Festival Review: 110 Above 2019

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Well, that’s 10 magical years of 110 Above complete! Held in the middle of gorgeous Leicestershire countryside, at the beautifully quaint Gopsall Farm, it is both incredibly easy, and confusingly difficult, to understand how this festival is so simultaneously intimate and yet busy, bustling and saturated with the best music too.

The festival’s origins (a birthday party around a campfire) remain clear; the friendly, community feel, the tipi’s acoustic performances, and personal touches like framed photographs of Myrtle the cow. However, the growth of the event since its birth a decade ago are evident too. With a line-up seemingly far too large, both in size of artist, and the sheer number of them, it is an indie heaven. Welcome to the hidden-away farm (“it does smell a bit but isn’t is worth it?!” in the words of Lauran Hibberd) where you can listen to your favourite band, discover your new favourite artist, take part in a tribal drumming workshop, drink a £3 pint (yes, that’s correct, only £3!), dance in a sunset lit barn, and watch a fire dancer, all within 200m of each other. You are not going to want to leave… ever.

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The festival began on Thursday with early bird tickets giving eager festival-goers access to the first music of the event. Lunar Kings, previously Idle Frets but now with new guitarist Ben, brought a Clapton-esque bluesy tone to their acoustic set, which was complimented by tight guitar work - a bit of a change from the previous rock past of frontman and lead vocalist Ben (yes there’s two of them). 

The party was started when Airways played the Gopsall Inn, drawing a crowd of close friends and attentive audience members, probably thanks to their energy, even during soundcheck. The beautifully unpretentious nature of the festival really shone through when the lead singer Jake shouted out to his dad, who brought him a tuner app on his phone as, in his words, “I’m not big enough to have one yet.” Their set finished an eruption of applause after Brian’s successful bottle flip… maybe they’re a bit behind current viral trends but they’re bang on when it comes to indie music! 

Thursday night finished with a set from Saint Raymond, who having toured with Ed Sheeran, impressed like a seasoned expert as expected. Crowd favourites were “Younger”, “As We Are Now” and “Wild Heart” which all showed off his incredible guitar skills including intricate fingerpicking melodies. He boasts an extremely well controlled falsetto voice and left everyone desperate for more music the next day.

So Friday came, and with it, so did the few of hundred excited, camping equipment laden festival-goers. The smiles of familiarity from returning visitors, coupled with the thrill of discovery in the eyes of first timers, was clear as they all wandered along the fairy-light-lit path to the camping field, past hand-painted caravans murals and inflatable flamingos.

Marsicans kicked off the day’s music with their indie rock songs that were full of overwhelming energy right from the start, mosh pits forming left, right and centre, and drawing out the dancers from the diversely aged audience. Lead singer James, and bassist Rob, had strong harmonies, supported by some great tremolo picking techniques from guitarist Oliver.

We then headed to my favourite stage: the Old Town Hall stage. What used to be the generator house when Gopsall Farm was Gopsall Manor House, is transformed each year into an ambient barn that glows from the sunlight that shines through in shafts from lofty skylight windows. First to fill this gorgeous space with their equally gorgeous presence and sound was Anteros, whose pattern of using lighter tone guitars to cut through heavy bass tones created indie pop that retained a thick, full sound to match the powerful vocals of lead singer Laura. We watched and listened in awe as she bounced around in stilettos, the sun setting and the golden rays spotlighting her.

We quickly returned to the Commune stage to watch Clean-Cut Kid who exhibited similar guitar playing and riffs to Rival Sons, and the occasional tribute to Jimi Hendrix such as the solo in “Brother of Mine.” The real skill of these musicians is highlighted in their ability to create strong resolutions right before choruses in order to make them feel more full and satisfying, as done particularly well by bassist Gareth, and drummer Ross, who build tension before allowing lead guitarist Mike to break the build and play a well-timed and carefully designed solo.

Swim Deep was our next adventure. Instantaneously you could feel the energy of the room, half of which seemed to be glowing from the band themselves, and the rest from the crowd who clapped along in time to the smashing of the drummer’s neon sticks. Lead vocalist Austin demonstrated some very delicate vocals which were usually backed up by sets of arpeggios from both guitars, occasionally thickened by the very inventive use of phasers and reverb pedals for those rockier tunes.

whenyoung concluded our night in the Gopsall Inn and had one of the best crowd receptions of the festival, the audience singing along with them during soundcheck and losing their minds (and voices!) later in the set when the entirety of “Future” was finally played. They managed to draw a crowd of toddlers and children, teens, and adults, which only grew bigger as they continued their set, and their voices almost drowned out whenyoung’s big hit, “Never Let Go.”

For those starting Saturday with a hangover after enjoying the Gopsall Inn afterparties or late night DJ sets slightly too much, all weariness was danced away to the beat of Deco’s upbeat tunes. The four of them came running out in their matching yellow shirts and overalls looking like Despicable Me minions and lead singer Max was quick to impress with his ease in changing between chest and head voice, carrying songs when the tone was rolled down by the guitarist in order to essentially put a spotlight on the vocals and drum work. After a wild reception to the popular “Chances”, the band was joined for their last song by a saxophone player who synchronised melodies with the lead guitarist and created a funky sound that enthralled the crowd, proven by their repetition of short sections of the tune, and when the entire audience, from old timers to little children, dropped to their knees before explode up and dancing madly as the beat dropped.

SPINN lit up the Old Town Hall thanks to the tech team’s very advanced light programming which seemed to match perfectly with lead singer Johnny’s flashy performance. His vocals were enhanced by the use of a Danelectro and a chorus pedal by guitarist Andy, which should’ve been expected, as their Facebook page does advertise their only likes as ‘cats and chorus pedals’...

The ‘artist you’ve never heard but will fall in love with’ as promised by press manager Rob, was without a doubt the three little words on everyone’s lips after leaving the Gopsall Inn that afternoon: Tom Mouse Smith. Having already supported James Bay, Catfish and the Bottlemen, Madness and The Charlatans, Tom is already off to a flying start. He opened with an original song about his recently deceased uncle, and had the crowd hooked. Hearing the emotion and maturity in this 15-year-old, and seeing how he captivated a whole crowd, silencing even the busy bar at the back, was pure magic. One of his most impressive feats was a cover of “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin, in which he kept his composure throughout difficult guitar riffs, but most importantly doing Robert Plant’s exceptional vocals justice. A special mention also goes to bassist and backing singer Hannah, who learnt all bass parts and harmonies in just 4 days! These two are artists to keep an eye on.

Everyone then flocked to see the Leeds-formed band, Kawala, who credit their name to lead singer Jim’s severe dyslexia, claiming it’s “only edgy because it’s spelt wrong”. “Do It Like You Do” and “Runaway” showcased Jim’s brilliant falsetto control which Dan harmonised with, supported by a wah pedal from electric guitarist Dan (yes, again, another one) to create an ambient tone thanks to the percussive nature of his guitar playing. Having admitted to his own, self proclaimed ‘terrible’ dancing, Jim urged the crowd to continue to groove along to their music and that any move were better than his… and then proceeded to point me out for my weird dancing – we had a laugh about it backstage afterwards though.

Quick to impress on the Commune stage was Zuzu, who showed her talent through pitch perfect melodies and entertained with her theories about why the crowd was so great: “Two reasons - it’s sunny… and you guys are fucked up!” said Beth to the happily tipsy audience. Her hilarious comments and the not-so-subtle twang that permeated her lyrics let everyone with absolutely no doubt as to where this this confident, Scouse powerhouse was from!

Minutes later, it seemed as if the entire festival was crammed happily into the Old Town Hall, the  air buzzing as the entire audience waited for the entrance of the one band whose music tustve been blasted from at least 4 of the portable speakers in the backstage camping area and in the press office. Easy Life. This home-town Leicester alt-indie band, known for their smooth, soft vocals and intricate guitar work, didn’t disappoint. The snare and high hat cut through the lilting spoken word which gave their sound an authentic feel.

King No-One were my highlight of the night, with punchy hit after hit. Lead singer Zach utilised the stage like no other before or after him, clambering and climbing on monitors, stage barriers and clinging to fenceposts as he hung into the crowd, desperate to be as close as possible to them, even allowing a (very persistent) superfan to wear his signature green jacket for the majority of the set. Standout songs were “Alcatraz” and “Antichrist”, both of which had the audience screaming along, with heartfelt cheers as he delivered a speech on the state of society and it’s refusal to accept that “No two people are the same, and we should celebrate our quirks and differences, not isolate them. To at least one person, we’re all an Antichrist”. 

The morning wake up times seemed to be getting later and later but 110 Above was eased into the day singlehandedly by ROE. The 19-year-old girl from Derry played guitar, keyboard and a Roland SPDSX drum pad whilst delivering silky smooth vocals. Róisín started off quite timidly but her stage presence grew enormously as she went on, telling the audience “you’re quite quiet… your problem though, you gotta listen to me talk shite.” Holding the entire crowd’s attention with her voice alone, she avoided jumping around stage or showy tricks, allowing pure talent and the skill of her craft, such as her expertise on the loop pedal, to carry her

Only The Poets were a lucky find, having stumbled upon them between stage changes and wanting to stay after hearing their first song and the pure elation and joy that radiated from lead vocalist Tommy. “Cease Fire” had the crowd singling louder than the band themselves, and newcomers like me chiming in in the chorus too; a very happy accident!

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Benjamin Francis Leftwich eagerly anticipated by many who had listened to him on Spotify, alongside his 2 million other monthly listeners, but never heard him live. His humbleness was evident from the nerves that were apparent in the shaking of his legs, but his husky, smoky, complex voice, and rosewood ‘Martin O’ model guitar were all that anyone could focus on. He boasts exceptional guitar skill like that of Ben Howard and brilliant knowledge of his own voice and music, adjusting it to a live stage by using reverb on bridge sections of more full sounding songs in order to maintain that strength. Benjamin encapsulated the personal, special feel of the festival by performing 3 songs completely acoustic, refusing to use the mic and filling the entire room with his haunting yet calming vocals, leaving the whole crowd stunned, and reeling that he felt more comfortable here than he had done during the entirety of his own 4 month headline tour.

Last to fill the Old Town Hall with her sweet but sassy voice was Masie Peters and she rose to the challenge, announcing that this headline slot, and having her song soundtrack the latest series of Love Island, was the reason her parents had now accepted it was the right decision not to go to uni and instead pursue music! Masie explained every story behind her beautifully crafted songs, allowing the crowd to relate to her and get to know her on a very personal level. Crowd favourites consisted of “Stay Young”, “Favourite Ex” and “Worst Of You” and the set was topped off with an unreleased song under the title “This Is On You”. Keep your ears peeled for this one when it drops!

110 Above’s finale was produced by Pale Waves who were utterly spectacular. As the band walked on stage, the crowd erupted, lights flared, beers flew, and the trance like manner of Heather  Baron-Gracie began to bewitch everyone. Immediately Heather’s tone and pronunciation reminded me of Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries, and her equally mesmerising stage presence. Pale Waves demonstrated why they toured with The 1975, and why they’re so deserved of their own headline slot now. The guitar and drum work are so quintessentially ‘The 1975’ and gave their music a sense of familiarity, but blended with subconscious ‘Cranberries’ influences  they sounded new and explorative. Whilst those with energy left partied on at the barrier, those experiencing a need for the benches and tables at the back gazed into the signature red strobes and at the shiny black leather clad performers, charmed, and hoping to remain in the indie-pop bubble.

So although the weekend came to an end, there is no way that this will be the last of 110 Above for anyone who attended. Everyone I came across, myself included, was either experiencing this festival for the first time and had decided within about 15 minutes of exploring the festival on arrival that they wanted to come back next year, or was a seasoned 110 Above customer, here for their 4th or 5th year in a row.

Maybe it’s the huge headline names, maybe it's the promise of undiscovered but incredible new bands and rising artists, maybe it’s the people and the organisers who chat to you like friends, and think of everything, like raised viewing platforms for children, or maybe its the sheer magic of the combination of all of these things, in the unassuming countryside setting, with the tiny number of people you share the weekend with, making it feel like you’ve been personally invited to the party that started the entire enchanting adventure.

Until next year…

Photography by Alice Sutton

Words by Alice Sutton and Aidan Schultz