Words by Ged Camera.
A string of instrument-laden musicians with bemused looks on their faces, and questions such as “Is this it?” or “How will we get our gear in here?” written across their foreheads wandered around Mono bar. Billed as the largest free festival in Manchester, Monofest III did have over 180 bands playing during its four days/five nights, which can appear alluring, but all the bands played in the same venue, across two rooms. So Monofest, an event that takes place a couple of times a year at the diminutive Chorlton bar could also advertise itself as the most cramped environment as well.
Strangely enough, the atmosphere around the two floors was significantly different. On the main entry floor level, its internal seating arrangements comprised bales of hay laid out around two sides of the venue, with the bar and ‘stage’ forming the other two. This provided a relaxed, intimate environment, especially as the acts were always within physical touching distance. So people such as Heidi Dewhirst used this intimacy to engage with the audience and explain why her (drinking) antics at the Edinburgh Festival hopefully wouldn’t impact on her voice too much, and they didn’t. If anything, her pitch-perfect tales of breakups merely gave people ideas that taking up drinking whisky could act as a vocal warm-up exercise.
Similarly, Ancient Evenings, a trio unusually mixing flute, guitar and samples, delivered chilled out sounds that engaged with an audience relaxing in the warm bank holiday sun. Plenty of sharp, witty and acerbic comments are thrown out by the artists, from “Even your blood type is negative” (Alexander Rennie) to Rival Elk’s discussion of ways of giving your money to Theresa May, but not in a well-intentioned fashion.
On accessing the downstairs room, it takes a few seconds for one’s eyes to acclimatise to the darkness. It’s a lot smaller than the area upstairs, some would say more intimate, possibly resembling a dungeon from Pulp Fiction. Perhaps accommodating 20 people maximum, the tunnel-like setup means your natural line of view is to the narrow stage area.
For some of the performers, this is an ideal area to match the intensity of their lyrics or the ferocity of their sounds. Mike Webster is armed with only a guitar, but manages to generate Stars ‘n Bars era Neil Young passion matched with Talking Heads-esque deadpan vocal delivery as he utters, “I want to be invisible”. If that’s the case, then stop making alluring sounds. Similarly, the brooding vibrations of Second System, a duo of two guitarists, complain in an attractive manner that “You’ve turned my house of prayer into a robber’s den.”
Yup, the heartbreak stuff is definitely upstairs and tAngerinecAt, a last-minute addition who’re Manchester-based but with origins in Ukraine, demonstrated that situation admirably. A quick chat with the mild-tempered duo, Paul Chilton and Eugene Purpurovsky, before the set gave no hint of the venom to follow. The hurdy-gurdy that Eugene carried around her looked like a rather large violin, but that displays my ignorance of an instrument that is a mini orchestra in its own right. It seems hard enough to keep it wound up with the right hand and played with the left, but Eugene also had something to say and will make sure you hear it, her eyes piercing through the gloom to deliver the message. Powerful stuff.
Though it isn’t physically possible to watch all the bands – the body’s tiredness overcame the mind’s best intentions – there’s no harm in trying.
Monofest took place from Thursday 25 to Monday 29 August, 2016.