It’s become more apparent over the last few years that there’s no longer such a thing as ‘the end of the festival season’. With more major cities catering to the growing demand and popularity of the multi-venue all-dayer, the fun of the festival can continue as the nights draw in. If you’re not of a disposition to stand in a field for your live music intake, then this is obviously a welcome scenario to you, and if like this sucker right here you want a good excuse to watch fourteen gigs in a day, then there really is no downside. Having been announced two years ago, Ritual Union finally made its maiden voyage in Bristol as we entered October, and after its lengthy gestation period generated plenty of hype and excitement, it lived up to the fuss that surrounded it. With a healthy dose of what the South West is producing adorning the bill alongside equally exciting offerings from the rest of the UK, the four participating venues flung their doors open and beckoned in the crowds to have a grand old time.
Having only recently resurfaced following its temporary closure last year, the iconic SWX provided two stages worth of music, and the day fittingly began there with two cult favourites of the Bristol scene. Gracing the main room first were Pet Shimmers, an act whose unwavering knack for creating fuzzed out chaos in their live shows is always balanced exquisitely with a sense of tenderness in the melodies they produce. While the size of the room may have meant that some of their intricacies were lost in the ether, they felt like a perfect amalgamation of many of the things that would follow them throughout the day. Few similarities existed with Cruelty, however – their showing on the upstairs that followed was a deafening display of brash and tense gothic punk, but that’s not to say that they don’t similarly offer a sense of sheer catharsis in how they present their ideas live. Two emotionally charged sets in, it was time for a slight change of scenery.
There was a significant shift in the vibe over the road at Strange Brew, where brotherly duo Speedboat cast us back to the sounds of loungy 80s synthpop. There’s a wry smirk worn by Johnny and Will Griffiths throughout their set, though instead of it having an ironic touch, it’s simply because they’re creating a sound that it’s seemingly quite hard to not have fun with. In stark contrast once again, Quade’s set on the Spinny Nights-curated stage at Dareshack that followed was one that exuded a sense of haunting beauty. Choosing to play to an almost pitch black room, their already ethereal sound was heightened by the absence of light, allowing for each element of their songs to evolve organically. One swift return to the brighter climes of Strange Brew later, a packed out crowd had amassed to enjoy the psychedelic fiesta that is Mandrake Handshake. As they gear up to release their second EP, they have begun to gain much deserved traction for their brand of sun-kissed pop, and their live extravaganza is nothing but a joy to behold for those lucky enough to have experienced it.
It only felt right to continue the voyage into psychedelic pop territories by paying a visit to Willie J Healey’s set at SWX, and though the set was a little more understated than expected, there were a few delicious tasters of his upcoming material that teased the funk and R&B angle he’s beginning to settle into. Perhaps situated too early in the day, Orbury Common’s early evening set at Dareshack provided a short detour into their surreal world of British folk traditions fused with club-ready electronic beats. While nothing prior had quite prepared the audience for this heady mix of pulsating synths and samples of ritualistic chanting, their set rose to its usual electrifying levels of dreamlike wonder, especially on the more hard-hitting cuts such as ‘The Cutting Edge’ and ‘Haberdashery’. Following this segue into the early evening, Strange Brew welcomed the impassioned performance of Wesley Gonzalez. Having released his emotionally charged third album Wax Limousine at the start of the year, the former Let’s Wrestle frontman seemingly pours blood, sweat and tears into each and every moment of his songs, all of which are exquisitely recreated and delivered with full force. You get the feeling that despite the often torturous subject matter, Wesley is really hitting his stride as one of the country’s finest and most consistent songwriters, and the live show lives up to that accolade.
Despite Wesley running over, Peaness swiftly followed with an equally high-octane set comprised of tracks from their newly-released debut record World Full of Worry. After several years of endlessly plying their trade on the live circuit, everything about the new record sums up why so many have fallen for them over the years, and their display of tight power pop hooks with glorious vocal harmonies really struck a chord among longstanding devotees and new fans alike. Another band who impressed with their effervescent charm and incredible display of melodic indie rock were Bull. Having impressed the Wax team with last year’s debut Discover Effortless Living which earned a place on our albums of the year list, the York five-piece set Rough Trade Bristol alight with a sublime set of expertly crafted tunes and good-humoured fun. Taking the spot of the veteran act for the day, Young Knives similarly won the hearts of many as they closed proceedings at Strange Brew for the day. An act that have taken many forms over the year, they’ve seemingly not lost any of the art rock jaggedness that made them so appealing on their early records, but their gradual slide towards a noisier experimental edge on their more recent records was in full swing for this show. Ending their set on early hit ‘Part Timer’ threw a wave of nostalgia over me as someone who first made a pilgrimage to see the band aged 12 (yes, really), but seeing them remaining as inventive and reluctant to play by anyone’s rules but their own 15 years on from their debut was a marvellous spectacle to take in.
As the day drew to a close, local noisemakers LICE saw fit to unleash their usual brand of chaos upon the upstairs of SWX, with their small stage barely able to contain the maniacal Alastair Shuttleworth at times as he spat his satirical sermons from atop the stage monitors. Never content doing things by half measures, their appearance, though brief, was suitably abrasive and thrilling, confirming that it’s impossible for there to be such a thing as a dull LICE show. Headliner Katy J Pearson followed downstairs, who inevitably pulled out all the stops to produce a wonderous climax to the day. Regarded as one of the brightest stars that Bristol has produced in recent years, she is able to hold her hometown audience in the palm of her hand throughout, and her winsome songcraft wooed the Ritual Union crowd almost effortlessly. Producing a slew of big hitters from her debut Return and this year’s Sound of the Morning, it was the extra additions of special guest William Doyle and inclusion of a cover of the B-52s’ ‘Roam’ that made it feel as though she put on an extra special show for her most adoring followers. For those that still craved one last morsel of entertainment, the show continued at Dareshack as experimental hip-hop collective Nukuluk brought their brooding set to treat an audience to yet another delight. If the day had begun with a sense of catharsis, it only felt right to end it the same way, and Nukuluk were the perfect antidote to that.
With preparations already underway for the next edition, it’s hard to say that the debut Bristol outing of Ritual Union was anything other than a rousing success and a perfect advertisement for the raw musical talent that Bristol is currently offering. If you want to experience a carefully curated day festival that offers something for everyone and all happens around a central hub of some of the best venues the country has to offer, this one might be the one for you next time around.
Words: Reuben Cross // Photos: Lydia Cashmore
Ritual Union 2023 tickets are on sale now. Purchase an early-bird ticket for next year’s event here. Listen to the full playlist of all artists who appeared at the festival this year below.