Sheftival has been described as the biggest festival in celebration of the Olympics outside of London and it sure as hell feels like that as the masses descended onto Don Valley, the Arena and the Sheffield Institute of Sport. Not only were they celebrating Jess Ennis’s triumph in the Heptathlon, but also 50 years of Jamaican independence with a showcase of arts and live music (interrupted by regular announcements of the many gold medals we won at London2012).
So as families took to the grounds of Don Valley to try their hands at sports workshops such as basket ball, the long jump, hockey and even human hamster balls; all while watching the big Olympic screen, music lovers swamped the Tramlines arena the lap up the best of live music.
Now as well as the main stages there were a wealth of bands to discover elsewhere in places such as the Jettyside Stage and the Buskers Barge. For those lucky enough to have explored might have come across fine performances from Pocket Satellite whose nu-folk mixes the 60’s pop shenanigans of Magic Numbers with the tech-savvy violinist Owen Pallett. Or maybe you saw In Fear of Olive who could easily give Mumford and Sons a run for their money. Songs like Led Me Astray and Saluting Magpies show off not only the bands impeccable vocal skills but also their sheer ability to pen convincing classic Americana.
A real surprise discovery was singer Sarah Mac, who here performed without her usual band. She is instantly likable and her voice is fragile and beautiful, oh so Billie Holiday and way beyond her years. She is a real star in the making with a whole bag of beautifully composed songs to her name too.
The main arena was spliced with lashings of quality roots reggae from the likes of Macka B whose set strangely included two songs of about his eating habits; and the finest two-tone from The Beat and The Selecter, whose influential and pioneering front woman Pauline Black helps the audience gets their skank on to James Bond, Too Much Pressure and Three Minute Hero.
Much of the main stage is dominated by crowd-pulling pop-puppets and reality show rejects. Lemar pulls off a good’n though with hits like 50/50 and If There’s Any Justice. He got the first big crowd of the weekend. The others though haven’t earned their stripes yet and can only muster up fifteen minute sets each. Joe McElderry actually has a decent voice when not plied with auto tune and his record company have even gifted him with a decent live band, but with the poor quality of his 80’s ballad rent-a-songs you know that without the TV to help him, he won’t be around for much longer. And then there is the immaculately preened Marcus Collins who hits the stage backed by only two dancers and a backing tape. He has a good voice too and moves around the stage like a young Little Richard. His fans are more bothered about out-screaming each other and often forget that his songs and his cover of Seven Nation Army are weak. Any X-Factor reject could make that song sound like it had never been anywhere near Jack White and it’s a shame because Collins’ voice will always be much more suited to those 50’s doo-wop sounds that do so much for Bruno Mars.
However, the arena is awash with teenyboppers who lap it up. It’s alright though… as if it was all a cunning plan, following each of these very brief performances, the hundreds of pop fans are shown what real music is with outstanding performances from Brit Pop luminaries such as The Lightning Seeds and Dodgy who both inspire the mass singalongs all summer festivals deserve. New tracks like Waiting for the Sun and Shadows make it feel like they had never been away and Staying out for the Summer and the closing refrain of Good Enough are perfect summer anthems.
Over on the JuJu Stage there was an outstanding performance from the Balkan Bandits whose brand of Soviet Cabaret Punk is a really joy to watch but one of the biggest surprises was an appearance from Sheffield’s Renegade Brass Band. Our answer to New Orleans’s Dirty Dozen Brass Band, perfectly fusing together American big band Jazz, US pre-match brass bands and very fine Hip-Hop. They sample songs using both their turntables and their trumpets and are definite festival highlight for me.
However, undoubtedly, the finest performances of the weekend come from the double bill of the don himself, Toots Hibberts and the Noisettes.
Toots and the Maytals have the entire park under their thumbs, skanking and singing along to Funky Kingstone and Monkey Man. The band is tight and though Toots doesn’t say much in-between songs, he has the audience in the palm of his hand throughout. The Noisettes’ headline set is delayed slightly because every single person in the park is watching Toots. When they do start though, they perform a blinding set. Now I first saw Noisettes in 2007 when they were touted as the UK’s answer to Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Back then they were known for being raw and brash but beneath the surface was songs that transcend all genres. In recent years their songs have evolved into a more polished pop beast with songs swaying from torch ballads to 50’s kitsch.
Undeservedly though, they play to a small crowd. However, vocalist Shingai Shoniwa performs likes she in a sold out stadium and it is a real treat. She writhes around the stage and pulls moves I ain’t ever seen before and her voice never falters once; always soulful and definately commanding. It’s why she is one of the finest front women in pop.
We have been truly spoiled this year; first Tramlines and now this. We can only hope that without the Olympics, there will still be enough reason for Sheftival 2013. Bring it on!
Words by Jason White
Photographs by Marla Design