The UK music festival season now officially starts in Teesside with the welcome return of Stockton Calling
Words & Photos John Hayhurst (@snapagig)
My festival year always used to start in April with Live at Leeds City, however, last year they decided to move that festival to the Autumn, and so the honour of opening my all day gigs calendar goes to Stockton Calling. I’ve been here before, for the first 2 ‘Gathering Sounds’ Festivals, and it’s pretty much the same format. Open all your music venues from 1pm to 11pm and each hosts 6-9 artists for the price of 1 ticket for all, it’s 1st come 1st served, so when the venues are full to capacity you can’t come in – Even if you are Press!
Stockton-on-Tees gets more than its fair share of criticism, but I found the place so warm, friendly and full of eager music fans deliberating over who they are going to see next. The venues are plentiful and in short distance to each other, loads of great local food sites for the legendary ‘Parmos’ or ‘Chip Butties with a splash’, what exactly ‘a splash’ is, I never found out, but the excitement of running around the streets to get to the next gig, and navigating your way across the clashfinder of 11 venues and over 80 artists never gets boring for me, and whilst my feet are hurting, there is still the thought that the next band could be my new favourite discovery. This day was a triumph for the organisers, the town, and the punters who came from far and wide to support local and touring artists.
You can’t see them all, so there are 2 trains of thought here, plan, plan and plan, or just go with the flow and wander – I talked to many groups of friends and they all had at least 1 planner in their crew, and the rest of them went for the ride, the music, the beer and the food. A perfect Saturday afternoon and we even had some decent weather too.
Strap yourselves in, this was a long day of fantastic music. First for me was KU Stockton and Middlesbrough band Shore, it’s packed in here and it is only 1:30pm but this trio of local indie lads created a storm with some infectious guitar pop, mixing psych sounds of the 60’s and more modern indie based elements they thrashed through a quick set including the single ‘Hard Love’. Great start, and then a short walk up the road to ‘Stickys’, a new venue for me, looked like an American diner in a basement, with a large floor and low level stage, seating and vantage points all around, perfect for this event. Ten Eighty Trees were on, and another trio this time from Newcastle. Vocalist and guitarist Nathan Newton leads this band and is backed by bassist Lewis Glaholm and drummer Michael Mather. They launched onto the North East rock scene a few years ago and are picking up a reputation for some hard alternative rock anthems. Think old school classic rock like Budgie but mixed with a bit of Royal Blood or Biffy Clyro wizardry and you won’t be far off, ‘Pathfinder’ is a great new hard rocking tune and ‘Born Free’ another highlight from their excellent set.
The beauty of this metropolitan festival is that there really is something here for everyone and the venues are so close you could easily watch half a set from one band and then catch the last 3 numbers from another. I stumbled into The Georgian Theatre to see Pave The Jungle and I’m so glad I did, vocalist and songwriter Rachael Whittle is a driving force, one minute introspective twiddling then full on screamo alt rock and thunderous punk mixed with some sweet melody. A heady concoction that demanded you keep watching till the end, which I did. Have a listen to ‘Cookie Cutter’ or ‘Jelly’ from their ‘The Hissing EP’ which is now on repeat at home.
After that powerful performance I needed a drink and a calm down, what better place than ARC2 and Cara Rose sat at a piano singing some jazzy soulful musings of young love, a complete juxtaposition from the angry rock from 10 minutes ago – but she could soothe any savage beast with those ethereal vocals. Only in her early twenties, came to the gig with her mum and dad, and this was her first trip outside of her home turf of Glasgow, reminded me a little of Rae Morris, so it certainly won’t be my last time seeing her.
More sweet acoustic country sounds in The Storytellers with Megan Wyn, a rising Welsh starlet who charmed the room with her Stevie Nicks like vocals. I desperately wanted to see her but also curious about Nel Unlit who were also on at the same time back at ARC. Mistake of the day, as I found them to be far too introspective for my taste, so I ran back to catch the last song from Megan Wyn instead, ‘Polaroid’ is such a great tune.
I’d already had a superb 3 hours and it was only 4pm in the afternoon. MOY was on at ARC and the mystery around him made it impossible to miss – relocating from Auckland New Zealand to Glasgow via London, he has gathered plenty of support with his dreamy pop and dark overtones, the performance is effortlessly cool as he stands there, saying little in-between the songs but ‘Start Me Up’, ‘No Talks the Best Chat’ and ‘At My Door’ are all certifiable pop indie bangers just waiting to find the right audience, it is only a matter of time before we see MOY much higher up these festival line ups.
Back to chaotic madness set over searing guitar and pummelling bass/drums with Headshrinker. Already on my ‘ones to watch’ list for well over 18 months, they did not disappoint with frontman Garran Hickman’s captivating, visceral performance taking us all on a weird journey, as we are simultaneously blasted with Headshrinkers’ unrelenting brand of noise. Hickman doesn’t win any awards for his dance moves but ‘Doorway Conversation’ picks up where The Fall have left, drawling poetry set to fast beats and fuzzy punk – watch out, these guys will be up there in a few years time.
Time for some funk, yes you heard that right, this old rocker is going for some smooth slick funk-pop in the shape of Teesside’s Moon Wax, why not? – lets embrace everything about the day and see something different for a change. Sticky’s was the venue and the dancefloor was about to get just that, as this band played the funkiest soul set I’ve heard in years, I was fully expecting Jay Kay to step out of the shadows to relive Jamiroquai’s finest moments, this was a local band playing to their fans in the midst of all the punky indie festival chaos, a chance to groove for half an hour ‘Slick Cosmology’ sounding a perfect mix of Tame Impala and Jungle.
Frankie Beetlestone was in fine form, admittedly needing a haircut, but this Sheffield teenager has at least managed to get out of his bedroom and on to the stage on time. His DIY bedroom pop stretches a few boundaries and translates well to the Stockton audience. If he can find the right reception then he could be the next Declan McKenna, ‘Sober Again’ a story of teen excess would have worked better with a student audience in a smaller spot, he was drowning a little in the huge space at ARC. CVC on the other hand had no problem attracting a mixed audience back at KU, this colourful glam rock/funk outfit have travelled from Wales to be here today, so they were not going to go quietly. Coming from the sleepy town of Church Village (hence the CVC name) this collective of Francesco Orsi (vocals}, David Bassey (vocals/guitar), Elliot Bradfield (vocals/guitar), Ben Thorne (bass), Tom Fry (drums) and Daniel ‘Nanial’ Jones (keyboard/percussion) have known each other since they were at school, so there is a strong bond and this is music with a smile on its face, all flamboyant outfits and great tunes like ‘Jungle Fever’ and ‘The Mortgage Anthem’.
To go from that to a singer songwriter called Jodie Nicholson was a bit of a shock and a few others in the room were still talking about CVC when Jodie was mid song 2, prompting the shush crowd to act on her behalf. Nicholson is a Teesside girl with influences from prog rock Pink Floyd to Lucy Rose and Bombay Bicycle Club and has self written, recorded and produced her latest release at home in her little set up there. I wanted more time to settle in to this, the Lucy Rose influence is plain to hear, just listen to ‘Move’ it’s a low-fi vocals and samples builder with some evocative pulsing beats, something different again from this festival, a breath of fresh air away from the also ran stale indie lads bands.
That was it for exploration, the rest of the evening I spent with artists I already new, I had planned this to perfection as STONE came on to the stage at KU and Fin Power launches himself over the barrier during the opener, I knew I had made the right decision. STONE are part of the resurgence of guitar music in Liverpool and they are not messing about, no shoe gazing here – this is a full on experience where you get lost in the force of their music ‘Leave it Out’ is an example of totally visceral post punk from this young band. Fin Power is John Power’s (Cast, La’s) son, and he must look at him and think how he used to have that energy once, he spends more time off stage than on and constantly moving. In future years of this festival they will be a headliner and like similar bands – Shame come immediately to mind, it will take some time to build, but with every gig they gain more followers.
English Teacher are another example, except a lot less animated, preferring the lyrics and poetry from lead singer/guitarist/synth Lily Fontaine to get those musical needles a flickering. My second time seeing them and even better than the first time which was a pre-Leeds Festival show where they had to put up with a load of drunk students singing “Whoomp! There it is” every 5 mins. Tonight was a success in everything except drummer Douglas Frost’s base Tom, which refused to stand up, in contrast this band are another example of great new unpigeonholeable (is that a word?) talent emerging after the pandemic. Swapping guitar for synth for cowbell, Fontaine is an understated frontwoman and yet has the crowd mesmerised, one individual in particular who embarrassingly responded to the “Who likes beer?” poem before everyone else.
I’m in the Georgian Theatre which sounds grander than it really is, it has a freestanding area at the front and a very small balcony for about 10 people at the back. It is about to get packed for probably the performance of the festival – Walt Disco. Like the eighties all over again, this collection of Glam Rock/New Romantics take to the stage and proceed a charm offensive of Bowie proportions over the audience at Stockton Calling. A few had arrived early here to get a good spot for Self Esteem, and were ambushed by Walt Disco who claimed them as their own as they pop rocked and synth’d 80’s style for the next 45 minutes. The theatrical, confident and bold – James Potter, who at one point I swear was channelling the spirit of Billy MacKenzie with his warbling tenor voice, dances and frequently sings directly into the faces of the surprised audience. Everyone here has a Cheshire cat grin, joining in with the ‘Cut Your Hair’ refrain and any others that Potter just has to ask for. Debut album has just been released and they are in the middle of a UK club tour which will result in hundreds of new fans with every show, they are officially Simon Le Bon’s favourite band at the moment, so expect them everywhere in the Summer. This was a demonstration of self-expression and belief and not giving a monkeys what anyone thinks, set to an 80’s soundtrack with Chic like basslines, Depeche Mode synths and Duran guitars, they are the perfect festival band.
The audience were still talking enthusiastically about Walt Disco when Self Esteem took to the same stage with her trio of dancing backing singers. I had seen this show about a month ago in Leeds, so knew what to expect, What follows is a hi energy, flawless pop performance from Rebecca Lucy Taylor. The momentum never wanes, as we’re treated to life-affirming banger after banger paired with some slick choreography. OK they slip up a couple of times and have to restart, but that adds to the human element that Taylor brings to her show. She’s my headliner for the festival, and whilst I’ve gorged on some seriously great rock n roll music today, you can’t beat her well produced pop show at a festival.
Stockton Calling, What a return! You could not have been better, what a great start to my festival calendar and one I hope to have in my diary every year, the next one cannot come soon enough.