The new kid on the block, Neon Lights sought to cover as much ground as possible in terms of appealing to the broadest demographics. Presumably, this was deemed necessary by Neon Lights to distinguish itself from the other big-scale music festivals in Singapore viz. Laneway and The Gathering (formerly Hostess Club Weekender).
To that end, Neon Lights featured comedy, arts and children entertainment, possibly in an attempt to encourage families to make it a day (or two) out for the weekend.
That same approach was taken in respect of the music curation of the lineup. Bands of different generations from the 70s (Chic), the 90s (Ride, Mercury Rev, Sun Kil Moon) and contemporary times, not to mention wildly different genres (from disco to indie pop to hip hop to electronica) were featured over numerous stages in a bid to capture as many interested parties as humanly possible.
This wider net also included local acts who were programmed to begin each day at 1.30pm at the two main performance stages. Thus, four local bands viz. Hanging Up the Moon, Lost Weekend, Paint the Sky Red and Bennett Bay were assigned unforgiving slots in the blazing heat of the early afternoon, with two acts appearing at the exact same time on different stages, splitting any potential local support.
Yes, it’s excellent that music festivals are giving local bands the opportunity to show what they have to offer but it would come across better if these bands were given a early evening spot as I think the organisers may have under-estimated the value of giving local bands that chance to win over a festival crowd at a reasonable time. Well, at least for Hanging Up the Moon and Lost Weekend? Maybe something to consider next time out?
Being a first time festival, there were the usual teething pains, which I will not dwell on too much. The main issue for me would always be the music and its presentation. That is, in terms of the sound quality & the time management of the schedule. The latter would often result in bands getting their sets trimmed leading to disappointment and frustration all round. It isn’t easy on anyone but well, that’s what patrons pay the big bucks for, the overall experience.
SOAK (and her backing band) looked pretty pissed off when they were told to cut four songs from the set and it showed!
In contrast, Mali’s Songhoy Blues took everything in stride and gave the smallish crowd something to dance about. Their energy was infectious, with remarks about how the heat was the same where they came from – so, no problem! I enjoyed the manner in which they fused African rhythms with blues structures – talking about reclaiming the music!
Last time out at Laneway Singapore 2012, I really hated the shoddy performance of Pains of Being Pure at Heart – it was awful, believe me. My understanding is that frontman Kip Berman, basically got rid of the entire band and started from scratch again. Well, it certainly worked. I dug the last album Days of Abandon and the energy and verve of this new lineup was obvious. Keyboardist Jen Goma (from A Sunny Day in Glasgow) provided a riveting contrast to Berman’s whiny larynx when taking vocal duties as well (especially on “Kelly” and a cover of James’ “Laid”). Lively songs like “Until the Sun Explodes” and “Heart in Your Heartbreak” got the mostly young audience bopping to the beat.
Back at the main stage, “I am Mark Kozelek!” reverberated around Fort Canning Park as Sun Kil Moon’s main man berated the mostly seated audience on their lack of enthusiasm for his music. It was a bizarre set no doubt, as Kozelek ran through songs from his last two albums (Benji and Universal Themes) bellowing his lyrics and generally lumbering around stage in a stupor. It was hard to ignore that Kozelek was inebriated and it was hard to decide whether to be concerned or amused. Somewhere in between probably. Make no mistake, nobody is quite able to spin a yarn as affectingly as Kozelek (as songs like “The Possum” and “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” attest) but it certainly does detract from the overall experience when one is drunk or high. One wonders whether it was appropriate to put Sun Kil Moon in the main stage where perhaps smaller (and more intimate) setting would have worked better. One of the instances where the generation gap was almost impossible to breach. Still, it was a worthwhile and utterly engaging performance nonetheless.
As Day Two rolled by, the generation gap became more pronounced and this was never more obvious than in the final night where supporters of Irish troubadour Damien Rice and English dream pop pioneers Ride nailed their colours to the mast.
For the new millennials, Rice could do no wrong as he touched their hearts with his highly competent skills – simply with acoustic guitar and vocals.
On his closing song — “Cheers Darlin’” — he brought on two audience members to indulge in wine drinking and story illustration. The young crowd lapped up every single move.
Contrast this to the reunion of 90s favourites Ride – as the youngsters moved out the nineties kids moved in to occupy the same spots in front of the stage. Mostly in their late thirties and early forties, these fans had waited over 20 years to watch their heroes and they were not disappointed. Ride simply blew everyone in attendance away – sounding brighter and stronger than ever as the years simply peeled away.
Best part – it was fucking LOUD! And that two and half minutes of sheer white noise on “Drive Blind” was a joy to behold!
Songs like “Leave Them All Behind”, “Seagull”, “Dreams Burn Down”, “Vapour Trail” and “Taste” had the audience in raptures time and time again. It is a pity that the new millennial hipsters were unable to appreciate the band that inspired so many of the indie rock bands that they would go bananas over but I guess it was difficult to appreciate a band whose members are a good twenty years older than them. Their loss.
All told, Neon Lights Festival was an experiment that worked well as it covered as many bases as possible and turned out to be different things to different people. It is never easy to please so many diverse demographics but I believe the risk was worth it and if there was any chance for folks to discover new music, then the festival was definitely worthwhile. Of course, in terms of the presentation of the Singapore bands, hopefully in the future, better time slots should be provided but overall, kudos to the organisers of Neon Lights Festival for a job well done.
Thanks to Neon Lights Festival for making this review possible.