Rockaway Beach 2020

I wonder what Billy Butlin would have thought of Rockaway Beach? Would he have liked it? I suspect not. But Rockaway is very much run in the spirit of the Butlins ethos, providing fun, harmless entertainment at a reasonable price.

This was my third Rockaway. I previously complained about the lack of music for a music festival. You are only going to see 10 bands each day. I guess for many this is as much as they would normally see at a festival. But I tend to see nearly 30 a day at SXSW and around 20 at Great Escape. So I have found the lack of options frustrating in the past.

But this year, I decided to approach this festival differently. This is the music festival where I get to kick back in what’s usually a very long depressing January and have a break by the seaside listening to an expertly curated music lineup, playing in the arcades and eating chips, and it worked. I felt much more refreshed after this festival than I normally do after a music festival.

Classic arcade action. Just like when we were kids

With the recent backlash against the lack of women on festival bills, it’s worth noting that the Rockaway has done a reasonable job of introducing female fronted acts. While there was still no headliner, (maybe they could persuade previous act, Nadine Shah to headline next year?), at least one of the bands on the big Centre Stage was female fronted with Brix and the Extricated, Nova Twins and Soak. In the case of the Nova Twins, this was a very helpful boost for a very talented band.

This year I decided to stay in the onsite hotel. It is a rather odd experience, with lifts designed to be diving bells, playing the Jaws theme music as you ride it. The rooms are (submarine) yellow and the children’s bunk beds designed to look like the inside of a submarine. A bit surreal, but the rooms were clean and well appointed and you didn’t hear the sound of people walking up and down the metal walkways, like you do in the chalets. Let’s face it, I wasn’t going to be spending much time in there anyway.

Day one began late afternoon with Indian Queens. They are two sisters with their friend on drums, who are at the rock end of indie, with strong guitars, drums and vocals. There’s no washy guitars with this band.

In their early days (when they were Bleach), they were a little too derivative. But with their reinvention as Indian Queens, they have developed a much more interesting catalogue of material – but they never quite leave their rock origins behind. A strong start to the festival and I think for many in the crowd of early festival birds, a new discovery.

There’s a vocal style amongst a small number of female artist doing the rounds at the moment that often grates on me. It’s the one where the artist puts on an affected childish sounding voice. At times in her set Bellatrix used that technique. While the music was okay, I’m afraid I couldn’t get past the vocal affectation and gradually edged to the back to allow somebody who was enjoying the set more than me, my space at the front.

The Polish band Trupa Trupa were up next. Their singer had one of those excitable friendly personalities where he made you feel the band thought this was a special gig and he was going make sure we were part of it. Many of the English songs were light on lyrics. But that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the psychy indie music.

Young Knives are a band I have never got. They have a new lineup they described as Young Knives V2. I’m afraid this didn’t change my appreciation of them.

With Friday’s late start and many people still arriving, the action moved upstairs to the bigger Centre Stage. It’s an odd layout for a gig, with a big dance floor and a slightly raised seating area. Probably demonstrating the age of the crowd, as soon as doors opened there was a mad rush for the seats at the back, something repeated each night. Obviously, Down At The Front headed to grab a place on the barrier for an interesting evening of new music and some not so new music.

First up were Black Country New Road. I have tried to catch them in London several times but failed to. One time, they didn’t play until after I had to catch my last train and I heard from people afterwards how great they were.

What surprised me the most, was to see how young they appear to be. From their sound, I expected to see people in their late 20s/early 30s. Instead, it looked like the chess club from the local sixth form college had picked up instruments and kidnapped the actual band. And the chess club analogy is not far from the truth. The music they play is intricate and needs them to play off each other. They are a very talented bunch, playing complex music that shares as much with jazz as it did with rock. They have something in common with Squid and Black Midi – a less anarchic chess club version. I’m not sure their music is mainstream enough for them to become big, I think Squid is the most likely out these bands, as they go for 3 minute ‘smash and grab’ songs that suit radio play. But they are definitely going to go down well at festival audiences

SOAK has passed me by. The bits I have heard sound pleasant but unremarkable. Tonight with a band, she was still unremarkable. I think to highlight this, when I looked at my photos for the gig, they all looked the same which is something I see from most singer / songwriters. But equally when you move to a larger stage and take on a band, you have to find a way to perform on the larger stage. I took the opportunity to grab my first beer of the festival.

Closing the evening was John Cale. I have to admit I only really know his stuff with the Velvet Underground. He’s now in his late 70s, having lived a life that put many of his contemporaries in the grave. But despite being a little bit slower and his voice older and less strong, he seemed in remarkable good health and spent the evening exploring his back catalogue, including an extended, less angular version of ‘I’m waiting for my man’.

Day 2 looked interesting with a mixture of bands I’ve seen before and new names. The first band, Pagans SOH, had previously impressed me at the Great Escape. So I knew it was worth making sure I got to Reds early.

There’s always a chance when you see bands at an intimate festival like The Great Escape, you may not enjoy them when they play at a less intimate festival. I was hoping that wouldn’t be the case with Pagans. At TGE I was touching distance from them, essential in amongst the performance. But there was no need to be concerned. All the elements I enjoyed about their performance was still there.

Much of the charm of Pagans is their frontman Marcus. The band mix, rock, ska, reggae and rap but don’t sound derivative or ever threaten to become a Rage Against the Machine. Definitely worth catching in a small venue.

First new band of the day, Scrounge, didn’t hang around, with a blink and you will miss it, 20 minute set that left me wanting to hear more. With the classic garage rock lineup of a drummer and guitarist/vocalist, they made post-punk music, with a garage attitude. I liked them.

At some point you have to take breaks and I decided that as I had seen Penelope Isles a few times, including earlier this year, this was a good point to head back to my hotel.

Heading back to Reds to catch Rascalton, a Scottish no nonsense punk band, there was a lot of positively for Penelope Isles. It seems they went down well.

Rascalton are the kind of punk band that play straightforward rock ‘n’ roll with a bit of agro. I liked them. Direct without being in you face. They held my attention.

Next was one of my favourite discoveries of this festival, The Sweet Release of Death. As the name suggests, they are not setting out to create music that is soft and fluffy. Instead, they have a kind of doom noise sound. At times they reminded me of Esben and the Witch when they’re off on their 12 minute long journeys. I really enjoyed the layers and textures they built up over each (long) track. One to catch again.

Unfortunately, I had to make another trip to my hotel room, so I missed the beginning of Our Girl’s set. I always forget how much I like Our Girl. I’ve seen them probably half a dozen times. There was a time before Sophie’s other band took off, where they seemed to be getting regular support slots. Over time they grew on me and I now like them a lot, especially when they open up and hit the fuzz pedal. I wonder what they would have achieved if it wasn’t for Big Moon taking off. I have to admit, I prefer Our Girl.

Okay. Let’s jump straight to the point. Self Esteem, weren’t for me. I gave them a few songs and then left and joined the queue for the Centre Stage. I saw Slow Club several times and this is a big bold departure from Rebecca. She’s basically created her own version of a pop group, complete with dance moves to every song. Not for me.

Upstairs, was a bit of a mixed bag. Peter Perrett beyond his hit song, ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, I don’t really know his work. I enjoyed the set. Probably as much for his excellent guitarist.

Next up, a really good move by the Rockaway schedulers, Nova Twins. I have seen them several times in small venues in London. They always manage to cause the place to explode. The obvious comparison is with Rage Against the Machine. But they play without the Rage and much more fun. They are a really good band. Tonight they showed they are ready to be at the top end of the festival order. They had the entire Butlins audience in the palm of their hands and causing their usual havoc, jumping into the crowd to finish off their great set.

I felt sorry for The Jesus and Mary Chain having to follow the Nova Twins. I have never really got them. There’s the odd song I like. Tonight didn’t convert me to the chain gang. I gave them a try. I stayed at the front for a few songs but they basically played in the dark and there was little benefit of being at the front. So I grabbed a beer and started to download photos while listening to them. Nothing caught my attention and eventually I moved on.

Closing the evening was Steve Lamacaq playing one great song after another to a pretty packed crowd who stuck around to dance into the early hours.

Day three was always the strongest on paper with Fountaines D.C. and LIFE, but there was still time for some surprises.

First up Adwaith, a welsh band who sang several songs in Welsh. They were pleasant enough. For me, the English songs were stronger than the Welsh songs.

Eyesore and the Jinx were new to me. They are from Liverpool and have a psychobilly sound. I’m a bit of a sucker for that sound and it’s rare you hear a contemporary indie band exploring the sound. I loved their set.

Next up, The Vegan Leather did nothing for me. After the dark psychobilly, the happy indie pop of Vegan Leather left me cold. If it wasn’t for the fact that I wanted to hold my place for LIFE, I would have gone to get something to eat.

I love LIFE. Mez, their singer has the confident swagger of Jagger and that cheekiness that Jarvis has at his best. That wouldn’t be enough if they didn’t have good songs and a strong band behind him. Everyone in LIFE contributes. Lydia, the bassist, dances around the stage swinging the base around like it’s a dance partner. While, Mick, Mez’s brother, split kicks his way around the stage (annoyingly, I missed every one of them!)

I love LIFE. They are the kind of band I want to be in. They make catchy music, but with a message and they make sure they and the audience enjoy themselves. I really hope they get a break in the next 12 months that catapult them to the next level. They are ready for the big time.

Melys were up next. A 90s band I don’t remember. They were pleasant enough,

I had seen Heavy Lungs support the Idles. I enjoyed them at the time. Not sure why, but tonight, while they put on a good show, I was left a bit indifferent. Maybe it was seeing them so soon after LIFE.

Closing Reds for this festival, the International Teachers or Pop. They were an amusing diversion for a few songs.

At this point I made a tactical mistake. Previous evenings, people started to queue up, but the queues were small and most in the queue headed to the back of Centre Stage to grab tables for the whole evening. So I decided to grab some food and when I got back, the queue was much longer than in previous nights and worse, when the doors opened they filled up the barrier. I could tell that they were the kind of people (like me) who were there for one thing, Fontaines. Suspecting that it might get a bit moshy at the front, I opted for the end of the barrier to stay away from any potential camera damaging action.

Opening the evening was Brix and the Extricated. I don’t like the Fall or Brix’s music, but I find Brix fascinating and her set was a bit like that. The music didn’t hold my attention. Brix is a very good performer. Although I have to admit, I prefer it when she’s telling stories!

Anyone at University in the early 90s knows the Wedding Present. There was alway a t-shirt or two floating around and somebody was always playing them somewhere in Halls. They have grown on me over the years, but never enough for me to listen to them regularly. Tonight was no different. I enjoyed the performance. But I’m not going to raid their back catalogue (again)

And so we come to the final band of the evening. Rockaway Beach’s booker took a massive gamble that the Fontaines D.C. would be a big enough draw to headline a festival. I missed them in 2018 and finally caught up to them in the Mohawk at SXSW where it was obvious they had something. Fast forward less than 12 months and they have already headlined the Forum and now they are headlining a festival.

Tonight that same nervous energy they showed at SXSW was there. But honed for the big stage and an expectant crowd. They have been championed on a 6 Music, especially from Steve Lamacq and Rockaway is a Steve Lamacq audience. Right from the off, they owned the stage. They sounded much better than when I saw them at the Forum a few months ago, where I felt the sound was awful. Tonight, they showed us how they were ‘going to be big’. Oh yes, they are.

Most of the set was the same as the Forum. But they introduced two (?) new songs which were an interesting guide to their future direction. They seemed to explore a wider sonic landscape than the first album. I suspect their second album will move their sound on considerably.

What I find interesting about Grain, the Fontaines singer is that he has the Ian Curtis nervous energy approach to performing. He paces around the stage shaking and bashing the microphone stand and seems to be impatient for the band to catch up to him. He never talks to the crowd beyond saying three or four words, but the crowd don’t want him to. He seems to hypnotise us and we don’t want him to break his hold by interacting with us. It works. I don’t know why. But it does.

Well done for the Rockaway team for gambling on them. It is these odd decisions that helped me decide to return to the festival. If you continue to make these big decisions, I can overlook the lack of music.

And with that, another Rockaway ended. Butlins is a surprisingly good venue. Heading back to a room every night, is my idea of a festival. Sitting in the onsite Burger King with members of bands on the next table, is a weirdly democratising activity. The Butlins staff are universally brilliant and friendly and while I would like more music, the music there is, is expertly chosen by the Rockaway team. I’m not sure I will be back next year. I’m hoping to do SXSW next year. But I suspect I’ll be back in 2022