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Rhythm Festival, Twinwood Arena, Bedfordshire, August 20th-22nd 2010 (Part 1)

August 29, 2010

Jim Driver is one of those quirky promoters who puts on shows by bands and artists whose music he loves. Over the years I’ve been to see Jim-promoted gigs at the 100 Club with Roy Harper, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Arlo Guthrie, Garth Hudson, Space Ritual and more. Four years ago, Jim decided to set up his own ‘grown-up’ festival – the Rhythm Festival at Twinwood, near Bedford – and we’ve enjoyed seeing acts as diverse as Jerry Lee Lewis, John Mayall, Terry Reid, Dr John, Donovan, The Proclaimers, the Blockheads and more. We don’t always like the music, but the vibe is friendly, the size manageable and the beer drinkable.

Mr P and I pitched the tent in a gale and celebrated our modest achievement with a bottle of Shepherd and Neame’s Goldings Ale (actually Coke for Mr P). We then checked out the arena and its environs – Twinwood was the airfield from which Glenn Miller’s fateful last flight took off and the whole area is full of rusting, ivy-clad WW2 memorabilia.

At the bar, I got myself an Eagle IPA and met up with Pete J and Dee for a few while listening to the Whybirds from the bar’s deck. I’d seen the band support Jason and the Scorchers earlier in the year and they put in another lively set of straight-up rock, including Neil Young’s F!&@in’ Up. They’re local lads too, so it was nice for them to get some main-stage glory.

We’d vaguely planned to head forward for Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby but didn’t – the lure of the bar was too strong. Their singer-songwritery set sounded pleasant enough and of course we got Whole Wide World, Eric’s two-chord wonder and mainstay of any dodgy busker’s repertoire thirty years ago (I should know, as I was one). Next on the main stage were another bunch of 70s faves, The Damned. They’ve always been fun, despite that superficial punk sneeriness, and bounced onstage to a big cheer. We were treated to an unsurprising set of oldies – I Just Can’t Be Happy Today, Neat Neat Neat (my favouritte Damned single), New Rose (the first 70s punk single in the UK), Love’s Alone Again Or and Eloise. Everything’s reassuringly nostalgic – the Captain still wears that white boiler-suit and red beret, while Vanian looked less like Nosferatu than he has done in recent years.

To close the set, they played Smash It Up, a song I’ll always remember as being responsible for getting me chucked out of a Luxembourg nightclub in 1980-something. Orange Juice’s Rip It Up had come on while two friends and I were on the dancefloor and we decided to liven it up by singing Smash It Up instead. I suspect it was the slightly aggressive pogoing and jumping into each other that got us ejected, though. Byblos I believe the place was called. There were never any chat-uppable girls in there anyway, so sod ’em…

I then grabbed a veggie curry (spicy and tasty) and popped my head into the smaller bar where DJ Wheelie Bag was playing his old records to an appreciative and well-oiled crowd. I was thinking about the next act on the main stage, Billy Bragg, and how much DJ Wheelie probably unknowingly underscores Billy’s notion of Englishness as a mongrel concept – he’s playing ancient ska tunes while running a silly but fun bingo game called ‘chicken souvlaki’. Only in this country…

On the main stage, Billy waved hello, got tangled up in his guitar strap and strummed his way into oldies To Have And To Have Not and Accident Waiting To Happen, before new number Last Flight To Abu Dhabi, about a city boy’s escape after the big crash. The next song was Ingrid Bergman, from Billy’s Woody Guthrie Mermaid Avenue project with Wilco. Billy prefaced it with a lengthy chat about the more intimate side of Guthrie’s songwriting and how this song about Ingrid Bergman’s scandalous liaison with Roberto Rossellini showed his gift for metaphor. At the risk of criticising such an iconic figure as Woody Guthrie, I’d beg to differ. See what you think:
Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman,
Let’s go make a picture
On the island of Stromboli.
Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman,
You’re so pretty,
You’d make any mountain quiver,
You’d make fire fly from the crater,
Ingrid Bergman.
This old mountain, it’s been waiting
All its life for you to work it,
For your hand to touch its hard rock,
Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman.

Eewwww! Anyway, we then got another Guthrie collaboration, Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key, before he returned to another bunch of oldies – Sexuality, The Milkman Of Human Kindness, Levi Stubbs’ Tears, There Is Power In A Union and, inevitably, New England. Just one relative new number – NWPA – appeared in this run and it made it clear just how much Billy relies on his back catalogue and, to be honest, how little of substance he’s added to that catalogue in the last 15 years or so. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but it does mean he’s increasingly becoming a nostalgia act. Moreover, it’s the fist-pumping political songs that have aged badly, while the personal songs still have the power to move.

Billy’s nostalgia is nothing, however, compared to that of the evening’s headliners Ade Edmondson and the Bad Shepherds, whose shtick is to play punk rock songs in a folk stylee. We were back sitting at the bar as they launched into a twiddly-diddly Anarchy In The UK and I was confirmed in my opinion that they’re a funny idea taken to a painful extreme. Fortunately, the bar was still open and the IPA still drinkable. Eventually we sauntered back to the tent to sleep, but not until after some lusty-voiced and guitar-playing neighbours had worked out that you can segue effortlessly from Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi to the Jackson Five’s I Want You Back. Try it – it works.

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