From Hull with Love: City of Culture Awash with Nordic Warmth and Tales of the Sea

Posted on May 9, 2017

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The North Atlantic Flux Festival held in the UK City of Culture for 2017 – Kingston upon Hull – was American singer-songwriter John Grant’s gift to the world. And what a jewel it was. Glittering like a rave laser, luxurious like a glistening cheeseburger, transcendent in its beauty.

Lindstrøm. Photo © Chris Pepper

As far as warehouse raves go this was decidedly less dirty. Gate No.5 on the banks of the river Hull is an industrial shed, painted and preened into a party space that shudders like a tainted jelly when the sub bass starts. We’ve just watched the near-saintly GusGus transform Hull City Hall into a mob of grinning souls, but the journey to the after-party with Icelandic label Sweaty Records was a trek. This smorgasbord of northern sounds required some legwork, but the rewards were mighty.

North Atlantic Flux: Sounds from Smoky Bay was John Grant’s triumphant contribution to Hull’s year as UK City of Culture, so sore feet following a foray into Hull’s industrial hinterlands was a tiny price to pay. Friday night in the East Riding of Yorkshire’s largest city had shaped up nicely. The beginning of the night at City Hall was exactly what we needed to steady the ship. London four-piece Mt Wolf played a brilliant warm-up.

Hairy Tales

Bathed in deep reds and majestic indigo, Mt Wolf give the sort of opening performance that will carry them on to the festival circuit with ease and build a solid fan base with fans of Foals, The Editors or Joy Division. Their tracks have the ambitious push and pull layered dynamics of Sigur Ros – who are probably their closest comparison – as the songs soar on the back of Sebastian Fox’s at turns delicate and then towering falsetto.

Debut album Aetherlight is released on 26 May and the band seemed well fed on the appreciation of crowds at this year’s SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. Fox and his bandmates have a delicate counterpoint to their muscular sound, witnessed in the angelic strings that wash over songs like Bohemia or the layered synths that push Heavenbound into the outer layers of the atmosphere. Vocally, Fox has the full range, from a quiet but perfectly pitched baritone rumble to flighty upper scales that linger in the high vaulted ceilings of the City Hall. Catch them if you can.

So Good they Named it Twice – GusGus

GusGus are the rarest of gems in dance music’s ranks. They outperform their contemporaries on almost every front. No duo – in this case singer Daniel Haraldsson and producer Birgir Porarinsson – can hold your attention in quite the same way. Haraldsson’s silky vocals are among the finest and most soulful in world music and he simply owns the stage with his lithe dancing and sheer rockstar air-punching charisma. Porarinsson backs it up with precision beats, euphoric chord patterns and soaring melodies. The two combined work the crowd into a sweaty mess.

Arabian Horse, allows Haraldsson to craft his vocal twists and turns subtly, the track building rhythm like a thoroughbred pulling at the reins. The ghostly tech-house shudder of Crossfade is darkly elegant, bathed in blue. Then there’s David which funks up proceedings with its insistent ‘wish you would’ vocal refrain, followed by the almost unbearable opus to failed relationships, Over, that still sounds like an open seduction. Each song is an unrestrained psychodrama, but even if you have no history with GusGus you find your feet moving and your heart beating faster.

It’s hard not to conclude that their performance has become more streamlined, more refined as the band has shrunk in numbers – going from a collective of 10 in 1995 to a trio in the recording studio today. When they play live, it’s a work of concentrated empathy that no other electronic group can pull off with the same grace and simplicity. Grant worked with Porarinsson on his epic Pale Green Ghosts album and the GusGus man is one of the main reason’s for that album’s success. It can’t have taken too much persuasion for Grant to persuade GusGus to play North Atlantic Flux, but what a win.

Radio Experimental – Grant Does Late Junction

Saturday was the calm after the storm as Grant turned artful curator at the Jubilee Church Hall in King Edward Street. This working church hall played host to several of the weekend’s improvised musical happenings, including shamanic vocal work from Iceland’s Ragga Gisla, salty tales of high street antics and courageous trawlermen from Fila Brazillia’s Steve Cobby and beatpoet (minus beret) Russ Litten, and Grant’s exclusive performance of Grey Tickles Black Pressure. BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction was there to record it all, alongside the avant garde offerings of Pinquins and Roller Bassoon.

It was the perfect eclectic package for a floaty Saturday afternoon, with beer and crisps, and a great warm up for the evening show down with Prins Polo, Wrangler and Lindstrom. How to describe Prins Polo? 8-bit pop for the unstable? A drunken Christmas dad, resplendent with cracker paper crown and post-turkey remorse? Unhinged? Well, yes, but listen to the reminiscing Sandalar morph into drum-heavy chorus laden majesty, or Paris Nordursins driving synth pop glee and you’ll forget the fact that you don’t understand a word of Icelandic and be swept up into the manic energy of it all.

Next up, Wrangler – despite sporting ex-Cabaret Voltaire member Stephen Mallinder as well as members of Tunng and John Foxx’s band (a treat for leftfield electronic music fans) – was just not the right selection for a Saturday night DJ set. But it can’t be all disco baubles and the paranoid, somewhat off-kilter techno could have been viewed as a palate cleanser before the sprinkle-covered dessert that was Lindstrom. The beanpole Norwegian looks like he has elastic limbs and he bops through the most genial disco house set you could imagine, all positivity and glittery grins. Of course he saves the grandstand finale for the epic crowd-pleaser Closing Shot. We dance, we trip out into the streets with big beaming smiles. Job done.

Sunday Best

Honourable Sunday mention should go to Nils Bech – signed to DFA Records – for his spiky electric power pop, and the almost Sugarcubes’ punky touch of Ghostigital’s 8-bit grime, straight outta Reykjavik y’all. But Sunday night is John Grant night. There’s no getting away from the staunchly built American’s towering presence. Whether it was squeezing in a solo performance on Saturday afternoon at Jubilee Church Hall, or wigging out in a paper crown to the Lindstrom set on Saturday, his warm and benevolent personality was stamped all over North Atlantic Flux.

John Grant has a quiet Saturday night with Lindstrom © Chris Pepper

The show belongs to Grant. His chest puffed out, his lungs open, his eyes closed, there is no singer in the world that can match him for strength of vocal delivery, for angst, for ennui and for the absolute beauty of his performance. If you haven’t heard Grant or seen him live, then you are missing out on a voice in a generation. He captivates an audience, whether it’s songs about sweet shops and escape (I Wanna Go To Marz), his paeans to lost love, relationships (pick one), or being the greatest motherfucker that we’re ever going to meet (GMF), he knows how to do show tunes.

So thank you John Grant, and thank you city of Kingston upon Hull, or just Hull (we’re not fancy), for one of the best weekends possible with some of the brightest northern lights. Our eyes were shining all the way home.

Check out the highlights package video below – the music comes from Susanne Sundfor who played the Jubilee Church Hall on Friday afternoon, Fade Away from her 2015 album Ten Love Songs.

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Posted in: Art, Festival, Music