Parklife 2018: Review
Lorde, Confidence Man and Vince Staples are just some of our highlights from Manchester's Parklife festival
Parklife is known for being a blazing festival in more ways than one. As The Skinny makes its way into Manchester’s Heaton Park on a scorching Saturday afternoon, scoping all the questionable outfits and eyebrow-raising rubbish cannily discarded before the security gate, it’s clear that the festival’s free-for-all reputation hasn’t changed – and that’s always been part of the appeal. Here’s The Skinny’s take on the weekend's proceedings.
Saturday 9 June: Sampha, Lorde, The xx
We catch Sampha first on the Parklife main stage. The Londoner’s debut album Process won the Mercury Prize last year and he looks the part dancing around the stage in a full red suit. With his haunted voice and dark keyboard tinkles, Sampha’s unsettling R'n'B is engaging but a little too sedate for an afternoon like this: 'It’s so hot I’ve been melting out here,' he sings in the xylophone-inflected Plastic 100C, and we’re inclined to agree. He wins out in the end though, closing with his touching solo song (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano, then a jittery, desperate rendition of Blood On Me. That Mercury feels well-deserved.
We hang around at the main stage for Lorde. Looking laid-back in a three-piece piece pink tracksuit, the New Zealander is an assured presence on stage, with a troupe of dancers helping to liven up her nostalgic electro-pop. Whether she’s sharing intimate moments with fans in the front row or busting out her notorious dancing moves, Lorde’s triumph is in remaining down-to-earth and honest, looking not like a pop star but someone living the dream pretending to be one. Whether it’s moody older cuts like Tennis Court and Royals or the Melodrama rushes of Supercut and Green Light, her set goes down a storm, and The Louvre ends with her dancers joyously throwing her in the air and carrying her around on a handmade throne like the pop royalty that, at this point, she undeniably is.
We’re sad to miss Jon Hopkins’ set due to a clash, but over at the Sounds of the Near Future stage, Bonobo is the next best thing. In terms of both heat and atmosphere, Bonobo’s set of breezy electronica is far more relaxed than the whirlpool of people outside – exactly what we needed on a sweltering Saturday evening. Bolstered by singer Szjerdene, who is dressed in a candy-striped suit, producer Simon Green and his band effortlessly move from trip-hop to world, building moods over minutes before satisfyingly releasing them. As the Moroccan-influenced Bambro Koyo Ganda explodes and volcanoes erupt on the screen behind them, it’s clear they've tapped into a great cross-cultural power.
Saturday ends back at the Parklife Stage with The xx. As they showed during their stunning set at Rock en Seine last year, the trio are getting more comfortable with their growth in stature since last year’s excellent I See You. Here, they begin confidently with a no-chitchat opening to the set, their slinky older material like Islands and Crystalised still feeling intimate yet increasingly muscular. It’s The xx’s first Parklife as a band – not for Jamie xx who will play a strong closing set the following night – and when Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft say they’ll "try their best" on consecutive songs it’s frustrating to see them so nearly but not quite there.
The moments of that ‘nearly’ are pretty triumphant though, from the heartfelt singalong of I Dare You to Infinity’s thunderous upgrade of an ending. Like last year, the set peaks with a thumping four-song run of Fiction, Shelter, Loud Places and On Hold as Jamie xx gets the crowd moving, complete with a laser light show. Now’s the right time for The xx to open up, and after Sim and Madley Croft go to the front to play their famous Intro, they dedicate the last song Angels to Manchester’s LGBT community – a classy end to an enjoyable first day.
Sunday 10 June: Confidence Man, CHVRCHES, Vince Staples
Heading early to site today, all the Mad Max chaos of yesterday has temporarily been swept away as we arrive just after lunch. Over at the Sounds of the Near Future stage, Melbourne dance-pop group Confidence Man are quickly drawing a crowd. Already attracting attention for their campy debut album Confident Music for Confident People, the four-piece’s set is joyous fun, thanks in no small part to the stage presence of their vocalists Sugar Bones and Janet Planet. Backed by a drummer and DJ bopping shirtless underneath beekeepers’ veils, the bratty Planet and Brüno-lookalike Bones are transfixing, particularly during the bouncy Bubblegum. Amidst all the costume changes and hilarious dance routines, the pair play it impressively straight – as Bones whips out his ripped bod to roam the stage in his shorts for Don’t You Know I’m In a Band?, one admires the band’s discipline in stopping themselves from smiling, as we certainly can’t.
After a period of dancing at the enormous Village Stage to classic funk and soul beats, we wind around the site to catch Soul II Soul at the shaded RamJam stage. The neo-soul legends have been around for over 30 years now, so as you’d expect, the Londoners attract a slightly older crowd. But listening to classics like Keep On Movin’ and Back To Life with their choir vocals, strings, and wobbly keyboard lines, it’s easy to see how Soul II Soul’s sound endures today as Jazzie B invites on a revolving cast of singers, including Caron Wheeler. One woman is even inspired to strip to her glitter-covered boobs and chuck her bra on stage, which is about as definitive a throwback as you can get.
After a much-needed sit down from all that dancing, we head out into the growing drizzle to catch Norwegian pop artist Sigrid at the main stage. With her beaming smile and denim dungarees, the naturally nice 21-year-old from Bergen has all the wholesome energy of a kids’ TV character, and her bright and booming electro-pop has about the same effect. There’s nothing new about Sigrid’s sound, but she carries the crowd well through songs like Strangers and Plot Twist, and the power of her voice shines through in Dynamite, the Adele-alike piano ballad written on a rainy day like this one. We leave her as she runs through High Five, a piece of perfectly pleasant pop with a contractual clap-along in the bridge. It’s almost enough to make us forget about the rain – almost.
Unconvinced, we move on to the Sounds of the Near Future tent and the French duo The Blaze, who benefit from being both more interesting and indoors. Backlit in shadow, cousins Guillaume and Jonathan Alric have a mystery about them as they face one another during their take on slow, sombre house. Best known for their powerful videos, The Blaze’s set successfully conveys gloom without turning into a depressing dirge, even if it does take time to build and doesn’t transport us as far as Bonobo did. Hey, at least the visuals are impressive and the tent is rammed, although that may be due to the strengthening rain. The Blaze disappear without so much as a goodbye and the credits roll on the screen as they go. Bit pretentious, that.
Back at the main stage, true to their heritage, Manchester natives Everything Everything are battling on despite the rain. Dressed all in grey proletariat-chic boiler suits in honour of their political last album A Fever Dream, the quirky five-piece prove an unexpected success with the Parklife crowd, which maybe shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as this is a hometown show. Spring / Sun / Winter / Dread and Can’t Do get people dancing, while Distant Past’s rapid-fire run, bizarrely, even inspires a mosh pit. Singer Jonathan Higgs’ refrain of ‘It’s alright to feel like a fat child in a pushchair / Old enough to run’ in No Reptiles brings titters from the crowd – it’s to EE’s credit that somehow their noodly, weird music never fails to be affecting and fun.
With everyone keen to get out of the downpour, it’s CHVRCHES who suffer the risk of a total washout. A hardy crowd still turns up for them, though, and the Glaswegians open with the anthemic Get Out, which sums up how we’re all feeling in the wet. Running through the laser-focused pop of new album Love Is Dead, the trio look a serious outfit, although singer Lauren Mayberry tries cracking a joke as she praises Liam Gallagher’s Twitter timeline. The problem is she doesn’t seem convinced by the gag herself, and the set all seems a bit dour. While Clearest Blue and The Mother We Share are still electro-pop songs par excellence, it feels like a weird juncture for them. We hope to catch them on a brighter day.
Keen to avoid the Gallagher juggernaut, we end Sunday back where we started: at the Sounds from the Near Future stage with Vince Staples. Opening with new song Get the Fuck Off My Dick, led by a haunting piano line, Staples burns with intensity in his all-black outfit. Performing in front of a wall of screens that looks like a surveillance control room, the set feels like we’re in the fishbowl of Staples’ mind as he races through the likes of Little Bit of This, Prima Donna and Homage. ‘These niggas won’t hold me back,’ he raps in the latter, his siege mentality evident and thrilling. Whether it’s the aggressive techno beats of BagBak, the nihilism of 745, or the racing fun of Ascension, it’s clear we'll be seeing more of Staples in the future, whether we want to or not. Main stage next year?
Parklife returns to Manchester, 8-9 Jun 2019