Outer Town festival review: The UK’s underground flock to Bristol

workfriends perform at Bristol's Outer Town 2024

Imagine this: a cool spring afternoon where the sun is beating down from above, and only a mellow breeze getting in the way of it being a truly glorious day.

Most would argue that this is the perfect cue to grab an iced coffee or a couple of tinnies, whip out the picnic blanket and spend a few hours soaking up those rare rays in the company of your nearest and dearest. For a music reviewer on the other hand, it remains business as usual – the perfect cue to remain indoors.

It’s no fault of Outer Town Bristol that their festival frequently occurs at the same time as fairer climes return to our shores, but the promise of another monstrous lineup and another year of discovering some of the best undiscovered artists of the city and beyond was too good to turn down. Rain or shine, their third year in operation was tipped to be the biggest yet, and they certainly came good on this pledge.

After a short perusal of the art fair and market stalls in the gardens of the Trinity Centre, the musical proceedings commence with the gentlest offering of the day in Eve Appleton Band. The 2023 Green Man Rising winner has enjoyed a general rise in popularity since the Welsh festival bestowed their honour upon her, but nowhere more so than in her hometown, where her ornate folk arrangements are being treated with the same sense of gravity as her fellow Bristol compatriots Katy J Pearson and Fenne Lily.

Gorgeous four-part harmonies and organic sounding violins are the perfect way to be eased into the afternoon before things take a turn for the rowdier.

One brisk walk to the other end of the Old Market district to Exchange and next on the agenda are Brighton’s Flip Top Head. As their name might suggest, they’ve been turning noggins with their earth-shaking blend of post-rock, spoken word and jazz influences over the past year or so, and the dimly lit space of the venue was the perfect environment for them to deliver their shapeshifting, apocalyptic songs. The band’s presence however doesn’t suggest that they themselves are the harbingers of doom, but more that they’re as frightened as their audience of impending disaster, as they all cradle their instruments with a palpable sense of unease throughout.

Going from a band filled with dread to a band that want to relentlessly take the piss, Getdown Services are seemingly one of the hot tickets for the afternoon, with hundreds of people flocking their way back to the Trinity for their antics.

If you’ve ever witnessed the duo before, then you’ll have some idea of what you’re getting (bare bellies, sleazy disco and creative profanity on par with The Thick of It). With plenty of surprises and hijinks – namely a liberal use of a DJ vocal sample and picking pretend fights with audience members – it doesn’t really matter too much that they’ve only got one ‘new’ song to add to their Crisps album cuts, they’re never out of form when performing to a Bristol crowd.

Reverting back to something headier after delightfully bonkers Getdown Services, The Ill Repute play host to art-rock trio Sunglasz Vendor, another promising product of the local scene.

Without any recorded material available to listen to, the band are reliant on the strength of praise from those who had witnessed them before to draw in a crowd, but it doesn’t take much to create new converts. Their often knotty tracks are comparable to the jagged 90s post-hardcore of Unwound or Polvo and are largely characterised by frontman Rafi Cohen’s impassioned yelps and caustic guitar licks which help emphasise their rawness. Sunglasz Vendor are a fascinating prospect with some growing still to do, but it’s quite clear that they’ll be unstoppable once they’re a little further on in their existence.

Continuing at Ill Repute, things take a turn for the weirder as Alien Chicks hit the stage. If the previous trio were propelled by restless guitars and vocals, then the Brixton group are propelled by restlessness across the board. Somehow finding room to squeeze a new idea into each thirty second interval, the band are a whirlwind of creativity and are seemingly adept at every genre under the sun; whether that’s jazz punk or metal-tinged flamenco.

The wide-eyed glare of vocalist Joe Lindsay coupled with his thousand-miles-per-hour tongue twisters makes for an intense experience, and the ability of Stefan Parker-Steele on bass and Martha Daniels on drums to keep up with him is astonishing to say the least. You could say that they’re one of a kind, but frankly they’re one of several kinds.

Alien Chicks perform at Bristol's Outer Town 2024
Alien Chicks at Outer Town 2024

Paring it back a little at Elmer’s Arms are Lifter, a band who have recently returned with their stunning alt-folk epic ‘The Lingering Death of a Maverick King’ earlier in the week. Playing with a reduced lineup, their renditions of what are usually detailed and elaborate compositions take a more sparse direction, but this allows many of their elements more breathing space and for their earlier material to regain its rougher edge.

Their cathartic set is given a very warm reception by those in attendance, and while there are so many other options to view at the same time it’s a testament to how much the local acts are able to have an impact on the lineup when the temptation to watch bigger names looms.

Edging further into the night, post-punk sextet workfriends bring the energy back up a notch to ready the audience for a final push through the day. Despite their members currently being spread out across the country giving them less time to rehearse together, their set ends up being the most well-oiled and polished of the day. Capturing the spirit of bands like The Gun Club and The Replacements, the jerky interplay between instruments, the nonchalant tambourine playing of Jackson K and writhing shoulder movements of frontman Earl Gray all add up to the fully-satisfying concoction that the Sheffield-formed group create – all culminating in one of the most arresting 25 minutes the festival has to offer.

The party would neither have been able to start nor end, however, without the presence of disco oddball Vanity Fairy. Sporting a purple sequinned cape and a choice of sunglasses usually reserved for socialites, Vanity Fairy never fails to grab attention with her costume choices, but it’s her overtly kitsch tribute to classic pop and crowd interaction that always steal the show.

With a proclivity for venturing into the crowd and mounting whatever surface avails itself within the venue, it was already predicted that she’d be making good use of the bar for parading around, but leaving the stage only to emerge from the toilets and taking to the pavement outside the venue much to the confusion of passers-by are added to her rap sheet. While a technical fault means her last three songs end up being repeats, the fun doesn’t seem to stop throughout her set, proving that there truly ain’t no party like a Vanity Fairy party.

Despite some of the nagging faults of the festival that have been issues in the past, such as small venues and a harsh schedule meaning it was impossible to see more on the day, Outer Town makes up for this with its careful curation of the UK’s finest underground talent year upon year, and it will hardly be a surprise to see it grow even more dramatically should it return for a fourth edition in 2025. 

Vanity Fairy performs at Bristol's Outer Town 2024
Vanity Fairy at Outer Town 2024

images: Ronnie Cross

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