In a society stricken with music festival fatigue, Rockaway Beach aims to be an antidote for all that ails the average show-goer. Don’t like mammoth crowds and open air stages? Rockaway Beach is set entirely indoors (the largest of its two intimate venues holding a modest 2,000). Camping out an issue? The festival — now in its second year — is held on British resort Butlins and rooms are included in the ticket price. Averse to the usual commercially minded festival line ups and abbreviated sets? The majority of the artists on display here are an indie obscurist’s dream, and each act gets at least 45 minutes to play.
The fact that Butlins is filled with kiddie rides, arcade games, and generally seems like the sort of place you would sooner see ‘80s mall tour champ Tiffany than Killing Joke, was one of the catalysts for journeying from New York to London and then to Bognor Regis, England, for the three day festival. The other is the fact that Suede were Saturday’s headliners and my prevailing thought after virtually every show I’ve attended this year has been, “that was really great, but what I really want is to see Suede”. As a rational, adult woman who will sometimes do slightly irrational things for the love of music, I can safely say Rockaway Beach 2016 was the surreal, enigmatic festival of my dreams.
My late arrival Friday evening meant I caught only the final minutes of Blanck Mass’s set on the intimate Reds Stage. The solo project of Benjamin John Power — one half of electronic duo Fuck Buttons — its dark electronic assaults were a bit too harsh for my jet-lagged self, but songs like “Lungs” make for perfect listening on a solitary and semi-lucid night at home.
Blanck Mass’s enigmatic set was followed by the straightforward indie of The Wedding Present, always a sure bet live. Early on, David Gedge announced that his parents met at Butlins and that he wouldn’t exist without it, a sweet nod to a locale that could be easily derided. The band tore through a wide span of material, sure to treat us to classics like “Brassneck” and “My Favorite Dress”, but also eager to showcase “Birdsnest” and “Two Bridges” from 2016’s effervescent Going, Going.
Headliners on the Centre Stage Friday were indie dance-poppers Saint Etienne, who performed their 1991 debut Foxbase Alpha in full. The recreation of this sample heavy album was buoyed by the charm of singer Sarah Cracknell. If ever her glittery pluckiness threatened to steer things in a kitschy direction, the twists and turns thrown out by Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs kept the set from becoming too much of anything. Thus, we got a little retro pop, a little disco, a little acid house, and a couple of surprises, such as the band’s cover of Candlewick Green’s “Who Do You Think You Are” and the rarely played “Kiss and Make Up”.
Beyond the music, the Butlins Skyline Pavilion held a number of screenings over the weekend, the first being Where You’re Meant To Be, a documentary starring Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat and featuring legendary folk singer Sheila Stewart. What appeared to be a stirring film with gorgeous visuals of Scottish locales was impeded by the noxious backbeats emanating from the nearby Bar Rosso, something which Moffat good-naturedly alluded to in the Q&A following the screening. Faring better than the documentary was Moffat’s brief, intimate post-Q&A performance. His acapella renderings of Scottish traditionals were the perfect lullabies to close out night #1 — if you like your lullabies a little dirty.
Saturday was spent glued to Centre Stage for the day’s three big acts — Wire, Luna, and Suede. Wire famously tend to overlook their classic releases Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154, but there is consolation to be had because what the band does play is shot through with the same spiky energy found in those endlessly influential post-punk albums. Wire’s set was loud and powerful, but singer / guitarist Colin Newman never sacrifices his pop sensibilities despite the band’s experimental leanings. Newer Wire releases, such as 2015’s eponymous Wire and this year’s Nocturnal Koreans have yet to really grab me, but hearing a few selections live gave the songs a different attitude and angle, fitting for a band continually pushing forward.
Luna were the sole American band to perform on this day, something mentioned by Dean Wareham in between delivering the ‘90s indie rock goods and dispensing trivia on Bognor Regis. Also present was the mark of his first band, Galaxie 500, with drummer Lee Wall wearing a Galaxie t-shirt and “Blue Thunder” given cover treatment. Wareham had the presence of an endearingly disheveled professor and his back and forths with guitarist Sean Eden kept the set from ever dragging, but ultimately Luna were a bit too laidback to serve as a festival highlight.
Suede’s seventh album, Night Thoughts, remains my favorite release of the year, but personal biases or not, the fact remains that virtually every festival set the band has delivered this year has been unanimously praised. This set had an added bonus by way of a collective of fans hopelessly devoted to this 25 years strong band. Being in such an enthusiastic, largely female-represented audience engendered the feeling of entering some weird utopia where Brett Anderson sweating on you is the worst thing that could happen — and it appeared very likely that few would ever consider that undesirable.
I would like to comment on Richard Oakes’ guitar leads and keyboardist / guitarist Neil Codling’s beautiful Gibson SG, but Anderson had such consummate command of the stage that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Not only did this man sing every oft-played classic with a never-tiring conviction, he seemingly had more energy than every front person that evening combined and, at 49, pulled off skinny jeans better than someone half his age. Although the setlist was strangely short on Night Thoughts selections, with predecessor Bloodsports given greater exposure, there was clearly something for everyone, be it the serene “The Next Life” from the band’s 1993 self-titled debut or perfect singalongs like “Trash” and “Beautiful Ones” from 1996’s recently reissued Coming Up. When the intro to “So Young” kicked in, fans around me began pogoing so hard that I was propelled upward by sheer force, and I felt suspended in a time when bands actually meant an awful lot to people.
Ongoing jet lag Sunday caused me to miss both indie power poppers Man Made and Can frontman Damo Suzuki and his Network project, but the three sets I did take in managed to be as enjoyable as they were disparate.
Calling The Membranes “post punk” falls short as a descriptor. The music the four-piece create, especially on last year’s Dark Matter / Dark Energy, encompasses noise, experimental, straight up punk rock and even a little funk. The Membranes also deal in straight and fast ragers, and what could have been a set of just that became instead something more nuanced thanks to dub atmospherics and plenty of enigmatic banter about space from frontman John Robb. Best of all, a choir was on hand to make songs just that much more dizzying and immersive. When Robb broke out a melodica, I was ready to claim it an excellent night before it was even halfway through.
Sunday headliners Killing Joke wasted no time with its set, launching straight into “Love Like Blood” and following it up with “Eighties” — or, for the layman, the song whose bassline was repurposed by Nirvana for “Come As You Are”. For over an hour, Jaz Coleman seemed like a time bomb ready to explode at any moment. This edginess was emphasized by his mates guitarist Geordie Walker, bassist Youth, and drummer Paul Ferguson, all churning out the most potent industrial post-punk imaginable. Earlier in the day, Coleman took part in a Q&A following a screening of Killing Joke documentary The Death and Resurrection Show.
At one point, Coleman spoke of Killing Joke’s intent to inspire and the mirror effect the band has on its fans. Killing Joke’s set presented a very timely and crucial urgency, especially during songs like “Complications” and “Change”, but I’m not certain everyone in the Butlins audience was following through. Killing Joke is thoroughly deserving of an intense, active crowd, but I was unfortunately among the fans who favored drunken thrashing to enacting change. Yet, I stayed fixed to my spot no matter how many slam dancers circled nearby, fully mesmerized. Virtually every era of the band’s career was given some attention, from its 1979 debut song “Turn to Red” through ‘90s releases such as “Pandemonium”, right up to last year’s Pylon. It proved a heady retrospective by a band as vital as ever.
As a light end to the evening, I hit the Reds stage for Cat’s Eyes, whose sophomore release, Treasure House, has been one of the most pleasant surprises of this musical year. Live, the band had one of the more mismatched aesthetics of the festival — think half high school concert band, half girl gang. Faris Badwan and Rachel Zeffira wore matching fringe leather jackets and bantered like an old married couple, and for every novel cover (“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” sung by Badwan), there was a blinding original such as the creepy girl group updates “Drag” and “Be Careful Where You Park Your Car”, and the sweeping “Chameleon Queen”. While maybe not as immediate as Killing Joke’s apocalyptic warnings, Cat’s Eyes’ slight awkwardness seemed to represent this mismatched, sometimes breathtaking, sometimes uncomfortable, totally unique festival as a whole.