Whoever thinks a festival means tepid, overpriced cider, muddy fields and soggy chips, have clearly never been to Ypsigrock.
Held in the seriously picturesque hill-top town of Castelbuono in Sicily, 2019 marked its 23rd edition, drawing an eclectic and impressive roster of artists and bands from across the world – offering festival goers everything from post-punk and hip-hop, to psychedelic alt-rock, electronic and indie folk, all within ancient walls, medieval courtyards and historic piazzas. A truly unique experience.
Despite the blazing sun, Friday got off to an energetic start, Cardiff quartet Boy Azooga filling a beautiful deconsecrated baroque church with their psychedelic alt-rock, instantly showing the crowd what this festival is all about: bringing together the unexpected. If the Sicilian audience weren’t charmed by fan favourites like ‘Breakfast Epiphany’ and ‘Jerry’, then the valiant attempts at Italian and choreographed dance moves most definitely did.
After sundown, with the balmy evening drawing in, Let’s Eat Grandma took to the stage at Piazza Castello. Their unique brand of alternative pop and striking stage presence – all waist length hair and flailing arms – made for an otherworldly atmosphere, and they ran through the track list of 2018’s much hyped ‘I’m All Ears’, playing songs like ‘Falling Into Me’, ‘Hot Pink’ and ‘Cool And Collected’.
Closing the set with the 10-minute ‘Donnie Darko’ they exclaimed, “We’re having such a good time in Sicily”, sounding in disbelief at the venue they’d just played – a sentiment plenty of the crowd could empathise with – and treating the audience to a school kid style hand-clapping game and synchronised moves. Again, the contrast of off-kilter, left-field artist and breathtaking Italian setting only added to the experience.
Later came something even more special, as festival goers thronged into the Piazza Castello to see The National grace the stage. Fans were packed into every corner of the space, huddled on cobbled ledges, packed up against the ancient walls – the heat of the evening given extra electricity by the anticipation of the crowd.
Of course they weren’t let down. Matt Berninger was characteristically suave and charming, dedicating songs to his wife, gently seducing the crowd by exclaiming in surprise, “You’re all so beautiful!”, and paying homage to Silver Jews’ “genius, wonderful, brilliant” David Berman who’d just passed away – dedicating ‘Green Gloves’ from 2007's ‘Boxer’ to him.
Old favourites like ‘Fake Empire’ and ‘Brainy’ were lent a melancholy drama, flanked by the ancient stone of the castle, floodlit and surrounded by swaying figures. The breathtaking performance was rounded off with an encore of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, Matt Berninger bringing up a fan to sing with him on stage, making the guy’s night…if not his summer.
Saturday was begun with a refreshing, bracing breakfast – or “colazione”, which just sounds so much more elegant, si? – of Sicilian granita, an almost-sorbet flavoured with almond and sugar, hunks of delicious brioche dunked into it as it starts to melt in the morning sunshine. Accompanied by plenty of espresso and the beautiful surroundings of Castelbueno’s main piazza, with views of the sweeping Sicilian hills, there’s not really a better way to start a morning.
With a less-packed line-up for the festival’s second day, that left plenty of time for ambling the winding, labyrinthine streets of the town, enjoying sights like the pretty Fountain of Venus Ciprea (a must for Instagrammers), picking up trinkets and local handicraft in the little shops hidden down small alleyways and spilling out into the piazza, and enjoying a pizza bianca (highly recommended) on the terrace of restaurant Antico Baglio, overlooking a green, lush valley backdropped by mountains.
Congolese-born, Belgian-raised MC Baloji brought hip-hop stylings to the day, weaving African influences into the mix as well as his thoughts about European attitudes and approaches to immigration and Arisfrica. The fact that these monologues were being delivered in Sicily lent the performance a specific urgency and relevance – more than 119,000 migrants arrived in Italy by sea in 2017, according to the UN, often risking their lives to get there, but facing tough anti-migrant laws when they arrive. Performing tracks from last year’s ‘137 Avenue Kaniama’, Baloji managed to strike a positive tone though, encouraging the crowd to embrace unity and love in the face of division.
At the Piazza Castello was the moody electronica of David August, bringing a different atmosphere to the night in contrast to The National the evening before – again demonstrating Ypsigrock’s diverse and brave programming approach.
For the adventurous among us was a late night performance from Pick a Piper, at the Cuzzocrea Stage in the festival campsite – set in the middle of the picturesque pine forest of San Focà,. Known for his collaborations with the likes of Caribou, this was a rare opportunity to see the Canadian producer’s unique dance-music structures, polyrhythmic percussion, atmospheric sound design and loopy melodies in a dreamlike setting. His sound is something straddling the organic and the synthetic, which perfectly mirrored his electronic-led set placed in the middle of the woods, nestled amongst nature.
Sunday brought with it the opportunity for a trip to Abbazia Santa Anastasia – a breathtaking vineyard up in the Madonie Park hills, a quick drive from Castelbuono. In a 12th-century converted Benedictine abbey, this stunning place offers tours of its impressive organic and biodynamic wine cellar – we were told the intricate (and ancient) methods of cultivating the land and growing vines in harmony with nature – as well as tastings by the adjoining hotel’s beautiful pool, complete with breathtaking views across the valley. It was something seriously special, and any Ypsigrock-goers should consider adding a visit to their trip – it’s hard to compete with Italian wine, especially when combined with a stunning Italian landscape.
The culinary delights continued on this indulgent Sunday, with a meal at Nangalarruni – a Castelbuono restaurant serving up local delicacies just off the town square, with a pretty outdoor area and an interior packed with character: bottles of wine on the shelves and old photos lining the walls. There’s a focus on locally grown mushrooms and truffle, as well as other local ingredients and traditional recipes, such as wild boar.
The team were just as welcoming as the food was delicious, and it was another reminder that Ypsigrock is a festival like no other – quality Sicilian food, grown and served with love, right on its doorstep.
Elsewhere the stellar music continued, one of the day’s highlights being indie folk heroes Whitney bringing their atmospheric sound to a picturesque deconsecrated baroque church (doing shots on stage, unlike the men of the cloth who would have occupied the space centuries before). Taking the crowd through through hits from their stunning debut ‘Light Upon the Lake’ (2016) and the follow-up ‘Forever Turned Around’, vocalist Julien Ehrlich joked with the crowd about the new material, but that belied how surprisingly well their delicate, crystalline sound paired with the surroundings. Now-classic tracks like ‘Golden Days’ and ‘No Woman’ were a festival highlight, their warm glowing vibrations matching the golden Sicilian sunset.
Another exciting prospect was up soon: Dublin’s Mercury-nominated Fontaines DC,bringing post-punk to the ancient Piazza Castello. Opening with ‘Chequeless Reckless’ and following up with heavy cuts like ‘Too Real’, ‘Big’ and (personal favourite) ‘Boys in the Better Land’, it was a blistering set made all the more apocalyptic when bouncing off the piazza’s ancient walls, rubbing up against the charming medieval surroundings with a snarly, infectious irreverence.
It was like they’d brought some of their hometown’s angry greyness, that bleak beauty outlined in ‘Dublin In The Rain’, straight to sunny Sicily, and offered up with a two-fingered salute. Catching up with Fontaines after their set they told Clash that this performance was the first time in months they’d had a day to relax first…no wonder it was such a high octane set.
To wrap up Ypsigrock 2019, Spiritualized – another weekend highlight – brought some otherworldly ambiance to the piazza, in some ways echoing the ethereal stylings of The National’s opening night set. In his trademark sunglasses (even though the sun went down hours ago) and lanky mop of hair, frontman Jason Pierce led us through the iconic 1997 album ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’, running up to 2018’s ‘And Nothing Hurt’.
There was something poignant about hearing the soulful backing singers – their gospel-inflected vocals echoing around the ancient piazza, reverberating off the castle walls – in this medieval setting, their sound lent extra weight by the spirituality of the old Sicilian setting, steeped in Catholic history.
Jason’s voice is equally melodic and hypnotic, ending with the sublime ‘Oh! Happy Day’, which – when heard while looking up above the floodlit castle and the star-laden Sicilian skies – it’s pretty hard to argue anything different.
The first wave of this year’s Ypsigrock line up has now been announced – featuring the likes of DIIV, NilÜfer Yanya and Girl Ray, taking place 6th-9th August. For more information and tickets, click here.
Photos: Elisabetta Brian and Roberto Panucci
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