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Simple Things 2024: Bristol’s kaleidoscopic showcase of leftfield music returns

Returning to the city after a five-year hiatus, Simple Things delivers a 10th anniversary programme that celebrates Bristol’s vibrant music scene whilst welcoming a kaleidoscope of international sounds into the fold. DJ Mag’s Olivia Stock reports back

There’s always been a certain irony to Simple Things, in that, there’s nothing really simple about the Bristol festival at all. Its line-up sprawls across ten city centre stages and even more genres — pitched to you via a line-up poster that evokes the same feeling of nausea as one of those 3D internet optical illusions — and promises upwards of fifteen hours of musical entertainment. But, that is precisely what makes it one of the most unmissable events on the leftfield music calendar.

Having braved a five-year hiatus, Simple Things returns with a tenth anniversary bill to satiate both the two-steppers and the mosh-pitters — with heavyweights including newly-minted Brit-winner Casisdead, MC and grime pioneer Flowdan, and barmy art-punks Les Savy Fav. The festival’s flagship day of music comes sandwiched amidst a week-long celebration of underground culture, as well as Bristol’s gallant roster of independent venues that nourish it. Swapping its usual October slot for a weekend in late February — and avoiding any competing festivals in doing so — Simple Things invites punters to brave the rain and uncover a multitude of hidden local delights and international luminaries.

Photo of L’Rain performing with a guitar at Strange Brew in Bristol

Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist L’Rain warms up the day at Strange Brew, swooping through her wonderfully experimental album ‘I Killed Your Dog’, complete with a full band and samples of barking dogs and ringing phones. Her knotted fusion of rock, R&B, folk, soul and psychedelia feels all the more transfixing in physical form, suspending the crowd in a dream-like stupor as she powers through fan favourites of ‘Pet Rock’ and ‘Our Funeral’. As she brandishes her trench-coated arms to conduct the crowd through one final chorus, it’s difficult to imagine a more dazzling festival foreword.

Meanwhile, venturing deeper into the venue, Dutch synth wizard Nadia Struiwigh is hypnotising a crowd of her own with a live set that joins the dots between immersive ambient and kinetic techno. It’s a thrilling one-eighty from the warm, blissed-out soundscapes of L’Rain and co. but one that comes to encapsulate the day ahead. Smudged somewhere between a gig and a club, Strange Brew’s ‘box room’ is the perfect setting for the Tresor regular’s brain-nourishing textures to intumesce, and the growing crowd seem more than happy to let the waves wash over them.

There’s little time for contemplation though on a programme this gridlocked, and down the road another magnetic performer is already taking to the stage. Mancunian producer and poet Anthony Szmierek is prancing gazelle-like across SWX when we arrive out of the drizzle, and aside from a group of valorous youngsters down the front, the weather seems to have put a dampener on spirits. Luckily, Szmierek –  who until recently was teaching English at a college in Manchester – is no stranger to charming a tough crowd, approaching set curation in a similar way to one might plan a lesson: interactive detours, amusing anecdotes, and a hearty dose of relatability.

“There was a moment in that first verse where I was having the best time of my life, and then I banged my teeth on the microphone...”, he announces beneath the closing chords of ‘Dance Better’, before lurching into a ravey rendition of ‘Sunday’. Even on a programme filled with curveballs, however, Szmierek vaulting from slam poetry into a Sugababes cover (‘Overload’, naturally) feels like a riotous fever dream. As the crowd begins to let loose, the cover ends up feeling like a metaphor for the miscellaneous day of music at large: “Train comes I don’t know its destination/ It’s a one-way ticket to a madman’s situation.”

Composite image of Max Cooper performing his 3D/AV show in the Beacon Hall

Thoroughly entertained, we make our way to the freshly-renovated Bristol Beacons, which houses four of Simple Things’ ten stages. It’s the first time the cultural space (formerly known as Colton Hall) has been used in its entirety for an event since its £132m rebuild, which finished up last November. In the Lantern Hall, local electronic composer Surgeons Girl is showcasing her cinematic synthesiser creations, beneath vast Victorian ceilings which allow the analogue sounds to bloom and ricochet. Already a venue veteran, the Livity Sound affiliate returns to the hall having been commissioned back in November to perform as part of the Beacons’ re-opening celebrations. Flaunting the hardware-heavy arrangements of ‘Trip the Light Fantastic’ – which featured accompaniments from the Paraorchestra – the producer delivers a genuinely spellbinding hour of live ambient-infused techno.

Upstairs in the Beacon Hall, Max Cooper is shapeshifting through the current iteration of his 3D/AV show. For those lucky enough to beat the snaking queues at every entrance, it’s one of the festival’s crowning moments. Silhouetted behind two gauze-like screens – each convulsing with his trademark abstract visuals – the Belfast-born, London-based producer slaloms from cavernous IDM to chunky tech house with empirical precision.

Ambient monoliths ‘Cardano Circles’ and ‘Eve’ – a remix of the Awe Kid single – are direct hits to the brain’s pleasure centres whilst turbocharged bangers like ‘Swapped’ and ‘Vertabrae / Forgotten Places’ serve as a reminder of Cooper’s techno credentials. Bristol’s largest concert space proves to be the perfect backdrop for the producer’s wild and dark sound design, and he signs off with The Prodigy’s 1996 hit ‘Breathe’ which gets any revellers who weren’t already on their feet rising like they’ve just heard the national anthem.

It’s the perfect warm-up for London’s Fat Dog, who are sound-checking as we file out of the Beacon Hall. They’re performing in the venue’s new Bridgehouse space – which turns out to be neither a bridge nor a house, and instead more of a foyer – overlooked by multiple mezzanines that spiral up through the centre of the building. As the South London five-piece surge through feral opener ‘Boomtown’, revellers gather to watch on each of the levels, gazing down at the ruckus unfolding below. Others (ourselves included) are enticed into the action, swooped up by the jostling crowd as the band bound through a set that bridges the chasm between incendiary garage-punk, klezmer and techno. Rave-punk stomper ‘King of the Slugs’ reaps the biggest reaction of the night – with the crowd becoming so feverish that security has to step in – and culminates with frontman Joe Love parting the audience like a mulletted Moses.

Photo of DJ Python and Nick Leon performing beneath hazy green lights at Strange Brew

In a masterstroke of programming, the group’s fiery set is followed closely by the live machinations of Gerardo Delgado and Quinn Whalley – better known asParanoid London. Fresh from the release of their third record‘Arseholes, Liars, and Electronic Pioneers’ – which features vocals from Fat Dog’s frontman on lead single, ‘Love One Self’ – the duo steer through an hour of punk-laced acid house. PL’s strain of rough-hewn grooves turns out to be the perfect pairing for Simple Things’ post-punk palette, and they sign off in the early hours to rapturous applause.

For those still on their feet after 12 hours of music, celebrations are in full swing until 5am down at Strange Brew. Courtesy of a takeover by the London-based but Bristol-affiliated label Wisdom Teeth, the city centre spot is pulsing with bass-charged energy. The independent imprint are celebrating 10 years of releases and reverie in 2024, and get Simple Things in on the action with a world-first b2b2b from label heads Facta & K-LONE alongside rhythm master DJ Python. Into a sea of sweaty bodies, the trio sling out deep, leftfield cuts including Roska’s mutating house banger ‘Time Stamp’ and Carl Craig’s skulking rework of Jonny L’s ‘This Time’, before handing over to Miami favourite Nick Léon and local hero Yushh.

Next door, the smaller of Strange Brew’s spaces has been transformed into a makeshift chillout room – a small but thoughtful gesture that encapsulates the fan-first essence of Simple Things, and doesn’t go unnoticed by the weary ravers using the space to recuperate. Soundtracked by the muffled tones of Wisdom Teeth, the atmosphere is one of contented chaos – as the final beats echo out on a joyous day of culture.

Delivering on its mission to cover the vast spectrum of underground music, Simple Things is an all-tabs-open day of music exploration best indulged with expectations and inhibitions cast aside. Whilst the format continues to thrive in London – GALA’s leftfield spin-off RALLY saw sell-out success in spite of rain at its fledgling event last summer, whilst Brockwell Park’s Wide Awake is entering its fourth year – it’s promising to see such experimental line-ups shift tickets across the country. That’s not to say Simple Things isn’t beset by the usual challenges of the one-day format – from too-short sets to ineludible clashes – but it has little effect on the overall enjoyment of the festival. This is an event curated by music lovers, for music lovers – and long may it thrive.

Want more? Read DJ Mag’s report from South London’s newest leftfield music festival Rally here

Olivia Stock is DJ Mag’s Digital staff writer. Follow her on X @oliviast0ck

Pics: Khris Cowley (@wearehereandnow)
Natasha Lucas-Harniman (@natashaharniman)