It’s late morning on the outskirts of Castelbuono, and the old ladies have started dancing in the water. At the edge of the pool the instructor has turned on a stereo, sending a stream of radio-friendly reggaeton and Latin pop bangers across the hotel courtyard and out into the mountains, a collection that does not feature ‘Despacito’ but which could feasibly arrive at ‘Despacito’ at any moment.
Towards the end of the class, something strange happens: the music moves into an ambient mix of what sounds like both Enya and Italy’s answer to Perfume Genius, and le danzatrici begin holding hands and floating in concentric circles, a death ritual played out in a sun-kissed leisure complex in the Sicilian mountains.
Imagine my disappointment when I was informed, tears still wet on my cheeks, that this was not the opening ceremony of Ypsigrock Festival 2018, but a weekly hotel aerobics class, and that I would have to travel further up into the mountains to watch the actual, scheduled selection of live performances. Reader, I was incensed and embarrassed in equal measure.
Fortunately, the tiny festival (2,500 capacity per day) has a reputation for attracting some of the biggest and best musical names in the world, so I felt confident that something could come along and blow that first set out of the water, so to speak. The main stage is perhaps the most beautiful of its kind in Europe, set against the ruins of the ancient Byzantine town of Ypsigro, high on the San Pietro hill, and framed by the remains of its 14th century castle (Castelbuono literally translates as ‘good castle’).
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We arrive in time to catch Her, a band carrying their own tragic history, and it’s as vital and incendiary a set as anyone could hope for. Frontman and surviving member Victor Solf is a captivating presence on stage, rallying the early evening crowd with a set that transforms their recent record’s electronic roots into something positively soulful. By the time closer “Five Minutes” finally dissipates, the crowd are ecstatic.
It’s the perfect warm-up for Confidence Man. Suffice to say, if you’ve not made it to one of the band’s gigs this year, you’re missing one of the most unabashedly fun experiences in live music right now. Having last seen the band perform in the tiny upstairs room at Bristol’s Louisiana, I wondered how their set might translate to a relatively larger outdoor setting. Several costume changes later, the answer is: pretty goddamn well.
No one would want to follow such a hi-octane party experience, but two acts must. Certainly Aurora would have been better billed a little earlier, as her enjoyable but hardly rip-roaring set of pop kookiness feels anticlimactic.
There was no question that a band of The Horrors’ standing would be on last, but while there are moments of success peppered throughout the performance (closer ‘Something To Remember Me By’, in particular, is glorious), it’s not quite the show-stealer of the night.
Saturday brings another eclectic mix to the Ypsi One Love stage, kicking off with an eviscerating set from Algiers, backed up by former Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong and a chap on keys who appears to have wandered into a Hadouken! gig by mistake.
The Radio Dept. prove to be another highlight of the weekend, though again, their brand of woozy dream pop feels a little out of kilter on a Saturday night line-up. Nonetheless, no one can argue against the quality on display, particularly when Vessels are on this kind of form. Undoubtedly the least well-known of the weekend’s three headliners, they waste no time winning over anyone in the crowd who might not have been familiar with their work. Like Her, the performance tonight is a thrilling reinvention of an electronic record, with live drums elevating their sound into something frankly breathtaking in its power and scope.
One of the best things about the Ypsigrock program is that there’s only one main stage in the late evening, meaning there’s no panic about clashes. However, equally wonderful are the diverse and diverting sets that take place in smaller venues around the town centre, a scattering of buildings that date back hundreds of years.
On Friday evening, for example, the inner court of the Castello dei Ventimiglia hosts Sicilian icon Alfio Antico, whose mastery of the tammorra and the frame drum provides a spellbinding performance.
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On Sunday, in particular, it’s these smaller sets that prove to be the stars of the show. Outside the Ypsi & Love Stage – AKA the Chiostro di San Francesco, a 14th century monastery – the queue for Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 appears to wind through vast swathes of the town, and with good reason: Seun is the youngest son of legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, the name enough to draw a crowd by itself. Thankfully, Seun quickly proves he’s a force in his own right, as his band tear through an irresistible 75 minutes of multi-instrumental party mayhem, a carnival unto itself in the middle of the Sicilian mountains.
South London artist GAIKA, replacing Kelly Lee Owens, keeps the flame burning with an impassioned set of what he describes as ‘ghettofuturism’ – a twisted, electronic take on dancehall that soon wins over the crowd through the sheer magnetic force of his on-stage energy.
Just as it feels like nothing can top the adrenaline of Kuti and GAIKA, I remember there is another small matter to attend to: The Jesus & Mary Chain are headlining tonight. Having never managed to catch the East Kilbride titans before, I enter with doubts: what kind of setlist are we going to get? How will it go down in Castelbuono? Have they still got the magic?
Fears are soon allayed as the band launch into what must be one of the greatest rock’n’roll live shows still operating today. ‘Just Like Honey’ and ‘Some Candy Talking’ get the biggest singalongs of the night, inevitably, but the career-spanning setlist is triumphant from start to finish. It’s the perfect showstopper to an incredible weekend.
Mogwai once called Ypsigrock the best festival on the planet, and while there may be a few contenders, it’s easy to see why. Brilliantly organised, great bands playing their one shot at the Castelbuono crowd (the organisers have a policy of never re-booking any band or artist), and of course, the location’s not bad either.
I’ll be back next year, for sure; if nothing else, I want to once more experience that heady mix of drama, beauty, excitement and tranquillity that only a great festival can provide. Or a water aerobics class.
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Words: Matthew Neale
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