From one of the best line-ups of the 2017 festival season, here are our picks of the Way Out West weekend.
If Lana Del Rey had an alcoholic sister prone to vodka meltdowns, she’d be Angel Olsen. Hitting the Linne tent with a backing band of besuited suitors, she evokes the same retro golden Hollywood age as Del Rey, but with a more unhinged bent. “All my life I thought had changed,” she bewails on ‘Sister’ like Stevie Nicks on a downswing and, though the punkier side of her breakthrough ‘My Woman’ album (the deliciously seductive ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ and ‘Give It Up’) quickly give way to more trad, folky fare, on this showing her life will soon be unrecognisable.
“Who’s single?” Feist asks her audience. “Keep your hands up so you can find each other.” Feister – not to be mistaken for Fister, which is a whole different sort of dating app – should work a charm, so besotted is Gothenburg by Leslie Feist’s intoxicating voodoo folk, glam noir and art rock, embedded with touches of Kate Bush intensity. She charms Way Out West out of its hemp pants by insisting we gaze into the eyes of whoever we’d leave any party for and punks up Nina Simone’s ‘Sealion’ in an act of superb R&B sacrilege. By a final, frail ‘Mushaboom’ bubbles fill the air and people swoop around the crowd pretending to be airplanes. The surefire signs of Feister working its magic once again.
On a stage strewn with floral displays, The Shins wend their pastoral indie way out west. The perfect soundtrack to a Swedish summer (although playing in such close proximity to a lake, would it kill them to knock out ‘Taken For A Fool’ while we go for a quick punt?) James Mercer’s idyllic indie sounds encapsulate WOW’s chilled alternative essence, whether thumping out the hi-octane alt-folk of ‘Australia’ or producing the sort of celestial country music that Glen Campbell is making in heaven with ‘Gone For Good’. With violin trios converging unexpectedly on ‘The Fear’ and ‘Sleeping Lessons’ merging knowingly with Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’ in a way The Strokes would never admit to, The Shins remain everyone’s manic pixie dream band.
Every Mac Demarco gig is the equivalent of the five glorious minutes after sharing a particularly potent bong hit with your best mates, and Way Out West is no exception. Admittedly, today’s set doesn’t involve a half-hour take on ‘Together’ incorporating a stage-diving punk version of ‘Eye’m ‘Enery The Eifth Eye Am’ (like many of Mac’s recent gigs have), but there’s plenty of madcap antics to flavour his allotted hour of tropical stoner lounge-pop. He dons a baby’s sunglasses for ‘…’, discusses his keyboardist’s secret history as a “butter dog” and does a reasonably convincing impression of Pearl Jam covering Bruce Hornsby’s ‘The Way It Is’. Still the coolest travelling sorority party in rock.
Lana Del Rey
Beneath the velvet drapes of Old Hollywood, Elvis, Marilyn and Jesus fill the silver screen of a theatre called the Del Rey. Showing tonight: The Phantom Of A Sultry Starlet. In a snow white mini-dress Lana Del Rey haunts the stage, crooning her sepia boudoir laments of death, killers, love and whiskey as images of beautiful suicides play out behind her – fitting, since these are the perfect songs to discover the corpse of a fading star in a Chateau Marmont bathtub to. There’s something antiseptic about Lana Del Rey’s perfection – the practiced poise, the robotic and repetitive banter, the sense that she’s actually a doll of herself come to life – and her set is pretty one-note, albeit a gorgeous, sumptuous note; take ‘Born To Die’, a song made entirely from shattered mirrorball. But, like The xx, her newer material finally lives up to her early promise: ‘Change’ is as catchy as it is seductive and ‘Love’ is a swirling romance that could bring joy to the heart of the Putney Bridge jogger. This one will run and run.
It’s the Portishead Effect in action. Just like a thousand other festivals across Europe this summer, the biggest crush of the weekend is to watch three black-clad South Londoners mumble their way through some minimalist modern soul tunes that sound like they were made very quietly in an attic bedroom to avoid waking up the entire block. The xx are a sensation, though, because they’re both deeply intimate and utterly epic at the same time; Romy and Oliver’s sparse and modest melodies speak universal volumes about the comforts and desolations of young adult life in 2017, and as their in-limbo disco ramps up with ‘Shelter’, they even become the first ever Ambien overdose you can dance to. Jamie’s ‘Loud Places’ takes the set from a long, dark, whiskey sodden night of the (neo) soul to the dancefloor as a Balearic hookline pokes its head into The xx’s misery pit and asks if anybody wants any Mandy. That inclusion – alongside ‘On Hold’, by far the best dance anthem that sounds like it was recorded down the phone, ever – elevates what was once a mithering plod of a band to the status of bona fide festival slayers. Well, they stroke Way Out West to death, anyway.
“My doctor said I have to wear this,” Conor Oberst says, fixing his harmonica brace in place for ‘Ten Women’, a song “complaining about having too much sex”. Ba-doom! Yes, people, that really was an actual gag from the Indie Pope Of Mope, and there’s more where that came from. He dedicates the ragged-trousered bourbon honky-tonk of ‘Well Whiskey’ to Homer Simpson in honour of his eternal booze wisdoms and asks Gothenburg of they “do alcohol here”. He’s clearly revelling in taking his sickly, addiction-riddled recent albums ‘Ruminations’ an ‘Salutations’ on a revitalising jog around the festival circuit. Mournful country waltzes, bar room piano ballads and emotional country epics about drinking yourself to death give way to monster blues behemoths like ‘Napalm’ and the chilling crescendos of ‘Salutations’. The odd Bright Eyes song – ‘Four Winds’, ‘Train Under Water’ – serve to remind you that he’s got dozens of better songs than these, but these will do just fine.
Mike Hadreas sure loves the Big Noise. As the string intro and sparse piano verse of ‘Otherside’ burst into flames with a nuclear sunburst of sound, he basks in the blast as if daring his own music to reduce him to a burnt shadow on the backdrop. It’s what makes Perfume Genius such a classy conflagration – his soulful electronic pop is built on the graceful foundations of classical chamber music, pagan drumbeats and world music tropes, and always flirts with the suggestion there’s a sonic firestorm on the horizon.
Witness fingerclick funk tunes becoming searing church chorales, or ‘Slip Away’ starting out as a lovely beachfront steel drum tune before exploding like an Arcade Fire gig on Guam, if North Korea were feverishly developing an arsenal of euphoria warheads. Whether poised at a piano for harpsichord mood pieces made for the most LGBTQ-friendly Regency dance in history or twerking like a stripping gibbon to tropical shoegaze tune ‘Just Like Love’, Hadreas is easily the classiest neo-pop impresario of the age.
“I hope the good people get in and the shitty people get the fuck out!” It’s come to something when the most political diatribe of the weekend comes from Regina Spektor, purveyor of lush Soviet balladry, jaunty piano reggae folk and ragtime songs about listening to Kings Of Leon having sex to one of her songs in the hotel room next door. But then Spektor’s set is startling in so many ways; not just that she’s able to weave barks, grunts, amateur beatboxing and vomit noises into her songs while only adding to their hook-laden charm, but that her brilliantly eclectic oddities of brooding Balkan classical and carefree western pop would utterly steal the weekend.
How odd? ‘Grand Hotel’ is essentially a guided tour of a hotel where devils dance and shag in a tunnel in the basement. ‘Small Bill$’ is a cranky orchestral thing that sounds like a crazy cat woman has run into a Proms rehearsal and started growling at herself. ‘The Calculation’ is what ‘O-Bla-Di O Bla-Da’ would be like if it’d been about making computers out of macaroni. It’s all part of Spektor’s dizzying spell: salty shanties, doomy environmental paeans, frivolous electro pop, hip-swivelling hulas – each tune twists the mood from ominous to glorious and back again, each more engrossing than the last. ‘Better’ is as simultaneously gorgeous and devastating as a drunk Anne Hathaway controlling a faraway Godzilla in Colossal, ‘Us’ speeds by like a whirlwind romance, and by the end of a stunning solo ‘Samson’ Spektor’s in tears at the sing-along. “You broke my heart in the best way,” she tells us. Likewise.
For the first couple of minutes of ‘Gouge Away’, Pixies seem to be phoning it in. Although, let’s be clear, the Pixies phoning it in is the equivalent of most bands muttering it into a tin can tied to a 15-mile piece of string to someone who then sends it via carrier pigeon to the world’s longest game of Chinese Whispers. And by the time the pillars come down in a cloud of marijuana and holy fingers they’re up to their usual screaming speed, clattering through dark twisted pop like ‘Something Against You’, ‘Crackity Jones’ and ‘Wave Of Mutilation’ with Frank Black in fantastic gargling-demon form.
There’s certainly a looseness to what we’ll call the Paz-era Pixies, as though the band have relaxed into the gilded foot spa of alt-rock royalty. Today intros last until Frank’s ready to sing and ‘Nimrod’s Son’ goes jazz for its second half and Joey Santiago plays his entire ‘Vamos’ solo with his flat cap. And while the magnificent ‘Indie Cindy’ album is woefully ignored, tracks from latest album ‘Head Carrier’ slot neatly alongside classics like ‘Debaser’, ‘U-Mass’ and ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ and rarities like ultra-creepy obsession anthem ‘Cactus’. The crowd even mistake the opening of Paz’s song ‘All I Think About Now’ for the near-identical ‘Where Is My Mind?’ before being rewarded with the real thing. Even when slightly slack at the edges, Pixies deliver the set of this and any other weekend.