When: 14th October 2023

Where: various venues, Middlesbrough, England

First launched in 2014, this year marks the first edition of Middlesbrough’s multi-venue metropolitan all-dayer Twisterella without the dual stages of the Westgarth Social Club which were arguably the heartbeat of the festival after the beloved venue closed its doors for the final time earlier this year. Never fear though, with the focus now switched to the two biggest stages in the nearby Teesside University Students’ Union the festival had also added two new venues to this year’s roll call in Café Etch and Off The Ground (the popular coffee houses cheekily dubbed #lattetude by the promoters). 

So, where better to start than Café Etch for the festival openers, Stockton’s Dressed Like Wolves, who dashed through an impeccably observed lo-fi folk masterclass including long-time local favourite ‘Trying To Walk Off Into The Sea But It’s Too Late’ and equally popular ‘Big Pool’, all the more prescient as it was actually written about the Westgarth, leaving the singer and many in attendance close to tears.

Twisterella has always prided itself in its depth of programming and were early adopters of the reverse headliner practice, or the “CD:UK slot” as this year’s pick Dutch Uncles wryly labelled it but successfully pulling in a big early crowd as intended at the uni’s 500 capacity The Hub. With a sound honed over ten plus years on the live circuit and built on layers of 80’s pop influences, plus occasional forays into Hot Chip pseudo-house territory, bona fide indie hits such as ‘Oh Yeah’ and ‘Damascenes’ see enigmatic frontman Duncan Wallis in typically upbeat form even scatting the intro to ‘Tropigala (2 to 5)’. The beauty of Twisterella is that all of the venues are within a few minutes’ walk of each other while the easy 30-minute set-time set-up means hardcore festivalgoers can sometimes cram in fifteen or more acts across the day. So next, just down the road at The Townhouse venue, Darlington-based rapper Eyeconic lit up the famous up-lit stage early doors with a mix of hip-hop and grime while a cameo by Teesside legend Shakk had people two-stepping all the way to the back.

Back over at The Hub Francesca Pidgeon’s art-rock collective Dilettante wowed those that took the time to listen properly with a lively instrument swapping, loop pedalling set of harmonies and percussive funk. Francesca seems happiest when she is behind her sax which also seems to work best with today’s crowd so ‘Big Fish’, ‘Creeps’ and a marvellous heavily looped and sequenced closer ‘Keep Time’ is reminiscent of Neko Case and are the first real highlights of the day. On the same stage Aberdeen’s Chef The Rapper brought the Deeside G-funk to Teesside with a hyped set of edgy but socially aware lyrical storyboarding with his track ‘A Message From The North East’ particularly resonating with a curious crowd. 

However, the real pivot point of the day was still to come and involved the two new venues where Me Lost Me were the early headliner at Café Etch before Newcastle-based newbies, Irked, opened the later Off The Ground stage. The former’s sublime ghost-folk blending elements of trad folk, psyche, post-rock, found sounds, gentle electronica and noisy ambience into something breathtakingly realised in the small but packed venue. Recent single ‘Heat!’ gets an early airing while themes around the weather, mythology and, um, The Legend of Zelda persist throughout her set. However, round the corner at Off The Ground it was the straight-up US hardcore of Irked that was the real surprise of the day ramraiding through 30-minutes of their own unreleased material including ‘Move’, a riotous unnamed track that closed the set and a cover of Dan Sartain’s ‘Fuck Friday’ which blew the venue’s lights leaving them to finish in darkness as their singer prowled amongst the audience having a proper good time of it too.

Back over at The Townhouse local favourites Avalanche Party are already ripping up the joint with arms and legs already flying about in the pit when I arrive while singer Jordan is surveying the carnage from the relative vantage of his foot monitor as the rest of his band belt out former single ‘Solid Gold’. However, Jordan is not one to shy away from getting involved so it was not long before he ended up crouched on the bar, so those at the back could see properly you understand, as they rattle through a finely tuned set including a rabble-rousing ‘Rebel Forever’, ‘7’ and ‘Howl’ plus a smattering of new more garage-oriented tracks from a rumoured second album. 

The thing Twisterella has always done well, though, is to avoid descending too much into lairy Saturday night out territory so for every local garage or punk band there is a Joy Hotel or a Prima Queen who delivered a pulsing alt-rock mish-mash of genres, and a joyous foray into countrified indie respectively also both on the university stages. Having said that it was left to Brighton raconteurs Opus Kink to close the day back at a packed Hub. Last of the last gangs in town Opus Kink peddle a deliciously dangerous gutter rock and roll for fans of Fat White Family and their ilk but with a penchant for a spaghetti western riff and dirty sax. It’s no overstatement to say Opus Kink may be one of the best live bands in the country right now so tracks such as ‘St Paul of the Tarantulas’ and ska-tripping closer ‘This Train’ bounce around on stage like electrons likely to smash each other into oblivion at any given moment. And that, sir, is what Twisterella is really all about. The final leg of the festival having the ability to stay both ahead of the style curve and engaged with its audience right to the very end…

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