Simple Things 2016 was Proof that UK Festivals Can Push Boundaries and Still be Outrageously Good Parties
The idea that innovation and hedonism are not mutually exclusive is a false dichotomy.
Powell—Simple Things 2016.
This year, we arrived at Simple Things to find a festival already in full effect. Instead of starting on the morning it actually begins, this year the Bristol weekender began in the week leading up to itself, with a series of extended (EXT) events dotted around the city which acted as preliminary teasers to the weekend. The British Paraorchestra had already played an immersive audiovisual set in the city's Planetarium—the space also played host to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith—and by the time we reached Bristol one of the many panel discussions was already underway, forcing us to slink sheepishly in at the back.
The panel we attended offered a more than fitting introduction to our experience at the festival. Featuring promoters and journalists from across the UK festival circuit—and hosted by THUMP's Angus Harrison—the subject of discussion was "Are UK Festivals Becoming Dangerously Homogenised?" Topics included the influence of corporate booking agencies, how independents can innovate around them, and the diversity of lineups in a country where over 85% of festival acts are men despite 50% of the audience being women. At the centre of the discussion was the question of how UK festivals can actually drive culture forward, and how they can retain their core audience as well as expanding in popularity. It's an important question when more and more people are opting to rave in the abandoned infrastructure of European satellite cities—and are less and less inclined to drag soggy crates of Fosters on half-broken trolleys through the mud-coloured quicksand of Brexit Britain's sprawling fields.
The consensus, by and large, seemed to be that UK promoters are often hamstrung by rules and regulations that hamper the sense of risk necessary for a carnival to suspend day-to-day social norms. While this doesn't stop festivals from gaining in popularity and organising Lucozade-sponsored phone charging parties, it does make it more difficult to curate the bespoke memories that cause a person to really fall in love with the party itself. As one panel member put it, Unsound has just happened in Krakow, a festival where all-night parties happen in beautiful old buildings that in Britain would be listed and off-limits. Negotiations for the use of meaningful space in Britain are all too often hampered by draconian authorities, meaning UK festival-goers are relegated to a lower quality of space that's far from unique. Not only that, but some panelists also felt that attempts to artificially diversify the acts on the lineup would conflict with the natural ebb and flow of booking patterns. There was some debate around this, naturally, but there seemed to be a question hanging over whether or not diversification would compromise fun.
It wasn't all doom and gloom, but the general feeling seemed to be that on our ever-more inward looking island, a truly game-changing and progressive festival circuit could be at risk of getting lost in the noise.
Kicking the day off with this question seemed like some sort of subliminal humblebrag on the part of the festival's organisers—because spilling out into the bright light moments later it became clear that this sort of thing absolutely does happen in the UK.
The festival was embedded in the city's fabric in a way most multi-venue urban festival's can't muster, with events often literally taking place in old metropolitan institutions like the old Coroners courts. With a closely curated lineup, across which each act is clearly so carefully chosen, the extraordinary nature of the venues synced perfectly with the ethos and spirit of the weekend, and with these ideas floating around, we set off to experience the actual body of the festival.
It soon became clear that at Simple Things, the curators are one step ahead, predicting your next gear shift before you've even realised you want it. Wandering into the old Firestation to see Powell, we were confronted instead by Squarepusher's LED-mask wearing band Shobaleader One, whose absurdist and hyper-intricate shredding stunned a packed crowd into just the right kind of silence for Oscar Powell to fill. His set drew almost exclusively from his recently released Sport LP which matched choppy, indecisive beats with darkly lit and swirling visuals. Spinning round in a circle behind the decks, he was clearly having as much fun as the crowd but seemed reluctant for the set to reach its full apex, twisting and re-calibrating it just as the crowd settled into "Frankie". In fairness, we weren't exactly expecting him to play the hits.
We made our way to the historic Colston Hall complex for the main bulk of the night's entertainment, with stellar sets from the Banoffee Pies crew and Darwin accompanying pints on the terrace as the sun withdrew. Being an old concert space, its auditorium takes the form of huge staggered multi-level seating areas in a traditional theatre set up, allowing Death Grips' set to be viewed from the gods. The sound shook the space with abrasive, undulating rhythms such that it sounded immediate and visceral to a chanting crowd from any corner of the room. For one onlooker, a man who'd had his fill early and traipsed languorously up to the top of the stairs—as though he were ascending the steps of Malaysia's Batu caves to take his rest in the cradle of a Buddhist shrine—and reached the very uppermost seat in the auditorium before settling his eyeline on Stefan Burnett and emitting a blissed out grin before being carried back down by security: it was the highlight of the whole night.
It was a highlight of ours too, but the most joy came after with a genuinely on a level fun set from Charlotte Church, the Teklife showcase and a trip to Lakota where the various rooms played host to an inclusive eclecticism that spoke to the broader outlook of the festival. The unexpected highlight was Evan Baggs with a typically bass-heavy minimal set that more than justified his Atlantic crossing. Filling the intimate space, he created the impression that this doesn't normally happen—that this could only happen here. His expansive set felt contained yet enveloping, blending neatly into Ben UFO's. There was less of the crate digger's journey through genre from UFO than we were hoping for, but he more than made up for it with a set that maintained a gradual flow, developing steadily and tilting towards a slacker BPM than others might have ventured in the same slot. As the lights came up, he'd prepared everyone for the slow landing of Ubers home, after parties and final tinnies.
Reflecting on the acts we'd seen it was clear that the lineup benefited massively from its variety, and that the diversity of the lineup was not so much a self-conscious or laboured 'decision' as just another crucial component of the creative setup. This is the proof, if any was really needed, that festivals can innovate, test themselves and their punters, without for a second compromising on hedonism or feeling. For a festival that so brilliantly resists the flow of homogeneity and does such a great job of bringing together otherwise disparate artists, it provides a blissfully familiar feeling, not unlike returning from a soggy field aged 16 and discovering what a festival can really mean when it's done well.