Burning down the house at Electric Picnic

Thirty-five thousand music and arts lovers packed the Stradbally estate in Co Laois for last weekend’s Electric Picnic.

Burning down the house at Electric Picnic

The 2013 festival will largely be remembered as a good’un. The sun shone, the line-up was eclectic, and most present could not help but enjoy themselves — though there were some regrettable incidents, the most tragic of which was the death of a young man on Friday night.

The two musical highlights of the festival were the performances by Bjork on Saturday night and David Byrne with St Vincent on Sunday.

No-one else can pen a lyric quite as forlorn and kooky as Bjork’s ‘Hunter’, on which she crooned: “I thought I could organise freedom/How Scandinavian of me.”

Pic; Bjork

Bjork’s musical and lyrical eccentricity is, of course, what has endeared her to so many. Her determination to do as she pleases found eloquent expression on ‘Declare Independence’, the song that closed her 14-track set. “Start your own currency!” she exhorted. “Make your own stamp! Protect your language!”. God knows what Angela Merkel would have made of it.

David Byrne has enjoyed a long and varied career since breaking with Talking Heads in 1991. Last year the sexagenarian recorded his ninth ‘solo’ album, Love This Giant, with St Vincent — or Annie Clarke as she is known to her mother — a singer and multi-instrumentalist half his age. At the Electric Picnic, they were joined by a charming and rambunctious brass section. The tracks that drew the most enthusiastic response were, almost inevitably, from Byrne’s time with Talking Heads. These included ‘Burning Down the House’, surely the most magnificent song about arson ever written.

Elsewhere, there were any number of guitar bands jostling for attention. Some, such as My Bloody Valentine and Manic Street Preachers, seem to have long since outlived their usefulness. More, like the American all-girl outfit Warpaint, and Irish youngsters The Strypes, look more promising. Neither outfit scores marks for originality, but they are at least capable of exciting an audience of thousands.

The same might be said of Fatboy Slim, though the attraction of standing in a field to watch a former Housemartin spin records is a mystery to this reviewer. It might be argued that the Housemartins remain the only Marxist-Christian light pop group in history to score a number one hit, with an acapella cover of Isley-Jasper-Isley’s ‘Caravan of Love’. However, that achievement surely pales beside those of their contemporaries The Smiths, who boasted some of the best haircuts and most miserable song titles in contemporary music. These topped off the improbably happy marriage of Morrissey’s vocal affectations and Johnny Marr’s dazzling guitar effects.

Marr has finally got around to releasing his first solo album, The Messenger. On Sunday evening, he mixed his new material with classic Smiths tracks such as ‘How Soon Is Now?’, to the delight of the crowd. Marr is an affable frontman. On the evidence of his performance, he was — 26 years after the Smiths’ break-up — quite right to dare going solo.

One could, if one so wished, have spent the entire three days of the Picnic traipsing from one gig to the next. Apart from the mainstream attractions on the stages in the central arena — Robert Plant, Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand were just some of the crowd-pleasers — there were various points about the grounds of Stradbally that showcased more leftfield acts.

For relaxation, there was the Body & Soul area, which offered everything from seaweed baths and hot tubs to the delightful spectacle of the staff of the Hurly Burly cafe downing tools to dance to Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’. There was plenty of seating throughout the festival grounds, where the weary of foot and brain could recharge.

Those requiring stimulus of a variety other than musical inevitably wound their way to the Mindfield area. The comforts offered here were not, of course, narcotic but cerebral. There were readings, theatrical performances and displays of scientific ingenuity; Mary O’Rourke presided over the Electric Picnic Parliament; and Miriam O’Callaghan hosted brunch.

Two veteran authors — JP Dunleavy and John Healy — were among the guests at the Literary Tent. Dunleavy, the author of The Ginger Man and a whole slew of alliterative titles that include The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, lives in a country mansion on 200 acres in Co Westmeath. Healy, the former vagrant and chess champion who penned the classic memoir The Grass Arena, lives in a small flat in Kentish Town in London. Their lives as writers could hardly have been more different. Dunleavy’s worldwide success has led him to become an expert on literary law, while Healy can barely get published, thanks to a very old row with Faber & Faber. Each was, in his own way, enthralling.

The Electric Picnic celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. It remains the most enjoyable festival experience of the summer. One quibble: whoever flung a bottle of water into the crowd at the Electric Arena around 9pm on Sunday night will no doubt be disappointed to learn that its trajectory met an abrupt end at a point somewhere between my forehead and my left ear. The children present were at least spared injury. The idiot responsible should see a psychiatrist.

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