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Review: LEAF at Tobacco Dock pt 1, 6th March

Though currently still finding its feet, we can expect big tings from London's Electronic Arts Festival.

London Electronic Arts Festival at its unique home in Shadwell's Tobacco Docks has joined my long list of reasons to catch the DLR, alongside taking senior family members to see the Prime Meridian at Greenwich and… no that's it. A hub of cultural activity in an unsuspecting area of south London, LEAF, only two years old, makes you wonder why London hasn't had more of this sort of thing before.

LEAF looked the part. Quintessentially London, it was all rough bricks, thick wooden beams and hanging bulbs - barber shops of east London eat your heart out. The stages were cool and cosy, a living room style set up with brown leather armchairs and homely knick-knacks, the screens behind the speakers in tarnished silver wooden frames a particularly nice touch. It was an uncharacteristically sunny day which added to the casual atmosphere, as between panels practically everyone could be found sitting on the paving outside taking their sweet time on a pint and soaking up the rays.

For an Ibiza head like myself, comparisons between LEAF and the International Music Summit (IMS) held in Ibiza are unavoidable and even desirable, as the two conferences have something to learn from each other. IMS has the grand scale and pulling power of a more established summit; it feels like more of a grandiose international event, with influential names from all over the world coming together in an engaging meeting of minds. LEAF's conference protagonists didn't always have the same flair - we are polite English-folk after all - but the festival itself had a clearly defined character: the recycled building space, the more intimate and interactive rooms and down-to-earth guests made it seem, well, cooler, and a more specific representation of its scene. Whilst the shiny new hotel complex setting of Hard Rock Hotel has its perks at IMS, one wonders if a venue so fresh on the island that workers were still frantically planting shrubbery in the car park on the conference's first day, can really be the location which best creates an authentic Ibiza atmosphere.

Back to the Tobacco Docks and Nile Rodgers held the floor for a solid three hours to open the conference. Though as entertaining and insightful as ever, Rodgers is about two years deep into his admirable post-cancer resolve to give as much of his time to whoever wants it as possible… and as a natural result his stories and performance are not quite as fresh as they were. But to anyone seeing him speak for the first time, and indeed to the legions of supporters with whom I identify, he's still a gem.

There was a screening of the iconic Short Film About Chilling, which presented a creative, balanced and accurate impression of Ibiza in 1990 - current tabloids and reality shows take note. Getting those involved in the project together for a viewing and subsequent discussion afterwards proved highly entertaining, as we got a taste of the story behind the story from the likes of Director Angus Cameron. There were some golden sound-bytes in there, as we heard Las Dalias hippie markets described as “pretty grim actually. Camden town in the sun”, the host of English DJs flocking to Ibiza in the early 90s described as “disciples of Alfredo” and a grown man reference “the memorable pillow fight”. We can only speculate.

I confess my sampling was limited, but some of the panels I made it to lacked the flow and depth of ones I've seen at the more established IMS. The Techno Cities panel for example, had all the promise you'd expect of an analysis of the vibrant and unique London techno scene, and yet in practice fell a little flat. Moderator Ryan Keeling (editor at Resident Advisor) had his work cut out for him at the start drawing comment from his talented, yet overly reserved guests. Lost party co-creator Sheree Rashit eventually found her groove in reminiscing on early party days and DJ Inigo Kennedy made some insightful points about the introspective nature of the London techno experience. In any of these conferences, IMS not exempt, there's always a feeling that panelists are delicately (and sometimes not so delicately) skirting around an ‘it was better in my day, things just ain't the same' summation. Unavoidable when inviting legends and pioneers of a scene, and yet to young hopefuls in the audience it can get a bit, well, depressing.

Kate Simko and her electronic orchestra opened the entertainment portion of the evening and, whilst its wonderful to see the collaboration of electronic world and a live string set (harp and all!), the set seemed a little underdeveloped and some potential moments passed Simko by. 808 State performing their hugely influential original tracks amidst a healthy tangle of wires connecting hardware, bass guitar, keys and a live drum kit was an absolute education - reminding me how much more powerful it is to hear and see electronic music performed by a band. But it was Modeselektor that stole the show. The German duo has been standing on tables and spraying champagne way before Aoki popped a cork, their stage presence as light-hearted and playful as their bass lines heavy, dark and grizzly. The combination just works so well; I hate to sound like a neo-yogi but you really could feel the positive energy accumulate as their set went from strength to strength, culminating in a roof-raising rendition of Berlin that had everyone unconsciously beaming as they filed out into the cold, myself included, despite a recent sharp squirt of champagne in the eyeball.

Day one was a success then, I only wish the ‘quintessentially London' atmosphere could have translated into artist bookings: not one of the festival's day one or two headliners was a local. LEAF is a festival clearly still finding its feet, but one with great ideas behind it and excellent promise.

WORDS | Jordan Smith PHOTOGRAPHY | James Chapman

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