Live Review: Citadel 2019

On July 14th, I made my way to Gunnersbury Park via Acton Town to cover this year’s installment of the Citadel festival. As I was only one person amongst a sea of thousands I couldn’t physically attend every act there, but I tried to catch as many as possible in the time I had. This was the first festival I’d been to in a reporting capacity, and initially, I was enthralled by the prestige of the purple ‘press’ wristband I’d obtained at the site entrance.

From the lineup it wasn’t apparent if there was an overarching theme uniting the various bands and acts performing at Citadel; radio-friendly crowd-pleasers Bastille were billed on the same stage as ex-Brightonian rockers Dream Wife, and headliners Catfish and the Bottlemen didn’t initially strike me as the obvious choice to headline a festival of this size and shape. There was an entire tent packed with dads who clearly had a great deal more enthusiasm for the cricket final than any of the acts playing that day. In spite of this, there was a solid selection of music on display. What follows is an entirely objective account of some of that.

Dream Wife

Dream Wife were the first band I caught in full that day, and they set a healthy precedent for the talent on display there. Rumoured to be working on the follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut album, the art punk trio packed a mix of established singles and new material into their tight half-hour set, opening to audience adulation with the raucous Hey Heartbreaker. Singer and frontwoman Rakel Mjöll moved around the stage in arch strides, holding the crowd’s focus with a disarmingly casual confidence that only served to accent the urgency behind her lyrics. The garish fluorescent guitars wielded by Alice Go and Bella Podpadec looked almost like Fisher-Price toys, but the music was serious; album standout Somebody, which advocates for women taking control of their own bodies and vilifies those who reduce other people to objects of lust and desire, was a definite highlight of their set. The crowd were receptive and there were a few people on shoulders, which is an unusual thing for a 3pm gig and a testament to the infectious energy conveyed by the band.

Dream Wife

They finished with the snarling F.U.U., an industrial weapon of a song that would likely result in untold carnage if performed in a small underground club. During the song’s bridge, Mjöll took to the centre stage and led an acapalla chant which the audience readily took part in, affirming that they were “bad, bad, bad, bad bitches.” If there was ever a band that captured the spirit of 2019, you’d be hard pressed to argue it wasn’t Dream Wife.

Honeyblood

At five o’clock I faced a major scheduling conflict: Fontaines DC were playing the DIY stage at more or less the same time that Scotland’s own Honeyblood walked onto the Communion stage. I’d like to say it was a difficult decision, but I’m not overly familiar with the Fontaines back catalogue, and having recently reviewed Honeyblood’s latest album I was eager to hear how it sounded played live. I wasn’t remotely disappointed; although opener The Third Degree presented a slightly subdued beginning to their set, the band quickly found their groove, and early single Killer Bangs set a much better pace for the rest of their performance. As with previous occasions when I’ve seen them live, their material sounded bigger and rawer than on record, giving the music a punch that was pleasantly visceral. At times the heavy fuzz threatened to overwhelm frontwoman Stina Tweeddale’s vocals, but for the most part a healthy balance was maintained between singer and guitar. The band closed things out with Ready for the Magic, which felt almost tailor-made for such a performance; at the bridge the audience clapped along in time, unbidden, and Tweeddale briefly paused to savour the moment with a grin before launching into the final chorus. The band left the stage with feedback crashing through the speakers, politely thanking the audience for coming to see them.

Jade Bird

This was, without a doubt, my favourite performance of the day; I was fortunate enough to be right at the front of the barrier, and wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. Bursting onstage in a white jumpsuit and sporting a huge grin, Jade Bird’s set was lightning-quick and relentless, each song arriving within moments of the last. Tiny but hyperactive, when she did talk between songs the words arrived at 100mph with the enthusiasm of a toddler discovering Lego for the first time. It helped that her supporting band complimented her perfectly; all were incredibly competent players, particularly the bassist, who did a stellar job holding each song together. When she got onstage Bird launched straight into a rendition of Uh Huh, easily her most infectious single and one that received a healthy amount of radio airplay when it first came out last autumn. The rest of her set flew along with the same whirlwind momentum, showcasing her abilities as both a performer and a lyricist. Around halfway through her performance I leaned against the barrier and looked back over the crowd assembled in the festival tent: it was packed out, with rows of people beyond the tent’s confines squinting in with interest. Bird’s particular brand of outspoken Americana was irresistible, and brandishing her acoustic she looked like the country stars of old reborn in the 21st century. As I left afterwards, a girl next to me exclaimed to her friend that the performance had been ‘fucking brilliant’, which I felt to be a just summary.

Bastille 

I ambled along to the side of the main stage after Jade Bird finished performing, stayed long enough to hear a perfectly functional rendition of Pompeii, then wandered off in search of something more interesting.

Montrell

Inside the Sofar tent, a punningly-named marquee littered with seats and armchairs arranged in concentric circles around a central stage, a band who introduced themselves as Montrell began their set shortly after I abandoned Bastille. I hadn’t had any previous encounters with their music, but I was impressed with the complexity of their songwriting, which was reminiscent of Alt-J but without Joe Newman’s nasal croon. The marquee was packed, and although my inner cynic attributed this to the lure of a comfortable seat after several hours on their feet, the crowd seemed genuinely interested in Montrell’s music, which was heartening. During their performance of their song Animal a girl on the periphery of the tent apparently found a friend she had been seeking for some time, letting out a scream that somehow harmonised perfectly with the chorus. It felt fitting.

Catfish and the Bottlemen

Headliners Catfish and the Bottlemen did a respectable job of packing out the field in front of the main stage when they came on at 8:20 that evening. Having seemingly grown to fill the gap in the indie-rock scene after Alex Turner and co. departed for the moon with last year’s Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino, Catfish also appears to have inherited much of their fanbase. Of the hundreds of audience members waiting at the stage barriers, probably 99% were teenage girls. Opener Longshot garnered an enthusiastic response from the audience, and was swiftly followed by festival mainstay Kathleen.  I was initially watching from the side of the stage in the pit access area, but after a few numbers I moved around and into the crowd to get a better feel for the atmosphere there.
I’m no longer of the opinion that a headlining slot at a day festival is a massive plus. The prestige that comes with being top of the bill is inarguable, but for an entire field of people who’ve likely been daydrinking since noon it can be difficult to sustain the momentum necessary for eight to nine hours of live music. Many of the families who came for the day out had homes to get to, and by about halfway through Catfish there was a steady stream of people making for the exits. This is not to diminish the band, by any means – they put on a solid performance throughout their set, and inarguably showed that they’d earned their position at the top of the bill that day.

Anyone who maligns the quality of contemporary music in 2019 and devoutly wishes for a return to the ‘glory days’ of the seventies is, at the very least, a disaffected soul. The current music scene is more diverse, more challenging and more representative than ever, something to be keenly celebrated. That said, it’s a pity that this wasn’t reflected in the Citadel lineup: of the 25-odd acts billed to play last Sunday, only five or six of them had female members, something which Dream Wife’s Rakel Mjöll publicly called the festival out on the following day. It’s a pity because there are many other talented artists out there who could have put on equally excellent performances, had they been given the opportunity.

I found that of the half-dozen artists I saw at Citadel, the ones I enjoyed more were the bands which were female-led or dominated by women. This is no coincidence: for the most part I attended performances put on by artists I was more familiar with or interested in because I felt they had a great deal of potential due to singles by them I’d previously heard. As a popular artist, a group like Bastille is very much a safe choice for a London festival. They make unchallenging music that encompasses broad themes marketable to the lowest common denominator, and there’s no denying Dan Smith’s capabilities as a frontman and entertainer. I would, however, make the argument that from an artistic standpoint live music should be challenging and unexpected. The best live bands surprise you with the energy of their material or the variety of sounds they can offer. It doesn’t have to be weird, it doesn’t have to be nuanced, it just has to be different.

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