With Portishead, Grinderman, Liars

Alexandra Palace. Sunday. It's blazing hot - the sort of day memories of childhood trips to the fair are made of. Only this fair sells doomy, avant-rock and squalling jazz, not candy floss.

Saturday: Doom, PJ Harvey and The Books played, along with curators Portishead. Your reporter wasn’t there. Today (Sunday), though, has several irresistible draws. Portishead again, but also Liars, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the intrigue of seeing whether Anika is as brilliantly awful/awfully brilliant live as she is on vinyl.

Bleak, uncertain, beautiful

Godspeed are an unusual choice to kick off any festival. A great band, but hardly the gang to get the party started. Today though, they play a blinder. A greatest hits set, of sorts, it's a thrilling reminder of why their debut sounded so fresh at the fag end of the nineties. ‘Dead Metheny’ has a truly epic thrust. Set closer 'The Sad Mafioso' is, perhaps, even better.

I say perhaps because at this point I'm out of the West Hall, nursing a partner who has succumbed to the unbearable heat in the venue. Alas, what should have been a five-minute breather ends with us unable to return to the show, thanks to a labyrinthine one-way system around the venue and the fuck awful security. All attempts to engage in conversation fail. (Sample dialogue: Me: Excuse me... Guard: No! No! No! Back! Me: Er, how do we get back into the gig? Guard: No!). So yeah. Thanks guys. It's not like I've waited 12 years to hear that song live, or anything.

But hey – here's Liars to cheer us up. Full disclosure: I love them. I think they're one of America's finest and that they should be as revered as Radiohead. Today though, they look like they're struggling a bit. Angus is leaping about the stage like a man possessed, but the airy expanse of the Great Hall robs them of some of their witchy power. Still, they rise to the occasion by playing as aggressively as possible. Most of ‘Sisterworld’ gets an airing and there are some fan-pleasing nuggets, including a fantastic 'Loose Nuts On The Veladrome'.

We don't need a sign to know better times

No sooner has Angus Andrew finished looming over the crowd, three silver pyramids mysteriously arrive on stage. Beach House follow and the pyramids start to flash. “Pretend it's not light out there,” pleads singer Victoria Legrand, sensing the inexorable pull of sunshine, cider and the taco stand. In truth, after the GY!BE/Liars double-header, a change of pace is welcome. But despite playing a raft of tracks from their fantabulous ‘Teen Dream’, their set never quite takes off. It's a nice breather, but a little underwhelming.

I want you, but you're making me sick

Anika’s Nico-esque vocals and precise sloppiness are something of an acquired taste. Many come, bob along to the throbbing bass and pulsing synths, then leg it when she opens her gob. A shame, because she’s a fantastic front-woman: ice-cold, sexy and amusingly imperious on stage. 'Yang Yang' is extraordinary, and 'Officer Officer' is much better than the vinyl version. With the band still playing, she stalks off stage. It's a second-hand punk move, but still a good one.

Tea time. Snatches of Swans and Alan Moore are caught – both as fascinating and oblique as you'd expect. But we need food, so spend half an hour trying to navigate the building. Security are refusing to let someone back in with a pint they clearly bought inside just moments before. Lord only knows why.

When we return, Grinderman are in full force. The received wisdom heard echoing around the building later, is that this was the show of the day. I disagree. It's great to see Cave tearing about the stage, howling like a maniac, and – in contrast to some of the other bands – they look comfortable on stage. But there's also a slight sense that everyone is going through the motions. They're a terrific band, but Cave looks like he's ready to try something new again.

You only get what you deserve

Finally, for those of us bound to the last tube home, Portishead. And my how they've changed! The decade-long career pauses, artistic blocks and other mishaps are hard to tally with the slick, purposeful unit on display here tonight. 'Silence' opens the show, transforming the dark album track into a kraut-like groove-fest, while 'Wandering Star' loses its beat and becomes a spectral torch song, with Beth essentially unchanged, hunched, singing her heart out like it’s 1994 again.

It's an astonishing show, with only a faltering, curtailed 'Chase The Tear' marring proceedings. After a humble and appreciative thank you, they finish with an extended 'We Carry On'. Later, Caribou closes the day's festivities, but by then I'm racing towards King's Cross, cursing my lack of car, and thinking of Portishead, hopefully basking in their deserved victory and planning a studio date for the near future.

Words by Will Salmon

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