Not even setting a British festival right bang at the start of June – just mere days from the summer equinox – can guarantee a sunny turnout and, after glorious weather in recent years, the early portion of this year’s Field Day first day falls victim to some apocalyptic-style downpour. Not that the many sharply-dressed revellers seem to care (it’s not without reason that The Guardian once labelled the festival “Hackney’s annual hive of hipsters”). The organisers’ prior warning to “wear waterproofs and wellington boots” has clearly been ignored and, instead, the masses are primed and in the mood to party, regardless of the torrential showers pouring down on London’s Victoria Park. Thankfully, triumphant hometown sets from Skepta and James Blake soon justifies those throwing caution to the (very literal) wind.
After Nicholas Allbrook – best known as the frontman of Aussie psych-rockers Pond and a one-time member of Tame Impala – opens the festival’s main stage for the early birds and those still bleary-eyed from the night before, the damp weather promptly causes many to take refuge in a nearby tent, with Manc noise merchants LUH – one of this year’s most promising new acts – and R&B newcomer Mabel playing sheltered stages nearby. Most, however, congregate at Resident Advisor’s dance tent to see Hamburg electronic veteran DJ Koze‘s eclectic but cohesive blend of techno, house and minimal electro. Sure it’s still only 1.30pm (Koze sets bookend the Field Day, with him also on the bill for an after-party show), but he still manages to get the crowd going.
Almost biblically, the clouds part and rain abruptly ceases as soon as Skepta takes to the main stage at 4pm. Despite such good luck, the crowd’s palpable excitement (dabbing and pals-on-shoulders galore) and the grime MC’s own self-assured swagger and energy, the first part of the set stammers and splutters due to falty sound. In fact, the bass is so low for the first few songs it almost sounds as if Skepta is doing a capella, and when Boy Better Know cohort DJ Maximum tries to amend things during ‘That’s Not Me’, each blast of bass sounds like it’s bubbling up from a sewer. With a new sound desk wheeled onto the stage, the last fifteen minutes sees Skepta reach the levels he’s capable of. ‘Shutdown’, ‘Man (Gang)’ and a shout-out to absent brother JME sends the crowd into full-on frenzy.
The atmosphere at Kelela, meanwhile, is quite a different thing altogether, as the tempo is brought down a notch. The singer tells the crowd before one song: “People say you shouldn’t play ballads at festivals, but if you’re not a fan of ballads then you’re not a fan of R&B and what the fuck are you doing here?” She’s right, of course, and those who do stick around are completely engrossed by her immersive brand of brooding, deep bass slow jams. Closing song ‘Rewind’ is a set highlight that even gets the swaying couples in the audience dancing.
One of the new bands spearheading the Canadian music scene at the moment, Dilly Dally are at their most ferocious, delivering a blistering display that’s part Pixies, part The Distillers and all-consuming. The band pay homage to fellow Toronto native Drake with a snarling cover of the rapper’s ‘Know Yourself’. “I was runnin’ through the 6 with my woes,” singer Katie Monks screams at the top of her lungs while fellow guitarist Jimmy Tony shreds.
Yeasayer, however, fail to astonish over at the main stage. While we called their latest album ‘Amen & Goodbye’ a “vibrant rumination on religion and the world” upon its release back in April, the band’s idiosyncratic groove-pop doesn’t manage to fill the space and, ultimately, sounds a little too thin.
As the sun begins to set, Gold Panda entertains at the Resident Advisor stage. Like on all three of the (rather underrated) albums he’s released to date, the unassuming British-born, Berlin-based producer spins magic out of minimal chimes and skittering beats. The electronic artist hardly puts on a show (he remains statuary behind a series of launchpads and synths throughout) but he still manages to pack out the tent and hyponotise. Likewise Four Tet gives a masterclass in how to let the music do the talking, delivering a club-heavy set to a brimming main stage following.
Having made his Field Day debut back in 2011 (performing both a live and DJ set surrounding the release of his self-titled debut), James Blake returns to headline day one of the fest. Having put out two critically-acclaimed albums since last gracing Victoria Park (latest LP ‘The Colour In Anything’ was released in May), the melancholic keyboard-tinkler has now amassed a back-catalogue worthy of a headline set and he certainly steps things up. The singer talks of how much playing a hometown show means to him and you can tell the audience feels the same, as virtually every lyric of every song is sung right back to Blake by the crowd. Blake even invites grime MC and 1-800-Dinosaur associate Tink on for rap-dub, victory lap collab. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” Blake admits afterwards. But it’s finale ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ – still Blake’s best – that unites all in euphoria. A sublime and stellar showing from the hometown boy.
Field Day continues today (Sunday, June 12), with PJ Harvey set to headline. Check back on NME.com for a review of day two,