Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Electric Picnic — a fever-dream of sights and sounds
PHOTO BY KEN MAIURI
The Electric Picnic festival grounds
PHOTO BY DARA MUNNIS
Bjork performs on the mainstage at Electric Picnic.
Broken washing machines — 120 of them — piled three-high in a stunning grid. Animal statues, two stories tall, made only from twisted branches. Blue-and-yellow-striped big top tents.
In most places, any of the above would stick out in impressive fashion, but at the Electric Picnic, the yearly arts and music festival held in Stradbally, Ireland, those things are hidden among the other countless pieces of art and myriad stages that cover the sprawling grounds.
It’s a creative explosion, a mashup of Lollapalooza, Mad Max and super circus, with around 300 musical performers (including David Byrne & St. Vincent, Arctic Monkeys, Wu-Tang Clan, My Bloody Valentine, Robert Plant and Björk) plus comedians, deejays, and 35,000 people roaming from wonder to wonder.
I was one of those people at the sold-out festival, there to perform with a touring band, but our tight schedule only allowed us to be at the Electric Picnic for about seven hours — a fever-dream of sights and sounds fueled by quality UK junk food. (“Mature Irish Cheddar Cheese and Spring Onion” crisps — cheers.)
The small and knotty back roads to the festival grounds allowed sporadic glimpses of a kingdom of color on the horizon, nestled off in the rolling green hills of the tiny midlands town. The closer we got, the more fantastic it seemed: huge flags, tents and pinwheels of every color rose up, rippling and spinning in the breeze.
We wandered the festival, moving at one speed while the full-swing festivalgoers sped or staggered past us. Larger-than-life handmade flowers with bent tops towered over the grass like psychedelic street lamps.
We saw a Jenga game where each piece was as big as a dictionary. Many in attendance wore homemade costumes — fiery orange tiger, silver-tanned tin woodsman, Superman, Catwoman — or “regular” clothing no less wild or inspired.
Our own performance schedule made it hard to see much else, though we could at least hear Robert Plant finish his set as we tried to make our way toward the front of the main stage — he closed with two Zeppelin chestnuts, “Whole Lotta Love” and “Rock and Roll,” his unmistakable voice wailing strong like it was still 1971.
And then there was Björk. The intergalactic vocalist inhabits her melodies and lyrics with purr, yelp and growl. She coaxes the syllables out with fine enunciation, her mouth wide, sometimes with a wicked pixie smile, punctuating the words with a little dance.
Still touring for her 2011 album “Biophilia,” she front-loaded her set with songs from that conceptual disc, including the show-starting “Cosmogony.”
Fourteen women stood at center stage — the Icelandic all-female choir Graduale Nobili — their voices rising in ethereal but discordant pitches, like something from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Björk appeared with a stiff Slinky of silver garland wound around her head, wearing something blue and bulbous, as if stove-top Jiffy Pop popcorn had inflated on her hips and chest. At stage right, a drummer; at stage left, a guy behind computery things on a high riser.
A huge screen — and then five other huge screens stretching beyond the stage on either side — filled with multicolored pinpoints of light, a glowing galaxy above the musicians and the growing crowd, as people pushed and ran past us to get closer to the building spectacle.
“Heaven, heaven’s bodies / whirl around me / make me wonder,” Björk sang in her familiar coo and roar as the women undulated behind her to the soft throbbing rhythm. “And they say back then our universe / was an empty sea / until a silver fox / and her cunning mate began to sing / a song that became the world we know.”
Sub-bass frequencies sank like great whales in an ocean; you could feel them in your chest, your legs.
The “Biophilia” album is concerned with nature, technology and our place in the middle of it all (I think) and the visuals that accompanied the performance were full of memorable images — gummy starfish slowly wobble-crawling across a coral reef, a massive moon working through its phases like a clock.
“Crystalline” was a show highlight for sure, the screens ablaze with Atari-like vector graphics rushing toward the musicians and audience, as if we were all inside a giant-sized game of S.T.U.N. Runner. The 14 singers bobbed and shimmied. Clinking bells pulsed and the song ended with a clattering drum’n’bass explosion and cheers from the wowed crowd.
We had a curfew to make so we weaved slowly back through the throng, dazed by spectacle and the vast audience that had formed around and behind us. We saw a twosome dressed in what could maybe be described as homemade “caveman armor,” with shoulders that lit up with little lights. We followed them like a beacon out to less-busy territory, where silent, bubbling and polka-dotted light shows swam serenely on surfaces, just waiting to be discovered.