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8th September 2023

Manchester Psych Fest 2023: A kaleidoscope of acts returns to Oxford Road

Fast becoming a Manchester institution, the breadth in the lineup was the most psychedelic part of Saturday’s antics at Manchester Psych Fest.
Manchester Psych Fest 2023: A kaleidoscope of acts returns to Oxford Road
Deadletter at The Pink Room, YES (Photo: Antonio Ross)

Written by Tom Cunningham and Antonio Ross 

Manchester Psych Fest returned to the city for its ninth edition this weekend, taking over the Oxford Road Corridor. Hosted over multiple venues along the road, the festival has been steadily growing in reputation and size, and tickets for this year’s festival sold out three days before opening. While the “psych” in the name refers to psychedelia, the festival’s remit is quite a bit broader, as the 60+ acts on the line-up attest to.

Our festival began properly in the basement of the Ritz to see Atmos Bloom, a band featuring Tilda Gratton, former Music Editor of these very pages. It was great to see the intimate venue so full, even if it did make it uncomfortably warm – I wasn’t expecting to be sweating for my first gig of the day! With their dreamy, hazy pop melodies, the band do a brilliant job of chilling out the captivated crowd, even in sweltering conditions. ‘Sea Legs’, the band’s new single, is a particular highlight.

Atmos Bloom at the O2 Ritz basement (Photo: Antonio Ross @The Mancunion)

Stumbling up the O2 Ritz staircase, we come across Jeffrey Lewis and the Voltage. The New York-based “antifolk” songwriter has a conversational style and his songs all come with a healthy dose of humour. His set here is varied, featuring a song with comic book illustrations, a medley of tunes written during the 2020 lockdown (including the Ramones-rework ‘I Wanna be Vaccinated’) and finishing with the musical PowerPoint presentation ‘History of Punk on the Lower East Side (1950-1975)’. Having only intended to see the first ten minutes, we enjoyed ourselves so much that we stayed for the entire set.

After a short stop for lunch (we were disappointed with MPF’s food offerings so made do with a Greggs – the availability of affordable sausage rolls is one of the benefits of a city-based festival), our next gig was Pillow Queens at the MMU Union. The Irish fourpiece have great interaction with the crowd – at one point joking they’re “too gay for the big light” after the lights accidentally come on and telling a fan to “chill out” after they say they’ve already seen them twice – and seem to be genuinely enthusiastic about playing the festival. The performance is excellent too: Pamela Conolly’s vocals have real power throughout but are given particular oomph on ‘Gay Girls’, while set-closer ‘Liffey’ is given a haunting introduction that makes way for big riffs and a rip-roaring finish.

Jeffrey Lewis and the Voltage at the O2 Ritz (Photo: Antonio Ross @The Mancunion)

It’s back up Oxford Road to the Albert Hall for the next set and we probably underestimate the walking distance, getting to the venue 5 minutes before Los Bitchos start performing, by which time the hall is packed. I’m slightly surprised to see such a big crowd for the London-based band, but thrilled that so many people seem to love their Cumbia-inspired instrumental tunes. Technical problems almost ruin the day when Serra Petale’s guitar stops working but the triumphant cheer after she rejoins with a particularly cathartic riff almost makes the whole ordeal worth it. The band’s energy is infectious even at our spot right at the back; it’s impossible for anyone not to be having a great time. This is underlined by the crowd’s almost complete obedience to the cry of “Let’s get those hands up honey pies!” before ‘Pista (Fresh Start)’ and the enthusiastic dancing to the set’s closer – a cover of ‘Tequila’. Simple, brilliant fun.

Los Bitchos at The Albert Hall (Photo: Antonio Ross @The Mancunion)

Crocodiles are next, and we join another expectant crowd packed into the Deaf Institute. The Californian rockers storm onto the stage with great energy and really look the part with their matching leather jackets and sunglasses. Unfortunately, the music can’t quite live up to the aesthetic and the songs feel a little flat despite the enthusiasm. To be fair, this may be due to illness – by his own admission, vocalist Brandon Welchez’s voice is a little squeaky after a cold.

Despite this, the band’s energy can’t be faulted. Aside from lead guitarist Charles Rowell’s stylish showboating (and assertion that Manchester is his favourite city in the world), highlights are ‘Heart Like a Gun’. But, just as things seem to be warming up, Welchez says goodnight and leaves the stage 40 minutes into the gig. This seems to surprise even his bandmates but may have something to do with the fact that Welchez snapped a guitar string during the previous song. We don’t really mind too much, as we use this time to grab a kebab from Zaytoni’s (10/10).

Crocodiles at The Deaf Institute (Photo: Antonio Ross @The Mancunion)

It speaks to the breadth and quality of the MPF lineup this year that there are so many clashes between acts we want to see in the next slot – effectively the “headliner” slot for most venues. The Brian Jonestown Massacre are playing at the Albert Hall, while Antonio (this article’s photographer) attempts to catch bits of both The Murder Capital and Hamish Hawk. However, having seen both of those artists before, I opt for KOKOKO! at Academy 2.

Perhaps the act I saw that most lived up to the “psychedelic” tag, the collective from the Democratic Republic of the Congo was also the band that I was most excited to see. Given their infrequent visits to the UK, they do not disappoint. There are only two members performing – Makara Bianko on percussion and lead vocals and débruit on synthesiser – but the range of noises and rhythms produced by the synths and homemade instruments (think plastic cartons on sticks) create an overwhelming sound that transfixes the audience. The band has buckets of energy too, with Bianko frequently coming out from behind the drums to jump around at the front of the stage. This enthusiasm and willingness to dance is matched by the audience – looking around during ‘Azo Toke’, I notice not one person is standing still.

KOKOKO! provide an almost transcendental experience and it’s hard to tell how much time has passed during the gig (it was one hour) but I have enough time to meet back up with Antonio and make it up to the Ritz for Ezra Furman. As Furman has recently announced a break from touring, I was particularly keen to see her while I still had the opportunity. Coming out to loud cheers, she initially seems a bit overwhelmed by the reception but then quickly launches into an excellent set. Furman’s performance has a bit of everything – from soulful singing on the heartfelt ‘I Saw the Truth Undressing’ to chaotic guitar shredding and jumping around on ‘Body Was Made’, the crowd lapped it up. Some of the words between songs seem to get lost on the more worse-for-wear audience members (it’s midnight at this point), yet the music speaks for itself.

Ezra Furman at the O2 Ritz (Photo: Antonio Ross)

We begrudgingly leave Ezra Furman 10 minutes early as we’re worried our final band of the day – Deadletter in YES’s Pink Room at 1am – might be busy. It’s a good job we do, too, as when we arrive there is already a queue all the way down the stairs, but luckily we get in before the band starts playing. Songs such as ‘Binge’, ‘Fit For Work’, and ‘The Snitching Hour’ are excellent pieces of music in their own right, and a big part of the reason the London-via-Yorkshire band are so good live comes down to frontman Zac Lawrence’s incredible performances. Despite the near-constant mosh pits in front of the stage, Lawrence throws himself into the crowd with reckless abandon – one minute leading everyone in crouching down, the next sliding along the floor on his back, the next crowdsurfing – all while taking the wired microphone with him. It is rare to see a frontman with such control over a crowd and set-closer ‘Zeitgeist’ gets a particularly rowdy reception. Deadletter will repeat this feat at the same venue in October; consider this your warning to get tickets before you regret missing out.

Deadletter at the The Pink Room, YES (Photo: Antonio Ross @The Mancunion)

All in all, Manchester Psych Fest 2023 was a roaring success. The event continues to go from strength to strength and the variety, quality, and quantity of acts on offer make it well worth the ticket price. Early bird tickets are already on sale for next year’s festival and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for 2024!

Antonio Ross

Antonio Ross

Photographer @ The Mancunion | Instagram: @reflectionless.ross

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