ZERO Review: Simple Things 2016

Since Simple Things’ 2013 move down the calendar from May bank holiday to mid-Autumn, Bristol has played host to two of the UK’s most distinctive day events, which bookend the festival season. Estranged from the pink clouds and rainbows of Love Saves The Day, Simple Things 2016’s visuals are black, white and red; a mural of ‘Just Do It’ stickers plastered against the inside door of a club toilet. If LSTD props up a summer of euphoric green fields, knees and new second-hand vests then Simple Things 2016 proposes an autumn and winter of artificial light. It engages with a more abstract take on modern music on arena stages, in gloomy backroom bars, and in the spaces in between. 

My home of two weeks, Bristol, naturally absorbs a few thousand music fans with little effort. In a new city I was council tax band B, press wristband bound round my surrogate right wrist.

The last festival of the year started with local band Cousin Kula whose exultant psych-pop billowed up the Colston Hall’s three sets of stairs. It was home to three of the live music stages and The Terrace, a rooftop patio where a selection of local DJs warmed the idle, line-up flicking hands of early arrivals. I slid toward The Christmas Steps following the sounds of Aldous RH’s languid, bendy, shoes-off pop in The Foyer. Along with other day-trippers, I tacked a course through the line-up, imbued with a jittery determination to see as much as possible. Understandably most festivalgoers are happier to drift, chat in queues, savour their pint and feed themselves but every so often I’d meet a two-step-at-a-time-taker in an unacknowledged foot race to get to a venue early and I followed one to watch Big Moon on the main stage. The London-based four piece’s wily singalong garage-rock fits as effortlessly into the Colston Hall as it does cram itself into a sweaty underground bar, and their exuberant set delighted whilst their undeniable star power marked the sense that for those in attendance the festival was now very much in full flow. They finished on ‘Sucker’ and I bundled my way to The Gryphon to catch vibrant, garage-rock outfit Van Zeller. Like everyone else between acts, I assumed the walk from one venue to another was enough time to finish a beer or even two. I arrived swollen and crashed around for half of their set in the upstairs room, which was easily the loudest and smallest venue. Only the day’s first proper headliner’s imminent arrival on the main stage could draw me away and I became unbearable company worrying about whether there would be a queue. There wasn’t and I arrived with time to spare.

Allah-Las’ note-perfect, hair-perfect slick slack softened the angles of the Colston Hall. The holograms sounded like recordings and we were bathed in purple light. They rotated vocals and instruments, strolling through their new album like a garden and then playing a string of early hits. Allah-Lahs’ psych-rock was ageless and full of an ease of character, floating with a wry smile around the slightly stiff surroundings of one of Bristol’s most historic concert halls now revamped. There were seats, of course. An upstairs balcony full of seats and the main part downstairs half-full of seats and when I first entered I said to myself “There are seats”, envisaging a hall of people sitting down watching Death Grips. The crowd sailed out to ‘Catamaran’.

Wedged in the ground floor stairwell, the unassuming Foyer stage provided several of the festival highlights and was an inevitable stop-off point between acts. Equally unavoidable was the charm and gimmick-free zeal of Kanda Bongo Man’s infectious ground-floor kwassa kwassa party. Congo’s most famous musical son mined his considerable back catalogue for the 90-minute set whilst spectators crowded up and down staircases and landings. We revised body movements learned in warehouses and nightclubs, only half-matched the warm-hearted fervour and joy of Kanda Bongo Man’s musicians and dancers and, as one, overcame the sense that we were effectively dancing in a very nice airport lobby.

One of Bristol’s last remaining members-only pubs, The Sportsmans was implausibly repurposed as the venue to host some of the day’s most raucous acts. I thoughtlessly consigned Idles to a long list of bands I did not have time to see but no doubt their caustic, boiled-egg Britain punk (‘Mary Berry loves reggae!’) would have rung truer than ever from the wood-panelled walls under glass faux-finery and the watchful eye of a portrait of Winston Churchill. The place packed out for Twin Peaks. Pub members sat staunchly at the back and looked on with short, un-shockable faces as the Chicago outfit whipped out hit after hit, coaxing the front half of the back room into a whirl of bouncing bodies as the floor bent and rocked. For a band whose newer material has moved towards misty-eyed pop nostalgia, Twin Peaks always bring the party and in a shared sense of wanting to be there when something happened, 2016’s young music fans jumped up and into each other, spurred on each time the parquet bowed and sprung. “Twin Peaks played and they were amazing and the floor broke” I texted a friend. We got as far as ‘Making Breakfast’ in the setlist and the show was cut short as the basement ceiling beneath us had given way and we were ushered out.

Queues curled round the Colston Hall for Warpaint. Talk of ‘One in One Out’ briefly sucked life from the patient and/or inebriated. We all got in in the end, mostly sat down towards the back. The arena-happy, moody down-tempo set didn’t do much for some sections of the seated audience so we trickled out in search of food, light and something to shake us up. We watched our clocks for Death Grips. The queues were shorter this time; at 11:30pm Death Grips arrived and hit hard and ferocious from the first. Surely a request from the artists themselves, the houselights were up for almost the entire set, causing the jarring corners of their live set-up assault became twice as unnerving in false daylight. From the half-full top balcony (where everyone was standing) we had a lucid vision of midnight; under the lights the crowd was centre stage and we found ourselves watching each other to the clanking, unrelenting backing track of our modern anxiety as imagined by the Sacramento 3 piece. ‘Guillotine’ came down on the performance and I made sure it wasn’t all a dream.

From the outside, The Colston Hall’s glass front allowed an illuminated five-story cross-section and by 1:30am the to-ing and fro-ing had stopped and festivalgoers were clambering for a space on a staircase, landing or bannister, to catch a glimpse of Charlotte Church in the Foyer in her wedding dress karaoke get-up. A crowd enraptured sang along to covers of Sugababes, Basement Jaxx, The Cardigans and Rage Against the Machine. In an age in which Spotify might in all seriousness call for you to ‘kick on the throwback jams’, Charlotte Church brought it to life. She embodied and unified a few hundred 20 and 30-somethings with picks from our collective memory delivered with gusto, open-heartedness and musical chops. Our heroine for the night as the second part of a mystifying and ultimately inspired double header, Charlotte Church stole the show

Words by Dan Keevil

Photography by  Rebecca Cleal, Andrzej Zając and Jack Tyler respectively. Photography courtesy of the Simple Things Facebook page.