Live: 6 Music Festival – Victoria Warehouse, Friday 28th March

Despite a few inevitable teething problems, the first day of the inaugural 6 Music Festival in Manchester was a great success, further enhancing the status of the station within British popular culture. Piers Barber was there to soak up the first-day-at-school vibes.

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Against all odds, 6 Music has developed into something of a minor national institution in recent years. Everyone knows it by now: it’s that slightly pompous, often innovative digital BBC radio offshoot, with the finest breakfast show and most pretentious DJ self-promotion adverts on the popular airwaves today. And after several upheavals, it’s here to stay.

Today is another memorable moment in the history of the station, which was almost brutally dismantled as part of BBC cuts in 2010. It’s since gone from strength to strength, and is now enjoying a particularly prosperous 2014. After notching up record listening figures back in January (up by nearly a third on last year to 1.9 million), this festival – a peculiar pre-tour-rehearsal cum get-together for some of the artists the station has championed most throughout its history – is another genuine affirmation of its popularity and importance within British popular culture.

And it’s a highly anticipated event, with the 8,000 tickets available across two days having sold out within six minutes of going on sale. At just £25 a ticket, it’s cheap too, although £4.50 for 330ml bottles of Heineken and a selection of fashionably small yet undeniably delicious street food dishes, means the day does end up setting you back a bit more than you may have expected.

There’s an inevitable first-day-of-school feeling about the Friday. After all, with the exception of Kelis and Damon Albarn, the event’s heavyweights – The National, James Blake, Franz Ferdinand et al – have been kept in reserve for its Saturday climax.

It’s a peculiar and almost fatally flawed set-up: one sizeable, immaculately turned-out stage is accompanied by two bizarrely small ones, situated right next to each other with just a 1900s warehouse wall and a flimsy curtain to block out the sound. One of these stages plays host to a supposedly silent disco, although sound still escapes through to the second stage next door, where at one point Metronomy’s sunny rhythmic stroll through their new album comes dangerously close to being drowned out by Derrick May’s retro Detroit techno.

There is, though, a quaint appeal to these smaller arenas: crammed into the cramped and sweaty venue with your fellow license fee payers, just meters from the stage, they present a unique opportunity to see some of the UK’s best bands in the sort of intimate venue most of them outgrew long ago.

The festival’s scheduling also poses some unwanted problems. With bands on the two main stages scheduled at exactly the same time, there’s little space for manoeuvre around the event’s impressive, yet inevitably top-heavy line-up. It’s impossible to see Damon Albarn at the same time as The Horrors, for example, or Midlake or Mr Scruff at the same time as Doves singer Jimi Goodwin.

It takes the day’s predominantly bearded and skinny-jeaned crowd a while to get accustomed to their new surroundings, much to the frustration of Haim, whose early performance is undermined somewhat by a tepid crowd, sound problems and some admittedly rather average musicianship. The Fleetwood Mac-imitating Californian three-piece took 2013 by storm, but – with the exception of a few exquisite singles – lack enough memorable songs to dominate in a live setting.

It falls on Kelis to really kick start the festival: the Harlem singer is resplendent in an exquisite gold dress, and she hair-flicks and hip-shimmys her way through a genuinely magnificent 45 minute set. Backed by a full brass band, she runs through some delicious new material from new album Food, as well as some funked-up renditions of modern classics ‘Trick Me’ and ‘Milkshake’. She truly is a class act.

It’s then Metronomy’s turn to shine bright on the second stage. They play just four songs from their much-loved earlier albums, but their new material is of a refreshingly high quality, all textured groves and retro, Motown-style melodies. With their beaming stage presence and penchant for a delightful chorus, they remain one of the most quintessentially fun live acts you could ever wish to stumble across.

They’re the bad that suffers most from the event’s questionable scheduling, though, with the entrance to the second stage shut off near the start of their set due to fears of overcrowding. For a band set to headline the 20,000 capacity Field Day festival in the summer, their scheduling on the second stage is peculiar, to say the least.

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The Horrors, meanwhile, remain a formidable live proposition. The Southend five-piece perform extensive material from their second and third albums (they seem, perhaps wisely, to have largely disowned their first), as well as a recently released track from their new record, ‘I See You’. It’s surprising and perhaps a little disappointing that no further new material is road-tested, but the record’s soaring first single suggest fans have a lot to look forward to from fourth album Luminous, due for release on 5th May.

Over on the main stage, former Blur frontman Albarn takes a much more controversial approach to his headline slot, using it almost entirely to showcase material from his new album, Everyday Robots, alongside his new band The Heavy Seas. The set takes a while to build momentum, as fans gradually comprehend that this will be no ‘Song 2’-style greatest hits show. Yet the pretty, wistful musings of Albarn’s new work does gradually win the crowd over: his new band is clearly exquisitely talented, whilst a lot of his new material, especially his collaboration with Brian Eno, ‘Heavy Seas of Love,’ is undeniably startlingly beautiful. There are also some brilliant renditions of some older material, including the tender Gorillaz numbers ‘On Melancholy Hill’ and ‘El Manana’. Perhaps against the odds, the show turns out to be something of an understated triumph.

It’s a sweet conclusion to a largely positive debut outing for the festival, the latest step forward in the continually interesting 6 Music story. Indeed, if the event is able to iron out a few practical and technical issues, it may well be here to stay for good – just like its parent radio station.

Follow Piers and the Music Factory on Twitter @piersbarber18 and @MusicFactoryNo1

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