Autumn in Dreamland – a report from Margate’s By The Sea festival

By The Sea @ Dreamland, Margate. 30 September – 1 October

Margate’s cultural renaissance is gathering pace with the recent arrival of two-day seaside shindig By The Sea. Now in its second year and with an expanded capacity of 2,500, the fest attracts trainloads of London-based punters, together with a hefty proportion of locals, and has two big plus points: it’s bang in the middle of Margate with easy access to the town’s quaint and contemporary cultural highlights, and – perhaps more importantly – it’s based at Dreamland, a retro theme park at which all the rides are free.

Although the bands play indoors, you couldn’t quite describe this as an indoor festival – with the two stages separated by Dreamland, studded with food stalls and bars under the Kentish sky, it has the feel of something quite different. Quirkiness is this event’s USP – from wooden rollercoasters and mermaids being pushed around in shopping trolleys, to Jarvis Cocker manoeuvering himself into a booth to play a DJ set at the dodgems, By The Sea is nothing if not characterful.

Dreamland photographed by Jon Mo

And the crowd really is in holiday mode – everyone has a warm bed to go to at the end of the night; the bands don’t start until teatime so everyone has spent the day either on the Dreamland rides or taking bracing walks along the beach. It makes for an ultra-happy vibe on Friday night.

As you wander between the marvellously close stages, your eyes are benevolently assaulted by the bright lights of the funfair, the ferris wheel and the old-school arcade. Equally engaging is the music of Wild Beasts, performing their shiny, perfectly assembled pop in front of a backdrop bedecked by a devilish figure with dead eyes. Energy throbs and pulses throughout the room, the neon without matching the neon within, while the ultra-catchy falsetto yelps of the likes of ‘Watch Me’ pierce the heated air.

The undisputed kings of Friday night, though, are Super Furry Animals, resplendent as always in standard-issue white biohazard suits. ‘Rings Around The World’ starts the party in a big way with its crunchy sub-Quo riffs, while at times the set is as close as you can get to an indie rave; the Furries’ stylistic canon is wide enough to embrace all-comers, and they’re on buzzing form tonight. When the classic ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’ drops, the touchpaper is lit and the place virtually explodes.

On Saturday there’s a daytime fringe event at the town’s museum, and in a wonderfully ornate room Slow Club somehow pull off one of the sets of the weekend –Rebecca Taylor’s poised, poignant and at times incredibly soulful voice conveying depthless heartbreak.

Slow Club photographed by Jon Mo in the town’s museum

Let’s Eat Grandma, by contrast, are compellingly odd, their icy music matched by an equally icy performance; their vaguely unsettling, unsmiling synchronicity plays well against their sometimes otherworldly songs.

Meanwhile Natasha Khan’s blood-red dress and bridal bouquet have been her props throughout Bat For Lashes tour of remarkable latest album ‘The Bride’. Khan is a performer who exudes artistry and class, her graceful movements on stage tied to the polished, intelligent art-pop of her music. She moves with a theatrical intensity, seeming to really deeply feel the emotions in these songs. Khan peppers the set with a couple of hits; ‘Daniel’ is huge, while ‘Laura’ soars, its bare simplicity of a piano and a voice bringing hot, sad tears to the eyes of the crowd.

Natasha Khan photographed by Jon Mo

Classical composer turned purveyor of oddball floorfillers Anna Meredith is a genuinely innovative and interesting artist. Tonight there’s the odd but welcome sight of a huge tuba on stage as she rips out a vicious cacophony of thrilling, hard-edged noise. Meredith periodically attacks a snare drum like she’s trying to kill it, and for those who really want to dance on a Saturday night, this is where the fun is. And that’s the overwhelming vibe of the perfectly formed By The Sea festival. Long may we dream in Dreamland.