Ypsigrock 2019 in Castelbuono, Italy August 8, 2019 | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Ypsigrock 2019 in Castelbuono, Italy, August 8th, 2019

Aug 30, 2019 Web Exclusive
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"That doesn't look safe at all," says The National's Matt Berninger, sounding worried. "I don't think you'd be allowed to do that in Ohio. Don't fall, okay?" The subject of his concern is a cobblestone ramp, some five metres high, sans guardrail; fans are simply perched on the edge, some standing, some sitting. But no-one falls. There's just singing, dancing, and rapturous applause. An overwhelming feeling of joy too, for we're at Ypsigrock in Sicily, Italy, one of Europe's most beautiful-and unique-festivals; that ramp leads up to the 14th Century Castello di Castelbuono, and across the square, near the stage, you can buy rustic, wood-fired pizza. And in the midst of all this, in front of just 2,500, one of the world's most acclaimed bands are at their regal best, tugging at heartstrings and moving some to tears.

Castelbuono, a town situated in the hills around the majestic Parco delle Madonie, is an unlikely setting for such scenes. Picture postcard images of narrow streets, quaint little squares, and sun-bleached churches abound; old couples still gather at dusk for their daily la passeggiata, nibbling on panettone and gelato. Many locals seem oblivious to the event unfolding around them, but the organizers go out of their way to make sure Ypsigrock benefits residents as much as out-of-towners; showcasing local culture, and ensuring the presence of several Italian artists, is high on their agenda.

Now in its 23rd year, the festival has become a key date in the calendar for Italian music lovers; people come from far and wide to experience its special blend of the quirky and the acclaimed, and to revel in the rustic splendour of the town and its hospitality. But it's not just fans who clamour to be here, bands do too; a central ethos of the booking policy is that no artist has ever been booked twice, and those who do play speak highly of the charm and laid back vibe they encounter. Sitting in the early August sun, gorging on homemade pasta and red wine in rustic little restaurants, it feels like paradise. Who wouldn't want a few days of this?

Being relatively small has another advantage-no clashes. Here, it's possible to see every artist on the bill. Alongside the main square, several of the town's spectacular churches and courtyards host early evening shows that are both intimate and mesmerizing, while those with the stamina can head to the campsite in the woods above town, where a few acts have 3 a.m. slots. Pick A Piper's lush, percussive electronica graces Saturday night; Glasgow duo Free Love get Sunday, their woozy, psychedelic Italo disco vibes somewhat improvised due to their gear going missing en route to Sicily.

The elegant, sun-dappled stone courtyard of the Chiostro di San Francesco plays host to two indie bands who might have had designs on a main stage slot. Boy Azooga's sprightly genre-hopping anthems positively fizz with energy, while Whitney's winsome, earnest folk-rock does well not to melt in Sunday afternoon's soaring temperatures. Delights are also to be found in the small Ex Chiesa del Crocifisso, a tiny church near the castle and home to the Mr. Y Stage. Giungla, the rising star of Italian electro-pop, sounds immense within its confines, a setting that also suits Handlogic, a quartet from Florence. Their crisp beats, warm melodies, and R&B tinged pop form a beguiling mix; bigger stages surely await.

The main stage action at Ypsigrock is always a curious mix, and this year is no exception. Baloji gets things started on Saturday, his high energy, Afrobeat party vibe-dancing is not optional-only occasionally tempered by monologues concerning Western attitudes to Africa and immigration. He's followed by WWWater, the musical alter ego of Charlotte Adigéry, who takes things up another notch. Her striking, playful electro pop is a defiant as it is intoxicating-particularly "Mine Yours" and "Screen"-and culminates in a coruscating version of The Slits' "Earthbeat."

Future-pop has rarely sounded as trippy or as, well, futuristic as on Let's Eat Grandma's I'm All Ears. That record-which many thought to be 2018's best-reframed trap-infused beats, glossy synths, and psych pop in bold new ways, and here the Norwich duo essentially recreate it front to back, barely pausing for breath between songs. Both "Hot Pink" and "Snakes & Ladders" shudder with a malevolent menace, but it's the 11-minute prog-pop odyssey of "Donnie Darko" that really shines; mirroring the lyrics, Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton end up flat on their backs holding hands as the disco beats swell around them.

Such heaviness is continued by Whispering Sons, a Belgian post-punk quartet whose raw, ominous music channels feelings of alienation and anxiety. Joy Division is an obvious comparison, as is the dark glam of Bauhaus, but songs like "Alone" swirl a frenetic urgency into the gloom. Dressed all in white and possessed of a dark baritone, singer Fenne Kuppens resembles a ghost dancing through the shadows, a haunting presence narrating their songs about isolation and mental health.

There's usually at least one, illustrious name invited every year, and more often than not they're given Sunday's closing slot; last year it was The Jesus & Mary Chain, this year it's Spiritualized. Jason Pierce doesn't disappoint, nimbly mixing his rich back catalogue with songs from last year's And Nothing Hurt. Smooth, sweet songs like "Here It Comes (The Road) Let's Go" and "A Perfect Miracle" shimmer like the stars puncturing the deep blue night, but it's the classics-"Out of Sight" and "Come Together"-that really strike a chord, the sound of a legend comfortable at last in his own skin.

That Pierce is preceded by Fontaines D.C., this year's anointed indie saviors, makes his appearance all the more profound. The young pretenders to greatness are on typically exuberant form, tearing through songs like "Too Real" and "Boys in the Better Land" with verve and swagger, all stabs of guitar and driving rhythms. Their blistering punk rock tales of frustration and disillusionment sound far more immediate live than on record, six months of relentless touring having smoothed out some of their more carefree, ragged edges. Punk was never centered on competency though, and they're still possessed of a feral edge that makes the band-particularly singer Grian Chatten-compulsive viewing.

And then there's The National, who provide two glorious hours of quiet, subtle euphoria. Berninger's rich, lovelorn baritone rolls around the stone walls of the square, as affecting as ever, while the Dessner brother's fastidious arrangements and compositional flourishes have ascended to new heights; listen close, and the detail and intricacy of their new songs bloom gently, notes and instruments drifting in and out of focus. Most of the set is drawn from recent album I Am Easy to Find, a softer, more elegiac collection of songs, and this is reflected in their performance; less volatile, a little more studied, prolonging a wondrous emotional tension song after song.

Of course, Berninger still has a wild side-he wanders through the audience several times, at one point ending up at the bar and pouring himself a beer-but within the new material and with a female vocalist, Mina Tindle, to spar with, he seems less inclined to make himself the focal point. He's less the wide eyed rocker and more a subdued, intense presence, but it suits the music-and the setting-perfectly; "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "Terrible Love" are as majestic as always, but a new kind of high is reached with "Not In Kansas" and "Light Years," gut-wrenching songs that lay bare vulnerabilities about growing old, longing, and regret.

Such heavy sadness has, in some ways, come to define the band, yet live it's striking just how much joy they elicit-it's a profoundly happy experience. The fervour with which everyone sings "Vanderlyle Crybaby Creeks"-an acoustic version of which brings the set, and the night, to an end-confirms as much, Berninger standing on the railings, acting as conductor as 2,500 voices bellow the words into the warm night air. It's a special moment from a special band, but that's Ypsigrock. "Special" is what they do here, and few festivals come close to replicating its magic.



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