Manchester’s Fair Play Festival crams a stellar lineup into one rollercoaster day.

The festival showcases an absorbing run of the best live bands in the country, veering from the intensely danceable to the commandingly restrained.

Scalping by Kitty Handley | Words: Lloyd Bolton

Rubbing our eyes in the grey midday light we found ourselves on Manchester’s Oldham Street as it stirred to life for the return of Fair Play Festival. For one day only, this was to be the strip around which the day festival, now in its second year, would revolve. Fair Play is built around the values its name indicates, insisting on fair artist pay, accessible ticket prices and an inclusive lineup.

The day’s jam-packed schedule mercifully allowed time at the start of day to catch the important and ultimately disappointing Manchester City victory over Liverpool during a pub lunch. Deflated by the reminder that if Arsenal were going to win the league, nobody else was going to do it for them, we headed out to lift our spirits with the delights of our first festival of the year.

As some of the first through the door at Gullivers, we were handed a can of Fair Play’s own beer, a rather nice IPA to sip on at the start of an afternoon. (All self-respecting festivals these days are required to have their own beer that is rather nice to sip on of an afternoon.) We headed upstairs into the sensory deprivation of a remarkably dark gig room, struggling to make our way towards the stage through barely visible silhouettes in front of us. This confusion infinitely heightened the joy of watching Mumbles, a chaotic three piece bringing infinite surprise to a uniquely playful form of post-rock. Clarinets: shredded. Trousers: intense. Having forgotten to pack a t-shirt for Sunday I was glad to cop one of theirs for a tenner, which reads ‘Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant’ ad infinitum. Gullivers began to fill up, developing a cheerful mix of festival and pub atmosphere. Upstairs was London’s mysterious and ingenious Silkarmour, downstairs folks played interesting looking board games.

Slow Cooked by Manc Wanderer

From here, the obvious move was to set up camp in the Night and Day Café, which made a compelling case for being the only place to be for the rest of the day. Opening the stage was Slow Cooked, who we owed a beer for his wonderful personal preview of the festival. Clad in a professional grey suit with no shirt, living out the fantasy of his ‘Wolf of Whitechapel’, he silenced the room with a squalling cello intro before bringing his band on stage. His set was cathartic, barbed jokes about corporate nonsense resonating with the Saturday crowd fresh from a week’s work. This was something of a homecoming show for Slow Cooked, who had a string of family in tow remaining firmly at the back of the room despite his using several intervals to implore them to take over the dancefloor.

Slow Cooked returned to the stage an hour later, this time playing cello in Platonica Erotica’s band. In spite of some slight monitoring problems and occasional coughing fits during the instrumentals, this maintained the breathtaking rock grandeur she has cultivated in the past year. Relative oldies like ‘King of New York’ clashed with exciting new songs, including a delicately brilliant closer called ‘Pawn Shop’.

After a dinnertime struggle to find somewhere we could get a table (note for next year: book ahead, it’s central Manchester on a Saturday night), we were back on Oldham Street and went to check out The Castle Hotel. Here, a theatrical small backroom is wedged behind a pub front, making for a fun contrast in atmosphere. We walked in to the sound of Lyn Vegas clashing with ‘Like a Prayer’, but with the door shut the modern yet chapel-like room was very atmospheric. Vegas’ set brought a different pace to the day, presenting a glacially shifting form of dance music that sounded a bit like a remix of the noise the Victoria Line makes, if you can imagine that being beguilingly restful.

Lunch Money Life by Sinead Ferguson

From here we hopped back to Night and Day for the unapologetically bizarre Lunch Money Life. I had somehow missed their set twice at previous festivals despite their track ‘Royalty Laid Bare Before God’ demanding a heavy underlining of their name on every programme. I am glad to report that the heaviness and ridiculousness of that track remains in tact for their live shows. The singer in wraparound shades and shaven head comes across like some kind of Waluigi, leering in triumph as he sways above a rather complicated looking synthesiser. A song I didn’t recognise had me gaping in bewildered joy at its impossible drum rhythm, which made one want to dance even though it seemed to be in several time signatures at once. Introducing one song, they requested to the sound tech, “Mr. Sound, if that isn’t sorta terrifying… it should be”. That’s about as good an introduction as any to Lunch Money Life.

Fair Play is a day of beautiful contrasts, so it was fitting to stay at Night and Day for the next act: Naima Bock. Though unfortunately unable to arrange a full-band performance, she was nonetheless captivating performing solo on acoustic guitar. Concerns that her gentle style might get lost in the noise of the night were allayed within the first song, such is her commanding stage presence and spellbinding vocal delivery, which switches seamlessly between voicings and in and out of conventional timing. ‘Giant Palm’ was one of the standout albums of last year, and tracks from that (including a magically dressed down ‘Every Morning’) shone alongside 2023 single ‘Lines’.

Naima Bock by Manc Wanderer

From here, it was a tight run round the corner to Soup, the venue taken over for the day by Bristol label Spinny Nights. Concluding the day’s showcase of their distinctly eclectic and unique artists were Scalping. As I overheard in the loos at Night and Day, “It’d be nice to wake up with a bit of whiplash”. Soup was packed wall-to-wall, an atmospheric zoo swarming with the sweat and violent pulse of Scalping’s hypnotic set. While their set at End of the Road’s gigantic and near-pitch black Big Top last year felt like some kind of immense rave church happening, this was far more feral, becoming the brutally concrete basement venue.

From here, we ran back over to Night and Day to catch the end of Mandrake Handshake’s all-singing all-shaking set, which had drawn a crowd up for a relatively more blissed out kind of dance party. Then, continuing the run of extreme contrasts, it was time for Shovel Dance Collective. We returned to Gullivers, the downstairs bar packed by people taking a moment to recalibrate after Scalping, including Slow Cooked, who testified to the show’s fantastic intensity. We worked our way up the narrow staircase into the black room, which was eerily suited to an end-of-the-night folk sing-song.

Drawing mainly from their brilliant late 2022 album ‘The Water is the Shovel of the Shore’, the set was imposingly atmospheric. The beer-soaked frenzy of Scalping was replaced by the sparkling gloom of songs predominantly concerning human experiences of water, including a particularly chilling lament about whaling. The group draw the listener in with absorbing attention to layers and dynamics, at one point led by such quietly delivered vocals that their content was abstracted into pure vulnerable feeling.

Shovel Dance Collective by Kitty Handley

At the close of the set we were returned into the light of the bar, finding ourselves in a mood to replace our vodka cokes with pints of bitter. After a brief return to reality, it was off to catch the last act of the night, Grove, the final trick up Spinny Nights’ sleeve. They arrived on a sea of moody synth pads, exuding the confidence that befits their new status as go-to festival afterparty headline. Reporting on a tumultuous day flying in for the show and having the airline lose all of their gear, they explained that they had “Frankensteined a set”, rebuilding the backing track in the little time available before the show. You wouldn’t have known it watching the performance, hits like ‘Skin2Skin’ cutting through as meatily as ever.

From here, it was only up to Mandrake Handshake to see the night out with a closing DJ set, straining to fit as many of them as possible around the decks to play out those who somehow had enough stamina to keep on dancing until the smallest hours. Fair Play is about the tightest collection of performances you’ll find on Britain’s city streets, platforming an extensively unmissable lineup over just a few hours. The unreal joy of the day remained with us on the taxi ride through a wonderfully Hieronymus Bosch Manchester city centre and that was that.

Grove by Manc Wanderer