October 2, 2022

Sticklebrick Festival

Festival season barely begun, and already one little gem to be added to the do-you-remember list along with the inevitable highs of Glasto and lows of V2.

Those who were lucky enough a) to be resident at the Durdham Hall of Residence on the edge of Durdham Down at Bristol Uni, or b) to have noticed this internet-only-promoted brainchild of chemistry graduand Declan Fleming, were treated, over the second weekend of June, to a couple of days of indie heaven, dangerously cheap drinks and horizontal bungee-duelling.

I went on the Saturday: a fine, sunny day, with just enough of a breeze blowing off the Downs to ventilate, which was fortunate, because the marquee company had brought the wrong kind of spikes, so the open-air stage in the hall’s disturbingly bland Barretts central quadrangle was just that, with no contingency plans whatsoever.

As Dec explained, Sticklebrick was something that had just growed and growed, like Popsy, from a fortunate French connection (someone who knew someone who knew the astoundingly glorious neo-orch-folk four-piece Cyann and Ben who agreed to play early on), to another early agreement from Bristol-based Gravenhurst (newly signed to Warp), and snowballed thence into a pre-Euro-thrash entente cordiale involving the likes of the post-rock/neo-dub Parisian Don’t Look Back, the rapidly rising star of the Franco-American partnership, Berg Sans Nipple, and the more locally familiar luminaries – Crescent, Mole Harness, Hot Chip, North Sea Navigator and all points west.

Of course, there were sound problems. (I took Jack along – the younger of my 12-year-old twin sons – and his “Is this still the sound-check, dad?” became the day’s conspiratorial Coke-enhanced leitmotif.) Those quieter acoustic acts unfortunate enough to have been located in the second stage (the bar) were, depending on how many increasingly happy people were playing pool and/or table tennis and/or iToy at the time, accessible/audible only to the ten people sitting closest to them: I’d have liked to have heard more of a gentle Finnish soloist called Drowsy, for example, who sounded delightful, but I gave up.

Few acts were immune from equipment and/or connection failure at some point. Cyann and Ben were particularly badly affected, which was a pity. But there were acts for whom this was not an issue: I particularly enjoyed the anarchic loopiness of Brick – a true lolopping eccentric who lulls you into a false sense of security by tinkling with toy xylophone loops and recorders and strumming a half-size violin before ambushing you with the sound of several live jacks being shorted at the same time then re-looped into an ear-splitting feedback howl (which it probably was – deliberately, I assume – who knows?): the sort of thing that’s usually associated with nasty-smelling wisps of smoke curling up from eviscerated tweeters in less robust systems, but here merely had your drink jumping involuntarily out of your glass.
Bristol-based Glue – a new-ish three-piece with an alternative two-piece acoustic persona – who were completely new to me – were outstanding, not only for some very promising original material, but for a repertoire of superbly realised, refreshingly non-ironic covers: a Hendrix whose title eludes me, Pink Floyd’s ‘Breathe’, and – one of the day’s golden memories – Carly Simon’s ‘Nobody Does It Better’.

For many (judging by the surge in audience numbers when they started) the other Bristol-based three-piece – Gravenhurst – was the day’s headliner. The enigmatic Nick Talbot fronts, together with Paul Nash and Dave Collingwood, this rising sonic folk ensemble whose new album – Flashlight Seasons – is about to be released on Warp, of all things. Their set was a lively taster of songs from the album – an oft-times surreal (warped?) experience, hearing these intensely private, sometimes distressingly intimate lyrics against the barely brushed-in background of Talbot’s distinctive guitar-pickings in the sunny open air like that – they belong so obviously in the flicker-failing fluorescents of an all-night waiting room reeking of piss; but the final number was a rousting, angry corker of a thing (I missed the title) that just built and built into a toxic avalanche of electronic noise like a pathological rewind of the uncollapsing Walls of Jericho.

And finally – Berg Sans Nipple. I’d been looking forward to hearing Shane Aspegren and Lori Sean Berg play live ever since my jaw locked into a permanent gape on first hearing their debut album, the 2003 Form Of… I’d heard their live set was something special, and indeed it is: they work together like a pair of veteran street jugglers, casually but meticulously tossing these complex packages of riffs and beats to and fro whilst simultaneously weaving between them a fascinating exotic carpet of melody constructed on ancient pieces of kit that look like junk but are clearly priceless instrumental treasures. It was a fabulous set, cut brutally short after barely fifteen minutes and three numbers by a security man with a neck the girth of a small sequoia tapping Shane on the shoulder and announcing to a disbelieving audience that the licence only went up to eight PM so that was it thank you and good evening. The stickler in the stickle. ‘Festival security’. Another of those phrases, like ‘military intelligence’, that have acquired oxymoron status on the back of certain recent events. But hey.

So that, indeed, was that. BSN fared slightly better, at least, than The Shadow Project, poor sods, who had barely begun to set up their kit on the other stage in the bar than they were told they had to go back home to Felixstowe because the licence had run out, thank you and good evening.

The sum of such an event is always greater than its parts, however, provided the parts have been assembled with as much love as, clearly, was Sticklebrick. I doubt that anyone’s disgruntlement lasted longer than the inevitable hangover. As a certain Mr Eavis learnt a long time ago – it’s not really about the music – it’s about who comes to listen to the music. Roll on Sticklebrick II – with more Brick and less stickle, maybe.