Constellations Festival 2011 Review

Constellations festival, now in its second year, is back in neighbouring Leeds University Student Union. Once again, visiting the depths of venues and bars in LUSU does make The Courtyard seem a bit quaint in comparison. Perhaps one day York will have a similarly sized music festival (Is the JB Morrell’s Reading Room available for hire? Slayer curates The Quiet Place stage?). Or maybe a multi-venue hub will emerge from the scaffolding of our humble student union’s makeover. Till then Leeds has us firmly grasped by the railcard. (Congrats, I might add, to the teenage boy witnessed steering his blindfolded girlfriend towards an Evanescence gig at O2 Academy.)

Somehow Constellation’s sophomore event has managed to find yet more venues inside the complex: the stately Riley Smith Hall and the dining-hall Terrace now join Mine, Stylus and Pulse. It is an odd choice given that the huge Refectory used last year was aptly sized for a headline act, whereas Stylus is a bit on the cosy side. Perhaps the most interesting addition is that of the Terrace, used for a visual collaboration with independent film company Warp Films. On paper this is an attractive premise, as Warp Films have been responsible for a number of fantastic British films in recent years (Four Lions, Kill List, Tyrannosaur, Submarine to name a few). And while it’s tempting to forgo a few hours on a feature film, there is too much to see on the other stages.

Speaking of which, performing down in the depths of Stylus are pop-duo Summer Camp, cursed slightly by a wintery release date for their debut album Welcome to Condale. Here they seem a bit like a prom band from the finale of some musical teen movie (no criticism intended). It’s too endearing to fault, but some of mystery and charm is lost in a live performance limited to guitar and drum accompaniment. And while Elizabeth Sankey’s vocals are spot-on, they aren’t quite as alluring as on record.

Further down in the belly of LSU is the intimate and suitably named Mine, where Canadian, Polaris Prize nominees, Braids are holed up. Their debut album Native Speaker, released this year has been all too hastily forgotten, and not quite praised enough. Self-produced, on an economic budget, it seems to have been something of a painfully meticulous process with some parts reaching “over 400 takes”, according to singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston. So it’s no wonder there are more than a few minutes of back and forth between the band and the sound desk. To a stranger it looks a bit like a meltdown, but as their impeccable performance would have you conclude Braids are merely perfectionists. Raphaelle’s vocal range is astonishing: from melodiously cooing, to flitting up and down arpeggios and even piercing highs – usually within the breadth of a song. Katie Lee (keyboards), Austin Tufts (drummer) and Taylor Smith (bass and sample and percussion wizard) provide a mesmerising instrumental backing, with delicate pitter-patters of synth and odd squawks and howls of percussion. It’s a pity that the set is over before it barely gets started.

Braids have certainly made an impression, especially on The Antlers, who insist that everyone should “buy Braid’s record, t-shirts and gig tickets”. Performing in the sanctum of Riley Smith Hall, The Antlers have a somewhat dedicated audience due to its alcohol-free restrictions. It’s a fittingly sacrosanct setting for a band with such a provocative subject matter as a relationship between a hospice worker and terminally ill patient on Hospice, and more the cryptic damaged relationships on this year’s Burst Apart. Despite having extensively toured such affecting material, they are remarkably intense while performing. Bassist Timothy Mislock plays with a religious fervour throughout, riffing and miming to every song like a man possessed. While singer Peter Silberman has somehow lost none of the emotion audibly present on record. “Hounds” is utterly transfixing, while Burst Apart closer “Put The Dog To Sleep” with its distressing cries of “Prove to me/ I’m not gonna die alone” is a gut-wrenchingly powerful end to their set.

So on to the headline act. Last year’s Constellations offered us a choice of Sleigh Bells, Broken Social Scene and Four Tet, a finale that catered to all musical zodiacs. This year there seems to be no choice at all – it’s either Wild Beasts or suffering through a whole hour of The Big Pink. With this in mind, it’s bemusing why Wild Beasts are confined to the awkwardly sized Stylus. Following on from their Field Day headline slot, it seems that Wild Beasts have done an Arcade Fire of sorts with their transition to much larger audiences. It was something of a surprise to have witnessed the kind of hugging-and-jumping-in-circle male bonding at Field Day. Here it’s near repeated with all kinds of fist pumping and neck grappling. I don’t think I will ever quite understand how such an effeminate band attracts that kind of bro bonding, but whatever (to be fair, there are plenty of couples smooching, petting and whatnot).

As you might know, Wild Beasts are comprised of two distinctive singers: the falsetto of Hayden Thorpe and the much lower register of Tom Fleming. Live, the band are at their best when sharing vocals duties on duets such as “Reach A Bit Further” with Hayden’s eccentric warbling complimented by Tom’s more mellow tones. Older songs from their repertoire like “Devil’s Crayon” and “The Fun Powder Plot” are what you might call Wild Beast’s “big numbers” now; partially because of crowd sing-a-longs but mostly just because they sound “big”. “Albatross” brings Constellations to a close with an extended instrumental finale, one of the few moments in which the band reaches the giddy heights of perfection I’d hoped, and expected. Perhaps it is due to The Antlers setting the bar too high beforehand or the muffled acoustics of Stylus, but somehow Wild Beasts aren’t quite as astounding on this occasion as some of their previous performances, but still great nonetheless.

Constellations festival has widened its ambitions, with the addition of a film stage and by expanding on its visual art collaborations. Sure, there were a few niggles this year: the Terrace wasn’t ideal per say for film watching, and could we have the bigger Refectory back for headliners? But other than that, another musical exploration completed with success.

Photography © India Dorita-Boddy

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