Indietracks 2019 (VH Festival Review)

It’s my first visit to Derbyshire’s incredibly charming DIY indie pop festival Indietracks, and it doesn’t disappoint. It has lots and lots and lots of trains, a good beer selection, four stages – one of which is on a train – the friendliest festival staff I’ve ever encountered, a bar on a train, a cracking owl sanctuary, a steamroller can crushing experience that is not to be missed, and it also has loads more trains. Oh, and one of the most carefully curated, rewarding and all out best lineups you’ll find at a UK festival, it has that too.

Sadly I missed the Friday night – but I think given the calibre of the reduced line-up for Friday, which featured Bis, Peaness and The Orielles, we can probably safely assume that everyone had a pretty great time.

The main festivities got underway on the Saturday, for what must be one of the best single day line-ups at any festival in the UK. If Indietracks has previously been labelled as perhaps a little too twee, London punks Molar’s heavy hitting set on the Indoor Stage reads like a statement of intent as they smash through the hits on their latest Straniero EP, which was a 2018 punk highlight.

Next is indie pop supergroup Cheerbleederz on the Outdoor Stage. Made up of members of Happy Accidents, Finish Flag and Fresh, who are playing the Indoor Stage later today, the trio turn out in matching boiler suits to bring their brand of upbeat fuzz pop to an enthusiastic crowd. Tracks from 2018’s excellent Faceplant EP are mixed in with new songs the band have been tweeting about a lot lately – colour me excited for the next EP.

Cheerbleederz on the Outdoor Stage – photo by Jennifer Bell

Thoughtful scheduling enabled me to catch a few songs of Jetstream Pony’s set. The band carefully balance their power-pop sound with a slightly dour post-punk seriousness, which makes for an interesting combination, and one I’m going to have to put a bit more time into at a later date.

In the meantime though it’s time for Witching Waves, a London punk trio whose latest album Persistence is sure to be up there in any decent end of year list for 2019. Well, I say trio, but to begin with it’s just the duo of drummer Emma and guitarist Mark, as bassist Estella has gotten stuck in traffic on the way up. They work surprisingly well as a two-piece (and actually first started out that way) but Estella’s arrival was greeted with a huge cheer, and the chugging bass immediately lent the songs a muscular edge that I’d hardly noticed was missing.

I also haven’t mentioned the weather yet, but given that two days earlier than this it was the hottest day in history, the weather today is absolutely horrendous. It’s never worse than during the unrelenting downpour throughout Witching Waves set, so it’s telling as to how good they are that everyone sticks out the rain rather than running for cover.

Back on the Indoor Stage, it’s time for Porridge Radio. The DIY band from Brighton have an extraordinary ability with tone, and use that considerable skill to build an incredible sense of tension before then tearing it all down with enormously powerful breakdowns. Live it’s even better than on record, and their upcoming album sounds like it’s going to be an essential purchase for any fan of artful, brutal, beautiful post-punk.

Next Kathryn from the aforementioned Cheerbleederz takes to the stage once again with London punks Fresh, whose latest album Withdraw is one of my favourites of the year so far. The band have an unerring way with a punk song, matching bright pop hooks with vulnerable, downer lyrics in a way that can’t help but leave you smiling. Speaking of which, Kathryn sings every song with her joy written all over her face, and honestly, it makes for one of the most winning performances I’ve seen all year. And the moment Daniel from Martha/Onsind and Jay from Personal Best/Crushing/Onsind join them on stage for their song New Girl, it’s probably the second biggest ‘Indietracks love in’ moment of the weekend – though more on that later.

Fresh on the Indoor Stage – photo by Jennifer Bell

Back on the Outdoor Stage it’s time for Mammoth Penguins. Singer Emma’s gorgeous voice is one of the best in the UK indie scene, and it’s used to full effect on hits like Strength In My Legs, I Wanna (made child-friendly with a quick lyric change to ‘chuck it all’) and Closure – my current pick for the best song of the year. And to cap it off we’re treated to some tracks from the band’s concept album John Doe thanks to gang of friends from other bands joining them on stage, something sadly absent from a regular Mammoth Penguins gig because the songs are too complicated for the band to play as a trio.

Mammoth Penguins and friends on the outdoor stage – photo by Jennifer Bell

Next I take a shortcut through the merch tent and accidentally stumble upon an impromptu, unplugged set from Onsind. We don’t see nearly enough Onsind gigs these days (give or take a DIY Space gig later this month), and the crowd pack in to sing along for this unexpected treat.

After that slight detour there’s just about enough time to get back under shelter for Big Joanie’s set. The band have gone from strength to strength in the last few months, built on the back of their brilliant debut album Sistahs – so much so that the last time I saw them they were supporting riot grrl legends Bikini Kill at the Brixton Academy. The crowd pack in to watch them make their way through massive tracks like Fall Asleep and Way Out.

One last trip to the Outdoor Stage lets us catch Martha’s brilliant set. Talk about going from strength to strength, Martha’s latest album Love Keeps Kicking has helped cement their status as one of the best DIY bands in the country, and keeps alive their 100% track record of producing irresistible indie punk bangers. The first time I ever saw Martha was supporting Allo Darlin’, so it was particularly pleasing to be treated to a cover of the much-missed indie pop band’s brilliant My Heart Is A Drummer in amongst a set stacked with hits. And not just that, but bassist Naomi finishes the set by sailing out over the crowd in a rubber dinghy to make sure she reaches The Spook School set in time, all while the other three remain on stage performing what I think was an instrumental version of fan favourite Gretna Green.

Naomi from Martha sailing to The Spook School show – Photo by Jennifer Bell

And finally, we follow Naomi’s dinghy all the way to the Indoor Stage for The Spook School. I mentioned earlier that Fresh’s onstage shenanigans was only the second biggest ‘Indietracks love-in’ of the weekend – and that’s because The Spook School’s whole set counts as the biggest. It’s a set riddled with nostalgia, more than a few tears, and a clear sense of community. The band finally unleash the massive net full of balloons that’s been suspended over the Indoor Stage all day to cap off their magnificent headlining performance in what was truly a special moment. For a band that have clearly made so many of their fondest memories at Indietracks, this is one that they surely won’t ever forget.

It’s not quite as stacked a day on the Sunday, but it kicks off well with another heavier band in the shape of Oxford’s Junk Whale. The rain has let up a bit today, so it’s all the more impressive that the Indoor Stage is pretty full for their set of big-hearted indie rock. The band know their way around a rock banger, evident on tracks like Chestburster and August, and there’s also a slight tinge of grunge about their sound.

Junk Whale on the Indoor Stage

What I’m able to catch of dreamy indie-poppers Kidsmoke sounds pretty good, they’ve released a couple of decent singles so far this year, and are presumably gearing up to release an album I’ll need to keep my eye on. Unfortunately though I couldn’t catch more than a couple of tracks, as I had to prioritise what I’m told is an Indietracks tradition – the can crushing. They create a big pile of cans that have been drunk over the course of the weekend and crush them with an old-time steamroller while crowd chant ‘Crush! Crush! Crush!’. It was exactly as awesome as it sounds, and as a bonus is the first time I think I’ve seen a steamroller used outside of a cartoon.

Crush! Crush! Crush!

Over on the Outdoor Stage, Seazoo’s set of charming, wonky indie pop songs feels about as Indietracks as it gets. The band cite Yo La Tengo as an influence and you can definitely hear that, but there’s something rather playful about their set too. It’s fun, funny, winning and very easy-going – a great soundtrack for a cloudy afternoon.

Then we cram into the church for the best act of the whole weekend. Leicester indie punk outfit Kermes are absolutely electric, banging through tracks from their album ‘We Choose Pretty Names’ as singer Emily charges up and down the central aisle convincing every single person sat in the pews that they’re seeing something really special. It’s an enormous performance, capped off by a brilliant, brutal rendition of their best song Yr Beast. The church is a tiny venue, which is obviously always the best way to watch a band like this – but really Kermes’ performance deserves a far bigger audience.

Kermes in the Church – Photo by Jennifer Bell

Over on the Indoor Stage again, it’s time for Thud, a dreamy shoegaze act who have travelled all the way from Hong Kong. While the set all starts a little too quietly – perhaps the people handling the sound desk needed a couple of tracks to get the hang of this act – by the end of the set the band are really knocking people over with huge their sound is.

Volume is also an issue for Advance Base. Owen Ashworth used to perform as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, and has followed that project up with pretty much exactly the same act – poetic lyrics, a gorgeous speak-sing baritone and a few synthesisers to create wonderful little songs. Unfortunately the Indoor Stage is a big shed and contains the main bar – so there’s a lot of noise leaking into the crowd from people ordering drinks, and it’s not until he starts introducing some beats that the crowd is really able to focus on his rather lovely set.

Next on the Outdoor Stage is Adult Mom, who seems utterly charmed by the festival – pausing to wave at a passing train, motioning enthusiastically to all the ‘gay shit’ the next band have all over the stage and telling the crowd how she was ‘told that this was the twee festival’. Her beautiful confessional songs win a large audience, as does her charming rendition of The Las There She Goes.

Adult Mom on the Outdoor Stage – photo by Jennifer Bell

We’re only able to catch a couple of tracks of one of the festival’s biggest names, Stealing Sheep – who come on stage dressed as a trio of golden druids or something – before we have to get in the queue for Best Praxis at the church. The London band are unfortunately beset by tech issues that eat into their set, but they show their flair for dramatic, synth-inflected post punk to a packed-in crowd.

Best Praxis in the Church – photo by Jennifer Bell

Back over at the Indoor Stage Scottish indie act Withered Hand, whose set of jangly pop songs offers a perfect accompaniment to the mid-evening wind-down vibe. And after a couple of drinks on train bar we head over for the festival’s headliner, electro pop outfit Kero Kero Bonito. I’m unfamiliar with the group, and for me they lean a little too much into the pop element of that description to hold my attention properly.

Perhaps worn out by how much fun I’ve had so far I find my mind wandering toward bed, and eventually give in to temptation. In doing so I wave goodbye to an utterly charming festival, well run by some of the friendliest people you could ask for, and it’s a great size to make sure fans aren’t completely exhausted by the end of it. If it’s been too twee in the past, I’m not sure that’s a relevant argument any more – there are harder edges on display throughout the weekend, which really helps to keep the lineup feeling fresh. And even if it seems the organisers decided to stack the Saturday line-up to the slight detriment of the Sunday, it left us with one of the best single days you could find at UK festival. It may have been my first Indietracks, but it won’t be my last.

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