Ever since I first visited Manchester as an excitable 15 year old to stay for the odd weekend with my older sister at University, it was always going to be “my city”. So I honestly can’t do justice to describing my feelings during the 35 minute train journey for my first visit to the city centre three days since the terrible bomb attack; would I recognise this place? How much has it changed?
Delightfully Manchester actually felt a kinder and rather more tolerant place; people in various stages of undress were relaxing in the sun, a teen on a bike was enjoying a light hearted spat with a couple of smiling and relaxed Police Officers, a homeless man was telling people a story about his life in the army, others were of course carrying flowers to lay a personal tribute. I suddenly found I was just so looking forward to a day exploring dank cellars, hot crowded attics and new bars for the Manchester leg of the Dot to Dot music festival; our own personal tribute to show we will never be beaten by bullies.
For those unaware of the format, the Dot to Dot music festival has well over 100 acts playing at over a dozen venues dotted across the city; the grimly determined can fit in over 12 hours of wall to wall music from early afternoon until the early hours.
Everyone’s first Dot to Dot duty is to visit the wristband exchange, which this year in the summer city heat was located in what felt like Warrington; the old Granada Studios on the western edge of the city centre. There were three music venues in this area of the city where many of the larger acts were playing, but the majority of the smaller artists were playing back in the Northern Quarter right across town. As I queued for my wristband and map for the day, I spotted PINS pull up in their van looking cool, glamorous and ready.
As usual I had prepared for my Dot to Dot experience with a list of names venues and times scrawled on a note in my pocket (I laugh in the face of digital aids), but I hadn’t anticipated the sheer Manchester heat, and so I immediately fell off my intended page and dived into one of the local bars, 1 Watson Street, which was a nice night airy bar with a good choice of craft beer. l reflected the difference between Craft beer and Real Ale seemed to be about £1.50 a pint and the phrase should be “crafty ale” while I waited for my first act of the day, local lad Liam McClair. Our man did a very serviceable acoustic set which was well appreciated by the crowd who had turned up to see him. Liam sings well and his songs are clearly well crafted. Obviously, recent events were fresh in the mind and Liam made several references to the event and that he has turned his planned EP launch date into a fundraising night for the victims. Good on Liam.
Rather than go and see PINS as originally planned, I took a detour based on an excited account I had heard about how good Honeyblood are live. After Liam’s solid acoustic set I was ready to ratchet up the beat. Fortunately, there was only a short queue (obviously security has been tightened up and anyone foolhardy enough to be lugging a rucksack or bag had to be searched) but I was soon in the Albert Hall, a grand converted church with a half full crowd waiting for their performance.
I must confess I’ve not been fully captivated by Honeyblood’s recordings; I thought the band were fine but not my favourite. Live Honeyblood have a joyous punchy energy and it always amazes me how much noise two people can make if they put their mind to it. I’m definitely happy to check Honeyblood out again on this explosive showing.
It was time for a hike across town and another change of tempo and I took some steps away from the lovely sunshine and down into the dank cellar of one of my regular haunts, Soup Kitchen. It was a jolting shift to the smooth, somewhat jazzy smoky sound of the stunningly voiced 21 year old Nilufer Yanya who is definitely on the on the right side of Sade (who sounds like finger nails on a chalk board to my ears). I’m not sure whether it was the terrorism, the beautiful weather, the fairly early time slot or something else, but it was a scant crowd out to see Nilufer and her two guitarist backing band. The few faces looking out at the stage probably had a little impact upon Nilufer’s performance at first, but it was heartening that we audience gradually warmed as she relaxed into her set. This was an utterly understated experience but which left the punters very happy.
Next was time to snag one of my “must see” gigs of the day; Atlas Wynd. While I know the Northern Quarter pretty well it has to be said that I’m not an expert of its warehouse lined backstreets, and when I saw a Dot to Dot banner outside a bar I just assumed I was in the right place. Instead, I wandered into a cellar of what felt like a private jam session. Subsequent research determined I was in a venue called Paper Hat (wtf?); although I did catch the band tell us they were called Easy Life. I enjoyed the Mike Skinner cool of the loose street rap going on and with the intimate setting of just a few people and a whole heap of musical instruments stored in the middle of the room (and yes it was more Mr Bean than Mr Cool that stumbled over a guitar neck on my way in). It was one of those magical little Dot to Dot moments that I’ve come across over the years, and I’m pleased I hold a shaky photo of that heap of musical instruments else I might have imagined I dreamt the whole episode.
In some respects it was fortunate that I was only in Paper Hat for a couple of songs before the set ended as it felt far too intimate to try and sneak out (and in any case I was enjoying the vibe). As it happened it meant I was able to rush around the corner and find my way to the attic that is Aatma to still catch the magnificent Atlas Wynd just starting. Atlas Wynd are North East lads decamped to Brighton and had arrived a bit late after a 9 hour drive. I loved the heavy rich sound of the band which on record sounds a little Black Keys or White Stripes, but live sounded more heavy rock in influence. It was a masterful set, appreciated by the audience and well worth the £11 ticket price of Dot to Dot on its own.
Next was a stroll over to one of my favourite Northern Quarter venues, Night and Day, where the stage is close and personal to the audience. I wanted to check out Sonny, a North East 18 year old guy with a voice to rival Stevie Wonder. There was a lot of cool and hype about Sonny, and he gave a very accomplished set which made me conclude with a little time and experience he was likely to fly. I’m a sucker for an early Stevie Wonder type vibe, and was happy to have a quick drink with Sonny after his set (he is actually called Stevie – fate!) to discover a cool quietly confident and friendly bloke. Sadly, my chat meant I didn’t get chance to go and see the disco enthused Confidence Man for another change in tempo.
I was getting towards the home straight already. Unfortunately The Growlers who were the headline act I was really hankering to see were on across town and their set ended a fair while after my last train started. I have done nights dozing on the station floor before now but I just wasn’t out of it enough for this to be a trick I was up for this night, and so I just had one more to see; Tom Grennan at the Ruby Lounge.
I like the Ruby Lounge venue as its sound system is one of the best, and if you are lucky you can grab a seat in one their plush leather sofas. Rather than be lazy I snagged my place right at the front of the stage for another exceptional Tom Grennan experience. I’ve seen Tom live four times now and he never disappoints; each time there are a couple of new songs, his vocals are truly exceptional and he still delights in pleasing his crowd. Here Grennan was on top form and I’d lose my right hand for even half of this man’s vocal talent (OK I admit I am left handed so I’m cheating…).
So, to sum up, Dot to Dot (my 7th consecutive) once again didn’t disappoint given the sheer diversity of the acts on show. If you wanted to listen to heavy indie then you could enjoy that all day, if you wanted lighter pop then you could do that instead. On reflection with the way it turned out, perhaps I ended up at too many of the lighter melodic shows for my overall taste and a real storming head rolling finale with The Growlers would have really rounded out my night. However the trick of a good show is for it to leave the punters wanting more, and certainly I’ll be seeing you all again at Dot to Dot 2018.