If you were to organise and plan a fantasy festival - where would it be, who would perform and what would be specifically unique about the event? Whatever the result, it probably wouldn’t quite match up to Sicily’s mighty Ypsigrock Festival… and that is no overstatement. Taking place in the grounds of a 14th Century castle, elegant churches and cloistered courtyards throughout the centre of the hill-top town of Castelbuono; the festival is only one hour from the wild and wonderful streets of Palermo, or a mere 20 minutes from the turquoise Mediterranean Sea. Its location is nothing short of spectacular as you gaze upon quaint cobbled streets and gorgeous rustic piazzas, set within the crown of Madonie Mountains and their sweeping valleys. If camping, your tent is actually pitched within a fragrant pine forest nearby the ‘Cuzzocrea’ stage with yet more live acts and DJ’s, should you feel the need to party all night long.
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Add into the mix the friendly local community, (reasonably priced) Michelin star restaurants, delicious indigenous wines and the best gelato you’ve ever tasted, and you’re off to a rather good start. Attending for the first time in 2017 on the recommendation of Mogwai who proclaimed it to be ‘The Best’; the festival certainly took my breath away and went straight to the top of my list. I knew I had to return.
All these exceptional extras would be ruined however, were the line-up to be shoddy and overtly populist of course. To enjoy stunning scenery, food, wine and conversation, you need a quality soundtrack to compliment it. Now in its 22nd year, the Ypsigrock organisers definitely take their music seriously. I have personally witnessed them scanning stages at Brighton’s Great Escape for new talent; and their knowledge of heritage indie, electronic and world-music acts is also well renowned. Over the years, they have featured the likes of Belle & Sebastian, Fat White Family, Django Django, Primal Scream, Alt J, Jon Hopkins, Mudhoney and Beach House amongst many others. This year’s curation was an effortless continuation, with an Italian exclusive for the legendary Jesus and Mary Chain. In essence, this is a festival run by fans for fans.
Despite a warm-up evening on Thursday, the festival kicked off in earnest on Friday with Montreal oddballs Random Recipe followed by the post-punk experimentation of Girls Names at the ‘Chiostro Di San Francesco’, the cloistered ‘Ypsi & Love Stage’. Another Montreal duo Blue Hawaii unfortunately had troubles with their set, due to vital equipment not making it via air transit. An improvised laptop set still won the hearts of the Sicilian hoards however in a rather sweaty ‘Ex Chiesa Del Crocofisso’, itself a deconsecrated church renamed the ‘Mr Y Stage’. As the heat subsided somewhat and the sun set, the festival masses moved slowly towards the iconic Castle square to the ’Ypsi Once Stage’ for an eclectic concoction of frazzled goth-tinged indie by The Horrors, over-stylised Norwegian pop by the Kate Bush loving Aurora, and the impressive soul-tinged French popsters Her. As headliners, The Horrors frankly disappointed with distinct lack of substance and a muddy sound, so the night was stolen from their grasp by Australian party-starters Confidence Man - a musical polar opposite, who transformed the castle crowd into a tongue-in-cheek, Balearic disco of pure, unbridled joy and riotous funk over their 40 minute stage time.
As festival goers recover from the previous night’s indulgences, Ypsigrock’s music begins again at a sensible 5pm allowing trips to the beach, a chance to feast further on local delicacies and to catch up on a midday nap. Following sterling groundwork from local songwriter Her Skin, North London R’n’B troupe Ama Lou, and Sicilian percussion legend Alfio Antico whose show was in the Castello Dei Ventimiglia itself; Saturday’s mainstage acts fared far better. Atlanta Georgia experimentalists Algiers set the night alight as they powered through their own mix of Gospel, electronics and noisy, psychedelic rock. Here is a modern band that somehow straddle the fascinating worlds of post-punk and soul music, intertwining politics and sloganeering with a dystopian shrug to the world around. It was an electric performance.
Swedish indie-heroes The Radio Dept followed with a far more low-key but no less impressive presence, showcasing their refined indie-pop and recycled baggy rhythms. Their set was a perfectly executed, melody-laden, melancholy delight from a band who play so rarely these days. Perhaps not a festival headliner in their native UK, Leeds collective Vessels delivered to a capacity Castle courtyard with their relentless blend of electronica, house and krautrock. Eschewing any guest vocalists, who do occasionally feature on record, their meticulous builds and drops suited the revellers and led them in a dance. To finish the night, a trip to the campsite was in order to watch the legendary Bob Log III perform on a stage deep within the heart of a mountain forest. Imagine a madman dressed in a space-suit and helmet, screaming through a telephone receiver, playing lightning speed, finger-pickin’ blues straight from the garage. Well, the inebriated Italians lapped it up and so did I…
With that feeling of impending doom that often accompanies the end of a festival, Sunday’s bill was essentially the strongest of the weekend and also displayed the diversity at the heart of the festival. Legendary Afrobeat warrior Seun Kuti brought Nigeria’s empowered, political dancefloor-jazz to Sicily with his incredible backing band, Egypt 80. Doing his father Fela’s memory more than proud, the amassed Ypsigrock devotees let their hair down and danced from the beginning to the end of his energised, passionate set; which drew material from his own and father’s far-out and funky repertoire. Alongside the mainstage headliners to come, this was most definitely THE highlight of the festival and an honour to encounter within the Ypsi & Love cloistered confines.
Following admirable support from buzzing London punks Shame, but a lacklustre display from the once incendiary …And you will know by the Trail of Dead; the night and indeed the festival belonged to East Kilbride nihilists, The Jesus & Mary Chain. Having seen the band perform two years ago in a reformed guise and been somewhat disheartened; I was delighted to see a transformed group play new songs and old with a renewed passion and precision. The guitar sounds were eviscerating and their Stooges meets Shangri-Las songwriting suss was centre-stage once again. From ‘Psychocandy’ to ‘Damage & Joy’ via ‘Darklands’, ‘Automatic’ and more, the set-list was merciless and had the audience in a state of rock’n’roll delirium. A hugely important band of the last 30 years, it was satisfying to see them back on form and clearing enjoying themselves. What an end to an astonishing few days.
With talks, seminars, art exhibitions and children’s activities also happening throughout the weekend, not to mention tasty Molinari Sambuca cocktails on hand - Ypsigrock excelled once again. With this kind of track record over 22 years, it must now be seen as one of the most tasteful and considered ‘boutique’ festivals in Europe, if not the world… Grazie e Arrivederci Castelbuono!