Outside the Bubble: My Saturday at Tramlines

I arrive into Sheffield, on time. This must be a first. Trains into and out of Sheffield are always delayed, it’s a dreadful station. It’s quite pleasing on the eye, fairly old and with a great wall of fountains outside, the staff are friendly, but its trains are always delayed. Well at least they usually are.

Up the hill, past the Sheffield Hallam accommodation blocks (which feature a rather tacky copy of Andrew Motion’s poem “What if?…” embossed on the side), and into the city.

I like Sheffield. It’s far from the prettiest place you will ever go, but it certainly isn’t the ugliest. Many of its streets are pedestrianised, and the whole place has a small town feel to it – despite it being home to over 500,000 people. A proper northern city, with heart and soul.

I have an hour before any music starts, so I go in search of the collection point for my press pass and, more importantly, for some fried chicken. Walking round you can see Sheffield is gearing up for its second successive day of festivities; there’s a Ferris Wheel erected next to the City Hall, with more rides dotted all around the city, there’s hundreds of stewards dressed in bright orange and there’s music playing out of all the shops. In my short reccy I walk down the main street that takes you from the City Hall to the Main Stage at Devonshire Green. I hear a noise in the distance, as I continue walking I soon learn that it’s a copy of “Fight the Power” being blasted out of a boom box, which is sat on the window ledge of 6th story flat. In case you weren’t already aware, Public Enemy are in town.

My first stop is the before mentioned City Hall, the entrance to which is a small hard-to-find side door (The crew for Nordic Giants were just as clueless as me, as they chase around in a frantic manner). Down a flight of stairs and into what feels like an extravagant American theme park building; it’s huge, decorated like a replica Egyptian tomb and smells of air conditioning. The room is dark and within it stand 100 separated individuals; the dedicated early comers, arms crossed and programmes under arm.

A band enters by the name of Her name is Calla, three guys and a female violinist. After a cheer, the room goes silent. The drummer, a cousin itt impersonator seemingly, brings out a pair of hairy drum sticks (I’m sure they have a name…) and plays the cymbals in an orchestral manner. The rest of the instruments then come in. What they create is a sound so atmospheric, so big that you’d guess they were a large established band, like a Swans. They play with a confidence that is well beyond what the size of their fan base would suggest. Going down a storm, the 100 is now 200, and the applause sounds more like 500. The lead singer commands the stage with Jon Grant like vocals, partaking in perfect harmonies with the bassist. The drummer pounds away impeccably; the violinist adds a Celtic edge. The band is apparently missing a cellist and their main bassist tonight, not that you would guess that they were short on anything. The whole occasion is wonderfully dramatic as they play around with a shit-ton of distortion for their final number “New England”. A perfect start to the day. In an excited hurry I message my friend telling him he has a new band to listen to. “Listen to them? I’ve played with them!” he informs me. The crowd empties out for a smoke break as the band also exits; leaving just me and my few other fellow asthmatic squares left in the room.

The place soon starts to refill again though, as everyone prepares for the next act. Like the world’s strangest collection of lookalikes, Mac DeMarco, Eddie Vedder, someone out of Alt-J, Kurt Cobain, and a bearded Conan O’Brien make up Then Thickens. They play Pop-y, Rock-y, Part Oasis, Part Artic Monkeys kind of stuff. They live off big melodies, these aren’t necessary amazing but they are the most striking features of their songs. Another striking feature is how much the bands individual members clash, not only in appearance but in musical style. Kurt Cobain naturally plays grunge-y guitars, but this doesn’t fit too well with bearded Conan O’Brien’s folk drums. Alt-J guy is working hard on the keyboards, but it’s wasted, you can’t even hear them. Mac Demarco is looking cool, not too sure what input he’s having though. Eddie Vedder up front, sounds a bit like Jake Bugg’s older brother, as he battles his way through a song that sounds remarkably similar to “All right now” (you know the one, normally featuring on a advert or on one of those crap Driving song CDs they flog away with your Grand Parents’ copy of the Daily Mail). They finish with a quieter number. All the members can be heard now and, as a result, it sounds much better. The lower band volume also allows me to make out some of the words coming out of the singer’s mouth for the first time. Something about ‘Vaseline’ and something about ‘nipples’. I think it’s probably for the best I couldn’t make out the full sentence.

A smoke motivated shuffle out and in later, the audience are ready for Talons. Talons are an instrumentalist group comprising of two violins, three guitars and a drum kit. Each song starts with swirling drums, as the members enter one by one in a very atmospheric build up. The energy keeps building up until we hit a huge climax moment (EDM Style!). Unfortunately they go nowhere with this climax and the songs generally fizzle out a bit from here on in. A very technically proficient group of musicians, but a group that never really manages to fully capture my attention. This does change when the violins take prominence for a song or two. In the absence of a vocalist to provide melody, the violins can do the ‘singing’, thus filling the gap that this band was previously housing. ‘Peter Pan’ is a fantastic Math-Rock song of violently changing rhythms and melodic strings, all sequenced together beautifully. In ‘Monuments’, however, the beats (which sound like Freddy’s “George of the jungle” drums off ‘School of Rock’) render the violins fairly inaudible. There’s a feel of These New Puritans to the whole occasion, the “Neo-Classical” genre of music I guess, but TNP have a bit more creativity, a bit more strength in song range and an extra dimension to their music (which is probably just their singer). The ending of their last song of the set has the audience on the brink of polite applause, until it resurrects into a cool outro.

By now the room is heaving, which much closer to a thousand people, everyone waiting for the biggest and likely most surreal half hour of the day so far: Nordic Giants. Prior to their set the tech guys run round in a frenzy preparing the elaborate, and unique, stage layout. A projector is turned on, and a video of a flying bird appears onto a white screen standing upright on the stage. A monitor in front of this is showing a different video, also of a bird. Two people enter, both covered in feathers, both wearing beak masks. They sit down, one at a mac and keyboard, the other at an electric drum set. All goes quiet, the room remains dark. A video starts playing on the screens. It’s a short film about a scifi police chase around a futurist New York, shot in infra-red. The keys start to drone, the electric drums crash. The video ends. A new video appears: a family going for a fishing weekend on a lake. They let the video play alone for the first minute; we now all know the plot: the air has gone toxic and the family are using oxygen tanks in order to survive. The two on stage then start playing their score. They capture the feeling of the short film perfectly, with haunting keys and rolling drums as the family now turn on each other in order to survive. They use the voices in the videos to fit in with their music. At one point the drums guy brings out a bowed bass, all very dramatic, all very wonderful. In the next video, we see a man walk into the mouth of a sleeping dragon, into its fire belly, and ending up at the top of a volcano. As he runs down the side, fleeing the chasing lava, the drums build up to high intensity, the man’s screams fitting in seamlessly, the keys add extra suspense. The beauty of Nordic giants is that they also work on record. But live, in the feather-y flesh, they bring an experience. The set ends and the audience are wowed, speechless. A few seconds later, after a brief moment of silence, there’s a deafening explosion of applause and whistling.

I exit City Hall in a hurry, with one destination on my mind, the same as everyone else, the Main Stage. A fast walk and a ten minute queue later and I’m on Devonshire Green, although the scorching summer has turned the grass into more of a yellow. A group of four half naked pissheads are dancing along to ‘Boom Boom’ in the middle of the field, everyone else smiles on. Five women walk on to the stage, they start going through the process of sound checking, much of the festival crowd is unaware this happening and continue chatting amongst themselves. Without any sort of an announcement, the five on stage commence in playing the introduction to a song, but it’s all so quiet and so gentle that even I’m not aware that this is the start of their set. A few people gather around the front of the stage to give them a listen, but most just treat it as background noise. Four of the five women are a backing band, with the remaining one being Rosie Lowe; She uses her voice a bit like a female James Blake, but to much less of an effect. She fails to really capture my attention, or the rest of the people’s around me for that matter. One woman is enjoying it though; a fifty year old Rastafarian wearing an elephant patterned jumpsuit is dancing along, trying to entice a few young men around her to join in. On stage Rosie is sharing an anecdote about a young kid who asked her about love, but I’m not really paying attention, the dancing woman has just moved onto groin thrusts and it’s all very weird, as the group around her cheer the moves on. I do manage to slip back into Rosie’s performance, but only to hear the lyrics to the song about romance “Don’t you rush it, take your time, if its true love you’ve got the rest the rest of your life”. They don’t even rhyme. Finishing her set, Rosie thanks the Tramlines crowd, asking if they’ll be out “Darncing tonight”, as she exposes her southern accent. “I might be danncing love, not sure about darncing” shouts a guy stood to the right of me.

The Public enemy entourage arrive, all wearing hall of fame inductee t shirts that they keep plugging “We’re selling them at the back, grab your piece of history”. They introduce a warm up DJ, a fat, bald, middle-aged, white bloke called Andy H. Playing all the favourite hip hop classics he goes down well with the crowd, injecting the energy that Rosie Lowe failed to provide. He does get a bit carried away though, with some excessive scratching and attempts at mixing, but he largely fulfills his role of warming up Devonshire Green. The 40 year old man and his friend in front of me are getting very excitable. The fatter one of the two pulls off his t shirt, revealing a big beer belly and male breasts. His friend turns to me: “If you’re lucky son, you could be like this one day”. The next time I look over to the pair, they’re both busy rolling themselves a joint

Andy leaves and two guys dressed a military personal enter, they walk towards the front of the stage and salute the crowd, they then step back and remain stationary for the next hour. In enters a 54 year old Chuck D, who breaks straight into the first line of a song I don’t recognise. No one cares though, as we all mosh along. At the end of the song Chuck introduces probably the most famous hype man in the history of the genre, his partner, Flavor Flav. Despite being 55 years old, Flavor still appears as sprightly as ever, and he still carries the same high pitched voice, which brings both the profound and the hilarious in equal measures. Releasing all the classics, Public Enemy are crowd pleasers this afternoon, with “Public Enemy No. 1”, “Rebel without a Pause” and “Welcome to the Terrordrome” all within the space of a few songs. In a brief call and response, Chuck’s hype man stops to ask the crowd his name; “Flaaavooorr Flaaav!” they shout back. He continues asking until he is satisfied with the volume, rewarding the crowd with the pulling out of a his giant clock-on-a-chain that had been hiding under his top thus far. Dropping the music for a second, the two pause for a moment of silence on the stage. A few seconds later the DJ starts to play the introduction to “Fight the Power”, the rap duo’s most enduring hit. Live on stage they manage to double the anger packed into the song on record, the bass is cranked up a notch too. A large crop circle starts to build near me in anticipation for the chorus, releasing into a mess of pure joy when it eventually comes. They end with “Harder than you think” (the theme music to C4s coverage of the 2012 Paralympics), which goes down a storm with the younger festival goers. Still very political, Chuck D ends with a message to “Cut that shit out in Gaza, man”. Flav, however, stays a little longer, announcing that he’s against two things in life: “Racism” and “Separatism”. Putting two fingers in the air he calls to the crowd to tell him what it means, “PEACE!” bellows out, loud enough for anyone anywhere in Sheffield to hear. Asking them to mimic his gesture, he then asks for everyone to bring their two fingers together. “That means togetherness”, “peace and togetherness” he says as everyone copies his scissor action. Flav exits the stage, and I exit the Green.

Walking past streets of drunken bodies, I make my way back to the station. I do stop off at what appears to be a free stage, though, there’s a ska covers band playing. During their rendition of “Lip Up Fatty” I watch as a local man climbs up onto a raised platform, in full sight of everyone present. He then rips off his top to reveal a wrinkly and tattooed late-middle aged body. Dancing around the platform clapping his hands above his head, everyone (including the band) starts to clap along too. The next song, another one of Bad Manners’, “Special Brew” gees him, and the rest of us, up just as much. Sheffield is a happy place this evening.

The last train back is relatively early, and with nowhere to crash, I’m left having to miss the (very) late night performances by the likes of Gold Panda and Simian Mobile Disco. Resting my incredibly aching legs on the seat opposite me on the train, I fall asleep. Today was a fantastic day.

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