Tramlines 2021 review: giddy crowds go wild for the return of festivals

Hillsborough Park, July 23-25: The likes of The Streets and Little Simz provide a champagne reception as normality resumes

During a Friday night headline set, lad-Laureate Mike Skinner surveys the ecstatic crowd at Tramlines going joyfully ballistic to The Streets. “It’s been nearly two years since we all sung together. I don’t want you to pull a muscle,” he says, prowling the Nulty’s Main Stage, before a communal choir join in for ‘Don’t Mug Yourself’. Smoke billows from flares (fortunately nobody’s copied the cidered-up Euro 2020 attendee who went viral after putting one up his bum) and people in fancy-dress are getting baptised by tossed pints. To coin a cliché, nature is healing. “This is healthy looking,” Skinner beams. “There’s no two-metre gap between everyone.”

If Tramlines’ 40,000-strong attendance have found their festival sea-legs remarkably quickly, they couldn’t ask for a better master of ceremonies than Skinner – part rapper, part stand-up – who arrives spraying a champagne bottle (“No Moët, no showy”, “No Dom Pérignon, no band on, OK?”). Soon, he instigates a competition to see how many women he can get crowd-surfing to ‘Heaven for the Weather’, while mayhem ensues to the aural stag-weekend of ‘Fit But You Know It’; and mates are hugged to an especially cathartic ‘Dry Your Eyes’. “Do as I say,” he says, looking at the carnage. “I’m just trying to keep you alive. I’m like Boris”. ‘Who’s Got The Bag (21st June)’ swiftly follows.

Credit: Tramlines Festival 2021/Fanatic/Carolina Faruolo

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If part of a festival’s appeal is that it feels like a fantasia where normal life can be left outside, that’s particularly true of Tramlines – which went ahead at full capacity as part of the government’s ongoing Events Research Programme. Once admitted with a negative test in hand, there’s a sense of people gleefully making up for lost time. Certainly, the audience treat each act like their first meal after Lent, whether it’s noughties throwbacks The Pigeon Detectives, or Barry-oke (karaoke led by Barry from EastEnders).

If it all sounds akin to the pictures you saw of VE Day – featuring newly-returned sailors kissing women in the streets with festive abandon – Sophie Ellis-Bextor (playing T’Other Stage on Saturday evening) is probably the festival’s very own Vera Lynn. Her Kitchen Disco covers of Hot Chip’s ‘Over And Over’ and Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ prove irresistible, while (surreally) topless bucket-hatted blokes with Oasis tattoos are on each others’ shoulders for her take on Alcazar’s poppers’o’clock anthem ‘Crying At The Discoteque’.

Regular stage patter now arrives freighted with meaning. “I’m so emotional right now, I’m going to cry,” says a neon light-bathed Georgia, playing T’other Stage’s tent on Saturday, voice crackling, as she deploys her future-nostalgic dancefloor bangers such as ’24 Hours’ and a transcendent ‘About Work The Dancefloor’.

Later on the same stage, Little Simz stakes her claim as a future headliner, with a thrillingly vital set that begins with the rallying cry of  ‘Introvert’ from her forthcoming fourth album ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ (due in September). Bowled over by a hero’s welcome, she turns to her band. “One second – pinch me,” she says. “Just making sure this is real”.

Shortly afterwards comes ‘Offence’, the opening track from her stellar third album ‘Grey Area’. It’s a set that shows the full kaleidoscopic range of her talent – from the raw ‘’might bang, might not’, from her pandemic-released ‘Drop 6’ EP, to a new track she previews tonight. Over a Jackson 5-influenced chorus and summery beats, unreleased new song ‘Little Q’ evocatively tells the story of her cousin who was stabbed in the chest and left in a coma – it gives an urgent political voice to the statistics of young black men hurt or killed in violent attacks, and talks of the PTSD he suffered afterwards. ‘Daddy weren’t around/No choice now but to be the man of the house,” she raps, “Your talking role models nowhere to be seen/You can’t fathom what I think ‘til you’ve been where I’ve been.’

Competing against monster truck main stage headliners Royal Blood, Brighton’s breezy jangle-pop merchants The Magic Gang – on the bijou Library Stage – are treated like they’re topping the bill at Glastonbury (with moshing and the acrid smell of that ubiquitous flare smoke in the air), and you can see their palpable delight as cuts from their 2020 album ‘Death Of the Party’  finally receive their big live moment: like the swooning Altered Images-esque ‘Just A Minute’ and the call-and-response indie dynamics of ‘Take Back The Track’.

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Crowds return to a full-capacity edition of Tramlines 2021 (Credit: Getty Images)

Also getting her chance in the sun (not just metaphorically – it’s blazing hot) is Manchester’s Phoebe Green, playing on Sunday midday on the main stage. “I hope everyone isn’t too hungover!” she tells the bleary crowd, before her anthemic catchy confessional Day-Glo pop proves the perfect balm.

A more nostalgic trip is provided by The Fratellis, who quickly prompt a field full of indie-dads to form a kick-line as the Glasgow band arrive onstage to the Can-Can, before hands sway to ‘Whistle For The Choir’. Their Scottish Euro team solidarity single ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’ is treated like a winning penalty. Considering different crowd members have been doing ‘Chelsea Dagger’s staccato ‘da-da-da‘ introduction every second song, when it finally arrives, the reaction is predictably like kicking out time at an All-Bar One.

Following Dizzee Rascal’s home-run of mainstream hits is a tall order for Supergrass, but Gaz Coombes and co close the main stage with a good vibes set that begins with ‘Going Out’ and culminates with ‘Caught by the Fuzz’ and a raucous ‘Pumping On Your Stereo’.

Considering the challenges Tramlines must have faced – including original Sunday night headliner Richard Ashcroft pulling out because he objected to the event being used as part of government research – perhaps the most extraordinary thing is how normal the festival feels. As you witness glitter-daubed teenagers having their first rite-of-passage festival moment, the past two years wash away as easily as lines from an Etch-a-Sketch. Something everyone should raise a glass of Château du Skinner to.

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