Think festival season doesn’t start until May, Dear Reader? Think again. Butlin’s Bognor Regis is determined to wring out as much music as possible from the early days of 2020, and Rockaway Beach is here to entice the general public to do the same, slamming away any post-Xmas hangovers left standing. Start the year as you mean to go on, right?
As far as glamorous festival locations go, an out of season holiday resort in January ranks in a field of its own; especially when it’s raining sideways, and you’ve got three hours to wander the 2p pushers until you can check-in for a weekend of adventure golf (we’ll keep quiet on who actually won out of Team Dork), pouring fizzy pop all over the bar (who, us?), sparkling gems and new faves.
Rising from hotel rooms adorned with toy ships and snarky looking crabs, Rockaway Beach thrives in pacing itself from start to finish. Forget the mad dash between stages to see bands, here it’s all about strolling from one set, over to the arcade Pacman games, and then back for another.
Hype List newcomers Eyesore & The Jinx prowl across the second stage with spaghetti-looped ease, all punk drives and popping licks leaving an undeniable mark (standout number ‘Leisure Time’ kicks back and forth so much you’d wonder if most of the crowd gathered were suffering from whiplash afterwards).
On the other end of the spectrum, The Vegan Leather twist with a charming pop gleam where throwing shapes and revelling in all of its glory is more than encouraged. Nothing feels rushed across the Butlins resort, a chance to sit back and catch bands in full flight enjoying their first gigs of the year.
Rockaway Beach revels in its moments where acts pushing against the boundaries of genre take a step forward. Penelope Isles are illuminating on a Saturday afternoon, all wistful tones and unravelling panoramic swoons that rightly sees a packed room step away from the air hockey tables to stand in wonder. Opening up a world of their own in their half-hour set, it’s nothing short of dazzling.
Likewise, Nova Twins, taking to the festival’s Centre Stage venue (complete with bingo-style seating, another arcade and a gift shop) serve up a powerhouse set perfect for festival stages that in its all too short timeframe sees their blending of heavy riffs and Rage Against The Machine-style callouts win over a crowd eagerly awaiting the opportunity to slip into The Jesus And Mary Chain’s enchanting world. The latter feels like a real moment for an audience who’ve grown up with the cult favourites, pouring across their catalogue with ease and grabbing wide-eyed awe for tracks like ‘April Skies’ and ‘Just Like Honey’.
Not content with releasing a barn-stormer of a second album with The Big Moon a day earlier, Soph Nathan steps up with Our Girl to remind the Butlin’s faithful just how magical their debut album still sounds. Raw with emotion but incredibly tight as a band, it’s a crafted set that lures you in with no regret – taking things up a notch with a quickfire set that signals just how far the trio can go.
On Friday night, SOAK’s in the spotlight with a set that raises the bar even higher. Slotted just before headliner John Cale, she plucks from ‘Before We Forgot How To Dream’ and latest LP ‘Grim Town’. Shimmering with hooks upon hooks, it’s the sort of show that signals an artist coming into their own – with peerless songwriting and harmonies lodging in every festival-goers mind from the get-go.
With form like this, SOAK could be a songwriter who continues to write stunning pop for decades to come, much like Self Esteem who flips Rockaway Beach on its head with a modern pop masterclass that sets itself apart. That’s how to make January seem pretty darn cracking.
With more Hype than the breakfast and dinner buffets, Black Country New Road sizzle with the unpredictable. It’s hard to compare them with any band going right now, all spoken word calls and free-flowing creativity that leaves Rockaway Beach spellbound. ‘Sunglasses’ is a true titan of a song, moving and fidgeting to release itself in a glorious blast, and as a signal for the rest of the set, it’s perfect. Never boring and always intriguing, they’re a band who are keen to challenge both themselves and those listening.
Before stepping up to take on Team Dork in a pretty serious bowling match (more of that later), LIFE prove themselves to be one of the most underrated live bands in the UK. Bursting with energy and in-your-face cracks, their set is stormed with emotion and feverish energy. Lead singer Mez is hitting every home run possible, dropping Jarvis Cocker dance moves and playing the conductor for the band to rip through each and every track. Razor-sharp, lighting smiles and welcoming a devoted response, their set ends on ‘Popular Music’ and Mez sitting atop someone’s shoulders before leaving through the crowd. Job done.
On most weekends at Butlin’s, witnessing that would be the standout highlight you’d be chatting about on the long drive home. Yet closing the weekend is a band who despite taking ownership over 2019, feel like they’re on the cusp of even more. Enter Fontaines DC.
Immediately transforming Butlin’s into a gripping sea of gritty importance, they produce the perfect way to close a weekend peeking into the alternative while being equal distance from a fairground and the beach. Strobes spark as ‘Hurricane Laughter’ fills the room, ‘Dogrel’ as an album now taking on a life of its own after a mammoth 12 months of live shows and anticipation. They let the music do the talking. ‘Chequeless Reckless’, ‘Sha Sha Sha’ and ‘The Lotts’ weaving Dublin skies over Bognor Regis, while ‘Dublin City Sky’ and ‘Roy’s Tune’ silence Rockaway Beach with to-the-bone emotion in jaw-dropping fashion.
Taking the time to debut two new songs (which suggest an even broader level to their sound), it’s the run of ‘Too Real’, ‘Liberty Belle’ and ‘Boys In The Better Land’ that really does the damage, triggering the biggest reactions of the entire weekend – and for good reason. A special band continuing to take new steps, they simply don’t need to do an encore. They’ve already captured the festival.
Whether it’s the large ‘AHOY’ written across the bunk beds, the late-night singalongs in the one bar that becomes home for a weekend, or the constant bright lights and the sounds of pennies dropping into jackpot trays – Rockaway Beach is truly something. Ridiculous? Yes. Unique? Yeah. But we wouldn’t have it any other way. Is there a festival where you can eat four tonnes of ice cream, lose all your money on disturbing cartoon fighting games involving dumplings, AND catch a Mercury Prize-nominated band after witnessing a Prince-meets-Bruce Springsteen tribute band? Turns out there is.
Words: Jake Hawkes, Jamie Muir