Gig Review: Behind-The-Scenes at Manchester Punk Festival 2019

A review of MPF from Sarah, who volunteers at the event. Friends, frantic dashes between venues and some top-class hardcore, including Not On Tour, Adrenalized, Svalbard, Consumed, Fair Do’s and Snuff.

Although there will be reviews aplenty, at Shout Louder we want to offer two unique perspectives on the fifth year of Manchester Punk Festival. Mark Bartlett’s given us is highlights as an MPF virgin, where as Sarah Williams is an MPF veteran who volunteers at the festival. In this edition, Sarah gives us a unique perspective from behind the scenes.

Excitement for Manchester Punk Festival begins long before the doors open to the public. Unfortunately, excitement can easily be mistaken for stress.

Weeks before the main event, I’m inundated with messages asking about guest list, accommodation, press accreditation and band recommendations. I’m only a volunteer, I’m not even one of the organisers – I can’t begin to imagine the sheer insanity of their inboxes. How they manage to keep it together in the days leading up to the festival, I will never know.

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Thursday

The hard graft starts in earnest on Thursday – the eve of the festival. I drive to Moston to join a five car convoy; our best method of transporting all the festival merchandise in the absence of ROPTM’s van. I’m blasting out Ocean Wisdom round the M60 like some boy racer on the way, which is harshly interrupted by a phonecall about a bounced band payment and a confusing artist hotel booking. We get it sorted in seconds, like pros.

Delivering the merchandise is the first time I’ve seen MPF’s brand new venue: The Union. It’s a huge, modern student building fittingly decorated in Manchester’s signature yellow-and-black. I’m shocked to see the size of the main hall. As we climb ladders to hang banners, it starts to look like a ‘real’ festival venue. It’s fucking huge.

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Anarchistic Undertones have lined up a great warm-up show on Thursday night, but before that there’s time to catch some far-flung friends at Manchester vegan junk food mecca V Revs. Dinner with the crew from Be Sharp and Colin’s Punk Rock World (including Brett and Robyn who’ve come all the way from South Africa) is an instant reminder of what makes MPF so great: the union of best friends, who you wouldn’t know if it weren’t for punk rock.

At the warm up show, I jump on the door – checking tickets as people come in. It’s the perfect spot for meeting and greeting all my pals who’ve arrived early; Rebellion quickly fills with friends from different cities. There’s an underlying level of stress, but the organisers and I are allowing ourselves to enjoy a pint. I seriously love watching Layman’s Terms, who I reckon are the hottest new tip in UK melodic hardcore.

I’m trying not to overdo it on the first night of the festival, so I plan to stay sober and slip out quietly halfway through The JB Conspiracy. Alas, I’m caught by my bestie on the way out of the door, and I wind up in bed at 4.11am, maintaining my annual MPF tradition of ruining myself on the first night. At least I’m reliable.

Friday

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Friday morning. I’d normally be ready to jump in to help on the wristband exchange, however my first call of the day is to set up in Font Bar to record an episode of the Shout Louder podcast. Hungover and completely unprepared, I’m stressed to say the least but, after some general issues with the sound, slipping into conversation with my guests Luke from Call Me Malcolm and Holly from Hell Hath No Fury Records is easy. I’m shocked by how many people come down to check it out so early in the morning, and I’m grateful to Dave from Sham City Roasters for his help in setting up a tasting of our brand new Lockjaw Coffee (seriously, we made our own coffee).

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As soon as the podcast is out of the way, I suddenly feel at a loose end. Surely I should be doing something? The team reassure me that there’s nothing to do right this second, so I pile into Gorilla (along with the entire population of Manchester) to watch Incisions. Fuck me, do they smash it. It’s early in the day, the stage lights are mental and they’re playing the set of their career. The venue’s rammed and the crowd are going utterly mental, including one of our pals taking a tumble off a human pyramid and breaking her hand.

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Just before that’s over, I run to go check out The Affect Heuristic. It’s like a Euro skate-punk family reunion; everyone is here. They’re a great start for Zombie Shack (the smallest and, arguably, the best venue), but I quickly leg it over to The Union to watch Nosebleed opening the main stage.

As a band known for tearing up smaller stages, I’m interested to see how Nosebleed go over in this vast, clean building. With an assembly of dedicated TNS fans at the front, there are also curious folks walking in as they grab their wristbands and their first pints of the weekend. By the end of the set, there’s a riotous fanfare, with bassist Ben Hannah managing an impressive mid-song crowd surf. It’s a good start to the day.

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Next up are New York State pals, After The Fall, who draw out all of the dedicated skate-punk crew. It’s like a family reunion in front of the main stage, with hugs aplenty. After The Fall deliver such a solid, determined sound; it’s impossible not to get caught up in old classics like 1994 and Dedication. This is my first time catching new bassist Jasmine Mayberry with the band, but she makes Matty’s shoes her own, and makes for a great chat after the set.

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I dash over to catch Rash Decision in The Bread Shed – another band I chat to online that I’ve never actually managed to see. I’m excited and impressed by their cutthroat hardcore; it’s great getting to hear Karoshi live. It’s fast, frenetic and fun, like a panzer attack of good taste.

MPF’s known for bringing a plethora of genres to the stage, but the top-shelf hardcore acts tend to be my highlights every year. That you can select between cutesy pop-punk, bouncy ska, jaw-dropping melodic hardcore and ear-splitting grind in the space of an hour, depending on your taste or mood, is what makes this festival special. It’s impossible to get bored with so much on offer, and MPF is doing wonders for uniting different factions of the music scene.

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Reps from Actionmen, Bad Ju Ju yoga, Affect Heuristic, Darko, Fair Do’s and Dying Scene getting some van time. Photo: Josh Sumner

Wolfrik and a lot of the Lockjaw Records crew are bumbling around the vans at the venue, so I take the opportunity to actually get to know them properly. A few of us pop across the road to Sandbar to have a quiet pint and a chat before their set, still fitting in time to see most of The Penske File, one of the most exciting live bands around right now.

When I first heard Wolfrik’s Skeleton City EP last year, it tore my face off. It’s the most original, exciting record I’ve heard in years. That excitement led to us releasing it on vinyl over at Lockjaw Records in March, but this will be my first time seeing them live.

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Even with high expectations, I’m utterly blown away by Wolfrik’s live performance. They’ve got all the on-stage energy of A Wilhelm Scream, twinned with the technical prowess of Dragonforce and the full-frontal assault on the senses that Black Dahlia Murder provide. I can’t stop watching guitarist Kevin Perry’s fingers; to quote Rob Piper, “Just watching him is giving me RSI.”

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Just before Consumed’s set, Tree rushes past me and says, “You won’t believe this, but I’ve got them a cake.” That made zero sense to me at the time, so I just dismissed it as one of the weird things Tree says.

I catch their set from the mezzanine above the main hall of The Union, which is a sweet vantage point only MPF staff can get too. Tree and I are the only ones up there, charging our battered phones and taking a pause from having to talk to anyone, including each other. From here, Consumed sound huge. It’s stunning, exactly the kind of solid British punk rock this stage was designed for. I can’t fault the set, it’s an instant highlight of the weekend and Tree and I are both left awe-struck and nodding in appreciation.

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Consumed @ The Union. Photo: Deklan Webb

After the set, I say ‘hi’ to the band and discover that Tree actually did get them a cake! He heard on the grapevine that Consumed were officially calling it a day and took it upon himself to commission our friend Kim at Skip A Beat Bakery to create this masterpiece:

This may be the nicest thing I’ve ever seen Tree do. There’s hope for the boy yet.

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Consumed stand out as a strong highlight of Friday; I catch some of 88 Fingers Louie then, halfway though, suddenly fly into a mad panic because I’d forgotten Thanx 4 All The Shoes are playing over at Zombie Shack. Danny and I make a mad dash over there in an Uber and are delighted to discover that half the skate-punk scene has gotten there before us.

On Friday night there are two big after-parties, either of which I would have been seriously excited to see: the Big Tone after party in memory of Tim G (featuring the return of the mighty Harijan) or a solid line-up of Above Them, Mean Caesar and Throwing Stuff. Which did I go to? Neither, clearly. I catch a few notes of Templeton Pek and Skinny Milk but my memory’s hazy.

At Zombie Shack, I run into Wolfrik and, after a lengthy argument about which after party to attend (they’re both too good to choose), I decide that I’ll do whatever, as long as I get to hang out with these awesome Canadian guys. To have spent months communicating over Facebook messenger to now, finally hang out in the flesh is worth more than seeing any band.

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The Infested @ Bread Shed. Photo: Josh Sumner

Of course, at the witching hour people’s phones are out of battery, friends keep losing each other, everyone’s smashed… and Rob Piper (of Lockjaw Records fame) manages to lose the van key. The fact that none of us who know Rob well are alarmed when learning that he’s lost the van key says a lot about Darko’s experience as a band.

I spend my evening street drinking, being hugged by hairy Canadians, loitering in the smoking area outside venues, and hunting for Rob Piper’s missing van keys. It’s pretty fucking great.

Saturday

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Rob Piper with van keys in hand. Photo: Josh Sumner

Saturday starts with a run around for beer and back line, trying to get all the venues set up. I take a little detour over to Salford to pick up a sorry Rob Piper and to deliver his van key (found at 4am after scouring the pavements of Oxford Road), before dashing into Zombie Shack to see Follow Your Dreams. It’s one-in one-out. It’s only the bands fifth or sixth show and the venue’s completely rammed, early in the day. It’s a sterling set, sounds great even while stood on top of a table near the back, and there’s a lot of impressed faces in the room.

I head back over to The Union to fill in for Kaz and Big Hands while they’re busy with Follow Your Dreams. There’s still bands arriving and people getting their wristbands. The volunteers at MPF are incredible: polite, lovely and eager to donate their time to help the event. I love the feeling of involvement and family that you get from the dedicated little group.

No music festival would be complete for me without a couple of hours of sprinting between stages. For me, that comes on Saturday afternoon with a mad dash to see Svalbard, Fair Do’s, SKIV, Adrenalized and Misantropic. I’m embarrassingly excited to see Svalbard and they go completely above and beyond my expectations. Flawless. Entrancing metal-edged hardcore; watching Serena Cherry’s flame-red hair fly was as mesmerising as their ethereal, dissonant fret strokes. Svalbard are hands-down the best band I saw all weekend.

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I run over to Gorilla to get down the front for Fair Do’s. Although I’ve seen them play MPF plenty of times, since helping release their album Leopards through Lockjaw Records last year, I’ve become close friends with them. I cannot wait to see them smash this set to a huge crowd in their hometown.

The don’t disappoint; although the set’s cut a little short because Muncie Girls ran behind, they roll quickly through a set of new classics (and Crossed The Line, not dedicated to Tree for once). I climb the stairs at the back of the venue to get a proper view and it the sound is huge. Watching guitarist Dave Speechley’s fingers fly with this kind of sterling amplification is so good it should be made illegal.

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I commit to a moderate run to get myself over to Zombie Shack to catch a smidgeon of SKIV. Despite being added to the bill late, they’ve amassed a respectable crowd. Everyone laughs at their jokes and sings along to their songs: it’s a wholesome time.

I make another mad dash back to Gorilla to see Adrenalized annihilate a room full of tech-punk fans. One of the best things about watching bands like Adrenalized is seeing supremely talented musicians like those in Fair Do’s, Affect Heuristic or Almeida looking ready to cry – Adrenalized are so good that the rest of us might as well give up music now. Of course, quite the opposite is true; they fire up the room and shake Gorilla to its foundations, playing with unmatched speed and finesse.

Adrenalized cred Josh Sumner

On the way to Misantropic I stop outside Brickhouse Social for a chat. Someone points out that this is the first time they’ve see me stand in one place for more than 3 minutes. I can’t help but point out it’s only been two minutes so far, before running away.

Misantropic are mesmerisingly dark, crushing hardcore, however F. Emasculata tear my face off straight after. X-Files themed hardcore is a confusing premise but, gimmicks aside, this band are sterling. Instantly rocketing into my hypothetical top five acts of the weekend, it’s great watching their Scully-esque vocalist stalking through the crowd.

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F. Emasculata @ Zombie Shack. Photo: Jim Taylor

I picked up a two hour shift in the green room, which unfortunately means that I miss Corrupt Moral Altar. I wouldn’t be so gutted if it weren’t for Josh, our photographer, repeatedly banging on about how great they were afterwards. Here, look:

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Green room shift isn’t such a bad thing, though. I tidy up the rubbish, sort out all of the food and chat to some of the bands which, at this time, happens to include Martha and Tom May (of The Menzingers).

While I don’t begrudge a bit of work, it’s essential that I see Snuff, so I literally run to The Union. In search of beer, I find myself side-of-stage and, unexpectedly, feel quite overwhelmed to be watching Snuff all of a sudden. Snuff are a favourite band of mine. When filling in the MPF feedback form every year, I always ask them to book Snuff. And here they are, headlining the festival. And here am I, drinking a beer backstage. This makes me smile.

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Snuff @ The Union. Photo: Sarah Williams

Again, I’m torn between two excellent after parties. I run into Mark Bartlett, who fortunately makes the decision for me – he wants to head to Rebellion but isn’t sure of the way (check out his excellent write-up herecheck out his excellent write-up here). We walk in as Grafteoke is beginning, and it completely melts my brain. I catch up with Luke from Call Me Malcolm, finally having a proper get-to-know you chat after months of Facebook messages. They play a Less Than Jake cover set that has the venue shaking. The crowd gave a more excited reaction than at any actual Less Than Jake show I’ve ever attended.

Sunday

Saturday night transforms from an after party into an ill-advised house party full of old and new friends. I have to make an exit at 5.30am to go let a band into my flat, but sleep doesn’t happen – I glance at the bedside clock at 7:30am and then snap awake with my alarm at 8am, with some vicious snoring. My living room floor is full of Southern punks. I shower and jump in an Uber into town, leaving them to snooze.

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Delaney and I walking between venues. Photo: Josh Sumner

Setting up the venue’s a subdued affair, a few of the team are casualties of the past evening’s events and don’t make it in until later. Those of us who’ve survived head to get a recovery breakfast in Font and watch Mike & Jamie’s Big Punk Show podcast. It’s almost as shambolic as I’d expected, however it’s also side-splittingly hilarious. Bev and I enjoy a couple of tins of Beavertown’s Neck Oil, which picks me right up for the day.

At the start of the day, we’d had a team huddle to decide how much beer and food we needed to get. I’d also learned that Fresh were having to pull out of their evening main stage slot, so I’d suggested Lockjaw Records lovelies Burnt Tapes as a replacement. During the podcast I got the message that they can grab the slot if they’re free! They’re up for it, so I spend the next hour coordinating gear and a practice room for them. If you’d have seen me then I’d probably looked quite stressed, but I was in my element. I’m so chuffed to have one of our top bands playing the main stage at MPF, even if it is at short notice!

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Almeida’s Tom West @ The Union. Photo: Josh Sumner

Another top part of the Lockjaw Crew, Almeida open the main stage. A few casualties from last night’s party show up, all visibly teetering on the knife edge between up and down. Almeida produce a slick set that sounds its best on the huge Union sound-system and everyone in the room’s buzzing off it, no matter how early in the day it is, or how rough we’re all feeling.

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Grand Collapse @ The Union. Photo: Josh Sumner

On stage next in The Union are two TNS bands who instantly show that DIY-level acts can handle a main stage slot: Matilda’s Scoundrels and Grand Collapse. The Scoundrels achieve a massive row-boat on the floor, and get people dancing early in the day. Grand Collapse are more powerful than ever though this epic sound system – a major contrast to their cramped set downstairs in Sound Control a few years ago.

I have a nostalgic time watching The Junk perform in The Bread Shed – an old Brighton ska-punk band reunited by a touch of MPF magic. They’ve still got the shine and energy of the old days.

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The Junk @ The Bread Shed. Photo: Josh Sumner

Heading back to The Union, I’m pretty stoked for Burnt Tapes playing their last minute set. Watching them play in the small middle-floor stage of Sound Control in 2015 or 16 was one of my first times catching Burnt Tapes, and now I’ve had the pleasure of helping to release their album. To see them gracing the main stage, where Snuff and 88 Fingers Louie had been only a few hours before, makes me feel like my heart’s going to explode.

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Burnt Tapes @ The Union. Photo: Gary Hough

Now, here’s the thing that I’m not sure how to explain, but it’s been an important highlight of the weekend. In the last year, I’ve been talking more openly about mental health through Shout Louder’s #MentallySound series. At MPF, I started to see the tangible impact of that.

Over the weekend, I was approached by a people who were struggling with the pressures of drinking and socialising. I’ve never been approached by anyone for that kind of help before, apart from close friends. I was surprised to see the volume of punks that were finding it all a bit much.

Alas, helping out a couple of close friends who were having a bad time meant that I missed Fastfade, The Human Project and Actionmen. That sounds like a bad thing, but I’m much happier knowing that they were safe and sane, and that they felt comfortable to reach out for help – I don’t begrudge missing the bands at all. Don’t ever feel like you can’t ask your friends for help if you’re feeling uncomfortable, we’re all in this shit together. If you need it, festival volunteers can talk to you and find you a quiet space if you’re having a real difficulty.

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Sarah, Luke and Holly talking about mental health on the live Shout Louder podcast. Photo: Josh Sumner

I manage to catch a bit of Barstool Preachers while dashing around; they’ve got a great crowd assembled. I’m keen to ensure I don’t miss Not On Tour but we’re running late so, lazily, we jump in an Uber to speed up the 10 minute walk. It’s a shame they’ve gotten rid of the city bikes.

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Not On Tour @ Gorilla. Photo: Marc Gaertner.

Of all the bands playing the festival, Not On Tour headlining Gorilla feels like an achievement for the promoters. This Israeli skate-punk wonder haven’t played in the UK since 2013, but those of us who regularly attend Euro mainland festivals are head-over-heels in love with the band. The love from the promoters has truly paid off: Gorilla is heaving, everyone’s dancing, singing and falling in love with this infectiously positive band.

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You can spot us watching backstage. Not On Tour – photo: Marc Gaertner

I watch the set from backstage with promoters Tree and Danny from Anarchistic Undertones, plus NOT’s manager Eva. I can’t understate how great it is to spend time with the people you usually have an email relationship with.

Watching bands backstage isn’t as cool as everyone thinks – the sound’s shit, you can’t see and there’s nowhere to stand a lot of the time…. However on this occasion it is fucking cool. We’re all grinning, surveying the roiling crowd, cringeing at the kicking soles of stage divers and the sweaty, rambunctious mess that is the front row. The band themselves are stunning – brimming with energy that spills out in each punchy 90-second song.

Afterwards, we take a few minutes to sit down in the sauna-like back room, eyeing up the last of the beer. Overall, it feels like we’re winning, but it’s not over yet.

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Coproach @ Zombie Shack. Photo: Josh Sumner

Over years of MPF there’s one true lesson I’ve learned: nothing compares to late-night, last-night Zombie grind. This year’s cherry on the cake is Coproach and holy hell they are a brutal obliteration of all the weekend’s indiscretions. Give me more.

The vocalist smashes his head open two songs in and charges frantically though the set with a stripe of blood streaming down his forehead. It’s a strong look, offset by his gold sequinned mini-dress, with his ratty boxers poking out underneath.

I can safely say that, barring Svalbard, Coproach is my highlight of the weekend. Admittedly, catching them meant missing the Burntzingers and Youth Avoiders (two of my hot tips for the weekend), but I don’t regret my choice. I’m still shaking.

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Coproach @ Zombie Shack. Cred: Josh Sumner

Of the two after parties on offer, Josh (Shout Louder’s photographer – go check him out at Cold Front Photography) and I make our choice not based on genre or company, but on proximity to a bed at the end of the night. He lives near Rebellion and I’m fully intending to snore violently on his sofa as soon as the bars kick out, so we head over to finish off the weekend with Minor Threat and Foo Fighters covers, courtesy of Incisions and Sounds of Swami respectively.

I’m fucking knackered. I’ve spent the weekend running around venues, solving problems, helping bands, frantically checking Facebook for messages, tidying up, sinking beers, giving hugs, and trying to make sure that all of my friends are having the best time in the world. I also saw some bands. I’ve smiled so much my face hurts.

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Incisions celebrating the end with organiser Kieran Kelly. Photo: Josh Sumner

But, here’s the beauty of Manchester Punk Festival, and the reason why it will always be so close to my heart… I dedicate my time to travelling to see friends I adore and bands I worship but, for once, they’ve come to me instead. It’s glorious and humbling to see so many punks invading our city, bringing such joy along with them. And more importantly than that? When Rebellion kicks us out at the end of the night… I can go straight to bed.

This is part of a two-part review of Manchester Punk Fest. In contrast to Sarah’s behind-the-scenes view as a festival volunteer, Mark Bartlett’s written about his experience as an MPF virgin. You can read it here.

 

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