Festival Review... Gathering 2013

To put it simply, Gathering Festival is a take on the Camden Crawl. Take this concept, apply it to Oxford’s Cowley Road, schedule in over 40 bands in 7 different venues all within a stone’s throw from the last and you’ve pretty much summed up the day.

Being a relatively new event on the music calendar – only in its second year – the festival introduces a variety of up-and-coming British bands mixed in with an ever-growing international line-up worthy of a major festival. This year saw the likes of London Grammar and Local Natives headline with other acts including Temples, Cheatahs, Waxahatchee and Chloe Howl (to name but a few).

The day itself did not get off to a planned start after hiking out of the city centre to Cowley Rd in the pouring rain. The growing frustration of being very wet was not helped by the increasing queue outside the East Oxford Community Centre (wristband exchange). You couldn’t help but think that it should have been split between two centres or at a larger venue to accommodate such a large number of punters. Another downside being the intensity of the planned schedule with 44 bands to check out in only 10 hours – never an easy day (with most of the acts played within a 5 hour gap!).

Negatives aside, the music started on a good note as I took in an acoustic set from Fyfe – aka Paul Dixon. The short experimental acoustic set at the Truck Store brought glimpses of glitch-age crooning, a mix of folk-electronica and a hint of likeness to Patrick Wolf. The, now 24, Londoner was not short of fans as the intimate venue’s windows fogged with sweaty condensation – unsurprisingly with his back catalogue as David’s Lyre from 2010-2012. ‘Conversations’ and ‘Lies’ are delicate renditions which build with moody vocals to a spectacular climax, leaving the crowd wishing for more.

Another spectacular acoustic set followed at Cowley Road Methodist Church – this was thanks to songstress Denai Moore. The soulful musician played to a pin-drop silent crowd in the top attic which was weirdly a sublime setting allocation. The young Moore relayed tales of heartbreak and uncertainty in a raw, folk manner from her four released EP’s. Haunting opener ‘Wolves’ and equally poignant ‘Gone’ were serenely complemented by the intimacy that the venue fostered, with the best of all being ending the show - the stunning ‘Flaws’ which thumps bass echoes to hearty vocals. If you haven’t come across her before, I’d some her material up as a lovechild of the unpredictable pairing of Bon Iver and Lauryn Hill.

As queues stretched the length of two football pitches, I decided not to waste any time and had to skip headliners London Grammar. But with this I was lucky enough to encounter Dancing Years at the Bullingdon for the fourth time in their short existence (who started off as duo simply Joseph & David). Now they’ve recruited to become a six headed folk-pop outfit equipped with emotionally charged anthems that make you reminisce of times when Mumford & Sons weren’t commercial. The performance of one of my favourite tracks of the year, ‘Here’s To My Old Friends’, was the moment of the festival (personal opinion). Being larger and more hard-hitting live, the song has all the trappings of a glorious indie anthem but is richly layered with folk instrumentation, fragile lyrics and clear modesty.

LA’s finest Local Natives kicked off the later proceedings (post-nine o’clock) at the O2 Academy. The set burst into form from the offset with thunderous, throbbing drums for the excellent ‘Breakers’. The moustachioed Californian four-piece worked their way through a dynamic set with their characteristic harmonies synced to perfection (as is with ‘Warning Signs’). With two critically acclaimed albums to choose from, it was this year’s ‘Hummingbird’ LP which brought the highlights through easy slipping between tones – from the slow-burn touches of ‘You & I’ and the nostalgic ‘Columbia’, to the pacier temp of ‘Ceilings’ and ‘Three Months’. ‘Wide Eyes’ stood out owing to the most distinctive guitar riff intro mixed with rhythmic bass notes and tantalising percussion. Just like the former, ‘Black Balloons’ carried the addictive guitar into the live performance but this time with an extra intensity and mystery. As all four members sang lovelorn harmonies, drummer Matt Frazier shows his skills through predictable fan favourite ‘Camera Talk’, which sounded better than the original by bringing a summer reggae feel.
After I worked my way back to the Bullingdon backroom via a stop at the local kebab shop, I caught the last song of Cheatahs and what a raucous end it was. With a full room, the IAI favourites turned any uninterested crowd members into fan girls/boys with nothing more than pure talent, energy and showmanship. Drenge followed suit a while later (after a lengthy fix-up after technical problems) in the same venue. The Loveless brothers delivered a typical set of gutsy blues-punk with a side order of extreme sport like enthusiasm. To say the crowd weren’t up for it would have been an understatement – crammed in like sardines, it seemed all were alike sharks with a taste for blood. Months of touring self-titled LP has brought an edge to the live show and made them a formidable force exuding even more confidence and experience. Wave after wave of violent noise were spewed out from the wheel greasing of ‘Gun Crazy’ to the implosion ‘I Wanna Break You In Half’, resulting in a formation of a circle pit that engulfs almost half of the venue. Singles ‘Bloodsports’ and ‘Backwaters’ are a rabid, raucous scrap as always, which reach such high intensities that despite the non-existent security and barrier, many fans crowd surf through the mayhem (maybe to just get some fresher air). The demonic howls of ‘Face Like A Skull’ capped off a truly interesting trawl through Eoin and Rory’s primitive arsenal and untamed chaos.
My evening ended with Wolf Alice at the East Oxford Community Centre which boasted a small primary school-like hall as its vessel. Drawing a crowd too large for the venue, again I found myself in a room of unhealthy temperatures. The broad appeal of the band’s fusion of folk and grunge brought an array of interested fans, some hoping to hear the door-slamming frustrations (like that of ‘She’) and others the tenderness of ‘Bros’. Luckily for all, renditions of all songs pleased all audience members with new EP ‘Blush’ being played in full (not continuously in order, spread out over the set). A rapturous response is sustained throughout the 35 minute show as the London band played the sonically easy part of rock ‘n’ roll with soaring comfort. Frontwoman, Ellie Rowsell, oozed a feline cool that put her more than centre stage. However, Wolf Alice did not support the common misconception of female fronted bands which is that the lads at the back are often shuffling in the shadows – Joel, Joff and Theo were and are a unit that radiate a collective enticing sound and big stage presence. Storming angsty-rock prevailed with a tendency to send you back to (or continue) your bashful adolescence. The short but sweet set was brought to a close with the pop grunge racket of ‘Fluffy’ and with that the band, accompanied with Austin Williams (Swim Deep) and Drenge, head off to the clubs of Oxford to continue the party leaving behind a benchmark that only themselves will surpass in the future.

It was disappointing not being able to get to see Charlie Boyer & The Voyeurs or Troumaca, but overall all Gathering left me feeling satisfied and eager to return. At around £20, a ticket offers value for money and with guarantees highlights and exhibitions from bands you may never have come across before.
Written by - Richard Maver