I’m not sure what possessed me to willingly spend my hard earned cash to stand in the worst gig venue in Manchester three nights in a row, but when BBC Radio 6 Music announced the headliners for this year’s 6 Music Festival I had no choice. The artist behind my 2nd favourite album of 2022 (Loyle Carner), the artist I backed for the Mercury Prize in 2021 (Arlo Parks) and the most exciting artist in pop of the last decade (Christine and the Queens); I couldn’t say no. Ready for a weekend of eight quid pints and barely being able to see a thing I prepared to head to Victoria Warehouse for night one.
The first thing I have to mention about the 6 Music Festival and its return to the first place it was ever held back in 2014 is that it didn’t really feel like a festival. Walking into the venue at 8pm as the first live act Wu-Lu took to the stage it felt strange to have a main stage at a ‘festival’ host just six live acts over 3 days, plus three more playing at Band on the Wall the previous day. It truly felt like three headline shows instead of a festival, part of the problem with hosting shows primarily for TV at an indoor venue in March. It was great to see so many people turning up for Wu-Lu’s intense set though, a fiery band who end up somewhere between Bob Vylan and Rage Against The Machine.
With every performance billed as an ‘exclusive’ and Loyle Carner’s supposedly featuring the AMC Gospel Choir I was interested to see just how different these headline shows would feel to a ‘regular’ tour date. I needn’t have wondered as in Loyle’s case it felt like a typical show, albeit a brilliant one. His album hugo coming alive on stage with a packed out crowd fully on board with tracks like ‘Speed of Plight’, ‘Hate’ and ‘Blood On My Nikes’ taking on such a powerful tone when performed live. The most impressive thing for me was how he took tracks from his earlier albums up a notch on stage, the music just a bit punchier than on record, his delivery and flow given more of an edge too.
It wasn’t until the very end of his set where he welcomed the choir onto the stage, well over an hour into a show billed as a ‘collaboration’ between the two. Undoubtedly the highlight of the show, ‘Nobody Knows (Ladas Road)’ comes to life with the depth of these additional voices. I was on such a high and then like that the choir are gone and on with the usual show. It felt jarring to have been mentioned so many times, especially when so many Loyle Carner tracks would have sounded brilliant with a choir on stage. Either way I was thoroughly impressed with how engaging and dynamic Loyle is as a performer, especially considering how low key and casual his rapping style can be for some.
Onto night two, sure to be my highlight and it’s Lava La Rue warming up for Christine and the Queens. Knowing nothing about them at all, it was great to be in a crowd fully on their side. A bit funky, a bot pop and very catchy it was a very enjoyable set with a few live debuts of new songs too. They are someone I’ll have to make sure I go back to soon, because the songs I heard were very on brand for me.
Of the three headliners Christine and the Queens was the one I didn’t know what to expect. Since last year’s Redcar les adorables étoiles (prologue) album outside of the theatre show where he performed the album in full this was the first full live set we’ve had since 2019. We could easily have had an hour of the new upcoming album Paranoia, Angels, True Love, or we could have had an hour of French classic songs. Instead the setlist captured the entire Christine and the Queens catalogue, from ‘Saint Claude’ to the personal fave ‘People, I’ve Been Sad’ from his 2020 EP.
It meant we had hits like ‘Doesn’t Matter’ and ‘Tilted’ alongside around half of last year’s french language album. It’s an album that I’ve spoken about countless times on Picky Bastards but has only grown on me in the months since my review. Songs like Ma bien aimée bye bye and La chanson du chevalier felt so powerful on stage, such a vulnerable performance full of emotion even performing and dancing alone. My highlights were the banging ‘Je te vois enfin’ and his first performance of debut album track ‘iT’ since living his full truth as a man. The power of singing the words ‘I’ve got it, I’m a man now’ on stage really got to me as a fan and filled me with immense pride for his journey to this point.
It wasn’t until the last few songs that we heard brand new music, the baffling and extremely long ‘Track 10’ closing the main set with so much emotion. As he emerged again for an encore, now sporting angel wings, a blinding light from the stage into the audience was such a powerful moment and visually stunning, if a bit painful for us all. As he delivered closer ‘To Be Honest’ it was hard not to see this performance as a cathartic experience. Vocally this is the best I have ever heard Christine and the Queens sound, but the mood in the venue felt slightly disappointed that one spectacular moment aside it was a very simple ‘for TV’ performance. Performing this artistic and visionary music in front of a big BBC Music sign was a bit distracting from a performance that had a clear vision and message. It’s hard not to have wanted more from the staging, whether it was dancers or a set to interact with, it felt like musically it was there but I missed what had made his actual tour so stunning. Of course this is a festival, but I went in expecting basically just a headline show after Loyle the night before. Night two down, just one left.
The most stacked lineup of the weekend, The Big Moon could have easily been a headliner themselves, so it was a genuinely great thing to see them given well over an hour for their show. It helped too as it felt like it took a few songs for them to settle into the rhythm of the show. It was ‘Daydreaming’ from last year’s Here Is Everything album that took the set up a notch and after that it was a really enjoyable show from the band. The heavier moments worked a lot better on stage than I’ve found they do on record, while the fact the band were able to have their own special section of songs with a choir made the hype and eventual short ‘moment’ from Loyle Carner on the Friday so much weirder. A great set from a great band.
As we waited for Arlo Parks to take to the stage I knew I was flagging at that point, having to get all the way over to Victoria Warehouse three times, dealing with just how genuinely shit it is as a venue had kicked in. The usual worst thing about the venue seemed to have been alleviated slightly as this weekend was the best I’d even heard music sound in this room. That or I had genuinely lost all sense of logic after 3 nights there.
Arlo Parks delivered probably the best performance of the whole festival. It felt perfectly placed for what it was billed as being, with Arlo debuting a few tracks from her upcoming album, while reeling through the highlights of her Mercury Prize winning record too. New song Dog Rose worked so well acoustically that I’m not sure what it will sound like on the full record, while opener Weightless has become one of my favourite Arlo Parks records yet.
After being billed as having ‘special guests’ her performance of ‘Black Dog’ alongside The xx’s Romy was a big moment, even if I was desperate to now hear Arlo’s vocals on ‘Angels’ as a way of returning the favour. Bringing out one of the guys from Fontaines DC for her performance of ‘Sophie’? A bit less predictable but still exciting. By closer ‘Softly’ it felt like the crowd had witnessed a truly special show by someone who hasn’t been headlining festivals and rooms as big as this before, so you could tell that Arlo was truly grateful at having the opportunity.
I left feeling great after a weekend of tossing and turning between having a great time and wanting more. It made me wish I’d just gone to the Loyle Carner show at the same venue a few weeks before; it has meant I felt obliged to buy yet more tickets to see Christine and the Queens on his own tour if only to fill in the gaps with staging I had with a festival set. I think for me BBC Music needs to decide what this is. Is it a set of headline performances for TV? If so then just let the artist do their proper tour show. If it’s meant to feel like a festival then have it across a whole day with 5 or 6 acts a day. I’m not saying I wanted to be outside in March, but Castlefield Bowl would have been a perfect place to capture a small scale festival in a day. If you wouldn’t pay to see an artists own show then sadly the 6 Music Festival wasn’t giving you enough to make it worth the effort.
Words by Sam Atkins