With music festivals having successfully re-rooted themselves in the UK over the past couple of weeks in the form of Latitude and Wilderness, among others, it was time for the inner-city variant to make a comeback. This past Saturday, August 7, saw the return of Visions, the beloved East London single day, multi-venue fiesta, which always packs a host of acts both emerging and in-demand into unlikely spaces, and this year’s – despite the added stresses – was no different.
Having used different venues in each edition since its 2013 inception, this year’s event was a handy reminder of both the new and old culture in the Bethnal Green area, as I found myself hopping back and forth from the historic Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club to the more unusual, modern environment that is The Pickle Factory. It’s just a shame that it rained most of the day – although there was no dampening the atmosphere, as people were palpably excited to see live music on a Saturday afternoon, no social distancing necessary (though proof of a negative COVID test was requested at wristband pick-up, an order with which everyone happily complied).
Sadly too late to miss the buzzed about Rough Trade-signed octet Caroline, I began my afternoon with the roboosexual intonations of Martha Skye Murphy. While the notebook perched on her synth suggested she might be playing some works in progress, the songs that she and her band (replete with cello) performed were full-blooded. From the moment she looped her wicked laugh, which acted like a starting gun, we were engrossed. Dressed in all black to match her long pitch-black hair, Murphy struck as something of a dark-hearted Barbarella, especially as her songs seeped into more science-fiction sounding fare. Magnetic throughout, Murphy drew us in with her softness and the lulling rumble of the drums, only to push us back on our heels with blasts of shrieking sound. A performance of her recent single “Found Out” only gripped us further, and when she played a recording of a Catholic Communion towards the end, it felt entirely, chillingly, natural.
The flip from the spooky sounds of Martha Skye Murphy to the warm tones of Falle Nioke was quite a drastic one, but such is the joy of a festival. Up from his home in Margate, the West African was radiant, visibly and audibly delighted to be performing again, mentioning how it had been a long time since he’d had the chance. While the downfall outside might have dampened the crowd’s mood to dance initially, Nioke’s irrepressible happiness and energy was inevitably going to get through, and it wasn’t long before the audience was bubbling about like corn about to pop. With his trusty drum strapped around him, Nioke led the charge rhythmically, while standing in front of his marvellous voice felt like standing naked in front of the sun. People hung on every beat and tone to the end, when he appropriately finished with a tribute to Africa, which cheered everybody to the bones.
While Famous might not be too similar in vibe to Falle Nioke, they maintained a similar level of excitement in The Pickle Factory, as they followed him on stage to an equally packed and excited room. In an unusual – and arguably brave – move, the London locals decided to start their set with the two slow, atmospheric tracks from their recent mini album The Valley. Remaining receptive, the crowd were clearly enlivened when Famous launched into “The Beatles”, playing with just as much energy and bluster as the song’s infamous rooftop video. From there, Famous played banger after banger, drawing on early cuts “Forever” and “Surf’s Up” amidst recent favourites, singer Jack Merrett ceding the stage to his bandmates whenever it came to one of their impressive instrumental segments. They even felt comfortable enough to drop in a new song, “Warm Springs”, which saw Merrett on guitar, and they completed their set with the coup de grace that is “Stars”, leaving everyone filled with their unique brand of pessimistic optimism.
At this point, the early evening fully upon us, there was an undoubted atmosphere of pure positivity and joviality in the air, which was perfectly evidenced in what might have been the ‘moment’ of the day. As the crowd waited in Oval Space for the arrival of Leeds punks Yard Act, the DJ decided to spin Sugababes’ classic “Push The Button”. The effect on the audience was immediate, but subtle at first, with plenty of dancing spotted from the front to the back of the venue, growing more enthusiastic with each bubbling beat that past and the realisation that everyone was into it. A communal feeling that I hadn’t felt for so long swept through the audience, and a joyous sing along to the song’s indelible hook could have lifted the spirit of even the coldest, most pop-averted hearts. Everyone was high on just being alive, out of their homes, and in the midst of other merry makers.
It was quite a mood for Yard Act to come into, and they seized it by starting with just the three instrumentalists on stage, revving the crowd’s motor with their muscular playing. Singer James Smith arrived on a wave of excitement, dressed in his large glasses and trench coat, looking like a cross between David Tennant in Doctor Who and David Tennant in Des. Antagonistic towards Londoners throughout, the crowd lapped up his sardonicism, especially in recent favourites, “Peanuts” and “Fixer Upper”. They also took the opportunity to air some cuts from their as-yet-unannounced debut album, and while Smith might be mortified that there’s a song that mentions fake news (the news cycle having moved on quite considerably since he penned it two years ago), their performance was more than enough to have everyone in attendance rubbing their hands in anticipation of hearing it.
While the draw of Oval Space headliners Porridge Radio was certainly strong, there was only one place I wanted to finish the night: back at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club seeing Loraine James. After a day filled with arty soundscapes, cutting lyrics and angular guitars, the London producer’s set was an ideal tonic.
Building off the success of her exceptional new album Reflection, the excitement in the crowd was there for James to harness and enlarge, which she did with jaw-dropping ease. Despite the unusual social club setting, a far cry from the clubs she’ll be playing shortly, James didn’t hold back on her set, she doubled down on the energy of productions, jackhammering through the dreamy soundscapes to ensure everyone’s bodies and minds were pinned to her mix. Probably the first chance to have a proper dance for a long time for the vast majority, nobody was going to think twice about letting loose and getting groovy to tunes provided by one of the country’s finest rising producers and DJs. Martha Skye Murphy chief among them, the aged space was filled with flailing limps and juddering heads, the whole scene striking as something like a rave breaking out in the middle of a poetry reading.
A more perfect way to cap this resounding return to live music on the streets of London, there couldn’t have been.