We all know Oxford, right? Home to grandiose museums, lavish theatres, all sorts of student shenanigans and exhibitions, it is a cultural hotbed for artistic triumph. The city is nigh-on gluttonous with a wealth of wonder and fascination down every hidden side-alley, and secret nook or cranny, but one aspect of this cornucopia is consistently besmirched with allegations of insufficiency. I speak, of course, of the live music scene. To all you bitter detractors, I respond with this; just because your fav band ain’t making a stop here on their world tour, doesn’t mean that our live scene is shoddy or in any way sub-par. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Of course, it would be foolish for us to expect stadium filling acts to make a little venture over to Oxford’s cute and cosy venues, just to please the small handful of us who can fit in the buildings, but who ever said that the best live music came from those who have either been around for so long that they’ve amassed immensely bloated fanbases or those lucky few to have struck big with a gold-mine of a radio hit? In fact, many such bands (from Radiohead to Rage Against the Machine) have played at Oxford at the start of storied careers, when intrigue was through the roof, so we must open our eyes to the fantastic talent on our doorstep; who knows who could be next!? There is no better place to do this than Ritual Union Festival.
I’m not quite sure how to best sell Ritual Union; it hardly helps that it sounds more like a cult than a festival, nor that the majority of the bands aren’t exactly ‘household names.’ Perhaps this is the point, though; it is the perfect opportunity to sample a smorgasbord of diverse and cutting-edge bands making waves in the UK (and indeed beyond). There are four main stages – two in the o2, one in the Bullingdon, and the fabulously charming basement of the Library pub – all of which are reasonably small, creating intimate and visceral gigs that stay with you long after the final notes. Additionally, all these stages are located along Cowley Road – itself a bombastic hoard of out-there cuisine, niche cocktail bars and seductive boutiques – which proves itself to be the ideal relaxation location between bands.
This year (October 19th) was my second time on the bounce at the 3-year old festival, and even after the immensely high bar set by last year, boy oh boy did it fail to disappoint! For an in-depth analysis of some of the bands performing, see cherwell.org, but it must here be noted that the festival has an unparalleled knack of booking bands at the peak of that thing we call ‘buzz,’ and this is what makes Ritual Union so special. The palpable excitement for Nadine Shah and Ghostpoet last year, and the zeitgeist they managed to so ably tap into, was somehow topped this year by the Shabaka Hutchings-led The Comet is Coming. There is an intangible chemistry between audience and performer that only seems to exist in these early phases of bands’ trajectories, and no festival I have attended taps into this more successfully than Ritual Union. I am proud to say with all honesty that The Comet is Coming’s was the best live show I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing; those ignoring Ritual Union, and Oxford live music on the whole, are in need of a stern wake-up call.