Alcohol-free Sungria, soft drinks and water were the only refreshments on tap this Friday for the first Underage Festival in Victoria Park. The event was being sold to me as offering "credible music" for 14 to 17-year-olds. Being 17 myself and able to go to "grown-up" events already, I was initially apprehensive as to what this kiddiefest would be like. The event oozed youth, attracting a mini media frenzy and plenty of corporate sponsors. Meanwhile, other young entrepreneurs at the festival were touting their own clandestine merchandise: hash scones or vodka at $6 a shot. Despite the odd misdemeanor like this, organizers and security managed to successfully hold off the chaos you'd expect at a teenage gathering. Officially, the only "purple haze" you'd find here was a summer berry-based smoothie.
After waiting in the queue for over an hour to get in, it was hard not to miss the cult-like sea of oversized hair, oversized glasses, over-used eyeliner and the rainbow of skinny jeans and footless tights that represent the whole of youth culture today boys and girls alike. Two young ladies in front of us expressed their frustration at missing Lethal Bizzle, a prime exponent of London's underground grime scene, whose heavy bass we could hear thumping away over the wall as punters were trying to get as many pre-festival kicks in as possible by stocking up on energy drinks and Pro Plus caffeine tablets.
One of the first bands that took my attention was the multi-talented, eponymous Kitty, Daisy and Lewis that consisted of not only these three siblings but also their mum and dad Graeme and Ingrid. Kitty, 13, Lewis, 15 and Daisy, 18, charmed the audience with their 1950s-style rockabilly that echoed Johnny Cash during his days with Sun Records even though they come from just up the road in North London. It was only when the evening set in that the more familiar bands such as The Pigeon Detectives and Cajun Dance Party pried fans away from the shade and their Frisbees. Over at the MySpace stage, hardcore rock bands like Blood Red Shoes even managed to muster a moshpit.
The highlight of my day came from Brooklyn-born band Tiny Masters of Today, formed by Ivan 13 and Ada 11. These pint-sized rockers were both the youngest and most rock n' roll act I'd seen all day. Despite technical difficulties and near sabotage by a missile Space Hopper (or Hoppity Hop), the Tiny Masters intrigued the audience with their raw punk talent and surreal image. They were also extremely cute.
It felt like all of London's under 18s had set their MySpace status to offline for the day and ditched their cyber universe for something more real. All around us were teens bumping into virtual friends for the first time and it was this atmosphere that gave the day such a comical yet unique quality. One festival-goer expressed the reassurance and safety she felt in comparison with other festivals she had been to that were for all ages, and said she'd chosen the Underage Festival as a cheaper alternative.
For me, it was a great relief that this event still managed to defy the over-commericalized sensation that other festivals can evoke, a phenomenon that can undermine the music itself. It was this unthreatening, laidback, friendly mood that made the day live up to its expectation and the day's events were all comfortably wrapped up in time for all the kids to make it home in time for supper.