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LIVE REVIEW: Tramlines Festival 2017

iDJ takes a trip to the Steel City for a weekend of musical merriment

2017 Jul 29     
2 Bit Thugs

Starring Primal Scream, Kenny Ken, Gerd Jansen, Gilles P, Don Letts, Crazy P and much more

Though it doesn't get the kind of international attention that Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds do, the city of Sheffield has made many contributions to the history of clubbing and electronic music. From synth pioneers like Cabaret Voltaire and the early Human League, to Warp Records, to handbag nirvana Love To Be, the mighty Gatecrasher and the Niche-spawned sound of bassline, South Yorkshire's biggest city has much it can boast about.

And since 2009 you can add to that list Tramlines Festival, a multi-genre, multi-venue urban festival that's unlike any other the UK has to offer. Sure, there are other festivals that take a similar approach, but whereas you could be in Bristol while dot-to-dot (one such festival) is on and barely notice it was happening, Tramlines really does take over the entire city. It's more like being at the Edinburgh Festival or Notting Hill Carnival, with music (both live and DJ-supplied) pumping out of every bar, club, cafe and live venue in town, and the streets thronged with revellers sporting a bewildering array of brightly-coloured wristbands.

We say "a bewildering array" because Tramlines, as well as being a three-day event, is also very much a game of two halves, Brian. By day, rock, pop and urban sounds predominate (though there's also the Folk Forest, where gentler, acoustic music holds sway), but when the sun goes down, the party people come out to play and it's all about those repetitive beats till it comes up again. Well, until 4am, anyway.

Hence - by the the time you factor in one-day, two-day and weekend tickets, daytime-only tickets, night-time only tickets, VIP tickets, plus press passes, production passes and yada yada yada - the veritable cornucopia of different wristbands. Pity the poor door staff who have to compare the strip of plastic around your wrist to the chart showing 30 or so different ones pinned up inside the door!

Anyway, armed with three of the aforesaid wristbands, iDJ headed up the M1 last weekend to see what was up...

FRIDAY daytime was mostly about getting there, picking up wristbands, getting our digs for the weekend sorted out and so on, which meant we missed The Pharcyde and Kano who were playing on the city centre Devonshire Green stage. But never mind, cos the night was still young! We were tempted by Faithless at The Octagon, but plumped instead for a trip to The 02 Academy. When we arrived, Bugzy Malone was keeping the club kids in the main room happy with some fierce grime sounds but, being old people, we headed upstairs for some vintage jungle instead, courtesy of the excellent Junglist Alliance and special guest Kenny Ken.

There can't have been more than 200 or so people in the room, but there was a great atmosphere regardless and waists were well and truly wound up, we promise you! But we also made time to check out Artful Dodger downstairs. The Southampton duo's set was grimier and heavier than expected - Solo 45's Feed Em To The Lions proved a crowd fave, but it was house n' garage classics like Re-Rewind and Show Me Love that got the biggest reaction. After that it was back to grime and bass from Barely Legal but, conscious of the fact we still had another 48 hours ahead of us, we left the youngsters to it...


Saturday's proceedings got off to a party-tastic start thanks to the Hot 8 Brass Band, who got the early afternoon main stage crowd moving with their brass-tastic renditions of funk and hip-hop classics, before handing over to hip-hop/R&B/pop act The Age Of Luna. We'd really headed up there, though, for reggae/ska veterans Toots & The Maytals, who didn't disappoint in the slightest, Toots Hibbert looking frankly amazing for his 75 years as he led the crowd through singalong renditions of classics like Funky Kingston, Monkey Man and, of course, 54-46 That's My Number.

We stayed at the main stage for Manc indie upstarts Cabbage, but with US emo-rockers We Are Scientists up next we took a break from the official festival and headed instead to one of the dozens of fringe events taking place in the centre of town - namely the Delve Deeper party at Bloo 88 on West Street.

Delve Deeper's Tramlines bash has become something of an institution in Sheffield house circles, with house downstairs, disco/funk/soul upstairs and deep house in the courtyard. Sadly though we didn't get to catch up with 3am's Al Bradley or Inland Knights' Andy Riley, both of whom were playing at different times - a combination of rain and the courtyard being too packed to move forced us back indoors, where props must go to the unidentified DJ who dropped the Rolling Stones' unlikely disco classic Miss You.

By the time we made it back to the main Ponderosa stage, the rain was coming down in buckets, and the crowd huddled in front of the stage waiting for headliners Primal Scream were looking properly miserable! A big iDJ shout out, then, to Mr Paul Borkowski, who was spinning club classics on the Skullcandy stall. Yes, the selection may have been on the obvious side but the body heat of several hundred poncho-draped ravers bouncing around in the rain to the likes of Bonkers, Only Love Can Set You Free and Sandstorm was just what the doctor ordered, while an impromptu mass game of keepy-up with Skullcandy beach balls put a smile on everyone's faces.

That smile only got wider when we wandered over to the Into The Trees tent, where The Heatwave span dancehall and ragga vibes while the more daring/carefree/inebriated element of the assembled throng gleefully turned the hill on which it sits into a mudslide. Having packed only the one pair of jeans, though, we gave the mudsliding a miss, and anyway it was time for perennial festival faves Primal Scream. Every inch the showman in his flared red suit, Bobby Gillespie led his band  through raucous renditions of all their hits and the crowd were more than satisfied - despite the torrential downpour.

There was then an interlude involving a hotel room, a disco nap and frantic, futile attempts to blow-dry soggy trainers, before we headed out for Saturday night's clubbing adventures. Which is where it all went wrong for a bit. 

See, we wanted to go to Yellow Arch, where they had the pretty unmissable combination of modern-day dub provider Prince Fatty in one room, and rave legends 2 Bad Mice in the other. In fact, it's fair to say this was the part of the entire festival that we were most excited about - but Yellow Arch isn't on the programme map, and our cab driver had no idea where it was. So we gave him the postcode listed next to the venue name, only to fetch up back outside The Octagon instead, because as a Polish friend of mine would have it, "your informations are wrong". Grrr. 

We went in anyway, but we'd already missed DJ Zinc, and Camo & Krooked's gnarly, stadium-style D&B wasn't really doing it for Team iDJ (though a crowd whose average age can't have been more than 19 clearly disagreed). DJ Marky came on next, who we were feeling more, but photographer Rash's camera was starting to behave oddly and we damn near called it a night. Luckily, though, we didn't once we realised the other official venue we hadn't checked out yet, The Foundry, was just next door.

We got there - after some emergency camera shenanigans - just in time to catch the end of a typically wide-ranging set from Gilles Peterson, which spanned electro, broken beat and Afro vibes in the space of just half an hour before dropping down into a disco groove to close with Phyllis Hyman's You Know How To Love Me, in preparation for the night's other headliner, Gerd Jansen. The Running Back boss span a suitably deep n' discerning selection of disco nuggets, while in the back room local hero Andy Butler was laying down tough, Sneak/Carter-style house. All of which ensured our dancing feet were well and truly bruised and battered come Sunday morning!


We still had to be back at the main stage early on Sunday, though, to catch Akala, who was taking time out from his duties as Spokesman For Modern Youth (well, according to the likes of Newsnight, anyway!) to, y'know, play some music. Backed by a live drummer, his blend of hip-hop, reggae and grime influences was as satisfying as ever, and the man remains lyrical fire - massive respect!

For iDJ's money Akala deserved better than the opening slot... but that's not to take anything away from Lady Leshurr, who was up next. Clearly a firm favourite with the younger element in the crowd, her sweet, shy and heavily Brummie-accented onstage manner soon had young and old alike eating out of the palm of her hand. At one point she got the entire crowd jumping four paces to the left then four paces to the right, repeatedly - no mean feat on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

A sojourn at the Into The Trees tent followed, where the legendary Don Letts was spinning a decidedly party-flavoured set that took in reggae versions of Fast Car, Ring My Bell and even the Dr Who and Batman themes! Maybe you had to be there, but there were smiles all round and it got us nicely warmed up for perhaps the biggest surprise of the festival, the House Gospel Choir.

To be fair, this writer would expect to like any act called the House Gospel Choir, just on principle! But their 16 or so voices raised high in near-acapella (they have a drummer and a DJ, but it's really more about the singing) renditions of Most Precious Love, Show Me Love, Beautiful People and other vocal house anthems (not to mention Candi Staton's Hallelujah Anyway) induced some proper goosebumps moments... definitely a standout of the entire three days.

Indie synth-botherers Metronomy were closing out the main stage but iDJ took an unexpected trip to the Folk Forest at this point, partly because that's where our hosts for the weekend were but also because we'd heard good things about Omar Souleyman and wanted to check him out. We were glad we did, too, because his fusion of Arabic folk and techno beats provided a suitably jump-about-y finale for our weekend's live music experience.

That just left the official afterparty, back at The Foundry, where someone who may or may not have been from Crazy P (there was too much dry ice to really tell) kept the disco and house grooves flowing, and a packed dancefloor moving, through till 4am.

All told, Tramlines 2017 may have been a bit smaller/quieter than last year but there was more than enough fine music on offer to keep us entertained throughout, despite the downpours. We'll definitely pack more jeans and trainers next year though...

Words: Russell Deeks Pics: Rash Yaman

Super Early-Bird tickets for Tramlines 2018 are already available, priced just £25+BF. Hit up their website for details.