Hi Fi North Festival - 27th May 2006 at Matfen Estate, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The end of May bank holiday has always been seen as the unofficial start of the summer festival season, despite spectacular showcases at Skolbeats in Brazil and more conceptual displays at London's newly formed Encompass taking place throughout May. The honour of opening the summer season has traditionally been in the hands of Homelands. Things have changed since Homelands seized business however - with the Global Gathering team deciding to put on Hi Fi.

Hi Fi, a 2-site festival concept in its first year, covered the South (at the same site that Homelands occupied) and rather more originally at the Matfen Estate near Newcastle for Hi Fi North. Both festivals were billed as the ideal setting for the iPod generation who have 'impeccable style and taste, and a distinct dislike for being pigeonholed'. Without sounding too obtuse, this marketing pitch was an extremely poor attempt to connect with 2 contrasting musical movements. Fiercely loyal fans of electronic music and independent bands alike do not usually appreciate patronising generalisations concerning their consumption of music. Moreover, having an iPod does not automatically generate impeccable taste. This argument could explain why Hi Fi North was far from a sell out event. That said the quality of a festival should be judged predominantly on the music it presents, and in spells Hi Fi North produced many fine moments.

In terms of location and logistics Hi Fi North was a challenge. The Matfen Estate occupies a scenic hilltop in the rolling Northumberland countryside. This resulted in perhaps the windiest festival in recent history. The wind factor would have been manageable in isolation but together with an unnecessarily long uphill walk around the site to the main entrance it soon drained the energy and enthusiasm of the Beat Factor team. Add on top of this a healthy downpour upon arrival and most people would have been excused for a sharp exit. The weather forced most of the drenched arrivals into the Strongbow tent where top acts like Switch were scheduled to perform.

As Beat Factor arrived Barry Ashworth was playing a solid enough mix of breaks and rock, at one point dropping the excellent Rage Against The Machine. As the rainfall minimised a quick tour of the site resulted in hearing the MYNC Project mixing badly in the Electric Arena, and James Zabiela mixing rather well (as always) in the Godskitchen Arena. The Radio Soulwax Arena staged the very talented Layo and Bushwacka! complete with live percussion. Unfortunately the thin numbers meant that the End stalwarts played an inspired tech house set to no more than 10 people. It was a real shame for both the DJ's and the Soulwax arena in general as this trend continued throughout the night.

The Godskitchen tent did enjoy a better turnout, and as the sun set and the temperature dropped in became the best place to say warm. The numbers inside swelled as Sasha and Digweed took to the decks. It was a welcome sight to see some truly world class DJ's embark on a back-to-back set and it certainly pleased the majority of the crowd. However, they adapted their set to match the established Godskitchen sound and it soon became overly repetitive and trance inspired. Not even the introduction of Nathan Fake's sublime 'Outhouse' could break the trend. Expect Sasha to demonstrate more invention for his Sonar performance. As the music quality diminished in the Godskitchen Arena one of the performances of night unfolded in the consistent Strongbow tent. The French trio Super Discount sequenced an amazing live set of funky techno and house grooves behind an impressive stack of electronic hardware. As the sun finally faded the temperature dropped further - just in time for the main acts to take over the main outdoor stage. The Editors were in particularly fine form but their Joy Division inspired melancholy did not work well with the wind chill. Only the die-hard fans were able to enjoy highlights like 'Blood'. Ian Brown followed and turned in a star performance for everyone who braved the weather. And in a strange way the harsh conditions actually created genuine solidarity amongst the frozen audience.

As the night progressed Beat Factor decided to drop in to the Electric Arena to witness Steve Lawler play a well programmed but ultimately unsatisfying mix of overly trendy electro influenced house. Luckily this memory was quickly erased by the ever-reliable Slam who took over the Godskitchen Arena for the set of the festival. Both DJ's delivered a blistering and uncompromising set of the best club techno currently available. The unstoppable 'Erotic Discourse' merged successfully with the incessant tech grooves of Timo Grimm and Pierre Saine's 'Aggregat' - twisted for maximum effect by the very special Thomas P Heckmann. It was also refreshing to hear an act in the Godskitchen tent play their own sound rather than modifying the track selection to match the generic Godskitchen theme. With the arrival of yet lower temperatures and Armin Van Buuren on the decks, it seemed a suitable junction to call time on Hi Fi North and tuck into the warmest liquids on offer in the hotel bar.

Despite some unfavourable weather conditions and poor location planning Hi Fi North proved to be an interesting and quirky debut festival. Great electronic performances from Super Discount and Slam certainly flew the flag for dance music, while Ian Brown stunned the audience with a charming and entertaining performance full of character. The low turnout can be attributed, in part, to the unwise marketing approach - but more importantly it should be noted that this was the first time that a festival of this size has been attempted in the North East. Hopefully it will act as a learning curve for the team behind Hi Fi, resulting in their re-emergence next year with a more polished and streamline programme. And if the acts, DJ's and music are as good as the highlights of this year it should be an overwhelming success.

Hi Fi North Festival - 27th May 2006 at Matfen Estate, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

June 20, 2006 at 1:22 PM CEST

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