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Review: Bowlie 2 Festival

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In British history, south west England may never have seen a Scotch invasion quite the scale of that witnessed during the Bowlie 2 weekender this December.

The music festival is a reprise of the 1999 Bowlie which spawned the yearly ATP festival series. Just as when people were more concerned with the Millennium bug than a war on terror, this year’s Bowlie 2 saw Scottish twee heroes Belle & Sebastian return as curators, bringing reams upon reams of fellow Scots with them (both bands and fans) to Somerset’s Butlins, which must’ve seemed like a subtropical paradise compared to the highlands up north being seized by permafrost.

Detractors argue that Butlins is a crass place to hold a music festival; where you can watch the bands on the Pavilion’s main stage from the seats of a Burger King. Certainly, Friday’s openers Teenage Fanclub seemed too long in the tooth to thrill everyone and steal all the attention away from half-eaten Whoppers, but are still at their assuaging best when Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley’s guitar solos knit together tightly. The Zombies were possibly the farthest band from the burger queue, since their elderly stature puts them at a reasonable risk of heart disease. Having said that, their ancient crooning on ‘Time Of The Season’ or Rod Argent’s stomping ‘Hold Your Head Up’ still sounded vital.

Foals are at the opposite end of their career to Argent’s bunch; very much at the forefront of the music world after 2010’s stellar Total Life Forever. Their austere, calculated musings suited the cold climate of the Pavilion’s huge upturned udder (a tent of such magnitude is clearly hard to heat). The Go! Team and their incendiary frontwoman Ninja took to the Centre stage late on to jolt those thinking of their chalet beds back to life, and the oddball indie funk of The Phenomenal Handclap Band kept the momentum up past midnight.

An indefinably great part of ATP festivals is the cordial rise from a (admittedly pokey) chalet each morning to take part in the extracurricular activities on offer. Belle & Sebastian seem to have a bizarre bag of interests, with book readings, pop quizzes, yoga, and scrabble and five-a-side tournaments hosted for those not too hungover on Saturday morning.

Former B & S flower Isobel Campbell finally went on tour with her long-term, gnarled collaborator Mark Lanegan this year, and their vocals – hers musty and slight, his worn and gravelly – strike out well together on top of their stark songs. The NS favourites Frightened Rabbit continue to impress on their climb out of the warren to ever-loftier heights. Special compliments go to drummer Grant – the best at the festival – who looked like the Cloverfield monster trying to destroy his kit while keeping the beat.

The Dirty Projectors continue to confound and woo their audiences in equal measures with their arty textures, and with this slot they also had to compete with the popular draw of The X Factor final on the chalet TVs. Bowlie 2 goers were in for a treat as the peppy Canadian indie band The New Pornographers were joined by sometime member and soaring vocalist Neko Case on their current tour, before Belle & Sebastian headlined Saturday evening in the Pavilion. Some may write the band off as simpering darlings, but their live show shows off why they’re beloved so much on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall. Their rich melodies are transporting and Stuart Murdoch’s wry reflections provide bountiful fodder for sing-alongs. Later on still, Franz Ferdinand were drafted in for a secret midnight set, and Crystal Castles deafened every twee cochlea with their bludgeoning wall of noise before the night’s end.

Overall, Sunday’s line-up was light on bands of note, to the point where a Beatles tribute band had been drafted in. Nonetheless, the wholly enchanting Vashti Bunyan drifted in from a bygone era to entertain with her blissful wintry songs. Scottish sca band The Amphetameanies were a good excuse for starting midday drinking again, and they should’ve been getting feet shuffling in a nighttime slot. Mulatu Astatke fit a masturbatory vibraphone solo in an otherwise sturdy jazz set, and Laetitia Sadier, with remedial guitar skills and a monotonous whimper, didn’t offer much to love beyond some good natured between-song chit chat. Camera Obscura were underwhelming headliners for the day: another set of trembling Scottish twee heroes, but with little of B & S’s charm or punch.

But the thing to remember at a Bowlie (or indeed any ATP) is that even when there’s a dull stretch on your programme looking like a spot of shit you can’t scratch off it, you can just go bowling, head to the cinema or dance in Crazy Horse (Butlins’ nightclub, commandeered by choice indie DJs) till the wee hours when you’re left doing a conga to ‘You Can Call Me Al’ with the rock stars you’ve been watching all weekend.  Regardless of however many household names Glastonbury hosts, it just can’t compete with that.

(All photos by Jessie Atkinson)

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