Bowlie 2 curated by Belle & Sebastian: Rated!
Butlins, Minehead - 10-12 December
Overall - 8/10
Many things have changed in the festival world since twee indie overlords Belle & Sebastian first approached promoter Barry Hogan with a view to curating an indoor event in an out of season holiday camp more than a decade ago. Commercial big guns like V and T in the Park have gone from strength to strength, ill-fated bashes like Phoenix have fallen by the wayside and countless niche and boutique fests aimed at catering for more discerning music fans have sprung up across the world.
Arguably, Belle & Seb's 1999 Bowlie Weekender and the subsequent global success of the ATP (All Tomorrow's Parties) franchise it spawned have had a big effect in triggering the seismic shift in the way alternative festivals operate. The care that's put into building ATP line-ups each year, the unusual venue and the fact that the event caters so tirelessly for such a specific audience of indie über-fans firmly established the idea that promoters must think well outside of the box in order to survive.
Considering the influence of that inaugural event, it's hardly surprising that ATP saw it fit to round off their year of tenth birthday celebrations by inviting the Belles back to curate one last Bowlie bash at Butlins. Many of the original acts, such as Camera Obscura, Teenage Fanclub and dream-pop pioneer Dean Wareham return, and are joined by an unlikely mix of younger upstarts like Foals, Wild Beasts and Crystal Castles, as well as an inevitable gaggle of musical Scots including Edwyn Collins, Frightened Rabbit and, playing what turned out to be a not-so-secret 'secret' set on the second stage, Franz Ferdinand.
While the line-up has a strong undercurrent of bands that are all-too-readily branded with the 'twee' label, it's more than diverse enough to offer an impressively rich and varied weekend of music, with everything from 8-bit electro to afro-jazz represented on the bill.
Getting There And Back - 3/10
Although Minehead is an astonishingly pretty little seaside town, it's not the easiest place for outsiders to get to. With the Bristol Channel to the north and Exmoor to the south, transport links were never going to be its strong point, and this is compounded by a series of accidents on the M5 ensuring that many people approaching from the east turn up several hours later than they would have hoped to on the Friday.
The Site - 10/10
ATP's venue is one of its most underplayed trump cards. While most festivals' ticket price buys you the right to watch bands and pitch a flimsy tent on a sodden patch of grass, ATP throws a whole Butlins holiday into the mix. This means that you not only get a nice warm chalet with beds, TVs, flushing toilets and those all-important tea and coffee making facilities, but you also get access to all manner of fun extra-curricular activities like the Splash water park and a mini golf course.
Modern day Butlins is a far cry from its crumbling, prefabricated, twentieth century stereotype. All chalets are clean, cosy and contemporary and are centred around a glimmering, white, multi-purpose entertainment complex which looks a bit like the Millennium Dome might have done had it been shrunk down to a fraction of the size and designed by a toddler with ADHD.
Atmosphere - 8/10
The atmosphere of Bowlie 2 is just as friendly as you'd expect from a festival curated by a band as undeniably nice as Belle & Sebastian.
This loveliness is reflected in some of the additional activities that have been put on, which include midday Scrabble tournaments, book clubs and bingo games. The demographic is possibly slightly more male than female, with a high ratio of bespectacled, bearded thirty-something gents with a penchant for festive knitwear.
While all this unashamed tweeness (there's that word again) can mean that parts of the audience do at times feel overly sedate, the unquestionable enthusiasm punters have for the music they're watching means that a joyous air of excitement lingers in the venue throughout the weekend.
Music - 9/10
One criticism that is often directed at ATP is that their line-ups can come across as slightly elitist – delighting in the obscure and pandering to indie snobbery. However, Belle and Sebastian's bookings take the event much closer to the musical centre ground when compared to the previous weekend's event from reformed post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Mercifully, this shift towards the mainstream brings it more in line with the kind of bands you’d expect to find on the second stage at Latitude rather than the main stage at V, and ensures that the standard of music remains at a high throughout.
Belle and Sebastian - 9/10
Something would have had to have gone horribly wrong for this set not to have gone down well. The weekend's curators were in their element during their Saturday night headline slot and performed most of their biggest tracks to a packed house of unashamed Belle & Sebastian devotees. Singer Stuart Murdoch's delightfully off-kilter boogieing makes him an eminently endearing frontman, and the end-of-set awarding of medals to the team of dancers he had plucked from the audience for 'The Boy With The Arab Strap' was a genuinely touching moment.
Vashti Bunyan - 9/10
The lost sixties songbird made a welcome return to recording and touring in 2005 having spent several decades in the musical wilderness, and her early afternoon appearance on the second stage feels really quite special. Her whimsical brand of folk and her soft, otherworldly voice made for spellbinding viewing and was witnessed by a rapt and appreciative crowd.
Frightened Rabbit - 8/10
The Selkirk boys are arguably one of the most underrated bands to emerge in Britain over the last few years, and their lovelorn, whisky-soaked, lyrically adroit shanties are a Saturday afternoon highlight, doing a sterling job of filling the potentially difficult Pavilion Stage with a monumental wall of folk-rock noise.
'Secret Band' (Franz Ferdinand) - 9/10
A certain weekly British music magazine successfully managed to ruin the surprise of who the mysteriously billed 'Secret Band' playing the second stage on Saturday night were when they published rumours Franz were set to play at Bowlie a few weeks ago. However, the fact that the cat has long been let out of the bag by no means diminished a ferocious performance by the returning indie heroes. Despite cheekily omitting bigger singles like 'Take Me Out' and ‘Do You Want To?’, their set gives the sense that Franz are determined not to let their position near the top of the indie hierarchy slip lightly, and offers fans a rare chance to reconnect with some of the biggest alternative anthems of the last ten years in a relatively tiny venue.
Wild Beasts - 8/10
As the vocally dextrous Kendal four piece draw their lengthy tour of acclaimed second album ‘Two Dancers’ to a close, it’s clear that the band have really grown into the material from that record and have been able to expertly evolve into an utterly beguiling live proposition as a result. A real highlight.
Camera Obscura - 6/10
While Camera Obscura’s gig is far from a failure, a comparatively sparse line-up on the Sunday has somehow meant that the Scots are elevated to the lofty position of headliners and given a slot almost as long as their entire back catalogue. As such, the set is peppered with a disproportionately large amount of filler tracks and falls slightly flat in places. If they had been given a short, sweet 45 minutes earlier in the day they would’ve gone down a treat.
Those Dancing Days - 6/10
Another band who are probably a bit unlucky to fall in the ‘Downers’ category, the all-female Swedish collective put in a solid enough performance but their upbeat brand of indie pop doesn’t quite manage to hold the late night crowd on Centre Stage.
Which unlikely figure took to the decks for a surprise late night DJ set in the Crazy Horse bar on the Sunday night? None other than former Chelsea, Everton and Scotland winger and all-round footballing legend Pat Nevin. Spotted on site wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a Pains of Being Pure At Heart t-shirt earlier in the weekend, Pat surely must be a front runner for the title of ‘world’s most unlikely indie geek’.