Simple Things: In Review

We dispatched our Bristol correspondant Oli Warwick to assess the fifth year of Simple Things Festival. Read on for his findings.

Five years in and Simple Things has become one of Bristol’s flagship music events, nestled comfortably in the approaching gloom of Autumn after the summer’s plethora of outdoor events have been and gone. From its compact beginnings, the dizzying multi-venue event has become an ambitious affair with a line-up that smartly balances the more adventurous strains of guitar-driven sub-genres with a rich spread of electronic styles that will happily take a punt on a new-fangled buzz act in the interests of being current. As such, the bookings can’t strike gold every time (and past years have seen plenty of performers dip out of the hype circuit before the next event rolls around), but that in itself gives you the opportunity to sample a wide range of sounds and occasionally stumble across some undiscovered greatness.

The eclecticism between the rocker and raver contingents is commendable when not so many festivals choose to mix the two distinct demographics, not least because in reality most people can happily enjoy the virtues of both disciplines. This did however cause problems with past editions of the festival, as bottleneck queues could wind up forming outside the more in demand venues, sometimes consigning you to committing to one strain or another. The Colston Hall and O2 Academy venues largely cater to the bands, while The Firestation and Lakota take care of the beats, and dashing between the two to catch specific acts can often leave you stuck in a queue instead of witnessing music. This year that very quandary resulted in frustratingly missing Helena Hauff serving up her brand of industrial and techno in a repurposed subterranean prison (The Island), not to mention sets from Lone, Jam City, Holly Herndon and plenty more besides.

However, in the spirit of the event, that led to an unexpected diversion into more band-based entertainment for the mid-section of the festival. Earlier on Bristol veterans Maximum Joy took to the stage in Colston Hall for their first gig in 25 years, goaded into action by the festival organisers. Reunion gigs are always a tenuous subject, and in this instance the overall impression fell a little short. The songs were as instantly lovable as they have always been, but the sharp, danceable angles were lost in the cavernous climes of the venue.

The night before, Godspeed You! Black Emperor had suitably filled the space for the opening concert with a gargantuan swell of guitar feedback loops, towering drums and violin, marking one of the overall hits of the weekend. On this occasion though, it felt as if Maximum Joy would have been better suited to a low-ceiling club setting in a reflection of who they were when they last performed. That said, it was apparent that brass man Tony Wrafter had not lost any of his original spirit as he honked with abandon through set closer “Stretch”.

Savages had no trouble in commanding the sizable climes, summoning up the spirit of early Siouxsie and the Banshees with a thrilling rush of goth-tinged post punk, helmed with staggering confidence and approachable charm by lead singer Jehnny Beth. Battles too filled the room with ease, their chirpy dance rock confections perhaps capturing the very nature of Simple Things and its roving tastes. The same could be said of Micachu & The Shapes, strangely consigned to the less immersive Colston Hall Foyer but able to hold court with confidence all the same.

In truth though, for this reviewer, Simple Things has always been more of an all day rave-up and so these experiences felt like a very different kind of festival. Earlier in the afternoon it was positively surprising to discover that Mike Skinner can genuinely throw it down on the decks, ripping up plenty of rowdy garage, dubstep and a smattering of footwork with the odd jokey segue to keep things fun early doors. DJ Funk came on after and instantly launched into a typical selection of Dance Mania bangers, which felt somewhat less effective during daylight, and certainly Funk himself seemed less concerned about veering into the on-stage antics that can make his performances more memorable.

In the late hours Lakota was the obvious destination to get the most out of the heaving line-up, with five spaces catering to the most nocturnal sounds of the festival. As Vessel whipped up a live set in room two the red light filling the room created the perfect lurid environment, not least in amongst a crowd that had been on the go since the early afternoon. Hodge and Randomer proceeded to canter on to the decks with a boisterous selection of rhythms that suited the needs of the hour perfectly. Meanwhile downstairs in the main room Untold and Objekt failed to ignite fully, perhaps battling the oddly-shaped space, but the latter certainly seemed to be keeping things simmering compared to the fireworks he can be known for.

A stagger through the smoking courtyard and round to the back of the building revealed two more warehouse spaces, where a friendlier brand of groove could be found. In one room Horse Meat Disco were filling in for an absent Ron Trent, whipping out their heated disco belters with abandon to a comfortably spaced, woozy crowd. Next door Hunee was switching his own selections between crafty machine rhythms and older fare with equal skill, although after such an array of sounds over the course of more than fourteen hours it was hard to connect with the music amongst a less mobile, zombified crowd.

As ever, the feeling after Simple Things is always a mixed bag, having been treated to a quite fantastic line-up across some great locations, while feeling the same sense of helplessness at just how much one must miss due to the limitations of physics. Whatever the case, the organisers have grown their event with care over the past five years, and it really is a jewel in Bristol’s plentiful musical crown, but as a street level listener it can sometimes feel a little, well, complicated.

Oli Warwick

All images courtesy of Max Foster, Brame, and Andy Zajac