There’s something about Slam Dunk Festival that no other current festival can quite match. It’s not only the close proximity between artist and audience whilst they play but also the close proximity between artist and audience whilst the artists watch their peers play. The artists are here to see their current favourite bands play just as much as they are to play the festival. It’s this sense of camaraderie that emanates throughout the venue, across the stages, as fans and artists alike, drink in the punk.
As soon as I step foot through the gates and find my bearings, I turn to find the familiar face of We The Kings bassist, Charles Trippy, who was perfectly happy to stop and chat with the fans. After grabbing a drink I made a beeline for the up and coming indie-punk of Modern Baseball.
These Philly lads are quickly building a following (including Motion City Soundtrack’s Justin Pierre who stood amongst the crowd to listen in) with a witty, punk-ballad style with a coming-of-age yet self-assured tone that you wouldn’t expect of a band that formed only two years ago. They start proceedings with Tears Over Beers, which, let’s face it, wouldn’t turn heads initially, but as the verse builds and rushes towards the chorus, the time change pulls you right in.
Their lyrics are emotionally charged but not so much that it deserves an eye-roll. There’s a sense of nostalgia that accompanies the busy guitars and accurate and springy kit-work of Broken Cash Machine. Whilst the indie jolt of Rock Bottom really begins to get them noticed. Their neat formulas and upbeat emo lyrics are clever and catchy and it would not surprise me in the slightest if I were to come back next year to find them headlining the same stage they played this afternoon.
Back inside on the main stage Canterbury stroll out onstage to a handful of fans, and I can see why they didn’t fill the room. Honestly, I wasn’t convinced. Their opening track Expensive Imitation is solid but never reaches beyond that. Their performance is lacklustre and as they continue their set with tracks Satellite and Think It Over from current studio album, Dark Days, they don’t quite fit with their British contempories (Deaf Havana, Mallory Knox) nor do they slot into the indie-pop sensibility of Bastille. They fall flat somewhere in the middle and when you are sharing a line-up with some pop-punk heavyweights you better be willing to pack a punch. Better luck next time lads.
Next up on the Macbeth stage is the Brighton based Gnarwolves. These guys know how to write a hardcore sing-a-long and that’s apparent when they break out with History Is Bunk taken from their EP Cru. This track hypes up the crowd and gets them jumping to their heavy drum sound and catchy chorus. A Gram Is Better Than a Damn closely follows whilst frontmen Thom and Charlie make for an energetic duo. The lads have a clear idea of who they are and what music they want to make. I don’t think there is anyone quite like them in the British punk scene at the moment. Their lyrics are both sceptical and introspective but simultaneously hopeful. During Limerence the shouts stink of youthful hope, as the crowd shouts back Money or no, I’ve got my head held high and somewhere to go, while the drums pound on, and the crowd skank on feeling every moment of Gnawolves’ dynamic set.
Up next on the main stage is We The Kings, an emo-pop band from Florida who have failed to really make any real impact with their music, until now. Since the release of their self-titled debut they have faded into the distance somewhat, riding solely on the success of catchy pop-punk track Check Yes Juliet.
Having said that their current studio album Somewhere Somehow, has seen something of a turning point for the band. Their music has developed into radio pop-rock and as they start their set with the frighteningly catchy Queen of Hearts, it becomes clear that they have morphed into something far removed from the usual pop punk of the festival. They have pop and hip hop influences but also use synthetic keys and layer harmonies. Okay, so it’s not for everyone here but it has its place.
Tracks I Feel Alive and Just keep Breathing get the fans singing and you have to give it to lead singer Travis Clark. His voice is so much stronger than their over-processed records would have you believe and he also wholeheartedly gets the crowd involved, asking them to dance ridiculously and jump in time. The fans are more than happy to do so, even the ones who aren’t yet so sozzled they can’t remember which band they’re listening to.
During the main stage changeover I was surprised to come across Tyson Ritter of All American Rejects taking selfies with fans at the merch stand. With just enough time to pass through the queue to the signing tent where fans wait to grab a moment with We Are the In Crowd, and grab a dodgy pulled pork burger, I make my way back to the main stage to catch pop punk veterans Motion City Soundtrack.
Kicking things off with a cover of Andrew W.K’s Party Hard, the seasoned Minneapolis rockers know exactly how to please their long-serving fans. Their set is jam-packed with absolute stompers such as The Future Freaks Me Out, L.G. Fuad, and A Lifeless Ordinary. They are so together which can only ever come with the experience of playing with one another for as long as they have, something that a lot of the bands playing Slam Dunk today can only aspire to right now. They are rockin’ but refined, and what else can I say but that I am so so glad that I got to see them play today. By the sounds of the screams as they styled out their set with their pop-punk anthem Everything is Alright, the rest of the crowd at the main stage are too.
Present teeny bopping favourites We Are The In Crowd are up next on the main stage and I have to admit that singer Tay Jardine is hugely charismatic onstage and outshines fellow vocalist Jordan Eckes. Of course, the Hayley Williams comparisons will come thick and fast but I’m pleasantly surprised to say that WATIC have really set the bar high. Long Live the Kids packs a huge live punch, with catchy gang vocals that the crowd happily throws back at them. Whilst Manners is a great example of the bands clever duelling vocals that adds a different slant to proceedings. There is absolutely no denying that We Are the In Crowd know exactly how to deliver their music live, and deliver it with vigour they do, as the crowd pulsates from the front of the stage to the very back of the Civic Hall.
Now where do I start with Letlive. Over on the Monster stage the crowd waits for what feels a lot longer than half an hour until the infamous Jason Butler appears. His stage presence is immeasurable. The band’s sound is frantic and their energy is like no other band you will see on the current hardcore scene. Starting with the driving force of 27 Club from their latest record the Blackest Beautiful and not letting up from that moment on, Butler swings his mic and climbs the rafters.
He unleashes something onstage that is fascinating and by that I mean something so passionate and emotional and so unlike any other lead I’ve ever seen. When the pace in the set slows and the Los Angeles quintet take back control of their technical rage, Butler recounts the story of his battle with cancer and the hardships he has seen. He has a beautiful rage and so much to say, which may be disturbing to some but as the band storms through Dreamers Disease and The Dope Beat I can’t help but feel that a band with this much passion and fury does not come along very often, if at all.
Last on my list is Welsh pop-rockers Kids In Glass Houses who have recently announced their split, but not before they play through their debut and arguably best album, Smart Casual, tonight in its entirety. There is no denying that the lads are going out with a bang as the sun begins to go down and the packed out Atticus stage share the celebration. The lads may not have reached the dizzying heights of rock fame they may have hoped for but this does not detract from their overwhelming popularity and ability to put on a bloody good rock show. Being able to play an album from top to tail is highly commendable and on their final tour they should be nothing but positively proud of what they have achieved.
Hats off to Slam Dunk Fest, which is quickly becoming a kind of ultimate rock party festival, with its laid-back approach and must-see acts. Best get in there quick next year, before everyone else catches on.
Review – Lisa Coghlan
Photos – Steve Gerrard