Same shit, different line-up. But what a line-up. Not a lot has changed at Oxegen over the years. It seemed so remarkably similar to the last time I braved the punter’s campsite at the first Punchestown venture in ’04 and very little changed in the way of the weather since my last working visit in ’07. It seems that as consistently as MCD book The Killers and Kings of Leon for Punchestown each year, God plans a grey, drizzly weekend with at least one particularly horrendous downpour. Of course, I could easily go on complaining about the weather, the mud, the crowd of trainee inmates and the power-tripping hooligans known as “security” (Yes, No. 3106, we saw you groping that paralytic drunk girl at the barrier). But better to concentrate on the music, after all, the chunk of the line-up that included so many incredible bands is what convinced me to suffer through the environment of the damned.
In some ways though, this was an entirely different festival experience. I had never before lived the luxurious life of real beds, showers and enormous breakfasts in between commutes to the festival site. This may have helped me to forget about getting wet and mucky during the day, knowing that I could be clean, dry and warm again that night instead of wondering which flooded corner of my tent I had left my last pair of socks in. The journey it must be said, was relatively smooth each day as well – a welcome change from the Slane fiasco. The free shuttle bus to Naas (or Nass as the sign – and Lady Gaga – said) was well organised and carried us to and from the festival site every day with ease. Overall, we had a really great weekend, taking in about 30 bands over 3 reasonably efficient days. There were only a few disappointments, aside from the hormonal sespit of a crowd causing me to rethink my position on genocide. There were the usual few cancellations – most of which didn’t affect us – and then there was the IMRO Stage who didn’t seem to realise that Kildare is in the same time-zone as Dublin and seemed to be throwing bands on all over the place at some points. But, like Peter Mark, let’s focus on the highlights. And there were many.
With no major disasters to speak of, we arrived onsite about 3pm on Friday just after the rain began. Seeking shelter and somewhere where we couldn’t hear The Coronas, we sat on the grass in the Hot Press tent and watched Priscilla Ahn playing some pretty blandly pretty songs that may have worked better if the sun had snuck out. It didn’t of course so we went and got a drink in the strange confines of the Bacardi B-Live bar while the Soundcheck messers spun Passion Pit, Animal Collective and Michael Jackson tunes. After watching the security guards kick the massage girls out in the rain, we headed for the Red Bull stage up the hill and waited for Jape to kick off our weekend. Richie’s set had a little trouble kick-starting itself and poor sound meant the first few songs were a bit of a mess. But, ever the showman, he really picked it up and got the crowd going insane over the next 20 minutes or so. After distinctly bangin’ versions of a reasonably predictable set, they slipped into a looping sample of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”, with the word “love” blanked out so that Richie could lead the crowd in a chant of “fuck” instead. It’s irreverent and mildly aggressive and gets us in the mood for Fight Like Apes perfectly. They play in the rather gigantic Green Spheres tent and have the crowd in the palm of their hand from the moment they walk onstage. It’s certainly not the best I’ve seen this lot, but milling through their ever-expanding catalogue of crowd-pleasers and a couple of new ones, they continue to hurl themselves around the stage to the delight of the assembled fanatics. By the end, even the poor onstage camera-man gets sprayed by the fire extinguisher that Jamie had been using to assault his keyboard. We pop next door to catch The Joy Formidable, but the IMRO time warp presents us with The Brilliant Things who were scheduled to play 3 hours earlier. The next while spent bouncing back and forth between IMRO and Red Bull teaches us several things: it only takes 7 minutes to cross between these distant points of the festival, M83 were largely dull, Heathers are very talented, Ladyhawke has cancelled at the last minute and David Kitt is moving house. We also caught a bit of Metronomy in Hot Press and, not being familiar with much of their own material, I was impressed with the robust groove they had going on as well as the outfits, which came complete with light fixtures. It felt a bit like we were killing time until Blur though, so we eventually picked our spot towards the end of Snow Patrol‘s lighter-waving set. This gig was never going to match the monumental occasions of Glasto and Hyde Park, but they put on a fairly incredible show full of the kind of energy they might never have dreamt possible in their Britpop youth. Damon seems to have become a much more bizarre and eccentric frontman, though his later admission that he was reasonably stoned might explain some of his behaviour. The set is littered with brilliance though and the big hits send the crowd into raptures. A long delay after their first encore meant the crowd had largely started to drift back to their flagons of cider before they returned for a truly triumphant version of “The Universal” to close the first day.
On Saturday, we get in a bit later and start our day with another Irish breakfast. Firstly catching some inoffensive sets from Carosel and Angel Pier in the IMRO tent and then watching Messiah J & The Expert play an infectious set to a growing crowd in the Red Bull tent. It is of course pissing down all afternoon, but the recent MJEX material brings some funky sunshine to the funny shaped tent. We’ve now reached hectic o’clock and I begin some mad-dashing by watching Passion Pit improve immensely on their Whelan’s gig. They have really come into their own as confident stage performers now and, with the added bonus of a crowd who have been lapping up the catchy melodies of their debut album recently, they keep a euphoric crowd going for a solid half an hour. I catch the second half of Regina Spektor‘s set, which is the first time I’ve seen her with accompanying musicians. Last time she played at Oxegen in ’06 she had only a small keyboard, a chair and a drumstick to accompany her giddy excitement. The sound isn’t great and given that I’m about half-way back there’s an awful lot of chatter but she delivers both the new and old with both the delicacy and humour that first endeared her to audiences a few years ago. We brave the harshly horizontal rainstorm to watch some of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ set outside before heading into St. Vincent in IMRO. I was gutted that I missed her in the Sugar Club in Nov ’07, so I was really eager to catch this show by the former Spree and Sufjan collaborator. Annie and her band are sharp and and her vocals are soaring in the tiny tent. The songs from her new album Actor are mesmerising and she also gives us a great version of “Now, Now” from her debut. We run back to Hot Press to see Little Boots. One of the most talked about ladies of the year, I am hoping she can forget about being a mannequin for trendy fashion designers and deliver a quality performance. Although she still doesn’t play her array of instruments all that much, she puts on a great show full of enthusiasm and the sizeable crowd love every minute. “New In Town” obviously goes down a storm. It’s about all I could have expected from young Victoria Hesketh, so I’m content with a high energy disco. Possibly my most anticipated set of the weekend follows back in the Green Spheres tent where TV On The Radio absolutely blow their crowd away. Fearing that they might be a bit out of their element on a big stage at a festival like this and, even worse, sandwiched between the stupidity of Pete Doherty and the re-hashed glam-pop of Pet Shop Boys, I never expected them to win over such a huge volume of people. But such is the intensity of their live show that even the casual observers seem almost dumbfounded by the noises that this band make. Their unique style of futuristic funk and the versatility of Tunde’s vocals impress as they belt through the latest album Dear Science and classics like “Staring At The Sun” and “Wolf Like Me”. As we left, I felt like my trip to Oxegen had been justified by TV On The Radio’s set and with a big smile still on my face, we saw Elbow close their set on the main stage with “One Day Like This”. Despite the miserable weather, the crowd were loving every last note of that song and the burst of white confetti was perfect for the moment. They’re a pretty great band who have delivered consistent albums over the last decade and you don’t need me to tell you that they deserved this joyous moment in the spotlight. Things take a turn for the strange, as they do at festivals and my plan to catch Doves & Nick Cave goes out the window and I instead get a full helping of Bloc Party and Kings of Leon on the Main Stage. It’s interesting, if nothing else. Bloc Party are one of those bands that seem to play at every festival and seem to have lots of songs that all the kids want to sing along to, but do they sell tickets to their own gigs? Personally, I’m not in the slightest bit impressed by what they do. Their “experimental” take on rock seems far too contrived and their live show was too clinical for me to give a flying fuck what they were blabbering about. All in all, I found them about as exhilarating as a PC World advert. Kings of Leon are a curious little entity themselves. I’ve never been able to figure out my relationship with them. I thought they were shit, then I thought the second album had a few clever little riffs, then the third album showed some promise, but then the new album was mostly inane, stadium-filling crap. Their set was long and loud, as you expect from these headliners, but it was completely lacking in invention. They played some decent songs, like “Closer”, but they just sounded like the CD was turned up louder. Only once towards the end, after “Use Somebody” did they show any kind of creativity while messing around with some song I wasn’t familiar with. Aside from that, their pompous guard never slipped. It was all Fisher Price choruses and the drunken yahoos all around us “fuckin’ love it”.
Though we’re not fooled by the lovely weather on Sunday morning, we make an early return to Punchestown and head straight into The Phenomenal Handclap Band. For once the sun is shining outside, but we’re in the confines of this tent with a band that would be more at home in a dirty basement club. The seven members of the band walk on-stage as cool as you like and enter into a 13-minute extravaganza of funky riffs and sultry disco vocals. The five guys in the band look like they all belong in totally different bands and the prog-rock looking guitarist on the left belts out some serious vocals on the next song. They follow it up with the addictively brilliant “15 to 20” and really get the admittedly small crowd shaking their muddy asses. A quick dash into the Red Bull tent to catch some of RSAG leaves me a little underwhelmed. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen him a few times already, or that the sound is once again a little off in this tent, but it just wasn’t working for me. We didn’t stay all that long though as we made a trip across to the Dance “Arena” for the first time. We’re aiming to catch some of Nialler‘s set before Fever Ray comes on and as we walk in, I hear the distinctive voice of Karin Dreijer Andersson from the other end of the vast hall and think we’ve arrived late. But no, amid a serious light show, Nialler9 is banging out some great tunes to a really receptive crowd who are beginning to gather in anticipation of the much-hyped Fever Ray show. She takes quite a while to come on-stage, with some stringent sound checking being done, but when she does emerge, it’s as bizarre and eerie as expected, with her in a shamanistic headdress and a band of demented, almost satanic clowns writhing about in the fog. Maybe I expected something too weird, but aside from the fact that the songs were great, I wasn’t blown away by the live show. It is also likely that the huge, rather empty concrete hall and the hyper-active security guards somewhat hindered my enjoyment of the set. After a busy start to the third day, it was time for a break in the rare sunshine. During this break we observed the latter stages of Lady Gaga‘s set from a safe distance. She was leaping about in ridiculous outfits as expected, but she sounded pretty awful. It was not the polished, perfect pop show I had expected. She was babbling on endlessly about her life story and how much she loves all the “beautiful people” in the crowd. After hearing her achieve the impressive feat of making that “Pokerface” song even more horrendous, they should really have thrown her into the pit to let all those beautiful people tear her to shreds. Putting that nonsense behind us, we headed for the sure-fire fun fair of Friendly Fires in the Green Spheres. I’ve been dying to see these guys for quite a while too and they were every bit as impressive as they seemed to be at Glastonbury. All reckless dancing limbs and brass-fueled grooves, they threw the whole tent into a raucous fit with their genre-blending party. They were definitely one of the bands that I know I can’t miss if they’re playing their own gig in Ireland any time soon. I’ve seen Foals a good few times, so we eventually moved on, though another bit of hanging around means we don’t make it to catch the end of Telepathe. Instead we see some of the spectacle that is Katy Perry on the O2 stage. With a huge pink backdrop and a pink cat-suit, she darts back and forth across the stage desperately trying to convince the audience that she can live up to her reputation as a kerr-azy lady. She strikes me as more of a comedian or actress than any kind of musician, but such is the way with modern pop music. Between her dull songs and attention seeking, she also trades her inflatable strawberries for a giant inflatable penis that had been working its way through the crowd towards her. I think it’s best to refrain from any jokes implying how this girl found a similar situation to help her become famous. As luck would have it, the heavens opened just as she started her last song, the characteristically stupid “I Kissed A Girl”, so a large portion of her audience ran away seeking shelter from the hail-like rain storm. As the site turned back into sludge, more and more people streamed in to the Red Bull tent where Norway’s Casiokids were belting out their unique squelchy-synth cartoon pop with glee. I really thought these guys were brilliant and most of the crowd seemed to agree. They’re all about having fun and you can’t help but enjoy watching the five guys onstage grinning like lunatics while they fleshed out great songs like “Finn Bikkjen!” and their fantastic closer “Fot i Hose”. On a dash back across the site I pass The Ting Tings blaring “Great DJ” to a rapturous crowd on the O2 stage and also see The Specials closing with “Ghost Town”, but I’m trying to catch Broken Records in the IMRO tent. Let’s do the time warp again! God knows what was going on here, but when I arrived, they were setting up keyboards and synths for some other band, possibly Wintersleep who were due on after them, though the lads from Villagers were also hovering about onstage. Back I went then to Red Bull and we hung around waiting for Of Montreal, a band I somehow have never seen in all these years. Their set is short enough but jam packed with a great mix of songs, including some of my favourites from their great Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? album from 2007 and all sorts of costume changes. The second their post-apocalyptic performance art theatrics came to an end, there was an immediate surge forward by the crowd which squashed quite a few of us up against the barrier. I had expected a big turnout for Florence & The Machine but I didn’t expect this kind of rabid mayhem. The stage was already running about fifteen minutes late, but a huge delay in Florence’s arrival resulted in an increasingly hostile and expectant crowd. There was serious tension in the crowd inside the tent and looking around, it was like it was indie-kid Christmas eve. Further back in the middle of the crowd I spotted one young man with his hands clasped atop his head like a Newcastle fan on the last day of the season. Eventually, Florence Welch strides onto the darkened stage and, without a word, begins singing “Between Two Lungs” to a crowd that have already been won over. As she works through her collection of songs from Lungs – only released this past week – it becomes obvious that this crowd are already very familiar with the majority of her work. Songs like “Dog Days Are Over” and “Kiss With A Fist” have been doing the rounds for a long time now and both are received with ferocious applause and delirious screams that could almost rival the voice of the lady herself. She covers “If I Had A Heart” by Fever Ray towards the end, which probably didn’t please quite as many of the crowd as she would had she done Candi Staton’s “You’ve Got The Love” as I expected. But when she leaves the stage after an all too brief set, the crowd all hang around, looking dazed but delighted with what they’ve just witnessed, discussing the wonders of the 22 year old’s spectacular voice. Eventually the groups disperse. There’s still music to be had out there apparently. We pass by NIN, The Killers, Concerto For Constantine and the Manics on our meandering way out, but there was nothing that was going to top the astounding set by Florence & The Machine that night and we were quite happy to make our way home again, safe in the knowledge that we had seen at least a couple of truly special performances over the weekend.
Some of my favourite songs from the weekend, surprisingly all from Sunday…