short, sharp 60s inspired garage punk, with but with a pop edge. I recognised Ceci Corapi from her other band Qlowski, a band I’m fond of, so I was already disposed to liking them. While they have disposable fun songs like Sushi Addict, most of their songs do have a message, but they try to make them fun. Sadly, the vocals were too low in the mix. Something repeated throughout the day.

Driving down from my native Teesside, Benefits brought their political industrial noise poetry to Butlins. I’ve covered my love for this band multiple times and their focus on how the working-class get shafted but also continuously shaft themselves, through inappropriate patriotism and fear ‘of the other’. The Britain they hold an uncomfortable mirror up to is living on faded false glories. You could say Butlins is the perfect place for them to play. It is a faded working-class institution. Sadly, few parks are now left and while they’re doing a great job of trying to make the place compete against overseas holiday destinations, it is a struggle. Kind of Post-Brexit Britain in a nutshell.

Sadly, much to my disappointment, Kingsley didn’t turn up as a Red Coat.

I have to admit, I love Benefits. I’m a Teessider. I like their attitude. I have found Kingsley to be completely respectful in all his interactions with me. So I wave a flag for them. But I’m also a realist about their music. The music isn’t to everyone’s taste. I joked with Robbie before hand that they might clear the room. They are well aware of their challenging sound and I think this helps keep them humble. They seem to appreciate those who stay and engage with them. I’ve had friends who didn’t survived two songs at other festivals. Here at Butlins, there were a lot of people who wanted to catch them, stayed and then raved about them later in the weekend. They’ve worked so hard to get their music out. It isn’t easy for a band from Teesside to get heard, especially a band ploughing their own furrow. But they are making a good fist of it and people seem to be open to listening to them.

Sadly, M(h)aol, who were up next, were a slight disappointment. I had seen them play the Moth Club supporting Bodega. I thought they were great. Their singer Róisín had so much presence and Zoe, the bass player, used a violin bow to create a great sound from her bass guitar with an expressive performance. The album they released in 2023 was also one of my most listened to of the year. I hadn’t realised that Róisín had left.

This change has forced a shift in responsibilities. With other members of the band taking vocals. But it has also caused a shift in the dynamics of the band, both sonically and from a performance perspective. Zoe especially is less exuberant, now that she shared vocals duties and drummer, Constance, who shares vocal duties is hidden at the back of the stage, which doesn’t help engagement. Sadly, some of the edge Róisín brought to the band has been dulled.

Many of the songs were new, I guess reflecting the shift in dynamics. I enjoyed the new songs, which seemed more layered and textured. It is brave not to replace the singer with like for like and to allow your sound to drift naturally to new moorings. I would be lying if I didn’t say I preferred the shouty nature of their previous sound. It will be interested to see where their sound heads. I will keep one eye on them. There was still something interesting about what they are doing.

Polish band, Trupa Trupa have played Rockaway. Much of their appeal is singer Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, who appears like an overhyped toddler who can’t contain his own fun, conducting the rest of the band as he plays. Some of their English language songs lack any complexity. But they’re so infectious, it doesn’t matter.

At this point in the evening, options opened up. The bigger Centre Stage opened ready for tonight’s headliner, Selector. Without a photo pass it becomes difficult to photograph the bands, as it is challenging to move between the two rooms and get to the front without pushing – which I try not to do. So I mapped out which bands I wanted to photograph the most and planned mye evening around them.

Belfast band Chalk, were first up on the Main Stage. If I’m honest, I don’t think the big stage was right for them. They seemed very small on such a large stage. With repeating angular, guitars and part-spoken, part-sung vocals, they reminded me of Gilla Band. That’s not a bad thing. I want to see them in a small dark room with strong strobing light where their intensity I think will pay off. They looked a bit lost on the big stage. But they did enough to ensure I will catch them again.

I had intended to watch HiFi Sean but got tied up with something and so headed to see Bob Vylan. It was clear a lot of people wanted to catch them as Centre stage was packed. However, because I wanted to also catch Patrick Wolf, I decided I was only staying for half the set. What I saw was one of the highlights of the festival. Comparisons (and arguments) have been drawn to Sleaford Mods. But musically they draw more from a poppier version of the Rage Against the Machine sound, with punk mixed with rap. Vylan also add in grime and Jamaican influences which means each song has an underlying danceable grove.

My previous reviews of Sleaford Mods and Billy Nomates, have suggested that their dynamics and stage presence could be improved by having live musicians and Bob Vylan vindicates this for me. While, much of the sound is sequenced from a laptop. There was a real dynamic between the two Bobs. Bob the drummer reacting to the performance to give everything a proper live feel. It didn’t really matter that the rest of the music was sequenced.

It also helps that singer Bob has real stage presence. He was comfortable talking to the audience. Joking from the off. Impressively, it never felt he was talking at the audience. At times his performance was visceral. Other times funny. Some have complained that Bob talked too much and they found his views towards the police, uncomfortable. But they’re two young black guys and their experience of the police is probably not what the majority of the middle-age white audience experienced growing up. They’re doing exactly what musicians should do. Challenge us by holding up a mirror to the world as they see it. I felt more connected to them and their music, than I’ve ever done with the Mods.

Heading down to Reds for Pale Blue Eyes, many had stayed downstairs and it was several deep at the barrier. I headed to the side for a few shots, accepting that I had photographed them numerous times, and feeling recovered after the previous night’s nausea, I finally took the opportunity to grab a few beers. Even from the back, it is clear that PBE are a really tight band.

Sadly, at this point, Reds fell behind. I’m sure the guys managing the stage would be the first to admit, they got things wrong during the first day. After all, it was their first festival back after New Year. We all make mistakes on our first day back after Christmas. While the sound was too bass heavy and setup at times slow. So far it hadn’t led to any delays. This finally caught up with them and timings slipped by 15 minutes while setting up PBE. But as festival go, that’s not a really big issue and it’s nothing that couldn’t have been made up.

PBE’s set was great as usual. I’ve said it before. They are so comfortable with each other and they own their sound. They make music seem effortless and convincing. They sounded great while I drank my first beers of the festival.

We were now hitting the big clash in the programme. Patrick Wolf was due to start at the same time as Selector. He was a late addition after a band pulled out. However, he was going to finish first. My thinking was to watch half of Patrick’s set and then head up and catch the second half of the Selector’s set.

It’s probably 18 years since I saw Patrick Wolf. At the time, I really didn’t like him. However, I know a lot of people who do like him and in 18 years both my musical tastes and Patrick have developed. Out of all the bill, I was most interested to see what he sounded like and for me to reflect on my own changing tastes.

Given the short notice, Patrick said he was playing without his full band and he had to devise a new set over Christmas. Clearly he hadn’t worked out how to change over in the 20ish minute gap he would have between bands to set up. Because he single handedly knocked the festival back another 45 minutes. He was like the runner in a 4×100 relay race who drops the baton. He seemed so out of practice setting up for a festival turnaround.

He turned up with numerous instruments, repeat pedals and bags of cables. After PBE finished, the stage was 15 minutes late. By the time he had plugged in his keyboards, guitars, autoharp and violin in correctly, then sound checked everything, he went on 50 minutes late at 2335 and the Selector’s set was nearly finished. He seemed to lack any urgency. If you are the headliner, fine. When you are not top of the bill, you are eating into somebody else’s time.

Of course, at this point, I had to stay to see him. I don’t know if I was in a bad mood at this point. But he didn’t win me over. It was pleasant, but uninspiring. Others said he was boring and shouldn’t have been on the bill. I don’t agree with them. I think he was a good booking. Adding some light to the shade of the rest of the bill and this year’s bill, despite being pretty perfect to me, was all dark. However, he needs to get into rehearsal studio and assemble his kit and work out what is realistic in the 15 minute festival turnaround time and let that dictate which songs he plays. I’ve seen stages at SXSW tell an artist they can’t play when they started to make the stage times slip. What he did was unfair to Hinds as it pushed them back from 12pm to 1am. And despite my earlier criticism of the stage guys. This had nothing to do with them. This was mostly Patrick’s fault.

Giving Patrick enough time to win me over, after four songs, I wasn’t finding any love for his music. Sadly, by the time I headed up to the Selector, they were playing the end of their set. Brilliant, as you would expect. But given my lack of sleep, I had basically been up for nearly 24, I decided to grab some food to give me the energy to survive Hinds set.

While the dual stage isn’t good for me grabbing evening photos without a pass. I do like the second stage and I think the Rockaway team have made effective use of this stage to give headline slots to bands who have the potential to headline the bigger stage. Hinds are a case in point. They are headliners in waiting. Every time I’ve seen them, they are bundles of energy. It is impossible not to to like them. However, I’m not sure their name is a big enough draw for a main stage headliner. Though after tonight I have no doubt, they will make a great headliner. Maybe next year?

Despite having been up since 5am to travel to the festival from Madrid and Patrick delaying their set until 1am, long after they should have finished. Many who wanted to catch them decided to head to their rooms. There was still a reasonable size and warm crowd for them. It is a few years since I’ve seen them and two of the original members recently left and I was worried their energy might have gone. I needn’t have worried, even during sound check Carlotta Cosials was beaming with her infectious smile, joking with the sound guys and trying to warm up the audience. What followed was a customary Hinds set of joyous music. Everyone who stayed went to bed happy.

I thought I would head back to edit photos, but it was nearly 2.30 and I was knackered. They would have to wait. Not a bad first day and I knew better was still to come.

The great thing about Rockaway Beach is that Butlins offers other things to do around the music, like bowling, playing arcades, pool, swimming and go carting. Obviously, Down at the Front headed down to catch Trout in Reds, which started the day with significantly improved sound. Well done the sound engineers for listening to our complaints.

Trout were first. They weren’t for me. They were bit shoegazey. All standing still looking serious. Little to photograph and I tend to find that type of music a bit boring. Although, I admit it was clever sequencing by the organisers. They were the perfect band for dealing with the first hangover of the weekend and they eased us into Saturday.

While Trout were the appetiser. Frozemode were the fiery chilly dish. Anyone not yet awake were soon woken up by Frozemode, three rappers who mix in a bit of noise rock. They jumped around the stage with an energy level that was unhealthy at this time of day. If I’m honest, I didn’t really follow anything they said. But it didn’t matter, they filled the stage with their performance.

Genn, the Brighton via-Malta band, offered a mix of post-punk and a bit of psych, but there were other influences that made them stand out from the crowd. Genn weave Middle Eastern and North African textures into their songs that made them sound fresh and new. Interest was helped by a captivating performance of singer, Leona Farrugia, who had a fantastic voice and danced around the stage, engaging us with their performance. One to watch and my favourite new discovery of the weekend.

Another late addition to lineup was Lonely Tourist. I had considered jumping out to get some food because I didn’t want to miss any of the bands playing the rest of the afternoon. Staying for one song, the Scottish duo won me over with their relaxed engaging style and great songwriting. Lovely little vignettes of the little things in life.

If I’m honest, this time last year, I wasn’t convinced about the ‘one to watch’ hype Heartworms were generating. I had seen them on a full bill, though good, I felt there were better bands on the bill who weren’t generating the hype. But they are as good as the hype. I’ve seen them a few times since and become convinced that those hyping them were right. Jojo Orme is a brilliant songwriter with great stage presence. Her dark gothic post-punk sound feels fresh. The addition of the theremin adds a different dimension to the songs and her performance. Hopefully a debut album is coming soon.

Big Special are one of my current favourites. I think 2024 will bring big things for them. They kind of sit alongside bands like Benefits, Sleaford Mods and Bob Vylan. They have written songs that reflect on modern society. Songs are part spoken with a tongue firmly placed in cheek. Singer Joe Hicklin, has a wry sense of humour and for somebody who talks for most of the songs, a really brilliant voice. I think that’s what makes them different. They have his voice available to add in a different dynamic.

Ditz are a great live band. They know how to work the room. Cal, unhappy the lead on the mic was really short and that bands aren’t allowed to bring drinks on to the stage, paced around the stage looking like he was being wound up like a coil ready to spring. This was going to be good. A radio mic was procured and as soon as they started, he was off into the crowd to see how far he could get. Complaining that he wanted the music louder. I think Cal was converted to using radio mics. He had a new toy for the rest of the set he made good use of it. I half expected to see him singing from behind the bar.

(In fairness to the sound engineer, if loudness was what caused yesterday’s sound issues. They had the levels right and when I was further back, I thought the sound levels were fine)

As with any DITZ performance. Cal moves around the stage unable to stand in any one position, pacing as if he’s planning mischief. Much to the annoyance of the stage crew, this involved climbing the rigging, and like a parent who knows there is no way their kids will do what they are asking. The sound engineer dejectedly walked across the stage knowing he wouldn’t be listened to. Upturning and standing on a monitor probably didn’t endear Cal any further with the stage crew. But the audience loved it. I think Ditz made a lot of new fans today.

Finally, I’ve seen JOHN! I had tickets to see them twice and missed them. The last one, due to a train strike. The risk was that they wouldn’t live up to my anticipation. We were worried before their set that John (drummer) wouldn’t be seen at the back of the stage. Thankfully, they moved the drums to the side so that we could see him (well mostly, there was a lot of smoke). They were everything I wanted them to be. The two Johns produced a loud and imposing sound that hits you in the stomach. Music you turn up to 11.

Unfortunately, given 8 hours standing in the same spot, my feet were killing me and my stomach was telling me I needed to feed it. I headed up to catch the end of the Skids set. While they sounded okay, I decided it was better to get some food. The feedback about their set was really positive, but I think I made the right decision. I’m not really bothered about discovering a band from the 1970s. There’s so many new bands to discover.

I have been hearing excited whispers about amazing Fat Dog performances coming out of South London. They have created a small but strong London following. I did have a ticket to see them earlier in the year and based on tonight, I can see why they would be great in a small London venue. First, there seemed to be loads of people on stage. We all love seeing a chaotic stage. Then there’s a mix of instruments that makes them look like they are a band of whoever turned up with a musical instrument that evening. Then when they play, it’s pure dance music. At the end of the evening, after a few pints, they would be brilliant. I hadn’t drunk anything and they made me feel like I needed to have a drink. I could see what I was missing. Hearing that the bars were running out of beer, after watching half their set, I headed to get some beer.

This is one of the problems with Butlins, beer, or rather the lack of it. I’ve mentioned it in previous years. Their beer options are limited. They seem to focus on offering lager and Guinness. This year they had improved their offering with a small micro-pub provided by Sharps. Sadly, they started to run out on Saturday night and by the end of Sunday, even the Guinness had run out. This isn’t a fault of the festival organisers and Butlins do seem to be listening to our feedback and trying to offer new options, sadly, they didn’t get it right this year. I’m sure next year they will.

Still relatively sober, I headed up to catch Sleaford Mods. I saw them play a local venue around the time of their first album. While, I liked the album. I was unimpressed by their live presence. However, I wanted to give them a chance. They’ve been playing big stages for years. Surely must be more than a bloke shouting into a microphone and a guy pressing play on the computer? Yes, Andrew now dances. If anything, they were worse than in the small club. At that performance Jason was in touching distance. The performance was in your face. Here there was no intimacy. It was like watching a pissed angry guy ranting away in the corner of a pub and like that situation, I opted to move on.

The decision was an easy one. Dream Wife were playing Reds. I first saw them play the Touting Tram and Social to a few of us there for the music, in a pub full of people out to have a drink. Even back then, they were fully formed. Since then they’ve released three albums and gained a strong following, especially amongst young women, due to them creating a welcoming space for women at their gigs. In fairness, it’s less welcoming to ‘down at the front’ men who queued to be at the front and then are kicked to the back. However, there’s loads of bands we can go and see and feel safe and welcome. That’s not the same for women.

Their festival set was fun, but their message was still there. Interestingly, their lyric from Somebody off their first album, ‘I am not my body, I’m somebody’ seemed to have hit home with a number of men who I heard quoting it over the weekend. The way Rakel sings, it has become their anthem. It’s damn catchy.

It was great to see how far the band has come. When blokes say there are no female bands who can headline stages. Well Rockaway showed that’s not true. In fact Dream Wife and Hinds would have been a better headliner than Sleaford.

Hopefully, Rockaway will go the full distance next year and include a female headliner on the main stage. Both Hinds and Dream Wife are good candidates.

Like previous years, I decided to take Sunday more easily. It is hard work being ‘Down At the Front’. As I had previously photographed pretty much everyone on Sunday’s Red bill. I decided to take less gear and head for a late breakfast, rather than being first into Reds.

First up was a brilliant festival band, Enjoyable Listens. Let’s say they are a less-then-serious band. Singer, Luke Duffett, creates a well observed caricature of a crooner. There’s a lot of similarity with Jesse Hughes’ rockstar caricature. Taking all the sterotypes of a crooner working a room, the secret of Enjoyable Listens isn’t the music, which is fun, but the stories, explaining the songs. And like every great star, by the end of the set, he had everyone eating out of his hands.

For the rest of the afternoon, I dipped in and out. I had seen all the acts before and while I like most of them, this was my day off. Japanese Television play laid back surf-rock with a Japanese influence. Very chilled and tight. I’ve listen to Joyeria a lot since seeing him in 2022. Firmly rooted in early 90s US alt-rock. I think he deserves to be listened to more and after this set, he definitely has a few extra fans. I can see the appeal of Shelf Lives, with their fun, danceable, electric punk. They just don’t work for me, but the audience were lapping them up. I think TRAAMS surprised everyone. I saw them in 2013(ish) and then I didn’t hear about them for years, picking them up again last year. Using the Krautrock formula to build up momentum to monumental performances. They were the pick of many who went to Rockaway and I could see why.

At this point, I decided to jump back onto the barrier for a few songs of Snayx. I have seen them quite a few times and they have a strong, enthusiastic following that seems to has spawned out of IDLES AF gang. I’m going to be honest, I am not fully convinced by them. But they are good to photograph and fun to watch.

They are a trio. Vocals (Charlie), bass (Ollie) and drums (Laney). Ollie’s bass is heavily altered by effects pedals, so it creates a sound more reminiscent of dance music. I think why they have so many fans is the way Charlie and Ollie bounce around the stage and continually engage with the crowd. It is all good on surface, but I’m always left feeling wanting more musically. While their music has a political edge, it just feels blunted by the dance sound coming out of the bass. I like my post-punk angular. But there is no denying they are good fun and do more than most bands do to keep you entertained. I moved further back and let the real fans enjoy my place.

I was waiting the whole festival for Deadletter. I think they are one of the best bands around at the moment. I saw them at one of these ‘one to watch’ nights in early 2022. I’ve seen them grow and gain some influential backers like Steve Lamacq. I am surprised they have yet to release an album. I’m hoping early 2024 will see the release of the album and they hit the streets and capitalise on their momentum.

I have a feeling the post-punk revival is nearing its end. I think Deadletter are the culmination of all that’s gone before. They manage to be as vital as anyone before them, have tongues in cheek when needed and write finely crafted songs that Talking Heads would be happy to have written. All driven by supremely confident front person, Zac, who knows how to work the crowd while also keeping a detached persona when he needs to. He performs in his space. He performs in the space the songs need, sometime we are in it, sometimes not. Tonight, was a classic Deadletter set. The crowd loved them.

My final band of the festival were Desperate Journalist. They played Rockaway before. I saw them just before Christmas. A good choice for the main stage and a fine way to end my festival.

Sadly, I meant to catch the Cribs and Vaselines, but after Deadletter, I ended up talking to various people and the rest of the night disappeared. I even ended up in the silent disco. But I don’t come to Rockaway for the legacy bands. I come for the interesting undercard. The festival organisers have a very good track record of gauging the pulse of the indie scene and this year they out did themselves. Many of these bands will have much higher profiles by Rockaway 2025.

2025 is the 10th anniversary of Rockaway Beach. I started out thinking it didn’t provide enough music. Each year, my love of it has grown. It will be interesting to see what they have planned. Hopefully, next year they will have some element of ‘Rockaway Greats’ to celebrate the anniversary. If they do, they could do worse than having a female headliner who has played the festival before. There were two good candidates this year, but my pick would Nadine Shah.

Is it worth going? It’s January. Can you think of anything better than this to do? Give it a try. Butlins staff are friendly. There’s loads to do on site. Decent food options. You head back to a room every night. And you get to listen to great new music. Can you see why it has got its claws into me? I know I will be back next year. I have already bought my ticket. See you in 2025.

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