Field Day is a one day festival held in Victoria Park, London. It had been a long day. The Gates had opened at 11.30am. I and two of my friends had eagerly made our way from south of the river to Victoria Park with cash in our pockets, tickets in our hands and anticipation radiating from the tips of our fingers to the heels of our feet.
This year’s festival saw the likes of Aphex Twin, Death Grips, Flying Lotus, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Thee Oh Sees and many more take to the various tents and stages dotted around the grounds. There was not a single act the three of us had seen which hadn’t blown us away.
Basking in the warmth of the British summer time, thousands of music lovers from across London and throughout the country were treated to a day of pure, care-free hedonism, thanks to the dedication of the day’s organisers, its volunteers and the impeccable sound systems assigned to each stage.
It feels like an impossible task trying to pick out just one act to highlight from the festival due to the sheer quantity and quality of this year’s line-up, but for me, it was Slowdive’s show which made the day such an unforgettable experience.
Pioneers of shoegaze during its genesis in the late 80’s and early 90’s alongside bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive never quite achieved critical success in their younger days. However, having released their first album in over 20 years, the band seemed to have developed a greater degree of maturity, confidence and skill within themselves as performers and as a band.
The show I was to witness under that tent, womb-like and intimate, was a testament to the timeless quality of shoegaze music and its ability to unite people in a moment of unadulterated sonic bliss.
As waves of people flooded their way into the tent where Slowdive were to play, the clouds started to gather overhead. I sat outside and watched flocks of people push themselves together like puzzle pieces, all desperate to get themselves to the very front, to have their ears pressed against the PA system.
Opening with, “Slowdive” from the band’s 1991 debut album, the first trickles of expansive cathedral reverb oozed themselves out of the speakers, gripping the crowd with a wall of sound like molten lead. This was the perfect song to open their set with, taking the audience back to those early days of Slowdive and offering those less versed in their early recordings an opportunity to understand the origins of the band’s unique sound as the set progressed.
As Slowdive moved into “Catch The Breeze,” the clouds buckled and let down great droplets of rain which rippled and pooled upon the roof of the tent. It couldn’t have been better timed.
The rain added an indescribable atmosphere to the thick, melancholic vocal harmonies of Rachael Goswell and Neil Halstead, making the sound throbbing through the PA seem like some elemental force of nature. The Lights switched to a deep red and the crowd huddled closer together still to avoid the rain. In that moment, nothing felt more important to me than the warmth Slowdive’s music was exuding.
The rain continued to pour as the pulsating delay which saturates “Crazy For You” bounced around the tent and from one ear to the next. What struck me most at this point in the set, was how incredibly well mixed their instruments and vocals were. Shoegaze is notoriously difficult to mix in a recording studio let alone in a live setting.
However, every instrument was at its optimum level. Each instrument blended into the next, but was still given space to breath. I could hear every single note feeding into the next, every repetition of the delay decaying individually. For me, Slowdive’s rendition of ‘Crazy for You’ was impeccable, and undoubtedly sonically superior to the actual album recording.
With a few words of thanks from Rachael Goswell, Slowdive moved into material from their new album. Marking a quick increase in pace, the subtle aggression of the opening riff of ‘Star Roving’ set the crowd in motion. Dancing to shoegaze music will never be easy, but hell we gave it a damned good whirl. What surprised me the most, was the reception of this new material by the crowd.
There were a mixture of older original fans, and younger fans born after Slowdive broke up in 1995. Contrary to my expectations, this mixed bunch reacted to “Star Roving” and “Sugar for the Pill” just as well, if not more enthusiastically than to classics such as “When The Sun Hits” and “Allison” which followed.
Every song seemed to conjure up specific images, memories and emotions. I remember peering back through the sea of people towards the carousel situated just outside the tent. With Halstead’s heartbreakingly tender lead guitar line sweeping through me, the ornament seemed to spin in time to the music and glow with amplified vibrancy. Such was the brilliance of Slowdive.
To the sound of rapturous applause, Slowdive introduced their final song, a cover of Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair.” Barrett’s innovative guitar work and his emphasis on feedback and other forms of sonic experimentation can certainly be argued to have influenced Slowdive in their early days.
The cover seemed to act almost as a homage to Barrett, or perhaps a reference to Slowdive’s humble beginnings, bringing the set full circle. As opposed to the acoustically driven original, Slowdive’s take on ‘Golden Hair’ was characterised by a gradual layering of swirling guitar lines and ethereal vocals, climaxing in a wig-out of infinitely sublime proportions.
And then it was over. The lights faded, the speakers buzzed with the last reverberations of Slowdive’s set, and the trance like state they had induced was broken. An utterly moving experience, Slowdive are the best band they have ever been. Their set demonstrated the longevity, the agelessness of the shoegaze genre. Britpop fizzled out as quickly as it had sparked into life, but shoegaze lives on.
Words By Sam Kemp