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Things Learned At: Siren Festival
Amy Pettifer , August 15th, 2014 07:31

Feeling right at home in the downpour, Amy Pettifer spends a weekend in Vasto, Italy amongst buoyant crowds and bands familiar and new. Photos by Dandaddy.

Just because it's not Glastonbury, doesn't mean it won't rain

While I'm generally more than happy to evade rank summer heat and stay firmly indoors, spending three days soaking up rays on wild beaches edged with olive groves by day and heading into town to listen to bands by night sounded absolutely fine. However, fate had other plans and - along with my grey, emo sensibilities –several hundred enormous storm clouds also made a rare visit to Vasto for the first edition of Siren Festival.

Things were promising on the drive from Pescara; promising, verdant and mountainous with fat oranges on avenues of trees, roadside banks of fuscia pink blossoms and a sapphire sea looming in and out of view to the left of us. And sun; belting, thudding Abruzzen sun, emitting something a lot more palatable than the thickness of London summer.

I'm pretty sure no one would have put money on sideways rain and insane winds blighting the weekend, but so it was, causing some of the beautifully sited events to be cancelled and wrong-footing a few sound checks. Thankfully things had eased up by the time the music got underway in earnest and watching neon forks of lightning pierce the distant night sky above the ocean is a lot more pleasurable than cowering under canvas wondering if your days are numbered.

We often think of festivals and inclemency going hand in hand, so this unseasonable downpour created something of a home from home atmosphere. It was unfortunate but not unpleasant as, thankfully, a non field based festival means no mud and plenty of bars (Vasto does a roaring trade in craft ales wouldn't you know) to take shelter in.

But yes, the lesson here is don't be smug. Particularly if, apparently, you're a portable one-woman storm cloud.

If you don't know your way around Vasto, don't ask someone from Vasto. They don't know either

Paternal, trustworthy, accommodating, keen on Beyoncé, free with anti-marriage life advice and liberal with the volume control on the car stereo. Vasto's taxi drivers are all of these things. Able to deftly navigate the slopes and spirals of the 16th century town? Not so much.

The music sounds better with a view

This isn't such a surprise, but it is true. Siren's main stage, sited in the relatively small Piazza del Popolo, had its back to an epic expanse of sea, visible from a perfect vantage point near the town's apex. Almost every band was awed by its vertiginous beauty and it felt as if performances were lifted because of it. But it wasn't just here, from this point onwards, navigating the festival was a bit like some kind of immersive promenade performance - drifting between the various stages and encountering people, sights and most importantly, sound noisily wedded to its environs.

From Dry The River's elegiac turn on the main stage - all kempt barnets and choral guitars gusting in the sea breeze - I drifted into a courtyard garden some 50 feet away, to find 100 people gathered on a lawn, swooning to a plaintive solo, slide guitar; this turned out to be Adriano Viterbini, an acclaimed young virtuoso with a blue soul and a penchant for John Fahey. People wandered in and out of the arbours as he played, I followed them and ended up at a table offering massive glasses of wine. I had one. The main thing I learned while in this mini Eden was that, when the going gets tough, it's important to remember that someone, somewhere is playing a note perfect version of Santo and Johnny's 'Sleepwalking' and using an insistent cicada as percussion.

Staggering out of here into the neighbouring Cortile Palazzo D'Avalos, an inner courtyard sandwiched between this midnight garden and the main stage, I happened on the intense howlings of Swedish pianist, singer and composer Anna von Hausswolff. A mesmerised crowd gazed as she emitted pure lupine belt and hammering keys that threatened to loosen stones and crumble the 16th century fortress that contained her. Female led performances were notably absent from the main stage but Hausswolff undoubtedly owned this particular space, not to mention dominating a rousing Sunday service at Vasto's Chiesa di San Guiseppe at the close of the festival.   Venturing a little further down the coast to a small concrete amphitheatre, I bowled headlong into a miniature outdoor rave led by Ninos du Brasil, one of the many Italian bands on the bill who created a throbbing wall of Animal Collective-esque sound, head-butted giant bongos and threw streamers at everybody. Each stage had its own idiosyncratic atmosphere and tangible buzz caught up with the very communal, nocturnal comings and goings of Vasto itself. Also, I'm no expert, but something about that unencumbered space did wonders for the sound, which was among the best I've encountered at a gig or festival of any kind. Could it be that setting up a decent PA isn't actually that hard? Whoever was responsible for this needs finding and keeping on a retainer.

If you want to make it big in Italy, tighten up and embrace drama

A running theme in the programming, both on the guitar and synth based ends of the spectrum, was a general impatience with ineptitude. While I'm happy to applaud any old mess, an across the board enthusiasm for skill, polish and a touch the grandiose was evident at Siren. The majority of bands playing wouldn't sound out of place with an orchestra behind them - perhaps a nod to the aforementioned drama of the festival's setting.

Even the younger knock-about bands such as Boxerin Club (Italy's answers to the Mystery Jets) pedalled euphoric, riotous carnival-esque music that showcased deft multi-instrumental chops even when the person in question was upside-down or chucking themselves with abandon about the stage.

When it came to headliners, it was all about the soaring and the anthemic. Why else do you book The National? There are certain bands that just make sense at the top of festival bills and only a handful that can truly hack it - able to bang out epic sets and sustain an atmosphere when the collective blood is running high. Foregrounding 2013's 'Trouble Will Find Me', the band held everyone firmly in the palm of their hand with novella-like songs whose choruses echoed warmly back at them from the masses. Matt Berninger's innate ability to reduce people of all genders to rubble reached a climax with the keening torch song 'I Need My Girl' and a mini riot ensued as he clambered over the crowd. Where I'd previously dismissed The National as overblown and overly sincere, here they made sense; alongside ancient architecture, a humid night and the distant crash of the ocean. At Siren it felt OK to embrace bombast, and so I did.  

The same was true of former Czars frontman John Grant, who preceded Mogwai on the last day of the festival. The dark musings, epic drum rolls and melancholy electronic tinge that colours his rich baritone throughout 'Pale Green Ghosts' – the solo record Grant released early last year – sounded jarring in my London kitchen but utterly mesmerising on Siren's main stage. Grant appears gentle but ursine, solid but deeply soulful as a performer; possessed by the synthetic stabs of the album's title track and immersed in the raw emotion of the record's intensely self-possessed lyrical content. At the centre of the record is 'GMF', an acronym with which he anoints the delighted crowd – intoning "you guys are the greatest mother fuckers."

'GMF' is a six minute long song, brimming with violins and honeyed harmonies, and it's worth noting that this was coming hot on the heels of  a full two days of horn sections, organs, hymnal-esque guitar music, epic projections, two person carnivals, six minute songs and honeyed harmonies. But nobody was complaining. Music is a church and the congregation here were looking for rich anthems and rhythms to corral them. The unerring message here was go big, or go home.

Enthusiasm is not dead

Genuinely one of the most profound joys of this festival was the crowd's reaction to it. If you find yourself regularly lamenting some notion of "the good old days", when access to the music you loved wasn't quite so easy and seeing bands live actually made you throw up it was so exciting, then I strongly recommend a festival like Siren, set in a spot where gatherings of bands – international, big name and upcoming – are fewer and farther between.

It's not a huge festival by any stretch – the main stage crowd was no bigger than you'd find in the peripheral tents of London's Field Day, but when it came to generating and communicating a communal  joy and appreciation for what was happening on stage, Siren's crowd were streets ahead. Of course this might be a general, cultural thing, but it was marked, utterly infectious and – I'm guessing – a proper treat for the bands too. As often as you've stood in a lacklustre crowd, they've faced hundreds more, and so having the announcement and crescendo of each song greeted with rapturous applause probably felt pretty great.

It's exciting when you get a sense that the thing you're making has travelled and that there are people beyond the limits of your world that hope you continue making it. For my part I got a much needed kick in the gut and a rekindling of what it was like to properly appreciate the alchemy of being there then.

Neither is indie music

Have you heard Jennifer Gentle? Flipping heck. This band has everything, an effete name inspired by Syd Barrett lyrics, a pin thin lead singer in flared Levis and a pageboy haircut, four part harmonies, psych inflections and crescendos composed entirely of distortion.

Despite playing to less than 100 people in the Arena della Grazie, Marco Fasolo had all the dorkish self-possession and charisma of early Jarvis Cocker and was not afraid to use it. The twee-ish aesthetic actually belied some serious edge – just like the best bits of Barrett himself – and along with turns from much younger Italian bands (notably Boxerin Club whom Fasolo benevolently invited to the stage for a final incendiary jam) Jennifer Gentle fair destroyed the notion that Italy are sorely lacking in quality alternative guitar music. The fact that they've been knocking around since 2000 and are signed to Sub Pop makes me wonder why they haven't broken through more significantly – outside of a reasonably underground scene and the odd notable collaboration that is. If it's because they make records in Italian then that's a crying shame. Jennifer Gentle make the kind of music I'd happily resume wearing fitted band t-shirts for.

Ignorance is bliss

Despite featuring a lot of names that rang bells of varying volumes, there wasn't one single act on Siren Fest's bill with a song I could have sung you in full. This is partly Mogwai's fault but – in truth –their trademark instrumentals, which formed Saturday's headline set, drove home what Siren really was all about, namely listening to and being absorbed in music.

The set visited six of their eight albums, moving subtly from the slow build and chiming resolve of 'I'm Jim Morrison I'm Dead' from The Hawk Is Howling, through the infectious chug that weaves a line through 'Master Card' and 'Remurdered' from this year's Rave Tapes, even reaching as far back as 1997 to the hazy Slint tones of 'Ihica 29/7' from the compilation Ten Rapid. Both live and on record, Mogwai create a sonic landscape that you can write yourself into; unencumbered by language, each encounter with them feels new and outside of time. As a result they can quantum leap between the oldest and newest reaches of their oeuvre without leaving anyone behind; you end up exactly where you're meant to be, particles intact.

Over two days at Siren, it was liberating and totally pleasurable to experience almost every performance with an open mind, not to mention indulging in the relative novelty of hearing music for the first time live, rather than in any kind of digital format where it would likely be jostling for attention against the bombard of digital notifications. Here there was nothing to distract, in a series of spaces small enough to allow some genuine sense of connection.

From Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor, presenting his solo record in a pleasingly stripped down set that showcased just how good his melodies are, to that alfresco slide guitar, to the sheer heft of Mogwai's unshakeable, bio-rhythmic dynamics, I was granted a series of encounters that really stuck. I'd forgotten what that listening experience was like and I'm happy to report that Siren helped me to reclaim it.

All that remains to be said, is grazie mille

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