Celebrated as Christmas Day by its organisers at Crack Magazine, Simple Things is one of Bristol’s biggest date in the calendar. Every year the city wilfully submits to the festival’s takeover of venues and broad pulling power across all ages; the doors of our favourite spaces flung open across 18 hours.
Japanese Breakfast served up the day’s dream pop beginnings. The infectious personality of front woman Michelle Zauner was bouncing around the foyer of Colston Hall, propelled by her light-up sneakers and smile-singing, clearly catching the eye of audience members mouthing along to numbers off last year’s phenomenal Psychopomp and 2017’s equally wondrous Soft Sounds From Another Planet. Taking Michelle’s advise, we headed upstairs afterwards to catch their friends and fellow Philadelphians, (Sandy) Alex G.
Finding oneself surrounded by mega-fans of an act you only know from pre-research is educational and regretful at the same time. You learn that the Internet isn’t a wholly accurate medium for “seeing” or “understanding” a band, and you regret not taking the advice of friends seriously despite having them having recommended for months. (Sandy) Alex G had the audience wildly screaming along to every word of their ultra laid-back, devil-may-care set. Their stage set up successfully covering the high production value heard on their 2017 LP, Rocket, and being relatively stripped back but formed of incredibly capable musicians, they captured the quintessential “loose but tight” style that comes with years touring. Their unconventional song structures and genre switchups really put them out there as something above the usual band-that-harks-back-to-grunge-and-shoegaze; a style that sometimes errs on the side of derivative. One of the day’s highlights for sure.
In the lead up to 7pm, Colston Hall began filling up for what would be Wild Beast’s last ever gig in Bristol, leaving plenty of space at the O2 for Lorenzo Senni, who was flamboyantly belting out his deconstructed rave music under the sign “RAVE-VOYEURISM IS NOT A CRIME”. The levels of complexity in his music are unfathomable. Consisting of sharp but dry synth stabs, it’s as if he is taking UK trance tracks from 1992 and removing half bar sections, leaving only the tropes, totally stripping back the palette of sounds one expects with the genre. How was he able to build to big euphoric drops that are half made up of total silence? How was he making the O2 go this mad using so little of the frequency range? It’s these sorts of leftfield bookings (pun sort of intended I guess) that make Simple Things the boundary-pushing music festival that it is.
If Senni made you move with minimal content, it was Jlin who moved you with minimal prompting. Her live set is built up with tranches of dense groove and, like Senni, the arsenal of sounds she employs are produced with incomprehensible convolution. This by no means makes what she does hard to decipher; quite the contrary. You could be dancing to what you thought was the straight meter of a particular section, only to find yourself dancing to the triplets of the proceeding section. It’s a physically liberating phenomena, being able to move to any accent at any time, and still feel synced up to the room.
Headliners Leftfield (top) drew the older demographic of Simple Things in their droves. Some I spoke to, only bought a ticket to see the band perform their seminal album, Leftism. It was hard to know what to expect with an act like Leftfield other than “Rave music” and that is precisely what they brought to Colston Hall. Never before have I seen a crowd go as hard. Never. Middle aged parents dancing at full pelt for 90 minutes straight, totally showing up people in their twenties who, in fairness, never experienced the height of warehouse raves in the nineties. Sitting far back on the balcony, it was just as much of a show to watch the crowd, as it was to watch what was making them go so crazy. They continually brought the house down and loved every second that they did, as Neil Barnes clearly indicated in his sign off while also warning Colston Hall to “not fuck it up”, referring to the venue’s renovations happening next year.
For the second year in a row, the closing act in Colston Hall’s foyer following the main hall’s headline set was one of anticipation. Last year, it was Charlotte Church proceeding Death Grips with ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ and this year it was the turn of Syrian superstar, Omar Souleyman (above). Turning the foyer into pandemonium with this lengthy, pounding tracks, embellished with the sounds of Kurdistan and the surrounding region. Accompanied by only one keyboardist, he played the role of MC, hype man and vocalist, using only minimal gestures and hand claps, and looking badass while he did it. Staff members of the venue looking down from the stairway banisters in bemusement, whilst the “Audience Safety” officers had their hands full with the plethora of crowd surfing.
The day’s final phase is the nighttime programming mainly loaded in Lakota. Its distinctness from the more live act first-half is totally refreshing and helps fuel within you a second wind (but can also understandably take the form of an un-scalable mountain). Unlike last year, the festival lacked conventional crowd-pullers like Ben UFO and Nina Kraviz and, although I’m sure the organisers had to push for ticket sales a lot harder, it made the final stage of Lakota far less packed and gave the crowd plenty of space to dance. Sassy J delivered the perfect wind down for a tired punter’s long day before we made a divergence back to the O2 Academy for Stamp The Wax hosting Daphni‘s four hour set. The breadth and depth Dan Snaith (above) enjoys in his set is hard to implement in the commonly programmed 90-120 minute festival sets, so the set times alone was another mark of Simple Things’ appreciation for good curation. As predicted Snaith bounced across sonic and geographic borders during an engaging session, from jazz-funk to indian disco, new Four Tet to bubblegum from 80’s South Africa.
Regardless, it was hard to fault any act of the day’s programming or performances; on the contrary it was the flowing success that spoiled Bristol residents come to expect year on year. Simple Things is a festival about discovery rather than comfort. It prides itself on lineups that will not be familiar or appealing to the masses, but will share the eclecticism that its curators have in spades.