The past fortnight has seen a trickling of festival and tour delays and cancellations cascade headlong into an all-encompassing standstill set to last until summer. Though uncertainty haunts the ramifications the coronavirus pandemic will ultimately have on the live events and wider music industries, Glastonbury’s decision to cancel their 50th anniversary edition seemed to hit with a resolute impact.
In this light, BBC 6 Music’s fortuitously timed festival earlier this month (6-8th March) acted unknowingly as a kind of last hurrah, providing Londoners with a weekend of rich and wide-ranging live music before a prolonged period of self-isolation and social distancing.
Surprisingly, this was the first time 6 Music Festival had come to the capital, having previously been hosted in Manchester, Tyneside, Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol, and also marked the network’s eighteenth birthday. The station has long been regarded as a leading platform for alternative music, but earlier this year gained an 8.4% year-on-year ratings boost, making it the leading digital radio station in the UK. Sprawled across various venues in North London’s historic Camden Town, there was a palpable buzz to the festival that went beyond the regular droves of tourists lining the highstreet and reflected the channel’s staunch following.
Though the looming troubles got a few early mentions – a few typically cheeky one-liners from Mark Radcliffe before introducing acts, or from Radio 6’s Head of Programmes Paul Rodgers, who welcomed us to sing happy birthday to the network “twice, as you’re washing your hands” – it was thankfully absent most of the weekend.
In spite of another last-minute hindrance of losing headliner Michael Kiwanuka due to viral laryngitis, the festival gained enthusiastic traction quickly. There may have been a little too much space amongst the modestly head-banging fans of openers black midi initially, but The Roundhouse soon began to welcome the scale of crowds it demands. Its domed architecture did seem to belie the frenzied intricacies of black midi, losing them in the vast, lofty acoustics, but their energy did not go unmissed. The last minute addition of Nadine Shah in lieu of Kiwanuka seemed to satisfy the now larger crowds, opening on the art-rock shuffle of ‘Place Like This’, though her second performance on the same stage on Sunday felt a little more fulfilling.
Joining Anna Meredith, Kim Gordon, Jenny Beth and headliner Kate Tempest for an all female line-up in honour of International Women’s Day, Shah marvelled at the fact that she hadn’t initially noticed the intentional booking, given that it “shouldn’t be a novelty”. It was a virtue of the festival nonetheless, with three female headliners proudly topping the bill each evening. Dance-pop legend Róisín Murphy’s Saturday night performance proved her right to icon status with ease and a lot of flair, turning The Roundhouse into more of a techno club, with hypnotic visuals and a punchy live setup. The trippiness peaked for ‘Exploitation’, with Murphy dropping to the floor as she reeled us in with the familiar hook of Moloko’s ‘Bring It Back’.
Brittany Howard stole the show on Friday night, stepping up to close the evening after Shah. “Get well soon, Mr. Kiwanuka”, the ex-Alabama Shakes singer added, before commanding the stage as if she had been a headliner all along. Fittingly, ‘Stay High’ provided a euphoric highlight of the evening, her arms open wide as if to propel her voice even further into falsetto, one that did Prince justice in her cover of ‘Breakdown’.
It wasn’t only the grandeur of The Roundhouse that could muster a powerful energy, though. Jordan Rakei’s Saturday set at a packed out Dingwalls was perhaps the most galvanising, even more so than the afternoon’s headliner, Robert Glasper. Though no doubt a cameo from Londoner Loyle Carner for ‘Ottolenghi’ did him some favours, it was the tight execution of the elongated ‘Add The Bassline’ and the more minimal ‘Talk To Me’ with an exceptional band that kicked off the day as it should have done. Glasper’s set also proved to be an ensemble masterclass, five minute bass solos and all, opening on a surprising cover of Radiohead’s ‘Pakt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box’.
Of course, one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend was the debut of the solo project from Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien, EOB. Sandwiched by his two only released singles, it was refreshing to see such a seasoned musician show gratitude and perhaps a little nerve that his audience didn’t know the bulk of his material. He was evidently spurred on by their positive reactions, and by the cathartic closer ‘Brasil’, had seemed to forget his own characteristic cool for a moment.
In some ways, gratitude seemed to become an underlying theme to the festival. Closing off Sunday evening at Electric Ballroom, Bombay Bicycle Club were especially thankful and present. “I remember so vividly playing Camden Crawl in 2008”, a smiley Jack Steadman recounted, “we were playing a tiny pub around the corner and Metronomy were here on this stage. We were standing at the side over here watching them and I remember thinking, ‘this is the coolest thing we’ve ever done’. It’s important to remember moments like these”. Looking back on how much has changed in just a matter of weeks, no doubt every visitor to 6 Music Festival will be grateful they engaged in its communal live music experience and will look to the hopefully not-so-distant future for the feeling’s return.