BBC Radio 6 Music Festival – Review – Camden (6th-8th March 2020)

It’s probably safe to say that not everybody who listens to 6 Music likes everything they play, but it’s almost certain that all the listeners are united in their unconditional love of ‘proper’ music. In that spirit, the offering at this year’s BBC Radio 6 Music festival is a veritable smorgasbord of musical genres, each artist contributing their own distinct flavour to the musical feast.

Opening the festival, black midi meander between delicate fingerstyle melodies and thrashing, aggressively distorted guitar. They are chaotic and slightly unsettling, though hopefully not too brash so as to scare off the fans expecting to see Michael Kiwanuka later that night – this odd line-up juxtaposition testament to the versatility of 6 Music and its listeners. The band’s powerful vocals emanate from a largely static Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin, while conversely, on the other side of the stage drummer Morgan Simpson goes to town on the drum kit whilst delivering a brilliantly tight and complex performance.

Nadine Shah, drafted in to fill a gap left by the laryngitis-stricken Michael Kiwanuka, has a soulful voice, and her music is slower, more sultry. The band’s sound is a somewhat exotic infusion of middle-Eastern influences in the sitar-like guitar riffs and complex drum patterns – Shah has talked about her father’s Pakistani heritage and its influence on her music. Thrilled to be on stage to kick off her ‘residency’ (she will also open the closing night of the festival on Sunday evening) she also sends her best to Michael Kiwanuka for a speedy recovery – have a lemsip on us, Mikey!

The last artist in the Roundhouse on Friday night is the wonderful Brittany Howard; a vibrant and joyful soul singer set against a classic Americana backdrop. Howard’s amazing falsetto ad-libbing dazzles against the choral backing, much like her glittery shawl against the dusty orange backdrop. She holds her own as headliner in Michael Kiwanuka’s absence with a more jubilant, celebratory sort of soul music; very much what the doctor ordered.

On Saturday in Dingwalls, Jordan Rakei delivers a startlingly raw set with record-perfect precision. Rakei’s voice is used as an instrument, his beat-box like percussive breaths punctuating his silky smooth flows. The band too are tight, and super precise, but not lacking in flexibility. There are melodic similarities to the likes of Fat Freddy’s Drop, hinting at Rakei’s New Zealand influence. One of Jordan’s guests on stage is the inimitable Loyle Carner with his signature hushed vocals and gentle swagger, together the duo perform their hit ‘Ottolenghi’, Carner’s appearance makes the crowd go wild and their performance doesn’t disappoint.

Grammy-winning pianist Robert Glasper kicks off his set with a dazzling Radiohead cover, putting his own New-York-Jazz spin on their distinctly British sound. Glasper and his band create a rich narrative; sonic layers phasing in and out to guide the listeners along on a musical journey. Together their sound is expansive, with plenty of jazzy improvisation thrown in for good measure.

Later that night in the Roundhouse Sackler Space The Orielles take to the stage. They look like they’re straight out of a 70’s music video, striped sweaters and flared jeans a plenty. Lovely crunchy bass and swimmy vocals abound in a performance that resembles a pick’n’mix of musical styles with cascading 80s synths, grungy 90s rock and everything between. The erratic and disjointed ‘Rapid Eye’ paints a vivid dream sequence with shimmering guitar and quirky percussion, toy-like laser sounds adding to the quasi-nostalgic feel of the band.

The Big Moon start their set with a live radio broadcast on 6 Music, with a little help from DJ Tom Robinson, who warms up the crowd and introduces the band. Again, this is genre bending music, much like the Orielles but more fluid. Juliette Jackson’s husky vibrato vocals float over the band’s rolling rhythms whilst punchy synths create a dynamic, spacey atmosphere. All four of the women have amazing voices and they make full use of their abilities with some delightful, uplifting harmonies. 

On Sunday, again in Dingwalls, Ghostpoet delivers an electrifying performance – his body is an extension of the music as he twists and flows with the melody. Dark and twisted, his sound borrows from a diverse catalogue of influence, from heavy metal to trip-hop. He also debuts a new song ‘Nowhere to Hide’ – a song that builds on an escalating tension, pierced violently by eery, cinematic strings. It is a powerfully intimate performance that goes hand-in-hand with the intensity of his music.

Not long after, The Hot 8 Brass Band, the textbook example of creating joy through music, give a jubilant performance that gets everyone moving. In a double-whammy shout-out they perform an Amy Winehouse cover to celebrate the late artist’s life in her old stomping ground of Camden whilst also celebrating international women’s day. This performance is a treat, the bright and bold brass lifting the spirits of the crowd.

Closing the festival in the Electric Ballroom are the indie stalwarts Bombay Bicycle Club; the masters of turning quotidien melancholy into excitable, upbeat anthems. Having returned from a 5-year hiatus to release their 5th studio album in January this year, the band have been gigging non-stop, though evidently this hasn’t tired them out. Their performance is gentle at first, but builds to a fever pitch as they turn to their older tunes; bound to put smiles on the faces of the thinning-haired indie kids amongst the crowd. The snarling bass-solo in ‘Overdone’ sets the ballroom alight, and the vibrant, fruity melodies of ‘Luna’ get the room dancing.

The festival draws to a close, but 6 Music very much lives on – and as well as continuing to serve up musical cocktails to its loyal listeners, fans will be able to listen back to recordings from the festival on the BBC sounds app.

All photos by Rob Waters.