Live review: MIDI Festival. Hyeres, France

Friday, July 23 - Sunday, July 25

The absolute best bands can pull out a blinder of a show anywhere, anytime. The most special new bands thrive, survive and grow on nothing but atmosphere, hunger and the nascent thrill of being onstage while knowing they are in possession of something truly special.

Manchester’s [a]Wu Lyf[/a] fall into both categories. We’re at MIDI, on the French Riviera, having one of the best festival experiences you could ever hope for.

Set high in the hills of Hyeres (essentially St Tropez), the festival’s location is stunning. You have to get to the site by snaking up heroically steep cobbled paths, past crumbling old churches spewing out from the ancient hillside. The short walk is peppered with graffiti, but even that looks beautiful – a perfect fusion of old and new, and a handy reminder that this area is also an unlikely home to probably the luckiest council estates in the world (and hordes of insanely good-looking, clued-up French kids).

Wu Lyf frontman Ellery Roberts came here as a punter a few years ago, and when the still unsigned band’s manager asked them to pick the festival – any festival – they most wanted to play this year, MIDI was top of the list. As a result, it’s their only scheduled gig in a summer that’s seen them shun all press and record company attention and up sticks to Spain to hunt for a recording studio.

They play 10 songs on the festival’s tiny outdoor stage at Villa Noailles, a surrealist dream of a building constructed in the 1920s on behalf of two of France’s most noted aristocrats, Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles. Both were an intrinsic part of the Dada and Surrealist movements, and close friends of Dali, Picasso, Man Ray, Cocteau et al – the likes of whom’s influence is everywhere. It is the perfect setting for Wu Lyf’s first ever gig outside Manchester.

They’re even better here than when NME first clapped eyes on them at the An Outlet venue in April. Back then, the show was a thrilling mesh of arthouse soiree, cultish theatrics and intense, brutal films – with the band’s songs acting as both the soundtrack and centerpiece. At MIDI, though, they are just four teenagers, onstage, playing the most vital new music we’ve seen in years. It renders our one nagging fear about them – that they might not be able to pull it off live without the extras – completely obsolete. Stick them in a Barfly and they will tear the roof off.

They’ve got a spate of brilliant new songs now and have obviously been rehearsing hard – Ellery’s agonising, rip-shredding-roar of a voice (with a definite hint of Frank Black at his maddest) is better than ever, and he’s not sipping water at every opportunity this time either. They seem to have evolved musically, morphing into something more percussive and tribal than before – although the melodic moments still exist, coming courtesy of line after line of reverbed-to-fuck guitar and Ellery’s dramatic, sullen organ pieces which swamp every song. One new track ends with the band all drumming for at least two minutes (Ellery just hitting the organ as hard as possible), and it sends the crowd so mental that people start rushing the stage, the band continuing regardless.

Their bassist Thomas McClung is a revelation too. Standing centre-stage throughout, he now sings/screams backing vocals, still unexplainably plays his instrument with the D-string missing and looks like the kind of ‘on it’ thug [a]Morrissey[/a] would have been obsessed with in his prime. He’s cool as fuck.

Heavy Pop‘ is still their greatest song, and tonight they bring their set to a close with an extended seven-minute version of it – elongated by Ellery when he sees how nuts the crowd are going.

It finishes with yet more stage invasions and the singer diving headfirst into the crowd before returning to sing RIP tributes to [a]Eazy-E[/a], Tupac, BIG and finally Jesus Christ. There are no gripes here – everything is just right. It is undoubtedly one of the gigs of the year, at the festival of the year and it paints a terrifically interesting picture of Wu Lyf – not to mention leaving behind a mountain-sized hubbub of anticipation. Where, exactly, do they go from here?

Alas, to concentrate solely on them would detract from the rest of MIDI’s excellent bill. Around 15 of the world’s most exciting new bands play over the three days, with a heavy leaning on the UK and Manchester in particular. [a]Egyptian Hip Hop[/a] follow [a]Lee Ranaldo[/a] (the only old-timer here) and don’t falter, with the likes of ‘Valhalla Party‘ and ‘Rad Pitt‘ played with impressive, almost geeky ferocity, while fellow Mancs [a]LoneLady[/a] also shine.

Frontwoman Julie – the Lonelady herself – twins mightily impressive vocals (husky’n’gruff? Yup. High’n’pop? Easy) with some of the best guitar we’ll hear all festival, but the band emit less of the ‘would have been on Factory in ’79’ tag they seem to have been lumbered with, instead embodying something of a more antagonistic, Kraftwerk-indebted version of [a]The xx[/a]. They’re close to [a]Massive Attack[/a] at times too, with a fuggy weed haze permeating from the speakers… Speaking of which, [a]The Strange Boys[/a] are also in town, smoking apple bongs backstage and inciting near-riots during their bar-room brawl of a set. Driven on by saxophonist Jenna constantly showering Mars bars into the throng, the crowd gets so into it that they start – and maintain for the entire set – a completely lawless circle pit. Pretty impressive for such a small audience in the middle of an ornate French garden. Things get weirder during ‘Night Might‘, when out of nowhere someone produces a waterpistol and starts firing it at band and fans alike. Their response? To play even faster, even louder and with even more manic smiles stretched across their craggy, stoned faces.

So yeah, MIDI. Pushy bouncers, crap setting, boring bands and less atmosphere than a post-grad party on the moon. Erm, can I go again next year please? And the year after? And the one after that…

Matt Wilkinson