Northern Irish artists rise high above the muck at the Punchestown festival, writes Eddie Mullan
Passing through security at the main entrance to the Oxegen music festival, the view ahead is of the Blue campsite on the hill. Housing thousands of cheap temporary dwellings within its fences, the coloured flags flapping overhead feel more like territory markers than helpful site navigation.
‘It’s like Darfur,’ says a glassy-eyed neighbour, tent pitched skewiff a couple of beer slabs away. Things aren’t quite that bad, but after bagging some relatively serene space in the Green campsite to call home for three or four nights, it’s easy to be melodramatic about the alternative. Like a honeymooner upgraded to first class that swears blind never to slum it in economy again.
Storm clouds gathering overhead don’t dampen the spirit in the arena, but the inevitable showers bring a subdued atmosphere to those still in the campsite. Most resort to rest up before the day kicks off proper, but the inclement weather has its benefits.
Northern Ireland’s own tent-bound Joe Echo greets the inpouring of new ears on Friday evening with his smooth electronic infused-rock. With plenty of banter, the ex-Leya frontman Ciaran Gribbin (real name) is clearly in his element, giving us the full band experience on the Hotpress Academy stage.
Rousing the crowd into singing along with new track ‘Tilly’s Cowboy’ and testing the water with ‘Wonderful Way’, it's clear why over the last year he's been working with glitterati like Paul Oakenfold and Madonna. Ending on a high, Joe Echo re-energizes revellers into the drizzle with hands-in-the-air anthem ‘The Heart That Knows Desire’. With help from a few friends and a MacBook, Gribbin delivers a perfect soundtrack for early evening warm-up.
Next morning, the neighbour’s dwelling is already showing the strain of last night’s festival fun; broken poles jutting out with tripped-over guy ropes and a waterlogged entrance. They don’t seem to notice the flooding or perfect circle of litter around them. The concern this morning is what to have for breakfast, ‘Heineken or Stella?’
That’s not to say the conversation raises its game elsewhere. On route to see Panama Kings kicking off the day’s proceedings in the Green Sphere’s Tent, a pit stop is made in the VIP area. Here, you wouldn’t even know there was a 60,000 – 75,000 strong contingent of revellers outside, among six stages and hundreds of world-class music acts.
‘Maybe we should go see a band,’ says one festival goer to his colleague with a genuine sincerity, this overheard epiphany causing a momentary beer-choking incident. ‘What was the point in coming all the way down here to hang out playing mini-golf?’
It’s day two though and we're not just here for the chat, it's about the music and those in search of a grittier sound have dropped into the Heineken Green Sphere’s stage. A hefty crowd gather to half-fill the sizable tent, choosing shelter and dance-rock over the afternoon’s Main Stage opening from The Stranglers.
It’s a ballsy performance from Panama Kings' Niall Kennedy, the frontman making full use of the whole stage with confidence and vocal clarity. With belter of a single ‘Children’ and the hook-laden ‘Mobilise The Kids’ echoing out, Panama Kings show they can hold their own on the festival circuit.
Nashville-inspired Cara Cowan joins the party on stage as a guest vocalist in a sublime cover of Pixies classic ‘Where Is My Mind?’. This goes down an absolute treat with the crowd; they may have come looking shelter, but they leave dancing to Belfast’s rock royalty.
Saturday afternoon sees Bangor’s Two Door Cinema Club upgraded to the Main Stage, and they’ve never looked more suited to the task. Rocking some denim-on-denim, flame-haired Alex Trimble leads the band into a blistering set, consisting of the bulk of their debut album Tourist History.
Songs like ‘Come Back Home’, ‘Do You Want It All’ and ‘I Can Talk’ have a life of their own now, with much love held for the Bangor lads down south if the thousands singing along in the sheets of rain are to go by. The gruelling tour schedule earlier this year has made sure Two Door Cinema Club have honed their craft, their live show tighter than ever before. Despite this, Trimble is still visibly blown away by the reponse of the crowd, telling them: ‘You’ve danced along and that’s what we love. You’ve sung the words and that’s what we love.’
This leaves just enough time to catch a couple of tracks spun by Jack Hamill, better known as intergalactic funk traveller, Space Dimension Controller. By this stage of the set the Red Bull Academy tent has turned into a bit of a rave, with SDC’s loose electro funk replaced with crowd-pleasing classics. Hamill knows this is a festival, not a chin scratching contest, so who are we to argue with the dude in retro gold Adidas and purple glow shades?
On Sunday the pop-up tent proves its weight in gold, folding into the carrybag within seconds. The neighbours look on, curious about the early pack-up. ‘Leaving so soon?’ a girl chirps. ‘Just getting ready for a quick getaway’, comes the reply.
Afternoon on the final day brings with it some sunshine for General Fiasco, the last Northern Irish band of the weekend, who kick off proceedings in the Green Spheres tent with a stampede of teenagers trying to get as close to the front as possible.
The trio lap it up and the short-but-sweet half hour set engages, with furious pop tunes like 'Ever So Shy' and 'I'm Not Made Of Eyes' more than satisfying the young crowd. The highlight, however, is an acoustic version of 'Sinking Ships' which is delivered with passion. This isn't the end of General Fiasco's festival ambitions; next year, bigger stage please.
It's surely the maddest event in Ireland’s music calendar, but come rain or shine, seeing headliners or hanging out in the campsite, people will undoubtedly still have the ‘best weekend of the year’ at Oxegen. As Eminem starts belting out 'Sing For The Moment', others start the car with wheels spinning in the muck to make quick their escape from the revelry of County Kildare countryside, to join the motorway back to sanity.