CITADEL Festival @Victoria Park, London
Rising from the ashes of the Lovebox site in Victoria Park, Citadel is a very different kind of festival. Arriving early means you can still see the more generic remnants of the previous festival. It may share some of the stalls of glitter face paint, party supplies and burger vans, but the crowd and the vibe is distinctly different.
A huge expanse of Victoria Park is used for this event, hustling from the main stage to the Communion Stage or the Soundcrash Tent in high summer is like a march in the Foreign Legion. Well, a march in the Foreign Legion with the offer of fresh pressed juice, sports day games and Dia de los Meurtos parades.
Early performers on the main stage Cosmic Strip make the most of the people who have turned out to see them, or who are curiously passing by. This is great time slot for fledgling band, giving this London based band a chance to prepare for bigger things. Their sound and look has overtones of 90’s favourites Lush with sultry, spinning guitars and sweet harmonies. Following Cosmic Strip, comes Antimony with a retro take on 80’s synth pop. For new bands they do bring a sense of deja vu, this could be the summer to gather fans and find their sound. Meanwhile, at the other end of the park, in the Soundclash Tent are original and practiced jazz trio Gogo Penguin. This is generous band with a big rounded sound, each song allowing the piano, bass and drums to paint their own colours over the vibrant upbeat structure of the other instruments. The audience is drawn to the tent from outside by the roar of amazement after each number until crowd stretches to the entrances.
Travelling to and from the major stages the journey is punctuated by a variety of activities and opportunities to dip in and out of laid back acoustic singers at the Corona Sunsets stage, summer dance tunes at the creatively formed Koppaberg Urban Forest and the permanent structure appropriated as the Park Bandstand.
At every passing of the Park Bandstand is a treat; the people gathered around as a make-shift audience, some coming some going, jump into whichever raucous musical happening is taking place: Hula-hooping with Hoop Hop Jam. A wild Charleston and swing dance class with Swing Patrol & the Broken Swing Band. A choir of dapper chaps who other than The Chap Choir. A fling and a jig from Ceilidh with Cut a Shine, swirling Eastern European folk music from Immigrant Swing and unexpected funk and soul like Stax horns dialled up from Hackney Colliery Band. Wether you stay for a spell or dip in and out The Bandstand is on the map.
As the festival begins to fill up most gravitate to the Main Stage to enjoy Calexico. The wide range of musical influences reflected by Calexico makes them tough to label. As their name suggests they are a mixture of styles, blending and layering rock, country, tejano, jazz, blues and mariachi. A perfect band for a swarm of colourful people, a hot sunny day and an ice cold beverage. Introducing themselves as Calexico from Tucson, just to clear up any confusion about the name, they take to the stage in their trade mark country rockabilly get up, and announce that they brought the sun with them. Indeed they did, opening with Frontera; the cinematic music of desert heat, ramshackle border towns and tumble weeds. This first song is played with a single trumpet player in lieu of the full mariachi band, but the effect with Paul Niehaus’s steel guitar is haunting.
Their set continues with an upbeat, summery flavour with with an updated tejano sound and an almost Cuban rhythm jingled out on the piano in the bridge bringing some audience members to their feet from the grouping of picnic blankets dotted around. On standout track Black Heart is a mix of moody lush accordion (more typical of Conjunto music) matched with rich steel guitar and downbeat vocals which merged into their next track announced with theatrical steam train sound effects seemingly displaced from an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. The ideal moment in their set coming from their cover of Love’s 1967 classic Alone Again Or, the video screen backdrop complimenting the Spanish guitar with a spinning fireball graphic. Which is mirrored beautifully by the burning hot sol which has been quietly turning the crowd into schvitzing lobsters in the course of the set.
Thankfully the park setting gives an opportunity to duck out of the direct heat and into the dappled light of the shade. The only drawback to this strategy, besides the competition form other likeminded shade hunters is the positioning in the overall festival. Step even a little to the side of staging area and you are caught in an overstimulating bubble of noise bleed. The stages may be as evenly spaced as they can be but the sporadic fairground rides, unused themed bars and dance tents feel like the parts of Lovebox that forgot to go home. This crowd is much more laid back and notably middle class. This is proven by the addition of the Sunday Papers Live centred in a rather civilised cul-de-sac of specialised catering called Flavours of the City. For £35 a head you can forgo the greasy burger vans and have a three course sit down menu from celebrated chef Stephen Harris of The Sportsman.
If that’s a little too highfalutin, some of the best loved, most blogged about bites are represented; Mr. Bao, Voodoo Ray’s, Bird, Mama’s Jerk, Patty & Bun and Bubbledogs (where they will pair a champagne with your choice of hot dog). Hipster foodie heaven it may be, but the circle of food trucks and stimulating debate provide a perfect pit stop in tailor made canopied banquettes. The topic of discussion is almost exclusively Brexit and the pains of inequality in Britain today. This audience of the chatting classes are remarkably quiet, perhaps this is because their mouths are full of delicious food… Everywhere else at the festival they can’t seem to shut up often shouting over the volume of the music. What’s so important that they have to say? How “ah-mazing” their last vacation was or how many follows they’ve gained on Instagram thanks to their glitter make up or which craft beer they are yet to try. No judgement, but surely the music is more interesting?
With so much music happening simultaneously it’s hard to be everywhere sticking to the major stages promises the best known acts and hits. One sure fire highlight of the festival is Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats on the Main Stage. After changing crowd position several times to best hear the band (and get away from a man shouting over the music about how many times he’s seen the band and how they are his favourite) it’s time for some ripe and rowdy traditional rhythm and blues. A voiceover booms out over the crowd, “Ladies and Gentlemen, prepare to have your heads blown off and faces melted…” That’s one helluva promise. To kick off this sizeable band launch into Look It Here from their eponymous debut album. With all of the members in full swing it’s easy to forget they are a relatively new band, with just one EP and one album of songs.
Their sound is filled with sliding Hammond organ, joyous bass and full horn section their recorded songs sound even better live. Any band member not busy with a drum kit, guitar or brass picks up a tambourine and shakes their stuff. Hand clapping country riffs give way to a softer, purer soul sound. This is quickly countered by a psychedelic organ intro to I’ve Been Failing, beefed up with a foot stomping sax solo. Nathaniel Rateliff is a surprisingly active frontman, dancing around the stage winding up the audience and guiding them as he coerces everybody to backup his chorus to swaying blues number Howling at Nothing. On other tracks the band take their turn to keep the energy up with choreographed sidesteps and interjections. There are some moments that recall the music that influences them hints of Otis Redding soul, a little song craft of Jackson Browne and the mumbled phrasing of Van Morrison, particularly on songs like Wasting Time.
After crowd pleaser I Did It, it was unclear if this sentiment was a song of celebration or a confession of guilt! Rateliff seems to relish expressing each word, peaking up his eyebrows like pinball flippers with every enunciation. The whole band share his excitement as they rock out on Tried Not to Know. All that is left is their powerhouse hit S.O.B. which feels like a great pay off as he wails the chorus at the crowd, who have finally been moved to dance in the heat. Signing off as he leaves the stage Rateliff, like so many visiting Americans wants to make his position on the upcoming election clear, “Take care of the working people, because that’s all we have together. Bernie Saunders forever!” Perhaps he’ll pop up to Sunday Papers Live later and give some perspective on global matters?
Winding down on the Communion stage is Matt Corby, an intriguingly understated artist whose band managed to draw a good crowd despite the number of other attractions. Dressed in a casual black sweatshirt and ripped jeans he looks like he arrived at the stage from his own laid back Sunday. His sound was right at home amongst the other acts, slinky staggered bass lines, fat guitar rhythms, even one track where he picks up a flute soft and dreamy number, just right for the setting sun.
In the half light Caribou take to the Main Stage, the whole band decked out in white an apt reflection of their sparse electro-ambient sound. They are a transitional act taking the crowd into the night, cooling down the sun drenched Americana to slick and sexy global beats. Also worthy of note back on the Communion Stage is much reviewed and much photographed Lianne La Havas. Unless you have been in solitary confinement in a sound exclusion booth this summer you are probably aware of this stellar talent. Citadel provides one more stop on her journey of global domination. Expect big sounds, a big following and big awards from this South West Londoner.
Billed as the headliners of Citadel are Sigur Rós. Famous for their soaring ambient soundscapes this Icelandic outfit have the power to build up a day and night of music to a crescendo before gently relaxing it down again to send the festival goers home in a haze of euphoria. Here the video production which has been supporting the Main Stage artists becomes an integral part of the performance with graphic overlays and effects coordinated with the stage lights to create a visual world that seems to extend past the framework of the rigging designed to audience on an environmental tour of Iceland. Starting with monochrome outlines and high contrast blocks for their opening song it feels like staring across a black volcanic beach in a state of existential crisis. Quick to the rescue is their most well known track Hoppípolla (a favourite of ad agencies and renlighten TV producers). Illustrating the song, geometric turquoise laser beams cast a net over the stage like the cracks which reveal the glassy chunks of frozen ice in southern most tips of Vík.
A tiny galaxy of stars fill the stage and screens as one long single note of falsetto whistles over the delicate music. The stars rise like ceremonial lanterns and explode into firework star bursts. The graphic of a planet seethes like the live images of the sun in negative. Multi-instrumentalist and lead singer Jónsi Birgisson bows his guitar strings with a violin bow creating an eerie almost aeolian sound. The graphics evolve to a red lava dot matrix as Sigur Rós sooth the crowd into their own drifting lullaby.
Live review of Citadel Festival 2016 by Sarah Sievers on 17th July. Photography by Simon Jay Price