All Points East review: sound woes plagued the London festival

Major sound issues and some questionable scheduling dull an otherwise enjoyable weekend of rock and pop

Live Review by Alexander Smail | 31 May 2019
  • Dream Wife live at Electric Fields 2018

Newcomer All Points East instantly established itself last year as a major player in a crowded London festival circuit. Created by AEG (the conglomerate behind Coachella), the weekend catered to all tastes in its inaugural year with an impressive, varied array of acts.

Returning with a similarly stellar lineup broadly split up into electronica, rock and pop, the stage was set for a repeat performance.

Saturday: Dream Wife, Courtney Barnett, The Strokes

After days of erratic weather forecasts, London’s festivalgoers come prepared for the worst. Thankfully, the dark clouds that loomed over Saturday morning clear just in time for British-Icelandic punk rock trio Dream Wife to take to the North Stage, where a heap of raincoats and ponchos are swiftly tossed to the ground.

Opening with the crunchy guitars and clap-beat of Hey Heartbreaker, the set is a much-needed shock to the system for a crowd that hasn’t yet fully woken up. At times it’s hard to hear lead vocalist Rakel Mjöll through the noise – an ominous sign of things to come – but the audience aren’t too fazed and, by the time F.U.U rolls around, everybody is amped up for a day of no-frills rock. 

Heading over to the West Stage, it becomes clear the festival’s corporate roots are deeply embedded in its DNA. Tinder employees are giving out glossy bumbags emblazoned with the company’s logo and telling people to turn on the app’s festival mode – in case that’s how you wanted to spend your day. Even worse are the inexplicably placed black Huawei VIP viewing towers, which block the view for a large section of the audience at the main East Stage.

Inside the tented West Stage, Temples deliver a solid if unexceptional set of psychedelia-coloured rock as they work through fan-favourite cuts from their first two albums. A brief tease of new music and the announcement of their upcoming third album is enough to leave fans salivating. At the same time over on the North Stage, Fat White Family diehards mosh to the manic droning of the Peckham post-punk outfit’s Fringe Runner.

The first major clash of the weekend sees Anna Calvi having the bad luck of performing at the same time as Parquet Courts. The latter play a decent set, though one unlikely to be remembered as among their best. Sticking mostly to tracks from their nihilistic 2018 album Wide Awake!, the New York quartet’s performance lacks the urgency of their best shows.

Though he plays a few choice cuts from his more recent solo material, Johnny Marr’s setlist is very much a celebration of his legacy, mostly made up of Smiths and Electronic material. Clashing with both Courtney Barnett and Jarvis Cocker, the crowd is smaller than it should be, though, minutes after the droning slide of How Soon Is Now reverberates across the park, the East Stage is crawling with Smiths fans frothing at the mouth to hear more classics.

Luckily, Courtney Barnett saves some of her best material for the tail end of her set on the North Stage. Like Dream Wife before her, she’s saddled with a mic that’s frustratingly quiet, but fortunately the strength of her songwriting wins out. The whole crowd headbangs along to grunge closer Pedestrian at Best’s vicious, infectious "I think you're a joke, but I don't find you very funny" hook.

While The Raconteurs and Interpol’s competing sets present a frustrating choice for those wanting a rock fix, Connan Mockasin’s languid, largely instrumental hour draws a very different crowd. The surreal, uncomfortable set peaks with the wonderfully bizarre Forever Dolphin Love, where the New Zealander looks on with a deadpan expression as the crowd shrieks the song’s “ah ah ah ah ah ah” chorus. In a day full of bread-and-butter rock, it’s a welcome dose of weird.

Presumably to avoid being stuck behind one of the Huawei monoliths, most arrive at the East Stage in good time for the headliner. On the way over, Interpol fans leaving the North Stage grumble about the audio during the indie rock group’s set. It’s a damn shame the sound problems hit their nadir at the end of the night, because – from what can be heard of it ­– The Strokes put on a great show.

After a years-long hiatus – filled with reunion and break-up rumours in equal measure – it’s no small miracle to see the band perform together again. With a setlist that’s tethered to their first, best three albums, there's a whiff of finality in the air, as if both the audience and band are aware that it could be a long time before they journey back across the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, if the sound problems affecting acts earlier in the day were a nuisance, then here they straight up ruin the set. Classic tracks like You Only Live Once and Hard to Explain land with a thud as chants of “turn it up” from an in increasingly frustrated audience drown out what little can be heard of frontman Julian Casablancas. For fans who have waited years to see the band live again, to not even be able to hear what the frontman is saying between songs is tragic.

By the time the band emerge for an encore the audio has improved marginally, but it’s too little too late. “You guys know the words better than me anyway,” Casablancas says with a shrug halfway through closer Last Nite, giving up trying to compete with a screaming crowd who have overpowered his vocals throughout the entire hour and a half. It’s an infuriating experience, especially since it could have been easily avoided. The festival has since released a statement regarding the sound issues and, thankfully, they didn’t carry over to the next day.

Sunday: Beach House, James Blake, Christine and the Queens

If Saturday was a throwback to rock’s heyday, Sunday had both feet firmly in the future. A lush, varied midday set from Italian DJ Paquita Gordon on the Ray-Ban Studios X Stage is rich and loud, and a bellwether for a day mercifully short on technical difficulties.

On the West Stage, Rina Sawayama’s candy-coloured set is a retrofuturistic fever dream. The Japanese-British singer-songwriter marries late-90s bubblegum pop and R&B with viscid bass and a colourful digital aesthetic. A QR code pops up onscreen as she and her backup dancers pull off the kind of wonderfully cheesy choreography you thought went out with the Backstreet Boys. As the set winds down, she tells her fans that scanning the code will send them directly to her Instagram account. A true pop star for our times.

Yves Tumor meanwhile is our experimental rock king. Donning a neon green bob, his set over on the North Stage is abrasive and anarchic. Spending more time up and personal with the crowd and serenading security workers than on actually onstage, he commands attention. Rain starts to fall as the breakbeat of Noid kicks in, but the crowd are too engrossed in its stirring denunciation of police brutality to care. 

Those by the East Stage are treated to a double serving of funk. The African rhythm and vigour of Congolese-born multilingual rapper Baloji and his band transport the crowd away from the drizzle of London. Maintaining the groove, Toro y Moi follows with his first UK appearance in four years, largely disregarding the material he's released since in favour of an almost front-to-back presentation of January’s excellent disco-funk-pop hybrid Outer Peace. It’s a great album, so it’s a great set, but the producer deserved a longer, later slot where he could explore more of his diverse back catalogue (and preferably one that didn’t clash with up-and-comer Princess Nokia).

Next up, under the darkness of the West Stage tent, Baltimore pair Beach House slow things down with their shimmery melancholy. Last year’s bold, immersive 7 gets the most play time, though Bloom, Depression Cherry and even a couple of deep cuts from the almost-ten-year-old Teen Dream get a look in. Victoria Legrand’s reverb-drenched vocals float atop a sea of humming synths and woozy guitar tones. By closer Dive, the audience is ready to drift off into the duo’s dreamscapes. 

Blue skies turn grey as James Blake's satin falsetto and glacial, glitchy electronics ring in the night. Armed with a couple of Prophet synths, he dedicates most of the hour to his recent romantic collection Assume Form, though still nothing hits quite like the trembling bass of his post-dubstep cover of Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’. The cascading synth tones of ‘Are You In Love?’ close out the set, as a torrent is unleashed from the heavens.

A wee downpour is hardly going to stop anybody from witnessing Christine and the Queens’ first UK headline appearance. Any lingering doubts that she had it in her are immediately washed away in a flood of glistening synths and slick choreography, as a one-two punch of Comme si and Girlfriend kicks off a transcendent hour of pop. 

“We are Christine and the Queens, but you can call me Chris,” she declares. Tinkering with and subverting gender archetypes, she moulds outdated notions of masculinity and femininity in her own image. The sexy, futuristic funk of Damn (what must a woman do) melts into Janet Jackson’s Nasty, where Chris and her troupe hip-thrust their way through the track’s iconic “nasty, nasty boys” hook.

Where the previous night’s headliners were stoic and business-like, Chris basks in emotion. “You guys just make me want to be utterly naked and vulnerable,” she confesses, before performing an anthemic a cappella rendition of David Bowie’s Heroes – going two for two on tributes to pop icons. Forget the tight choreography and inimitable stage presence: what sets Chris apart is her fearlessness. Tearing up the rulebook, she’s redefining what it means to be a popstar.

The performance is a hair-raising end to a regrettably inconsistent weekend. Playing host to an incredible slate of diverse talent, All Points East’s second year should have been a knockout. Sadly, major sound issues and some questionable scheduling tarnish what could have cemented its place as the UK festival to beat.

Victoria Park, London, 25-26 May