Dot To Dot is designed for festival wimps; it has no requirements for nights spent in fusty tents, no mud, no portaloos and no talk of ‘the vibe’ being an essential part of ‘the experience’. It’s merely an exercise in shuffling from one small venue to another – thankfully all indoors on a piss-wet Bank Holiday Monday – to seek out your next favourite new band.
After schlepping through Bristol and Nottingham on previous days, the last stop is in Manchester and six venues spanning the University and its surrounds. It looks as if a good chunk of the organisers’ cash has been spent on hometown duo Hurts, who will occupy the prime slot at the 1,800-capacity Academy One. We Are Scientists and Guillemots are the other biggish names, and while the headliners may not rival U2 and Beyoncé, the lack of leftover moulah elevates lesser-known bands up the list. This is where Dot To Dot comes into its own, as a no-frills festival for folk primarily interested in up-and-coming bands. Add in the fact that the £30 ticket price covers 50 acts, and that the organisation and time-keeping is spot on, ensures Dot To Dot remains a day well spent.
And it delivers – from the start. Local quartet Letters To Fiesta have the unenviable task of opening proceedings at two o’clock in the afternoon to a virtually empty Club Academy. But they sound pretty fantastic. Singer Anna Reed-Etherington has a wonderfully elastic voice that contorts between a woozy Kate Bush and the howl of a young Siouxsie Sioux. By the time they’ve finished their first track, ‘Swan Girl’, their Gothic-infused electro-rock has enticed a room full of punters away from a health-hazard of a ‘festival barbecue’ and bad lager. Letters To Fiesta, named after a John Cooper Clarke poem and not the scribblings to a jazz-mag, will not be bottom of the bill for very much longer.
Next up is a rendezvous at the soulless Academy Two to see another Manchester band, Golden Glow. With a debut album (Tender Is The Night) out imminently, they rely on their music to do the talking. Much of their sound – such as the intricate guitar melody of ‘Adore Me’ or the ominous Joy Division-esque hum of ‘Locked Inside’ – is based on an introspective, bedroom ceiling-gazing state of mind. So, to connect in a half-empty room, to a half-interested crowd, Golden Glow – fronted by the introverted but hugely talented Pierre Hall – will need to display a little more pizzazz than they do today. They plod through their set and a sizeable number of bored teenagers plod to the bar.
A good few of them find their way to catch Nottingham noisy boys, Frontiers. With singer Alex Noble complaining (or was it happily reflecting?) that a packed Academy Three was the “first time I’ve ever been hot in Manchester,” his band tear through an exhilarating set. Standout track, ‘Sound Of Confusion’ is a dead ringer for early Cure bolted onto the fiery energy of Kasabian; Frontiers are tight as fuck and breathlessly exciting.
At this point, The Line Of Best Fit sneaks off for a cheeky mid-afternoon kebab before getting front and centre for Sweden’s Niki And The Dove. We’ve already declared our love for the sinuous and darkly subtle Nordic-pop created by the Stockholm duo, and their set is majestic, even if monitor feedback threatens to deafen singer Malin Dahlström during the opening song, ‘The Fox’. Malin is a magnetic performer, and replete with face-paint and bird’s nest hair, she acts out each song – which frames her outstanding voice. ‘DJ, Ease My Mind’ is a swirling, downbeat slice of Euro-disco heaven and ensures Niki And The Dove end bang on their allotted 30 minutes. Afterwards, a beaming Malin tells us that at the previous show in Bristol, when their set ran slightly over time, the organisers literally pulled the plug – cutting them adrift in silence.
By now, we are on a roll and are dotting (pun intended) between rooms in a quest to quench our thirst for new music. The much touted Benjamin Francis Leftwich scores maximum points for appearing with just an acoustic guitar and his latent talent – but actually comes across like a strummy puppy dog wanting to be loved. He’s got big, doleful eyes and a set of forlorn folk songs that suggest a world-weary life lived in theory. We quickly move on and catch the end of the Braids set. The Montreal quartet are a hotchpotch of angular guitars and Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s (what is it with singers and double-barrel names today?) extraordinary vocal range. Raphaelle, bless her, is so thrilled at the buzzing reception, that she can barely convey her gratitude for stumbling over her (spoken) words.
Next up is our first stop at the cavernous Academy One and the thrill of New Zealand’s The Naked And Famous. They attract a big crowd who seem well up for their brand of bouncing electronic rock. Thom Powers and Alisa Xayalith work the crowd – there is a lot of air-pummelling and over-exuberant clapping by Xayalith, as if she is intent on hamming up a glimmer of ‘festival vibe’. ‘Punching In A Dream’ and ‘Young Blood’ cause no end of audience mayhem, while their album-closer, ‘Girls Like You’, sounds genuinely epic. It is undeniable that The Naked And Famous are going places, quickly, but their made-for-TV soundbite songs leave us feeling a little empty.
Not that they would care a jot. After that, and normal gig times upon us, we head back down to Club Academy to catch New York buzz-band Cults. Having gone from mysterious obscurity to major label deal in less than a year, partners Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin have raised expectation levels after the ubiquitous ‘Go Outside’ invaded 2010 with its Spectorish hook and sweet delivery. Tonight, they do the business. Madeleine plays the role of euphoric heartbreak with panache and attitude and Cults’ soaring hooks, muddied by scuzzy guitars are a joy; think The Shangri Las meet Slowdive. We are virtually shedding tears of delight as the delicious melody to ‘Rave On’ is belted out.
We then have to compose ourselves for the main event. We were present at Hurts’ first ever gig – at a church in Salford. That night, roses festooned the stage, and hymn sheets printed with their own lyrics were laid out on the pews. It was not a normal debut gig – but then Hurts have always been a band with their eyes on the prize. They offend the indier-than-thou purists with a penchant for appearances on naff TV shows like –shock horror – Daybreak and This Morning, and have toured relentlessly around mainland Europe, where their brand of shameless Euro-pop is met with less undeserved cynicism. Tonight, back in the town that dragged them down, they have completed the transformation into a huge, shiny, powerful pop band. They’ve got swanky backing videos and a stunning light show. Theo Hutchcraft now chats happily to the crowd (he barely uttered a word at the church) and looks like a 50’s film star in his trademark razor-sharp suit. ‘Silver Lining’ is a powerful opener and Hurts are so confident that they can immediately follow it with, in our opinion, their slice of perfect pop – ‘Wonderful Life’. It’s a song to melt the iciest of hearts, a beautiful sentiment wrapped in a huge slab of clichéd cheese. It sums Hurts up perfectly – and nothing else in their set comes close.
Photography by Victor Frankowski