“We were trying to learn some Nick Cave songs, but they were much too hard, so we’re just going to play some Undertones songs instead,” jokes guitarist John O’Neill, in reference to last night’s headliner, before his band launch into a feisty version of ‘Jimmy Jimmy’. The Undertones have survived the decades astonishingly well and the crowd they draw to the Explosive Stage on Saturday evening at EXIT Festival is a testament to their place in musical history. Their clutch of taut songs from the original headrush of punk rock in the late 1970s is good enough to match anybody’s, and the likes of ‘Wednesday Week’, ‘It’s Going to Happen’ and ‘My Perfect Cousin’ all still sound vital and alive.
Paul McLoone, who assumed frontman duties in 1999 following the departure of Feargal Sharkey, has both sharp Northern Irish humour and impressive vocal power. By the time the ageless ‘Teenage Kicks’ arrives, the crowd hits the meltdown button. The words of their former manager Terri Hooley still ring true: “When it comes to punk, New York has the haircuts, London has the trousers, but Belfast has the reason.”
Generations of artists rub shoulders at EXIT, and over on the Fusion Stage, one of the current standouts is the Isle of Wight’s Coach Party, who are currently living their best lives. Their double guitar attack is captivating, but it is the storytelling of vocalist/bassist Jess Eastwood that makes the indie rockers stand apart. Tracks from their EPs ‘After Party’ and ‘Nothing is Real’ sparkle, and the infectious enthusiasm of the band leaps off the stage. You get the impression they are in disbelief that they get to spend their summers touring European festivals playing their music, but if this performance is anything to go by, they’d better get used to it.
Walking out of the Fusion Stage area, which Coach Party had made to feel like Brighton’s The Great Escape – an annual festival focused on new music – had been transposed to Serbia, and towards the Main Stage where Calvin Harris is about to appear is like travelling between galaxies. Such is the joyful diversity of what EXIT Festival supplies that even that short walk involves passing stages that in turn are blaring out techno, reggae and punk. The festival’s 2022 slogan ‘Together Always’ turns out to be true: this is a place where all forms of music are welcome, and people are invited to come together to enjoy them in unity.
Bad luck to any artists that are playing during Calvin Harris’ set, though. Tens of thousands gather at the Main Stage, glow sticks primed, for a stroll through a sizeable chunk of the last decade’s most globally-recognised pop music. Is it possible to be starstruck by a setlist? He works his way through one mega-hit after another, each more rapturously received by the EXIT revellers than the last, as Harris casually throws out choruses from his A-list friends, from Rihanna to Dua Lipa and Sam Smith.
You do have to remember that this is not just a mainstream club night playlist, but the work of one man’s contribution to the culture. Harris may trade in familiarity rather than invention, but at this stage, he hits people in their nostalgia zone and that is a festival’s headliner’s ultimate job. For this ecstatic crowd, he couldn’t have done any better.