The inaugural Krankenhuas Festival, curated by British Sea Power and set within the grounds of Muncaster Castle, itself set in sprawling lush Cambrian countryside.
Friday afternoon, early September. There’s a slight breeze wafting over the south Cumbrian fells, colliding with warm air gently teasing the West Cumbrian coastline near Ravenglass. As punters struggle to gauge the wind resistance as they pitch their tents, you can hear Kendal’s finest, British Sea Power, rehearsing for their own festival, Krankenhaus.
The noise seeps through the trees, rebounding off branches, diluted by zephyrs. It’s 3pm, two hours before BSP will herald the start of Krankenhaus, the brainchild, it would emerge later, of guitarist Martin Noble. The setting is Muncaster Castle, an absolute gem nestled away in the thick green landscape, hiding its wonder away from the busy A595 that slithers around it.
4pm, and the castle and its grounds seem shielded from the wind, and it’s become a sun-kissed picture postcode. There’s wild heron feeding taking place in front of the castle with the fells and mountains standing guard in the background. England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, nudges out over to the west. It’s a truly magnificent setting for a festival, and typical of a band as pastorally aware as BSP. It’s beatific, it’s wondrous; it’s a festival that has draped itself in greenery and become part of the scenery.
Every band, poet, artist, idea and even the location itself is the decision of BSP. They have somehow managed to create a festival that screams British Sea Power, and formed a coming together to replace their previous fanbase gathering at the Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub above sea level in the British Isles.
Limited to just 500 people, the main stage – the only real stage – is a in a barn, ideal for all weathers, and it’s surprisingly good acoustically. BSP will play every night. Why not? It’s their festival.
But before they do, they’ve enlisted the help of an eccentric and eclectic mix of bands and artists to open the festival before their Friday night set.
First up are Penelope Isles, a band, not an artist, like their name might suggest. They’re fresh from supporting The Flaming Lips, and their instinctive charm and alt-rock tendencies shaped on the Isle of Mann-via-Brighton is the perfect opening to Krankenhaus.
They’re followed by Bristol’s Squid, who bring a mad, eclectic, stupidly exciting new noise to the masses. Their mind-melting post-punk, led by singing drummer Ollie Judge, is a sure-fire hit with punters.
After the energy of Squid, Rozi Plain offers a more relaxed, fresh air of sonic whirling. Plain’s dreamscapes waft over the barn’s crowd just as the autumnal evening turns chilly.
To warm us all up are DSM IV, Guy McKnight’s new project. McKnight, as you may recall, found relative fame in goth-rock titans The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster. DSM IV, named after a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, naturally, take McKnight’s gothic growlings and give them an eighties filter that is so strong, the band actually sound like Soft Cell had Marc Almond been a slightly more bonkers tracksuit-wearing deviant from Brighton. His band create pulsating tight guitar riffs and devilish bass-lines backed by a drum machine. Gone is his growl. In its place is an actual singing voice, with proper tunes and everything. Who knew?
McKnight, though, it’s clear to see, is perturbed about the fact that the crowd’s energy does not match his own. On almost every song, he’s in the crowd, bouncing around and shouting into people’s faces, desperately trying to whip up the Friday night party. But he never really manages it. But fair play to him for trying.
Next up are The Pictish Trail, a band from the Isle of Eigg, just off Scotland’s jagged western coast. Led by the naturally funny Johnny Lynch, they perform songs that merge folk with deep beats that sound like The Beta Band.
Johnny jokes that only he has a phone signal on the site (he’s not far wrong, the signal is non-existent. But we’re at one with nature here, right?) so informs the barn of breaking news, including that of Michael Gove’s death and Michael Heseltine’s urinating glee at such news. You had to be there, but his wit and banter make the Scots one of the festival highlights.
They make way for the first of the three British Sea Power sets over the course of the festival. Friday’s set is all about the songs which they seldom play; the gems that have been dusted down and polished to remind us just what an arsenal of material the band have. 75 minutes fly by, as songs like Fear of Drowning and Larsen B; Spring Has Sprung and Praise for Whatever offer us a rare insight into the depths of this band. It’s a truly magnificent set that also includes two new songs, sung by Hamilton, and the band’s dancing bears jig their way through the audience as the set reaches its climax.
But Friday isn’t over yet. There’s a DJ set by none other than the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. He invites the audience to get on stage and dance along to indie hits, and there’s even late live music from The Modern Ovens, a band featuring BSP members Hamilton and Noble who cover songs by Modern Lovers/Jonathan Richman.
On Saturday, there’s a RSPB guided walk, and readings and music in Muncaster Castle itself. Callum Easter performs his Scottish accordion-led trippy folk in a room adorned by paintings of the castle’s ancestry. The two actually complement each other very well.
One of the highlights of Saturday comes in the afternoon. By this time the Sun has baked the south Cambrian fells and shores, and many campers have taken to soaking up the rays at the campsite. But in the barn, it’s time for Bingo Ningen, which is essentially a game of bingo with Japanese psych-rockers Bo Ningen as your bingo callers. It’s the stuff of Noel Fielding’s dreams, as Napalm Death-esque sharp snippets of noise herald the call of the number. The contrast between the heavy, dark noise and the meek bingo call is what makes it so funny. This should become ‘a thing’, it really should.
Joy Division/New Order drummer Stephen Morris then takes to the stage for a Q&A session and book signings before Celestial North provide the music, with BSP drummer Woody, er, well, drumming. Their lush indie-folk stylings are ideal for a teatime treat.
There’s then another reading, this time from poet-turned DJ (for this festival at least), Simon Armitage.
At this point, many punters are beginning to think about their stomachs (there are a few food vans scattered around a courtyard outside the barn, offering veggie, vegan and meat. There’s also a chill out hut and table tennis. Of course). But those who choose food over Mr Ben and The Bens missed a treat. Fresh-faced rock ‘n’ roller Ben weaves some guitar magic to provide a bit of old-skool rock n roll on an early Saturday evening. Marc Riley is a big fan of their clean-cut, playful ditties. It’s easy to see why.
As darkness descends outside, it does so on stage also, as Bo Ningen return. If their earlier diversion into bingo calling was comedic and light, their 45-minute set is the polar opposite. They transfix the crowd with a mesmerising display of psych-rock dexterity and skill. It’s gonzo Japanese noise at its most brutal, and it’s superb.
It’s then time for what many of today’s crowd have been waiting for: BSP’s ‘Greatest Hits’ set, and it doesn’t disappoint. Peppered with prime cuts from their back catalogue, with all the songs you’d expect (Waving Flags, Remember Me, Carrion, It Ended on an Oily Stage, Bad Bohemian et al), it brings out the dancing bears once again, and as they dance through the crowd, Yan also gets involved in the throng during The Spirit of St. Louis (see video below). He’s flung from person to person, crowd surfing and offering the mic to fans for them to yelp into. They end with the quite stunning Great Skua, an instrumental so brilliantly exhilarating and powerful, with its terrace-like “oohhhhhhhh” ‘chorus’ chanted in unison, arms aloft. There are hairs tingling on necks and emotions sky high as it concludes. If Friday’s set was impressive, this was sensational.
But still it’s not over. Snapped Ankles, a band you simply have to see live to appreciate them fully, emerge like Yetis in overalls with glowing eyes and all manner of instruments. The patriarchal Yeti barks instructions to the audience like a hirsute Mark E. Smith, and then joins us, splitting us in two and getting us to kneel on the ground whilst their frazzled post-punk proves equally as foreboding.
It’s a crazy set, but the day’s craziness doesn’t end there. Finishing off the day is ex-snooker champ Steve Davis, who brings Saturday to a close with a DJ set. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. Steve Davis became a DJ. Only at Krankenhaus.
Sunday is a day of rest, of course, but there’s too much of it. If there is to be one criticism of the festival it’s that it’s almost too relaxed, with a lack of music in parts of the day that could have been filled by a band. With only one real stage – apart from the brief sortie into the castle – there are no alternatives. Of course, there are bird of prey displays at the castle, and there’s half price travel on the Ravenglass and Eskdale narrow gauge railway to enjoy, but the festival could have profited from a little bit more music. But it’s a mild gripe at what is, after all, their first Krankenhaus Festival.
Mylittlebother kick-start the noise at 2pm in the barn with their indie-pop, and Slow Tree slow things down with a set of minimalist songs that gently wash over the crowd. Again, the band consist of BSP members, this time violist Abi and Hamilton.
Even woozier is the duo of poet William Burns and multi-instrumentalist Hannah Peel. They have teamed up for an album that combines Burns’s stark tales and Peel’s achingly sparse offerings. Hannah begins the set with a beatific version of New Order’s Blue Monday, played on an old music box. From there, Burns and Peel co-habit the stage to deliver their musings via his voice and her plaintive piano and violin. It kind of works, but again, if this type of thing ain’t your thing, there is no alternative.
And if ever there was a need for a touch of escapism, it’s during The Utopia Strong’s one-song, 25-minute set. Featuring last night’s superstar DJ Steve Davis, Gong-man Kavus Torabi and multi-instrumentalist Michael J. York, they take us on a psychedelic ramble through the mind of Wayne Coyne at his most divisive and self-indulgent, and conjure an ambient, minimalist, experimental piece of music, with bagpipes, a triangle, twiddled knobs and Torabi using what appears to be a screwdriver dragged along the frets of his guitar. At one point, Torabi goes over to Davis, bespectacled and sat hunched over his magic box of beeps and bleeps, and says something to him. Davis suddenly becomes animated and jumps up off his stool to shout “I don’t know!”, almost as an admission of his own confusion. You can argue that this one-song set is mesmerizing and entrancing, but when the highlight of their set is an ex-snooker player confessing to not knowing what the hell he’s doing, the argument is lost.
At least they provided a talking point for the audience ahead of the festival’s closing set. Billed as the ‘Gentle Set’, BSP run through a selection of rarities and B-sides, which ends with the sublime To the Land Beyond. The set achieved its goal of being genteel, sending us off early on a Sunday evening with pure memories of the festival still in our heads, but it was also beautifully constructed. No dancing bears this time, no stage-diving and no gimmicks; just a band who sound better than they ever have, completing their own festival with some aplomb.
Whether Krankenhaus is a one-off or a debut of what will become an annual gathering remains to be seen, but with a few bits of tinkering, this BSP-curated shindig has the potential to become a Mecca for the band’s fans.
To coin a phrase from British Sea Power themselves, it was very much totally wicked, and equally ace.
Videos and photos from Krankenhaus
British Sea Power performing Oh Larsen B from their Friday night set
BSP performing The Spirit of St Louis during their ‘Greatest Hits’ set on the Saturday evening
The view of the fells from the castle
Guy McKnight fronting his new project, the DSM IV
Penelope Isles kicking off the festivities
Scafell Pike nudging out in the distance. Completed it, mate.
Panoramic view taken from a public footpath on a railway bridge over the River Mite in Ravenglass looking out towards the estuary.
Similar shot of the River Mite estuary without the panorama
The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway’s Dalegarth terminus.
Live heron feeding