Handfest was an all day festival as part of the celebrations for Random Hand being together for 20 years as a band and, I have to admit, before being asked to review this festival I hadn’t heard of Random Hand or most of the bands on this UK Ska-Punk Festival. Of the bands I did know, it was because I had missed them at Rebellion or caught one or two songs. So this festival was a voyage of discovery for me. It was a magnificent well run celebration for Random Hand fans, all happening with two stages and just enough time between bands to make it possible to see all the bands on the bill at The Dome and The Boston Music Room, two venues in one Tufnell Park-situated Victorian building. I managed to catch every band playing, aside from Darko and The Meffs. Next time guys!
Random Hand - Handfest @ The Dome
We arrived just before the first band of the day came onstage in The Dome – King’s Alias – who were late replacements for Traits, following their unfortunate withdrawal. King’s Alias are a three-piece from Chepstow who were very happy indeed to be singing to us about the Ups And Downs of life while getting bouncy, as they complained This Is Shit I’ve Had Enough Of It while also making sure we knew they had the odd substance abuse problem, especially with Cocaine, that they don’t love as much as either Buckcherry or JJ Cale do. They were a good opening act.
The first band on downstairs in the Boston Music Room were Till I’m Bones, who feature a bass player I’m certain I’ve seen play before, but no idea which band she was in previously. They are a 5-piece quite angry Agit ska-punk band with a singer with seriously long dread locks with some urgent sax playing as they let everyone know They Don’t Want To Party With You. They were quite bouncy with the Song About Daughters asking some good questions, and went down well with the North London crowd.
Next on back upstairs in The Dome were Roshambo, the band with the best name of the day! This six-piece Skacore supergroup from Norwich really brought the sax magic, with a soprano and bass sax attack that really lifted them, as the intense Warning was given to us before they told us No Apologies would be given from them as they saved their best song for last with the very cool Until We’re Dead.
Back downstairs in the Boston Music Room, Hell’s Ditch had come from Lincoln to bring us some cognitive dissonance as they sound nothing like they look. As we descended through the circles of hell with them, hardcore ska punk insisting Hope Is Hope in ways that were better than reaching the point of feeling Hope Against Hope is the only option. Avarice should get you to I think, it’s the fourth circle in the Divine Comedy, this song is worthy, as the guitars raged a good bit on closer Take The Night Off.
Upstairs in The Dome it was time to break out the smiles and have some fun with cartoon ska Punks Mr Shiraz from Huddersfield, who were sporting a substitute guitarist on loan from Handsome Liars. They brought a fun attitude, loads of smiles with great Labracore songs, allowing them to get properly messy and sing about Bill & Ted, one of the most fun sets of the day.
Things then went a bit divisive in the Boston Music Room with Redeemon, as this sic-piece were one of the best bands of the day for me and one of the worst bands for my other half! This was all about how they fuse together a classic Skatalites style brass section to death metal vocals, guitars bass and drums, with the singer also playing a mean trombone. Musically they had some super cool no-wave Contortions, brass stabs battling against System Of A Down-style songs, in places truly head scratching but also totally compelling. They stood out for originality and also managed to conjure the first mosh pit of the day well before they closed with a Korn cover.
Crazy Arm were performing as a four-piece, this Devon-based hardcore anti-tory/fascist punk band brought a slight Celtic edge on songs about Taking The High Road To The Old Road. In places they went a bit speed metal that was always balanced by the more folk-tinged bits, and by the end of their set they had a good sized mosh pit.
Tree House Fire had some deep Brit-reggae vibes in the Boston Music Room as the five-piece were the first band with keyboards. They also pulled up was it Blue from Sonic Boom Six for one song. Lucky Girl was the set’s main highlight, a great lover’s rock tune. Hey Mr Oppressor had some Downpressor Man vibes. They told us it was the bass player’s last gig with the band before they played Fools Gold (not that one by Stone Roses). During closing number One More Day, they had the first crowd-surfer of the day as things were starting to get a bit wilder.
Next up were The JB Conspiracy, a band I’ve been sniffy about for a very long time as a huge Jazz Butcher Conspiracy fan, but they brought so much energy and good time fun to The Dome, I have to concede they smashed it. The Roland VK-8 keyboards and brass section had loads of groove to add to the Ska Punk, while new song Glimmer jumped out a bit. Nothing You Can Do was a huge great singalong for almost everyone. They stormed it, all underpinned by solidly funky bass and a totally upbeat fun attitude.
We then went for a well-deserved sit down so missed seeing Darko but was in plenty of time to catch The Popes Of Chilitown raise the roof off of The Dome, having previously only seen one song of theirs live at Rebellion. The six-piece has a Senser meets Prodigy goes ska punk feel throughout that got the whole Dome dancing along with plenty of crowd-surfing. They used Mind Control to get everyone moving as they Jump And Roll. Loads of cheeky banter with ballsy trombone and sax, the acoustic guitar adding another layer to the party. They had the biggest pit of the day as they closed with Do You Want to Go To The Moon.
I last saw a song and half of Call Me Malcolm’s set at the Empress Ballroom at Rebellion back in 2019, this was a far more up close and personal setting in the Boston Music Room as this six-piece did everything they could to match The Popes Of Chilitown’s energy as they sang about being 18 again. They know how to get a Reaction with super tight brass stabs. They then invited The JB Conspiracy brass section and any other brass players in the room to form a brass pit on the dancefloor for a riotous honking party version of Let’s Take A Roll Call. As they did at Rebellion, they closed by explaining the band’s mission to help people’s mental health before playing the band’s mental health anthem My Name Is Frank with some full-on sax.
We were back in The Dome for Lightyear, whose cartoon Ska punk was bafflingly high up the running order. Their full-on antics included getting a couple of fans onstage to play a game with a giant marrow, while apologising that they are too old to naked dance anymore. Data’s Double Chin was a major highlight with some fantastic lyrics. The crowd surfing and pit went most mental during Pack Of Dogs.
By this point, we didn’t have the energy to go and see The Meffs who I have now missed twice this year. It was soon time for the main event, Random Hand, who are not only celebrating 20 years of the band, but also have a new self-titled album out. They brought heaps of energy as the four-piece made sure we knew what a head fuck it was to have sold out this festival as a celebration of the UK Ska-punk scene. The sound got punchier as they sang Got A Disease while complaining You Never Want It, but the audience more than wanted it. The sheer pleasure they took from the love in the room as they Played Some Ska for us was clear to see. They had the room bouncing all the way until they closed with a huge singalong to Anger Management, a fine way to end a good fun all-dayer.
Handfest featured: Random Hand, Lightyear, Call Me Malcolm, Popes Of Chilitown, The JB Conspiracy, Tree House Fire, Crazy Arm, Reedemon, Mr Shiraz, Hell’s Ditch, Roshambo, Till I’m Bones and King’s Alias.
Live review of Handfest @ The Dome on 30th September 2023 by Simon Phillips. Photography by Louise Phillips.