Evolution has established itself as the premier music festival in North East England with its spectacular setting on the banks of the River Tyne and world class headline acts.
I’ve been involved with the festival since it started and it seems to have finally come of age – not least for young people who travel far and wide to the event.
It’s become a rite of passage for teenagers attending their first big music festival.
This year’s May Bank Holiday line-up was one of our best with headliners Paloma Faith and The Vaccines plus a long list of impressive artists like The Strypes, Bastille, Jake Bugg and Ellie Goulding.
As I walked down to the festival from the centre of Newcastle on Sunday afternoon the excitement started to feel palpable as the crowds assembled for their annual tribal gathering.
By lunchtime there was a real buzz as thousands of teenagers – and a few oldies like myself – headed down to Newcastle’s Quayside for two days of music and partying.
Every year I’m amazed how young the Evolution crowd are getting – the festival has become an annual party event for young people.
It’s amazing to see the girls dressed to the nines in the latest and skimpiest fashion shorts, plastered in body paint and make-up.
Guess I should have worn my tiny, shiny hot pants after all!
The sun was shining and everyone was chilled-out as they raced to the front of the main stage to grab the best spot in the mosh pit.
Needless to say, I was down in the bar looking for my mates who are several generations older than the majority of this festival crowd!
But I did make an effort to get into the teen spirit, smoozing with a few of the early birds who were strutting their style on the main Spillers Wharf festival site.
These two lasses were keen to show me their newly acquired face paint and festival style…
We’ve always joked that we try to book great weather for Evolution – but in some years the rain and wind have dampened our plans a little.
This year the glorious sunshine beamed down and provoked a big surge in crowds during early afternoon.
Twenty thousand music fans agreed that this was the best place to be, listening to your favourite bands on a sunny day.
This year’s innovation was the relocation of the Ballast Hills stage from its traditional, hill top site down into the heart of the Evolution zone.
For many younger teenagers it was their first ‘club’ experience and the large crowd were dancing and bouncing around like crazy, young things from mid-afternoon.
I don’t know where these teenagers get their energy from – I need to bottle some of it for when my feet get tired and I need a good sit down in the VIP tent!
The dance stage was a big hit with the teenage crowd as Delta Heavy, Lethal Bizzle and Modestep played to the urban dance floor on the Quayside.
Meanwhile I retreated to the main arena where some hipsters from my generation were hovering in a small group near the VIP entrance – safety in numbers!
Evolution is very much about spotting the best emerging talent – the artists who are going to break through to the other side in the next year.
An early afternoon start meant that I was able to catch the opening bands on Spillers Wharf including The Lake Poets.
Basically The Lake Poets are a one man band – the talented Martin Longstaff from Sunderland, from just a few miles down the road – plus special guest musicians.
As the set kicked in, Martin introduced his many musician friends who joined him on stage to added extra firepower and texture to his set.
I’d feared that the subtlety of his music would be lost on a big stage but The Lake Poets looked the business in this large arena.
It sounded sublime… and the young crowd was loving it. Could Martin Longstaff become the new Jake Bugg?
The next day, Bank Holiday Monday, I was down early doors for another strongly-tipped band, Eliza and the Bear, who created a lasting impression with their set.
The band had been whipping up a head of steam ahead of their Evolution appearance with a packed gig at The Cluny a couple of days earlier.
I hadn’t seen them for some time so was surprised how they’d come on in the last few months. Now they sounded like they could go to a new level with their songwriting.
There was one funny moment when a press colleague asked “Where’s Eliza?”, expecting a female singer but a bit of research would have revealed this is an all-male band.
Also on the cusp of making it onto the ‘hotly tipped’ list are Boys Jump Ship who opened up the Spillers stage and rocked the joint.
But in my humble opinion they still need a little more charisma and polish to get to the level of the other opening acts.
They sound like a younger version of The Futureheads, which is no bad thing, but perhaps they need to build more of their own identity to stand out from the indie rock crowd.
Last year’s newcomer Lulu James impressed with her strong vocals and stunning style later in the afternoon.
This year, Lulu has moved it on up with a powerful sound and impressive stagecraft. Her daring and striking black leotard outfit also made a lasting impact on the teenage boys near where I was standing!
After a recent appearance on Jools Holland and great critical reviews, she’s come a long way in the last 12 months – and she knows it.
Evolution has helped to propel artists like her and Eliza and the Bear forward… perhaps to a slot in our nationwide download hearts.
Teenage wonder kid Jake Bugg was most definitely the artist that everyone was talking about at this year’s festival.
How the hell did somebody as young as 17 burst out of nowhere with a catalogue of songs that have had critics comparing him with Bob Dylan, Oasis and Woody Guthrie?
Now 19, it’s slightly weird to think that Jake Bugg was only 7-years-old when the first Evolution Festival was held so when he walks on stage, it’s tempting to be sceptical.
That cynicism is blown away in seconds as he strolls up casually and blasts into a sequence of awesome songs which many mature artists would sell their souls for.
Bugg is a consummate performer, drawing on blues, roots and Americana in his well-crafted songs which are given a smart contemporary inflection.
His parents in Nottingham must have had an amazing record collection when he was growing up back on the Clifton estate, a drab suburban sprawl of semi-detached houses with little artistic inspiration to offer.
Who knows where Jake acquired his taste for Americana influences. There’s also a hint of one of my favourite Liverpool bands,The Las, in his music.
But it’s not just about the music.
Jake, despite the unsexy surname, has become something of a teenage heart throb with his troubadour style and empathetic lyrics.
Several bras were thrown onto the stage, one with ‘I Love You Jake’ emblazoned on the petite teenage cups.
It’s the first time I’ve seen such adulation for a solo artist at Evolution but Jake is too cool to let it go to his head and simply focuses on his music.
Spirit of The Vaccines
The Vaccines, who headlined on Sunday night, are an indie band that take me back to my teenage years.
There are shades of The Ramones, The Rolling Stones and The Strokes in their music which also has a slightly anthemic, sing-along feel that suits the main stage at Evolution.
This was my first chance to see them live so I got down with the kids at the front to capture the energy of the band.
Taking photos at the front was a great way to capture the spirit of the band up close and very personal.
The Vaccines stormed through three opening songs before rambling through the middle section of the set which seemed a bit less energetic, and then treated the crowds to a rampant finale.
Overall I enjoyed their set but couldn’t quite help thinking it was a bit uneven – and some of the crowd seemed to agree with me.
There seemed to be some negative energy between the band members – a bit like moody teenagers on a night out after a few beers.
The comparison with The Ramones could be seen in their short, direct, to-the-point pop songs which got the crowds dancing.
“Wow – that was quick,” said a mate who’d been to the bar and had missed three very short, punchy and frenetic songs!
But in many ways it was just what was needed at the end of a long day.
Smells like soul
Monday’s festival line up was perhaps the strongest with Bastille getting the party spirit going with their electro-rock and strong live performance.
But the best was still yet to come as style diva and pop goddess Paloma Faith took to the stage.
Wearing an eye-catching outfit that was a cross between Venus in Furs and the statue of Liberty, by way of Broadway and a Gene Kelly musical, Faith blasted through an impressive set.
Faith proved that she’s not all about style over substance – she has truly great songs plus loads of charisma and artistry.
It’s hard to take your eyes off her…
This theatrical performance boasted a top class selection of old songs performed to perfection plus some new material.
Her songwriting covers an astonishing selection of styles, blending soul, jazz, pop and rock – and it’s hard not to be bowled over by her talent.
Performing songs from her latest album, Fall to Grace, Faith is a consummate performer who knows how to hold her own on a big festival stage. She communicated brilliantly with the young crowd.
“Cup of tea?” she says at one point, bringing out her own brew for a quick, theatrical cuppa!
There’s echoes of Etta James, Amy Winehouse and Billie Holiday in her songs but Paloma Faith is very much her own independent woman… and I’m a convert!
Every festival has to have its surreal moment and Sunday afternoon offered just that as Evolution hit the national headlines when a rodent tried to upstage musician, Raleigh Randall.
Newcastle Quayside is renowned for its rat population but this was perhaps the first time one had turned up at a major festival.
As panic spread through the front row of the mosh pit, screaming teenagers looked perplexed as a small rat ran into the front of stage area.
Raleigh Randall stopped in his tracks midway through his set, surprised by the small rodent who was removed by a nervous-looking security guard.
Back in my teenage years rockers like Alice Cooper deliberately brought animals and rats on stage with them, but today it seems that they’re not so welcome!
Top marks to Randall who remained 100% cool before getting back to the serious business of the music.
Evolving Evolution – a brief history
The first year of the festival in 2001 featured headliners Moloko, Inspiral Carpets and Gregory Isaacs. It’s come a very long way since those early days when we never were quite sure if anyone would turn up!
Dizzee Rascal, Maximo Park, Iggy Pop, Tinie Tempah, Plan B and Paolo Nutini have all headlined Evolution since the event started in 2001.
The dance line-up and DJs have also gone stellar over the last few years with Deadmau5 being one of my all-time favourite sets in 2012.
Pete Tong and Roger Sanchez headlined during the early days when Shindig hosted a spectacular dance stage next to the BALTIC art gallery and Millennium Bridge.
Currently in its 11th year the concept for Evolution had its roots in John Hammond’s From Spirituals to Swing concerts in the 1930s which looked at the blurring of boundaries between musical genres.
Similarly, Evolution’s early festivals looked at how a variety of genres from dance to blues had inspired and drawn on each other.
This resulted in some intriguing programming. One year, you could walk between the Newcastle Quayside stage featuring indie rockers Maximo Park whilst a major DJ was playing over the water on the Gateshead side of the riverfront…
On another stage The Handsome Family would be playing their haunting tunes on the Americana stage.
Evolution’s indoor gigs were a feature of its early years with highlights including Amy Winehouse, Patti Smith, The Futureheads, Spiritualised and Toumani Diabete to name a few.
One of my favourite years of the festival – 2005 – was curated by Jason Pierce of Spiritualised who picked an eclectic programme of artists who had influenced his work.
Amongst them were the eccentric American songwriter Daniel Johnston and the awesome psychedelic rock ‘n ‘roll cult figure of Tav Falco at Newcastle’s Cluny. Two memorable gigs which blew my mind!
Early Evolution featured the Jumpin’ Hot Club stage which was a great platform for Americana, folk, roots and reggae featuring artists like Bellowhead and The Unthanks.
I loved their big top tent and the festival ambience on the Ballast Hills site with its chilled out atmosphere, a welcome respite after dancing in the main arena.
Rubbing shoulders with the artists as they milled around Ballast Hills was a real treat – from ’60s icon Donovan and punky ‘rabble rouser’ Billy Bragg to newcomer Ben Howard.
Although I miss the old Jumpin’ Hot Club tent, it has left its mark and perhaps its legacy has inspired a new generation of artists.
Nowhere is that more evident in the music of North East band, Eliza and the Bear, who provide the ideal bridge between Americana, roots and folk music with a British tilt.
Could they be the next British success story to come out of North East England?
One of the great things about Evolution is that it’s an urban festival, bang in the heart of Newcastle city centre, not on a park or boggy farmland. No knee-deep mud and pink wellington boots to be seen here!
This is as urban as it comes – and that’s reflected in the increasing urban feel to its line-up from Dizzee Rascal in 2012 and Tinie Tempah who headlined the year before.
Revolution and evolution
As well as the big deal acts, Evolution has developed a reputation for promoting the artists who will be the headliners of the future.
Duffy, Dizzee Rascal, Hard Fi and Calvin Harris all played further down the Evolution bill before they went ballistic and became big names UK-wide.
Evolution continues to evolve and this is just the latest twist in a story that continues to unfold and evolve – hopefully for many years to come.
And at its core is the hope that as well as evolution, there’s the possibility of revolution – a new music evolving from a new generation of artists.
It was the driving force behind my involvement in the festival – and continues to be really important in this age of fabricated pop music.
I’m looking forward to another decade of Evolution – and who knows how the festival might change and shape up in the next few years.
One thing’s for sure – the future is bright…
Just smell that teen spirit on and off stage!