Electric Picnic Festival / Sept. 1-3, 2006 / Co. Laois, Ireland (Stradbally Estate)
There are now more outdoor music festivals in Ireland than you can shake a muddy shoe at. But if they're approaching saturation point, there will always be room for the Electric Picnic, which, over thThere are now more outdoor music festivals in Ireland than you can shake a muddy shoe at. But if they're approaching saturation point, there will always be room for the Electric Picnic, which, over three largely sun-kissed days in the Laois countryside, served up a perfect combination of good vibes, proper planning and great performances.
It was almost a textbook example of what a festival should be. The reason for its success is that it appears to be modeled closely on its legendary forebear across the Irish Sea, Glastonbury, albeit on a much smaller scale.
With a capacity of 32,000, the festival has grown both in size and duration in each of its three years, but it still retained that crucial feeling of intimacy that usually goes AWOL at the larger extravaganzas.
Tickets for the Electric Picnic sold out well in advance, partly because of the positive word-of-mouth from last year's blow-out, when Arcade Fire played a set that is still talked about in hushed tones by those who saw it. And partly because many hardcore festival followers from the U.K. made the trip over to fill the vacuum left by Glastonbury, which was on sabbatical this year.
Indeed, the proliferation of numerous New Age stalls offering everything from full body massages to aura analysis made it feel like we were actually on Michael Eavis' Somerset farm. Wandering through the Body & Soul area, located in a clearing in the woods, one could quite happily forego the live music altogether and still have a whale of a time. Stiltwalking damsels in period costumes glided past stalls selling herbal tea and vegan food, a cinema tent showed environmentally-conscious documentaries and people in cowboy hats with their skin painted red emerged from the woods and asked for a hug.
Kelly Osbourne reportedly got married in the Inflatable Love Church, which saw a gaggle of giggly brides and bridesmaids congregating intermittently outside its wobbly door.
If the line-up hadn't been so enticing, I might never have left the hippie enclave. But there was plenty of aural pleasure to be had on the eight different music stages. Devendra Banhart led the way on Friday evening, his 21st century folk music complementing the spirit of his surroundings perfectly. A beatnik to the bone, he did his best to help us get back to the Garden.
Antony and the Johnsons had already built up a devout following in Ireland before they won the U.K.'s prestigious Mercury Prize last year. Now, their profile warranted a prime-time billing on the main stage. That said, their introverted chamber music was never going to get the crowd doing cartwheels on the grass. In truth, they're not really the outdoor type. Nevertheless, it's always a pleasure to hear songs of such searing intensity as "Fistful of Love" and "You Are My Sister."
Over in the Crawdaddy tent, another Mercury Prize winner, Polly Jean Harvey, was making a rare solo appearance. Shorn of her band, she compensated for her minimalist approach by delivering a batch of songs from her first two albums, "Dry" and "Rid of Me." Her spicy guttural growl had the overcrowded tent in raptures, although some downbeat new material, played either on piano or keyboard, made little impression on this listener.
Massive Attack brought the curtain down on both Friday night and their European tour with a visually stunning greatest hits set that featured a rare cameo from the Cocteau Twins's Liz Fraser.
With such a multiplicity of stages, there were always going to be difficult decisions to be made when choosing the itinerary and Saturday proved to be the trickiest of the three days in this regard. I opted for Gary Numan on Saturday afternoon, curious to see what this 1980s electro-pop pioneer had to offer a crowd in 2006. The answer was a dispiriting blend of heavy metal, industrial and stodgy Euro-rock that had me scurrying from the tent before he got around to playing his hits. The first bum note of the festival.
Not to worry, because Canadian indie collective Broken Social Scene was a revelation. Coming out all trumpets blazing, they seemed to have half of Toronto on stage plucking, strumming, blowing and stomping. Bowled over by the ecstatic reaction, they declared "We will always, always play here."
Over in the smaller indie tent, Minotaur Shock combined laptop breakbeats with live instrumentation that engaged the brain if not the hips. Later on in the same space, Yo La Tengo fought a losing battle, in their quieter moments, against the overspill from the pounding, punishing techno tent, which probably should have had a separate field all to itself.
New Order had no such problems: there are alien life forms on undiscovered planets in undiscovered galaxies are probably still cowering from the sound of Peter Hook's gigantic rumbling bass lines. In a career-spanning set which took in everything from evergreen Joy Division classics like "Transmission" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart" to the sumptuous synth washes of "Your Silent Face" and "The Perfect Kiss," the Mancunian survivors were the perfect choice for the main stage on Saturday night. Groove Armada followed them at midnight but were always going to be something of an anti-climax by comparison.
On Sunday afternoon, the sun came out for the Blue Nile as they sang "Heatwave." Their moody blue soul was welcomed like an old friend, as Paul Buchanan sang about chaperoning his girl into town to meet the waiting fairies. Given my encounter in the woods, it all made perfect sense.
If there were ever a melancholy Olympics, Sheffield's Richard Hawley would stand a good chance of reaching the winner's podium, his lachrymose croon making you wish the red-skinned hippie was around to give him a hug. "Gone the summer," he sang mournfully, and, alas, this marvelous festival was, like the season, almost at an end.
Sending it off with a bang were the Pet Shop Boys, whose slick stage sets, flamboyant dancers and anthemic choruses combined to give the Electric Picnic a fittingly joyous finale. As kitsch as you like, the top-hatted Tennant and baseball-capped Lowe proved the ideal ringmasters to see out this magnificent rock'n'roll circus.