The British summer is full of pop festivals – muddy, open-air, and mostly commercial. There are late-spring literary festivals, too, and Edinburgh has its celebration of theatre in September. Fittingly, the BBC’s itinerant Radio 6 Music festival, held in Bristol last weekend after previous years in Tyneside and Manchester, has a huddled February feel to it – an intimate get-together of rock aficionados amid rain-soaked urban grime. Even jammed close to the stage inside Motion, a club behind Bristol Temple Meads railway station, punters kept their thick coats on, and threw back whisky chasers to keep the cold out. But they shared a bond: a love of eclectic, cranky, edgy alternative rock that has made 6 Music Britain’s favourite digital-radio station and is turning this festival into a thriving annual retreat. A generation that grew up on John Peel is surviving middle age listening to presenters like Jarvis Cocker, Iggy Pop and Cerys Matthews, who curate weekly shows of musical treasures and idiosyncratic memorabilia. Suede’s Brett Anderson, a fleeting star of the Britpop era, now a 48-year-old performer with a Jagger-like energy, summed it up after hurling his sweat-soaked body into the crowd. Without 6 Music, he yelled, “The landscape of British music would be very different.”
The festival is becoming an integral part of that backdrop. Its line-up was broad, chaotic, and the gigs sprawled across Bristol from Motion to the Colston Hall to the 02 Academy. Choices had to be made between watching the ethereal Daughter or the electronic Underworld, the venerable Misty in Roots or Bristol’s angst-ridden Tricky. Early performers had only 40 minutes on stage. That meant the ravishing art-pop singer Róisín Murphy (pictured) had just got into her groove when her time was up. Yet she still performed more costume changes in one set than some of the scruffier members of the audience will have undergone in a week.
Concurrently, Bristol’s music scene was given a burst of national attention. Over several weeks in the run-up to the festival, 6 Music profiled its musical history. A city that exploded in the St Paul’s race riots in 1980 has since channelled much of its restive energy into punk, trip-hop, dubstep, graffiti and other expressions of underground culture. The festival felt like a nod of long overdue recognition.
It might have benefited from more young Bristol acts, but the presence of veterans went down well with a crowd mostly aged between 30 and 60. In a converted Georgian church during the day, 6 Music presenters conducted a dialogue with some of their wizened performers, who spoke of the well-worn path of rock stardom: bands in vans break into the big time, are showered with drugs and cash, binge on fame, struggle with addiction, and more often than not break up.
But those who come through can be reflective and eloquent about the music they make. John Grant, an American singer-songwriter, says the first two words of his new album’s title, “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure”, refer to an Icelandic expression for mid-life crisis. Suede’s Brett Anderson may look like a rock god but he sings about age and the fear of his children dying. Bob Mould, a 55-year-old former member of the punk band Hüsker Dü, says his latest music was partly inspired by the death of friends, which drove him into a six-month songwriting retreat.
These reflections on rock growing old – and even going to its grave – are all the more poignant in the weeks after David Bowie’s death and the release of his final album, “Blackstar”. But the festival was life affirming. In her lilting Welsh voice, Cerys Matthews spoke of it as being like the Hay literary festival. But there was still enough of the sweat of the mosh pit to keep it exuberantly rock’n’roll.