Live Report: Brighten The Corners 2023

It’s time to put Ipswich on your musical map…

If you’ve never heard of Brighten the Corners, don’t be disheartened. It’s relatively new, and it’s in Ipswich – a place that’s unlikely to be on most people’s musical maps. Almost everyone we meet at this multi-venue festival is a local, and Brighten the Corners certainly has a cosily regional feel. But as much as anything it’s a showcase to the wider world of what Ipswich has to offer: in music, in venues, in people and ideas. It succeeds on every count, and is as good an example of place-based festival-making as you could imagine.

Friday

BTC’s heart, in many ways, is the Corn Hill – the town’s historic marketplace, where the organisers have put up a stage that’s freely open to the public. This is open from the early afternoon, with a lineup of little-known performers from the Suffolk area. It works as a warm-up to the rest of the festival, not just because of the chilled-out vibe – deckchairs in the sunshine, beer and vegan burgers, some guy in a combat jacket who dances to every performer as though it were the best gig of his life – but also because of the eclecticism, which is a taste of what’s to come. We hear sweet acoustic ballads (Esme Emerson), energetic grunge (Bridget.) and booming rap (Purple Loft), all within the first couple of hours.

This commitment to inclusion and variety informs the choice of venues too. These include St Stephen’s Church, now converted into an atmospheric performance space, where we’re treated to Three Years Younger’s bright indie pop in the afternoon and Naima Bock’s gentle folk in the evening. Bock’s music is made for this setting, a gossamer-delicate set that has everyone enraptured. 86TVs (an evolution of the Maccabees, with Jamie Morrison from Stereophonics) is understandably the bigger draw over at the Corn Exchange, but it does feel a shame that more people don’t get to share this moment.

The Corn Exchange itself is (surprise surprise) right next to the Corn Hill, and is the festival’s largest venue with a capacity of around 800. That plays against it on the much quieter Friday, and bands like Nukuluk have to ply their ballistically bonkers psychedelic hip-hop to a mostly empty room – not that this seems to phase them.

The last venue to open – and the last to close – is the Baths, a short walk out of town and through a disorientating underpass (we get vomited out several times on the complete wrong street, and have to dive back underground to try again). Earlier in the day this hosts Jessica Winter, whose style is in excellently poor taste, as though a seedy Berlin club had somehow washed ashore in East Anglia. Stripping off from a leather raincoat and gloves to a trenchcoat, a beige jacket, and finally a bra and smart trousers, she swallows her 80s new romantic influences and spits them out transformed into something monstrously fun and magnificently camp. The first day ends here too, with Maria Chiara Argirò’s sensual, atmospheric nu-jazz giving way to a small-hours set by Jamz Supernova.

Saturday

Saturday is busier. Ipswich’s Grade I–listed Ancient House hosts a number of talks in the morning, including a panel hosted by Love Music Hate Racism – although LMHR themselves are oddly a no-show, and the other panellists seem to have thrown together their own questions on a short deadline. They do point us towards some personal recommendations, including local rapper Native James who kicks off the day’s main acts with bombastic glee. “I’m sweating like Philip Schofield on ITV!” he jokes, suddenly making us all feel a lot less like we’re in a literal church.

Even further out than the Baths is the Smokehouse, host of Sound City Ipswich – an older festival that seems to have set the template for BTC. This is astonishing when you consider how tiny this place is: fewer than 90 people can fit in here at once, and when we cram in for Butch Kassidy it feels as though we’re practically sitting on the band’s laps. Their set – a tour-de-force of deafening post-rock – would have been intense even in a less intimate venue. It takes the whole walk back to the church to recover.

There we hear deathcrash, whose mellow, melancholy slowcore is a bit too soporific for those of us who danced through all of Jamz’ set last night. Much more engaging is Joshua Idehen, who wraps this crowd around his finger from the get-go, then leads them in a group hum that’s slowly subsumed in his beatsman Ludwig Parment’s ambient sound. By turns funny, moving, political (“If there are any Tories in the audience, I love you but fuck you”) and wild, his spoken word set is over much too quickly, blasting off into the evening with a breakbeat cover of “Once in a Lifetime”. It’s impossible not to smile.

The larger crowds on day two have the biggest impact in the Corn Exchange. We head there for Bristolian fusion jazz/post-rock collective Ishmael Ensemble, whose vocalist Holysseus Fly uses her voice like a remarkable instrument, trading riffs and licks with saxophonist Pete Cunningham.

And then the Go! Team comes on stage.

Saturday’s headliners started as a one-man project by Ian Parton fiddling about with samples in his parent’s garage; they’ve evolved over the years into one of the most exciting, bonkers live acts in the country. Everything is going on here, everywhere, all at once. There are plastic recorders. There are jumping guitar slashes. There is a walkie-talkie with a long aerial. No other group could do such a good job of packing the spirit of BTC into a single set: this is High School Musical on crack, an absolute party with no respect for such pedantic issues as genre or tension. It’s extraordinary. We barely have energy afterwards to stumble over to the Baths for Tom Ravenscroft’s closing DJ set.

A band as fun as the Go! Team really ought not to exist in Brexit Britain, and yet here they are, making us forget for a solid hour that anything sad – anything short of magical – has ever occurred, or could ever be possible. A festival like this shouldn’t exist in Brexit Britain either: one that’s local and yet diverse, community-focused yet deserving of a much wider audience. Ipswich might not be on your musical map right now. But if Brighten the Corners is anything to go by, it fully deserves to be.

Words: Tom Kingsley

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