After the month we’ve had, particularly in Manchester, it’s hard not to frame this year’s Parklife in relation to the Manchester Arena. That’s not to say this is a bleak review. Quite the opposite. The crowd’s unflinching capacity for a great time was matched by heartfelt tributes by the artists, and the organisers, and the ravers themselves. It didn’t affect the festival but you could sense its presence, almost out of sight, but not like the many dark clouds that shrouded the festival in a near constant state of shite weather. Love overcomes terror was the message.
Another external force that you could taste here and there, now and then, was a buoyancy that I’ve felt around me since the General Election, or more significantly, since Jeremy Corbyn managed to really whip up the young and youth culture and give it a platform to rise to prominence. There’s a real buzz, a real hope and a real voice that has been given to a whole generation that it hasn’t had in my lifetime and it looks certain that we are entering an era that will be defined by its young people. And by solidarity.
The grime movement seemed to be a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn in the recent General Election and it was represented en masse on the stages of this year’s Parklife. A genre itself buoyed by a new wave of devotees that found a resonance in the energy and frustration and defiance of something the UK can really call its own. It’s so big now guys like Stormzy are doing adverts for Man United, the most valuable football team in the world. That’s why I was hyped to see the alpha and the omega, the grime I fell in love with as teenager that has now once again found relevance and forced itself further than it’s ever been. A man at the top of the current crop of made men like Stormzy, and the godfather of it all, Eskiboy himself. With artist careers that stretched back to the ‘70s, there was always going to be those different generations of artists represented, and intergenerational divides are a thing in 2017, but Parklife offered a musical experience that seemed to show a way to bridge that gap.
I’m not sure that necessarily had that effect on the crowd though. As I said earlier, this was a much younger crowd than I had seen before. Twenty years ago we didn’t really have much going on in terms of festivals, now they’re non-stop. I came of age at a time when it was just starting to take off. I’ve been to festivals all around the world. But the majority of mine in those days were camping festivals, self-contained, on-site festivals. Festivals where for five days you didn’t leave and got to know every little area. You knew what time to hit the showers, you found the best place for chicken and chips, you knew where to get cigs and where to get cash. But since then we’ve seen the rise of the one-dayer.
Parklife have been keen over the years to stress it’s a ‘weekender’ but really it’s just two one-dayers back-to-back. They sell tickets for individual days. Part of the reason for that is to mitigate for the loss of food, drink and merchandise sales for those who have weekend passes but don’t make it to the second day. That’s a problem. There’s no commitment. From what I saw (though I have no figures to back it) the majority of people there were either from, or based, in Manchester and the surrounding area (though there were still plenty who weren’t). People could turn up when they wanted, leave when they wanted and if they couldn’t be arsed or were incapable of the basic functions required to get there, could just sack off the Sunday altogether. No one really committed to it, and you could feel it. Lots of fun no doubt, great music unquestionably, positive people in abundance, but no real vibe.
The weather didn’t help. It was miserable and demoralising from the get-go. I went once when it was sunny and thought Heaton Park was the perfect setting for a festival. It still is, but part of the magic was that it combined a festival, with the age-old English pastime of just chilling in the park on a nice day. Snap back to Parklife 17. People were huddled in ponchos on the bank that overlooks the Temple/Ram jam stage, cowering under shelter, rubbing their hands between their thighs, wading in wellies. That said there was still plenty of movement visible in the canopy above the thousands strapped to every stage, especially when the black clouds turned grey and the acts were in full swing.
On the Saturday Anderson .Paak gave an energetic headline performance of most of Malibu, with no coke (disclaimer: unconfirmed), in the Sounds of the Near Future tent on Saturday. Rodigan got the bare ‘signal’ from the gathered crowds. It was great to see Damian Marley thrash his body-length dreads chanting More Justice and Welcome to Jamrock if only his amped up rendition of Could You Be Loved was under blue skies. Wiley disappointed. He just played vocal versions of his most commercial tracks and basically just ad-libbed over the top. I still loved seeing him, and the crowd loved it and he had them in chorus. Better be careful what I say though considering his Twitter moves the next day. BBK were good. Jme – a key torchbearer for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign – did Don’t @ Me, Frisco was decent, you don’t necessarily hold your breath in anticipation of Jammer but Skepta was hype. We had to leave early because we decided to approach this festival professionally, with a professional plan and professional attitude. Unfortunately that meant limiting time with each act and tear-arsing it around the back of the festival in buggies to a stage on the opposite side of the Park. I’m not sure that approach is really suited to my review technique. That’s not me.
What I did get to see from that was how large an operation the festival was. How much work went on behind the scenes. How many police and paramedics and security and artist liaisons and press escorts and engineers that were on hand, often invisible, to put together an event like that. It really was an enormous project. Credit to all of them because it couldn’t really have been better organised and executed. Particular shout out to the press team. That’s testament to the size of the brand now. Parklife really has come far in almost a decade since the early days of Mad Ferret. We had the Mayor deliver a tribute to the 22 people who died in the bomb, and the emergency services of the city in front of a packed Parklife Stage and there was a genuinely emotional minute of noise in memory of 22 people, many of them children, who went to a concert, to hear music, and be a part of a live performance, who never came home that night, and that was heard during that celebration. That was the moment I was most aware at how young some of the faces were there. And then I realised it was because the 1975 were on next. I couldn’t tell you anything about their performance. I honestly had never heard of them before seeing them on the line-up and also because by then we were already hightailing it down a mudpath in a petrol golf caddy to see BBK.
Shoutout to Paul Taylor, who has taken the amazing photos. They’d gone the extra mile with the tents this year. Not just big top carnival style ones, oh no. Palm House (like the one in Kew Gardens) was a huge conservatory with white walls and what looked like real-life palm trees, though being from Manchester I’m not familiar with such exotica. I didn’t get there in time for Moodymann, though I got to see Jasper James later on at Soup Kitchen in town. All eyes were on the Feel My Bicep line-up on the Sunday, I only caught glimpses regrettably. The Hangar was another mammoth arena shaped like a place you might store jumbo jets when you’re not using them. Again I didn’t get to spend much time in there but I was passing though during what were the unmistakeable, trashy sounds of Eric Prydz, to bear witness to some absolutely out of this world, other-worldly, outta sight, light green laser beams flying about in every direction.
The food was mostly shit, I thought, and comms was as ever impossible. The search policy, though understandably strict following recent events, seemed a little ineffective seeing as though on both days I was fruitlessly searched at the whim of a sniffer dog that couldn’t do anything to prevent some of the jaws I saw getting about the place.
Disappointed I didn’t get to see J Hus and or Carl Cox. I did however see someone who I wasn’t particularly keen on seeing, mostly because I have a selective dislike for hype. Funny how these things can influence how we approach music. Need to cut that out really, this probably helped. Run the Jewels I’m talking about by the way. They were actually sick. Their music went off, they were gassed, the crowd were gassed. I guess part of it is that some artists really are made for the main stage. When you have a lot of energy in your music, and your performances are animated and interactive, you just can’t squeeze that into Spotify. So big shout out to them. It reminded me of UK soundsystem culture, even had an essence of the early 2000’s Wiley that I had looked forward so much to seeing.
I closed out the whole thing with a performance that I consider my favourite. In previous years this has been someone like Moodymann, or Loco Dice, Optimo, or Scuba, or Patrick Topping, or Nina Kravitz, or even Dizzee Rascal at one festival for the lols. This year it was nothing of the sort. It was the last sound of Parklife 17 to echo around north Manchester. It was Frank Ocean. Thousands descended, in the darkness, on the Parklife Stage. On both days the sky was black way before the sun went down. The crowds squeezed as far back as the flashing lights of the ferris wheel and the high, spinning ride. Tension grew in the silence. Frank Ocean was running late. Pockets of ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ chants drifted in the chilly wind. And then something happened. It wasn’t immediately clear what was going on.
The main stage was filled with two huge screens that mostly didn’t struggle with keeping on top of aspect ratio, orientation and displaying info that was presumably not meant for the public eye. I’m not gonna lie, it was pretty confusing. I heard Frank’s voice and I could see a part of his head on one of the screens. Then it became apparent he was performing, not from the stage itself, but from a little satellite stage opposite the stage. He introduced himself with a humbling softness, both carefree and charming. He maintained this throughout. The crowd felt a little flat but in his own way he dominated the next forty or so minutes.
It was a huge open park, it was open air, it was dark and cold, breezy with patches of drizzle, but he made it intimate. His stage lit up like a tiny island in the sea of people. Lights twinkled in the distance like candle-light. He built the energy with the ebb and flow of the playlist he kept referring to, even if the transitions involved him skipping the track on a player, awkwardly almost exposing the illusion. His performance was sometimes clumsy. Goofy even. A couple stop-starts, issues with his headphones, with his mic, visibly alone, at times marooned. But when he sang Chanel, when he sang Nikes, when he sang Ivy, when he finally sang Thinking Bout You, with 70-odd thousand people around him failing to hit those angelic notes that lift the chorus, he had still managed to carve out a real connection with the audience. A bond that went above and beyond the hectic hustle and bustle of earlier in the weekend, when energy levels were still cruising and the frantic thrashing through mud from stage to stage.
Frank Ocean’s deeply personal lyrics, stripped back melodies, his live guitarists and his voice brought peace to Parklife. It ended when he finished.
photos: IG - @thisispaultaylor