The late opening; the bag searches and resultant lengthy queues to get in; the alcohol policy and pricing; being greeted by uniformed gardaí with muzzled sniffer dogs on entry into the arena proper – first impressions are everything, and these combos aren’t the ideal welcome to a carefree weekend in the woods.
It’s the small details that make a festival like this – the feeling that the organisers want to make something memorable and creative. It’s what makes Knockanstockan such a great festival, what made BARE In The Woods such a short-lived joy, and the reason Body & Soul keeps bringing back the punters. It has to be said, even though a music festival is primarily about the music, it’s a pain to come to a blanket booze ban after being spoiled with the latter festival’s freeflow policy, and then be charged up to €60 for a crate of beer that’s destined to become tent beer i.e. warm piss.
Small gripes, easily remedied; certainly some of the things that Castlepalooza should consider given the noticeably modest crowds at this year’s event. And it’s a shame it isn’t as well-represented as previous years, because the home-grown music on display over three days in Tullamore really does deserve to be seen and heard by so many more. It might even have been just about enough to offset all the moaning.
The aforementioned queuing shambles means missing Grand, and it does no favours for Floor Staff aka Anthony Donnelly either, whose main stage set is sparsely populated as folk get their campsites set up and chill out after the journey to the site. Devoid of bodies to soak up some atmospherics, a solo turn from Donnelly feels a bit staid, while the castle’s alarm starts to blare accompaniment when the band re-emerges. It eventually abates to allow them to round off the set with one in the Arcade Fire mould, a dance-y finale delivered with aplomb – it’s just unfortunate that circumstances aren’t in their favour for much of this slot.
“It’s cool to be a virgin till marriage” reads the sticker emblazoned over one of Thumper’s guitars. It’s a statement of a different hue to Woodie Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker, and not as proactive, but you have to stand up for what you believe in so fair play, lads. A lone guitarist emerges to lay down a steady drone before the rest join, delivering a hot mess of three-way vocals that recalls At The Drive-In. Things solidify a bit by the second tune, particularly the riff-sparring from the guitarists, setting a template of feedback-laden, thrashy power pop.
Certain points feel like Nirvana by way of The Presidents Of The United States of America, elsewhere spacey guitars bring more of an early Super Furry Animals flavour, and those three lazy comparisons sum up this set – Thumper inject the fun straight into the festival from the off. At one point some lad in the crowd runs to the front barrier, faces the audience and holds a lighter in the air. Simultaneously, an unrelated punter careens in and flings a frisbee askance into the hinterlands of the audience. And with this, it feels like Castlepalooza has officially kicked off. Thumper also benefit from the best thing that can happen to a band at an outdoor gig…dusk falling over your set.
The band seem at home up on the stage and it’s an assured performance, from scratchy, stuttery instrumental sections where all three guitars provide the composite parts, to the more straight-ahead punk blitzes. The vocal harmonies are often rough’n’ready, but they’re from the gut. This isn’t about Beach Boys perfection though – when they pull the final song apart by the threads that much is clear. As it comes to a close, they gather the audience down to the front of the stage and the singer comes down to the barriers to roar into the crowd – it’s a suitably raucous sign-off to a cracking set.
Thumper whetted the appetite for some heavy-duty guitar music, so the double-whammy of the weekend is sealed when Bitch Falcon follow them on the main stage. The trio’s set is a bittersweet event, in a way, as bassist Naomi Macleod is set to leave the band. This is her final show, and it gives things an extra edge – the feeling that this one should mean just a little bit more. It’s far from sentimental though. Maudlin send-offs are just not Bitch Falcon’s style; they’re here to lay siege to Charleville Castle.
“You all look fresh as fucking daisies” Mcleod tells the crowd…early days yet. Syncope gets things off in full-throttle fashion, and On Repeat is a heavy rocker with some serious fretwork from guitarist Lizzie Fitzpatrick, a flurry of physical activity in contrast to the more rooted presence of Mcleod stage right. At times it seems the music just takes over and Fitzpatrick throws herself centre stage towards the bassist, carving out the licks with robotic movements in time with her rhythm section.
They have an interesting counterpoint, one a whirlwind of nervous energy and the other stoic calm – it will be interesting to see how they move forward with their new bass player, but for now it’s the last hurrah for this incarnation of Bitch Falcon, and they know it, as Fitzpatrick and Mcleod converge around Nigel Kenny’s drumkit during the final instrumental onslaught. Bitch Falcon tore it up, simple as that, and Mcleod’s parting request on her final set is one we’ll have no difficulty in fulfilling:”Please, please support this band forever.”
After three in a row on Day 1 main stage fatigue starts to set in, so much of Wild Beasts’ headline set is interspersed with trips to the Courtyard Stage, the small enclosed dance arena tucked away around the side of the castle. For many though, Wild Beasts signal the true start of the festival, with the majority of the crowd now settled in for a solidly danceable set. Once it ends, a large contingent make a break for the Courtyard Stage to join an uncomfortable queue that goes nowhere fast – capacity in the yard is limited so once the main stage acts are finished, unless you’re ahead of the game, that’s your lot. It’s almost as if they hadn’t envisioned that people would want to dance past 1am. Ah well, that’s opening night for you – all hopped up and nowhere to go.