Knee Deep 2019: An Exercise In Community and Integrity

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It’s late Friday evening and I’m standing within Knee Deep’s food marquee waiting for the vegetarian burger I’ve ordered to be prepared and dished up. Next to me is a man lurching over at the official bar, bolshy and presumptuous, trying to persuade the fresh faced attendant behind it to hand over one of the festivals reusable cups for free. “I can’t do that as the money goes towards charity”, responds the attendant coyly. The reply almost causes the inebriated festival goer to keel over from shock at the concept, causing him to make the slightly snarky reactionary comment, “Knee Deep is a charity?” It was a stupid conversation to overhear, but it was hard not to share in some of the exasperation expressed within the revellers reply – albeit for much different reasons.

For over 6 years now, the not-for-profit festival has achieved much more in its lifetime than some of its multimillion and commercial contemporaries has ever done. Poising itself as the industry insider, Knee Deep has always made a point of hosting artists who are on the cusp of success and greatness – think Whitney and Penelope Isles – taking that grandeur, and giving its attendees a chance to see next years poster-children and indie sweethearts in the intimate setting that the festivals tumbling fields provide. Knee Deep 2019 is no different. The range of artist on show this weekend is broad and eclectic as ever, leaving even the most accustomed festival goer to wonder how such an event can be run on charity alone.

Flashing back to early Friday afternoon, with the sun beating down and the campsite just starting to become peppered with tents and make shift domestics, Tony Njoku opens the main stage. The set is a grand start for the day, given with an aptness and overarching confidence of an artist who’s working towards their apex and hungry for their worth to be acknowledged. As the glittering synthetics and skewed percussion ring out through the PA, we see Njoku pour heart and soul into his delivery; at times on all fours, primally thumping the triggers of his keyboards, creating a spectacle that supersedes the strobe lights and smoke machines which surround him. No one is left wanting after closer ‘Hapless’ and the visual theatrics leave people to contemplate as to whether Njoku should have been billed much later on in the day.

Porridge Radio are the band charged to follow up on such a performance and do so with ease and a nonchalant charm. The Brighton four-piece have existed as standouts amongst the DIY troposphere for some time now but have only just recently brought their brand of scrappy virtuosity to the festival circuit. Proving efficient and adroit in their craft, no restraint is shown during their set, with Dana Margolin’s delivery constantly descending into impassioned screams and violent body movements during her performance. Cathartic renditions of songs such as ‘Danish Pastry’ and ‘Don’t Ask Me Twice’ captivate those on the opposite side of the stage barriers and it’s a sign that the band hit home as the audience starts to applaud and shower acclaim even before the songs have ended.

Moving to the Deep Stage we find PVA setting up and plugging in. It’s noticeable that with this years line up, Knee Deep is skewed more towards the experimental than the traditional – with the breadth and depth of PVA’s music being in complete harmony with that mentality. An enigma of a set, PVA plunder the depths of genre and make people question the effectiveness of musical tags as a 40 minute performance see’s them lurch from the murky and brooding to the euphoric and profound. No matter what they do though, a sinister undertone runs throughout much of the arrangements. However, the closing performance, which sees Josh Baxter‘s vocals mashed through a vocoder on top of a funk drumloop, shows that PVA’s overriding mission statement is just for those who witness their art to have a good time.

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The sun is starting to set now on the festival grounds and a riotous clammer begins to break out down at the front of the Knee Stage; Squid are taking their stations. Squid, by definition, are a band perfect to sit on a bill at Knee Deep; vital to the burgeoning music scene, surging in popularity, but not yet tipping over the precipice of greatness. Their combination of post-punk and jazz emanates with clockwork precision and we witness for the first time today a band who truly know how to play their instruments. A false start of ‘The Cleaner’ shows that at least at some point the band are human, but by the time ‘Houseplants‘ comes around we know that by next year the band will have far outgrown playing festivals of this size again.

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Fontaines DC set brings with it an energy and an atmosphere that won’t be topped by other artists this weekend. Speaking earlier about the experimentation exuded by most bands on the line-up, Fontaines are the one exception to that philosophy. Boisterous and saturated in a sort of suave anarchy, Grian Chatten manically paces around on stage, as the guitarists who flank him churn out a straight cacophony of splitting riffage, putting down the ever more vocal naysayers that guitar music is dead. Occasionally swigging at a bottle of whisky kept next to the kick drum, Chatten taunts the audience with hand gestures before the band burst into ‘Boys In The Better Land’. Watching this moment from back stage, you can see how the crowd reacts unchained to the songs arrival. It’s testament to Fontaines that their music is popular, not only for its sound, but also for its message – as what resonates out is responded to in either thrashes of the limbs or frenzied, rip-roaring shouts of approval.

We’ve played this festival fifteen times in a row now”, comically remarks signer Kamal Rasool of Flamingods, acknowledging how a set from them is now part of the fixtures and fittings when it comes to Knee Deep. The headliner for the Deep Stage and final act of the evening conjures a sort of primal energy with their liberatingly crafted concoction of eastern-psych and free-jazz. The music is blaring and the party atmosphere being established is what most festival crave for from their final acts. Pulsing textures from the synths ring out, intwined with the fuzz-rammed world instruments, crafting a blur of euphoric emotions. It all ends in a squaller of noise and saxophone, putting to bed the final 20-minute jam with which Flamingods reach their close. It’s a messy and hedonistic finish to the day, but a satisfying one none-the-less,  something which gives justification to the tinnitus now throbbing around in our ears.

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Day two dawns upon the campsite, revealing the swelled population of the event; a fact of which is made evident by the sheer number of tents that have been pitched overnight. Pet Shimmers are the first band of the day to really draw a crowd. Noticeably a couple of members down and crammed uncomfortably onto the tiny Deep Stage, it feels that their early billing lends itself nicely to the easygoing and serene set they begin to play. Like a gentle whisper and loving nudge that someone may use to rouse a person from sleep, Pet Shimmers untroubled rendition of ‘Mortal Sport Argonaut’ brings people to their senses from the hedonism of the night before. It’s not a set without trouble though, as a technical difficulty which lasts throughout much of the performance visibly frustrates the band. Still, when ‘Persona Party’ crashes forth into the audience, those reclining on the grass are awakened fully and inspired to bob their heads indolently in approval as a wave of thick noise envelopes them.

With a packed out pub quiz just finishing within one of the marquee tents near the bottom of the campsite, the billing of Egyptian Blue again feels like an act played too early on in the day for their slot to really hit home. The Brighton gang of four swagger on to the main stage to not much more than a trickle of people idling by, with the recumbent attendance probably being a far cry away from the crammed and swaddled clubs they’ve recently played in support of The Murder Capital. The band, nevertheless, blast through an incendiary and dissolute set with steely professionalism, with Andy Buss’s vocals rightfully taking centre stage as the jangle of incongruous guitars acts as the perfect pedestal for his lyrics to cut through the din like a hot blade dragged over ice.

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Due to cancellations from both Kish! and Rachel Chinouriri, two hours go by after Gently Tender walk off the main stage following Egyptian Blue, leaving the space provided by their absence to cause tension and excitement to effervesce for the impending performance of Sorry. The lingering silence on the main stage is broken by the start of a bowed and misshapen version of Louie ArmstrongsWhat A Wonderful World’, acting as the prefatory walk-on music for the Domino signees to begin their pageantry. Sorry’s inclusion in this years line up is probably the embodiment of what the festival organisers are going for, as the previously billed Glows mans a laptop and effects to decorate the set with jabs of digital cacophony, adding depth to the indie savants exhibition. Lackadaisical renditions of ‘More’ and ‘Jealous Guy’ go down well with the audience, and singer Asha Lorenz engages with the crowd convincingly before the first of two power cuts of the weekend cut the set short.

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The sun has now given up its strength to remain in the sky any longer and darkness begins to envelop the festival site. Now is a good time to take in the twilight glow of the surrounding setting of Knee Deep; with its quaint and picturesque adjacent farm having just held a wedding reception earlier on in the day. The happy occasion seems to fit hand in glove with the community and sense of togetherness that’s been on display over the weekend. So to see the brutalist figure of Scalping is a labyrinthine image, with all members dripping in black, thundering through industrial soundscapes as if it was a basement or some superannuated club. As the final headliners of the evening, it’s hard to describe exactly what Scalping actually do, as it’s part digital pyrotechnics and part sonic bludgery. Whilst watching the performance, however, I’m receiving texts and messages from jealous friends who couldn’t make the event, explaining to me how Scalping are one of the most urgent and gripping live bands in the circuit right now. Seeing bass player James Rushforth thrash manically amongst the strobing, sometimes putting down his bass altogether to stand on top of the PA system and goad the audience into more frenzy, it’s hard not to agree.

The set hammers on until midnight, gargantuan in its industrial revelry, before ending with a whisper, as the continuous 40 minute song finishes on a sustained cadence of synth. Like the serenity experienced at the passing of a storm, the event draws to a close, letting the chatter of the festival goers splinter off into the night, taking with them strands and memories of the occasion to incubate over the coming weeks. There really wasn’t many “I was there” moments from over the weekend, but the three words I ended up writing down as I left the campsite – ‘community, intimacy and integrity’ – sum up the dignified aspirations that the tiny festival aims for. Perhaps, upon reflection, it’s not so hard to think that the event is built from the generosity bestowed from charity after all.

Words and Photography: Dan E Brown

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