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Review: BBC 6 Music Festival kicks off at the O2 Academy Newcastle

Crowds celebrate as bands The War On Drugs, Sleater Kinney, Interpol, and Mogwai lit up Newcastle

When BBC 6 Music nearly closed five years ago it was said the reason the station was under threat was partly that it lacked “visibility”.

It’s not a criticism they’re likely to face again. Weeks of publicity have accompanied the run up to digital radio station’s festival on Tyneside, which began on Friday night with a stunning performance, broadcast live from the 02 Academy Newcastle.

If you’re not a committed music fan you may be wondering what all the fuss is aboutUnlike last year, when Blur’s Damon Albarn and the National topped the bill at the inaugural festival in Salford, not one of the 50 or so acts here for the three-day event could be guaranteed to fill out an arena.

The team at 6 Music would claim that is rather the point, arguing the station exists with a remit to champion music that is “alternative” rather than mainstream, and in a recent interview with The Journal station boss Paul Rodgers acknowledged they turned down some bigger acts because they didn’t fit “the feel” of the station.

Instead of household names they started the festival with four bands – The War on Drugs, Sleater Kinney, Interpol and Mogwai – who may not be household names but are loved by fans and intrigue from those that don’t know them.

Cramming four bands onto a bill and broadcasting them live meant the performances began at 5.30, The War on Drugs playing to an audience that clearly grew with people rushing in from the pub as word spread they were on.

It was difficult to know what was more surprising really, that a band who topped so many of the album of the year polls last year were up first on the bill or that The War On Drugs could manage to squeeze their epic tunes into a half hour set.

There was no attempt to shorten their songs – I have a feeling that asking Adam Granduciel to attempt a medley would be a little like presenting a dog with a Rubik’s cube – instead they played their four best ones in half an hour.It was a reminder why the old Motown Revue concerts in the ‘60s worked a treat, every acts on for 20 to 30 minutes of their best stuff before leaving the stage to someone else, the epitome of all killer/no filler.

Along with the critical praise and increased sales there’s been some sniping at The War On Drugs of late, some saying their widescreen sound is a white bread re-hash of every “classic rock” act from Dire Straits to Bob Dylan that lacks teeth and originality.It’s true that the influence of that rock lineage is obvious but when they opened with a version of Under The Pressure that just grew and grew it was impossible not to be swept away.

They are no copyists and their songs, by turns regretful and joyous, are a love letter to the redemptive power of music.

It was their first time in Newcastle but they are back at the Academy next week to do their own full show, which isn’t sold out yet. I’d move sharpish if you’re interested.Sleater Kinney haven’t played a show in the UK for ten years so their arrival was a major coup for the festival organisers.

They are the middle of an American tour but flew in specially to play at the festival, which underlines the importance of 6 Music to the kind of acts that don’t get played on more mainstream stations. You can see why it makes sense to them, in today’s multi-platform world where radio stations don’t just make radio, their performance will not only go out live on the night, it will also be repeated or available throughout the year on radio, TV and the web.

The American three piece took an unexplained break in 2007 but - after a performance that contained pogo jumping, guitar wind-milling and a drummer in Janet Weiss who hits the skins so hard she looked at times like she might take off – it’s fair to say they showed no signs of rustiness. They were brilliant.

New Yorkers Interpol have also been away for a while, they took a break after their last tour in 2011 admitting they needed to recharge their batteries, and have returned with a new line up. The break clearly worked, they looked like a band that want to be on the stage again and as their set, which started a little slowly, went on the sheer enormity of the sound they make was undeniable.

But for enormity of sound every band it seems is a pretender next to Mogwai. Your correspondent is no blushing violet when it comes to loud concerts – I have seen AC/DC 11 times – but there were points last night when it occurred to me this was the most brutal volume I’d ever heard.

That was before guitarist Stuart Braithwaite lent back during a quiet moment, lulling the listener into thinking we had taken a turn for calmer musical waters, only to then hit his instrument with such venom– and this is no exaggeration – I jumped out of my seat.

The woman next to me did the same while, inexplicably, her sister next to her slept. I was so astonished she could sleep through this I had to approach her afterwards but she happily explained that Mogwai’s dense, reverb heavy sound always makes her nod off. It was an astonishing performance but not one I’m sure I ever need to experience again.

By Jon Bennett

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