“Focussing on upcoming British talent, there are no big money names and it’s all the better for it…”
Gathering Festival, Oxford
If the cancellations and ticket sale struggles of some of the major festivals in recent years is in no small part down to too similar (and familiar) line ups, rising ticket prices and biblical weather, the rise of the popular mini-festival has to also be thought of as a key perpetrator. Oxford’s Gathering is perhaps the newest of these, taking the tried and tested inner-city festival format and applying it to a cluster of venues within a few hundred yards of each other in the university city.
There is a clear niche here too, playing to the strengths of this new-comer to the autumn festival calendar. Focussing on upcoming British talent, there are no big money names and the vast majority of the acts of display are yet to release more than one album, if any at all. It’s a wise decision, and adds up to a surprisingly strong line up including more established acts – and we use this term relatively – such as Dry The River, Lucy Rose, Spector and Clock Opera as well as a handful of genuinely exciting youngsters, including George Ezra, Peace, The Staves, Bastille and Seasfire.
It is in fact Seasfire (pictured right) that get things underway, with an early five o’clock set in the exactly-as-you’d-expect-it Oxford Community Centre. While more accustomed to cake sales and book clubs, it makes for a delightfully intimate venue. And a loud one too. While on record Seasfire enjoy creating space for Josh Thorn’s emotive vocals to roam free in, live they are far beefier proposition – drums pound, guitars screech, choruses are supersized. When their studio work is replicated more literally, as on the wonderfully stripped back ‘Falling’ it gives Thorn’s voice a deserved time to shine. It’s the closing ‘Never Let You Go’ that shines brightest however; an epic, pummelling concoction that swells into a wave of hard, driving beats and sweet, falsetto vocals.
At the Methodist Church, with a lack of a bar providing a hushed, cosy atmosphere, Karima Francis delivers 30 minutes of acoustic soul-pop far more endearing that her comparatively drabber recorded output. Proving to be an endearing mix of nerves and anachronistic references to “that Twitter thing”, the intimate setting highlights an utterly beautiful singing voice. She is directly followed by George Ezra (pictured left), who first came into WTGR’s view playing a very early set at the similar Dot To Dot festival in his home of Bristol. With a face yet to meet a razor his voice still comes as a shock. Wise, world-weary and weather-beaten, his delicately plucked acoustic folk songs are given a bluesy edge by his emotive rasp. The recently released ‘Just My Skin’ shines across the pin-drop-quiet crowd that are asked to huddle closer together due to the queues forming to get into the venue. It is ‘Speak So Lightly’ that acts as the gem into crown of a mesmeric set. Perhaps the surest melody in his quiver so far, it’s a delicate acoustic lament that you’d expect to be coming out of someone double his 16 years.
With the largest venue, the O2 Academy, not opening until later in the evening there is a long, snaking queue around the block in anticipation for the night’s better known acts. Clock Opera (pictured right) deliver half an hour of glitchy mini-epics that somehow don’t manage to make you feel as huge as music this huge should. The penultimate ‘Belongings’ is the obvious exception, building to an unequivocally grand close as all the group chant along to the rousing outro.
Bastille (pictured left) crank the atmosphere up another notch, proving in the mp3/soundcloud/spotify era just how connected a fanbase can be to an artist that is still six months away from releasing an LP. Understandably it is the singles – ‘Overjoyed’, ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘Flaws’ – that demand the biggest screams, but their covers of City High’s ‘What Would You Do’ and Corona’s ‘Rhythm of the Night’ certainly give them a run for their money, getting the crowd bouncing almost as much as frontman Dan Smith’s novelty Jedward hairdo.
Dry The River (pictured right) have, in their own understated way, had a phenomenal 2012. Since their debut album, Shallow Bed, was released back in March, they’ve been playing sold out shows on both sides of the Atlantic ever since. It is therefore quite a compliment then that, as they do tonight, the group declare this tipsy Oxford crowd ‘the rowdiest we’ve ever played to’, an observation confirmed by the group again on Twitter a few hours after the show.
What makes Dry The River such an appealing group is the juxtaposition between the pastoral and the visceral, and this is highlighted tenfold in a barnstorming hour-long headlining set. Anthems such as ‘No Ceremony’ and ‘No Rest’ are torn into with the vigour of an emo, or even hardcore band. Their harmonies are tighter than a camel’s ass in a sandstorm and sung with an emotional resonance that makes Mumford et al sound like a barbershop quartet. The only sticky patch comes in the form of an accapella intro to the sublime ‘Weights and Measures’ that doesn’t quite work, but does serve to highlight the song’s instrumental oomph when the full group kick back in half-way through. Otherwise, it’s an absolute lesson in how to headline a festival of any size.