How the South was won

driph+crowd

Three days, 31 acts and two stages translated into one massive celebration of non-mainstream music – Rock the South 2014. All photos by Sarah Falzon.

Once a year, the south comes alive with the sound of music. Only, it’s not the Julie Andrews kind, but a rollicking fusion of punk, rock, indie, ska, hip hop and all other sorts of non-mainstream genres.

Rock the South has become a staple on the Maltese music calendar, and this year it came with an added edge, extended all the way through Sunday. A very good move that made all the difference, and that allowed for the inclusion of even more genres.

I believe it is safe to say that, as of this year, Rock the South has become the biggest non-mainstream, annual festival that is entirely focused on music, with the number of acts totalling 31.

Most of Malta’s more established names were present, together with a good number of up-and-coming bands and a couple that aren’t based in Malta. The balance between the new and the known was a good one.

There were a number of other innovations, starting with the stage layout and the programme itself. The festival’s habitual home, Zion in Marsascala, had its outdoor area divided in two – the Blue Stage and the Red Stage.

Acts were cleverly planned out in such a way that, while one act wrapped up its performance, the other act was already setting up on the other stage.

In this way, there was no dead time in between – as soon as one band finished, the next one started on the other side.

The idea worked, and had the added effect of having people rush off from one stage to the other at the end of each performance, which made for a fun festival feel.

janedoe2I found the system to be an improvement on previous years. Few people are committed to seeing the entire line-up, and this arrangement allowed everyone enough time for a drink or two without either missing a favourite band or getting bored waiting around in between.

Respect goes to the organisers, particularly to Nick Morales who is one of the prime movers, for a near-flawless setup from the point of view of logistics.

Pretty much all the bands kept to their assigned time-slots, which is something of a miracle in Malta.

We have gotten too accepting of bands showing up on stage at 11pm for a supposedly 10.30pm slot. It will be nice to see other festival organisers follow suit.

One suggestion for future editions would be to release a band schedule with specific timings at least a couple of days before the event – it helps motivate people into showing up for their favourite bands.

One element that always fascinates me when attending Rock the South is the way the different crowds always mesh well together. A diversity of genres results in a diversity within the audience, something that we are not used to seeing often.

Most local events tend to attract a very specific type of audience. At the risk of using outdated terms, I would say that the identity of the band determines whether it’s the hipsters, the hippies, the metal heads, the rappers or the punks that will show up. But everyone turns up for Rock the South, which makes for a more interesting crowd.

Friday saw names like Dana McKeon, The Violent Violets, Sempliċiment tat-Triq and the Italian band Cut playing. On Saturday I arrived in time for the tail-end of punk outfit R.A.S.’s performance.

R.A.S. were debuting their new line-up, with Selene on vocals and Ġenżora Riot on bass. Both are familiar faces on the punk scene, and both are evidently well on the same wavelength as the rest of the band.

There was no hint of the awkwardness or stiffness that new band members typically bring with them on a first performance.

The band gave a solid, fun set that included their old numbers and a couple of new tracks that went down very well.

R.A.S. is one of the older punk bands in Malta, and enjoys a healthy following – it is hoped that this new addition will consolidate the group and lead to the release of an album, which many fans are eagerly awaiting and which the band assured me is in the offing.

cosmicerotic

 Troffa Ħamra y los Mechones, who were also launching their new EP, were up next. Fronted by Ruth Abela, the group is based in Barcelona, and having them play in Malta is always a treat.

In this case, the venue and vibe might not have been the best for the swing/bossa nova fusion played by the quintet, but the crowd behaved relatively well, which meant that we did enjoy even the more mellow tracks such as Since You’re Gone and Xtaqtek Taħfirli.

Abela’s delivery of the latter was very poignant, and I look forward to experiencing it again, perhaps in a quieter venue.

Troffa Ħamra’s set included a number of line-up changes, which went off smoothly. I particularly enjoyed Justin Galea’s turn on the glockenspiel. Watching the tuba player was also fun.

The set came to an end with one of the band’s most popular works, a rousing rendition of La Canco del Macarrons, an ode to… imqarrun. Great fun was had by all.

Dripht were up next, taking the crowd back to the same adrenalin-driven place that had been achieved by R.A.S. in a consistently strong performance. The night’s set included all the obvious tracks that have become anthems with the fans, from Pacifista (which was recently released with a new video) to Rockin’ to Resist and Continental Drift.

The band launched their new EP, also titled Pacifista, during the event, going on to include a number of new tracks that were enthusiastically received.

The band closed off with their popular cover of The Crickets’ I Fought the Law, although Dripht’s take is more of a tribute to The Clash version, which they more than do justice to.

Bass Culture closed off the night. I almost decided to give them a miss, but was very glad that I changed my mind. This is a dub-based duo with leanings towards reggae roots – it is this last part that had put me off at first, reggae being (regrettably) one of the very few genres that do nothing for me.

However, I was happy to have made the exception as the reggae part is a mere influence, with the occasional trait creeping in – but not enough to detract from the real identity of this duo, which is hard bass and which does live up to the promise in the name.

If I had any doubts about this, they were quickly quashed within the first two minutes of their set. Most of the set was hardcore, combining hard bass with some electronic, drum and bass, the odd whiff of reggae, the occasional touch of ambient in the softer parts and finishing off with some techno and dub.

I loved the way the duo used influences from so many different genres that it was difficult to simply categorise what you were hearing. Someone present described it to me as “the good, old days of heavy-metal in dub version”, which did seem to be rather appropriate.

Whatever you choose to call it, the end result brought the second night of Rock the South to an end in style, and I loved the way the vibe switched from that of a concert to that of a party.

Sunday dawned rainy, but this didn’t put any damper on events, with the festival getting off to an early start in the afternoon with Nordgarden, Divine Sinners and Milk Mi, among others. Things were in full swing by the time The Cosmic Erotic’s set started.

This being their very debut gig and not having done any prior research, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Somehow, the name made me imagine electronic influences, or maybe dark cabaret Dresden Dolls style.

I was extremely wrong, which just goes to show that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – or a band by its name.

It’s worth pointing out that The Cosmic Erotic signals Niki Gravino’s return to the frontline. I am a definite fan of Gravino’s previous projects, particularly The Vile Bodies, which I found to be quite genre-breaking on a local level.

The Cosmic Erotic signal a definite change in sound and style for Gravino, but the end result is just as strong and appealing as his previous efforts. During this first gig, the four-piece band presented a cohesive front to deliver some straightforward rock’n’roll, with powerful riffs and Gravino’s trademark voice. Their set left me wanting more, always a good sign.

This year’s festival brought with it a number of firsts, and the following set by Skimmed turned out to be another, with the post-punk band performing as a duo for the first time.

The band presented eight tracks which were re-arranged to fit the new format, with Daniel Borg on guitar and Alexandra Aquilina on vocals, plus drum machine. The new arrangements gave some of their old tracks, like The Stripper, Ghost in the Mirror and Ronnie, a completely fresh sound that went down well.

I found the increased reverb interesting, although a glitch in the sound meant that the effect didn’t come out as well as intended in certain places, threatening to overpower the vocals.

Once this was fixed from the sound people’s end, the performance really came into its own. The set included a new track, Breathe, a wonderfully, erm, breathy offering that I look forward to listening to again. If the band decides to keep the new setup permanently, it seems like Skimmed is set for some exciting developments.

Jane Doe were on next, another band I was hearing live for the first time. Here, I found the amount of attention devoted to covers puzzling – with the strong audience the festival attracts, a band’s original material deserves to get all the limelight.

Having said that, I did enjoy the band’s opening take on the Arctic Monkey’s Fake Tales of San Francisco.

I would also have liked to see a bit more in terms of band interaction with the audience. We did get some banter from guitarist Edward Bonello, but that was about it.

skimmed

nosnow/noalps were the penultimate act before the festival closed off with Canvas Wall – the choice to bring Rock the South 2014 to an end with these two acts was a good one, in keeping with that gig bible that says you should always leave people on a high.

The two bands are totally different in genre, but have one thing in common; great stage presence. nosnow/noalps kicked off with Go, Go, Go, Go, a new track that gives its title to the bands upcoming new EP, which will be launched in June. It only took this one track for the mosh pit to start, and it didn’t let up until it was time for Canvas Rock to kick off .

This was my first Canvas Rock gig and I loved what I heard. The band’s music is a blend of indie and rock, with multi-layered arrangements and a heavy rhythm that will certainly appeal to old-school rockers.

It’s a shame (for us) that the band is based in London and we can’t enjoy more frequent gigs from these guys, because they certainly bring it all to the table in terms of stage presence, vocals, music and vibe.

My apologies to the bands I had to miss out on. These included some seriously good names – sadly, it is always impossible to cover every single act at a festival. And a big thumbs-up to Rock the South 2014 and to the way the organisers have worked hard to help it evolve into the fully-fledged festival it is today.

Update: Milk Mi dropped out of the line-up last minute, so that’s one less band I should have apologised to for missing 😉

An edited version of this review was published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

 

 

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