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LIVE REPORT: Rockaway Beach 2019
Patrick Clarke , February 4th, 2019 12:20

We return to Butlin's for the fourth edition of Rockaway Beach, with storming sets from Algiers, Goat Girl and more proving it's more than just nostalgia. All photos by Tony Jupp

Gary Numan

Hauling luggage through the garish flare of the arcade machines, past a SPAR garage rebranded as the onsite ‘supermarket’, past Papa John’s, Burger King and Billy’s fish and chips, past the dodgems, house of mirrors, crazy golf course and climbing frames – all under off-season renovation – Butlin's fourth annual Rockaway Beach festival sets a scene that is comfortingly familiar.

In many ways it is an understated event. It offers a nostalgic draw in its choice of headliners – this year it’s Gary Numan, last time I was here a few years ago it was Suede, and next year it will be The Jesus and Mary Chain – but though it naturally attracts an older demographic, you’d be wrong to assume it’s based purely on revivalism. Though it’s obviously Numan and The Bunnymen that most are here to see, throughout each day we're offered a choice selection of fringe outliers, of up-and-comers and left-field mainstays.

On the first afternoon play the excellent Madonnatron, for example. It takes a little while for the band to settle in to their groove, but once they do it becomes regrettable that they’ve only got a half-hour set. They cast a net of dark and doomy post-punk that feels like the ideal primer for a weekend spent flitting between the festival’s two gloomy rooms.

Benin City couldn’t be more different. Where Madonnatron thrived on a certain spikiness, a sense of reactiveness against the energy of the room, the London trio offer pure, unmoving earnestness. At times it feels a little forced, the grinning, dancing and patter a little stiff and over-rehearsed, but by commitment alone they’re soon able to win their crowd over.

Each day, there comes a time when the smaller Reds stage closes, and the far larger Centre Stage opens. Laetitia Sadier Source Ensemble are the first to play there, and own that stage in a way few others manage afterwards. They fill out the wide, sprawling stage with a glistening landscape of texture, fronted with an easy, charismatic calm. “You’ve come here to… relive your youth?” the former Stereolab singer asks her crowd.

Goat Girl

Goat Girl own the stage too, but in a different way. Sadier was subtle, witty and wry, but they are contrastingly direct and uncompromising. They play with an unshakeable confidence in their aim, but unlike Benin City do not feel forced. Their set is tight and light on its feet, sweeping its way through deft shifts in momentum with ease.

After them, there’s Maximo Park, who are, well, Maximo Park. They sound more or less the same as they ever did, chipper, angular and up-tempo, fronted by Paul Smith who's still in that hat. They’re affable, and happy to be here, so it’s hard to begrudge them much, and ‘Our Velocity’ reminds us that the band have always had a tune or two up their sleeves.

That said, as Terry Hall spins reliable reggae hits with a DJ set that lasts long into the night, one can’t help but feel Rockaway Beach is yet to truly get going. It’s been an enjoyable first day with some excellent sets, and everyone milling from one stage to another, via a fag break outside the arcade, is very friendly, but Friday lacks a little something extra, a headline set to really excite a crowd for many of whom Maximo Park aren’t a draw on the level of, say, Gary Numan.

It is he who headlines the following day, and as soon as the fans begin clambering out of their chalets it’s clear that the sense of grand occasion has been restored. Judging by the amount of t-shirts, top hats and guyliner, it’s him that the vast majority are here to see. Saturday’s run of shows at Reds are tremendous, too. Desert Mountain Tribe’s riffage is an ideal opener. There are many bands who offer a similar blend of heady modern space-rock, but few who do it better. Later, Menace Beach prove themselves the surprise hit of the weekend. I had unfairly written the group off as another one of the many hangers-on to the recent surge in psych’s popularity, but at times they lock into something truly tremendous, crashing waves of looming shoegaze and kraut that can be overwhelmingly immersive.

Algiers

Algiers, however, are a cut above just about everything else at the festival. Their sheer force, their vertical blasts of searing noise, Franklin James Fisher’s colossal voice, intense, uncompromising and deeply soulful too – everything about this band is immense. They rattle through a set that blends jerky electronics, gospel, punk and straight-up noise, confrontational and heartfelt in equal measure. What’s notable is just how much they split opinion, however. You can guess which camp tQ is in, but for all the spectators who share our frantic, clamorous appreciation, there’s as many left unsold. Afterwards, we speak to an older member of the crowd put off by bassist Ryan Mahan’s manic, frenzied dancing, for example. There’s no accounting for taste and all that, but their detractors are objectively wrong.

Barry Adamson’s set, Saturday’s first at Centre Stage, could not be more different. Where Algiers were barbed and confrontational, the former Bad Seed is louche and easygoing, his set cut through with a debonair charm. He concludes with a tribute to the late Pete Shelley, a friend from his nascent days in the Manchester music scene. He plays Magazine's ‘The Light Pours Out Of Me’, dedicated in his memory. Although Shelley was not a member of Magazine proper, he was one of the track's writers, and Adamson remembers with fondness how he added its iconic single-note bassline during his audition for the group.

The Orielles don’t have the luxury of an immediately receptive crowd – a friend tells me of an argument over breakfast with a Numanoid upset that the young Halifax outfit are unsuitable to ‘support’ their idol. It’s to their immense credit that they win them over so well. There are a few pockets of the Orielles' hardcore in the crowd, but before long they’ve spread that enthusiasm across the entire room with a relentlessly joyous set. Their songs are young, breezy and fun, but there’s a steeliness to this band that should not go underestimated.

It is Numan, however, that everyone is here to see. During his fierce, uncompromising set, ‘Cars’ and ‘Are Friends Electric’ get an airing, but it is the musician’s ceaseless intent to look forwards that makes him so engaging in the 42nd year of his career. He and his band are dressed in the Mad Max post-apocalypse rags from the cover of 2017’s excellent LP Savage (Songs From A Broken World), and perform with an agitated Armageddon energy. Their music is pounding and industrial, relentless and single-minded. Numan, not speaking to his devotees between tracks, casts a supreme presence, and proves himself one of his generation’s most relentless innovators.

Luke Haines

Sunday sees another idiosyncratic star play the Reds – Luke Haines. The former Auteurs, Baader Meinhof and Black Box Recorder man plays an acoustic set, and unfortunately Rockaway Beach has one of the chattiest crowds we’ve ever encountered, but he doesn’t seem that bothered – it does nothing to temper his force of personality. An hour of acoustic guitar gets a little wearing, especially when it’s hard to hear everything he’s singing thanks to the crowd, but there’s something irresistibly enjoyable to his call-and-response ‘Lou Reed, Lou Reed’ schtick, and straw polls to determine who the best Monkee is, or whether Echo And The Bunnymen (tonight’s headliners) are better than George Galloway.

There follows another provocateur in the form of Art Brut’s Eddie Argos, who leads a bold and brash set that takes a swing at Sleaford Mods (“If you say it three times they’ll appear behind you shouting ‘Middle Class!”) and very nearly Idles; he swiftly backtracks on the latter – there’s more Idles merch than anyone else’s on display, and the band aren’t even playing. They’re on sharp form instrumentally too, their set is straightforward but not one-dimensional, and laden with charisma.

Echo and the Bunnymen

Echo and the Bunnymen conclude, with a set that’s in equal parts baffling and beguiling. At times they are absolutely sublime, however incoherent Ian McCulloch’s monologues between songs, as a frontman he still wields an immaculately characterful voice. When paired with Will Sergeant’s most dazzling licks of guitar, as on ‘The Cutter’, ‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’, or ‘The Back Of Love’, it’s transcendent, when meandering through sub-Jim Morrison psychedelic ramblings, it’s less so. It’d leave a frustrating taste in the mouth, were Rockaway Beach the kind of festival that its detractors often peg it as. The nostalgic headliners, though, are but a part of what makes this such an understatedly enjoyable weekender - it is what the organisers slip in underneath that makes it truly enjoyable.

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