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Penguin Café, Cecil Sharp House, September 1st 2010

September 15, 2010

Open rehearsal for Arthur Jeffes and his orchestra of rhythmical English whimsy. Fun. Audience included Miranda ‘Queenie’ Richardson.

Richard Shindell, Green Note, London, August 30th 2010

September 15, 2010

I’ve fallen painfully behind in updating the blog, so I’ve decided to be inspired by my review of The Hamsters and describe each of the next six gigs in no more than 18 words each. Here we go with the first…

Relaxed observational songwriting, not to all of my compadres tastes, but he has a fine voice and manner.

Peter Bruntnell Band, The Grey Horse, Kingston, August 27th 2010

September 1, 2010

As this is the seventh time I’ve seen Peter Bruntnell this year, I’ll be relatively brief – not through lack of appreciation, of course, but because much of the set, the sound and my reaction will be familiar. Astral and I met up with Al the Manc before heading into the back room of the Grey Horse, where we also saw Ty and Ayesha just as the band came on. This time it was Peter’s long-time collaborator Dave Little on guitar rather than James Walbourne, but it made for an interesting change of style on several songs. Although it’s fair to say that Dave is not the spotlight guitarist that James is, he’s still a fine musician and does justice to many of Peter’s songs, for which he was the original guitarist.

The band soon got into the groove and we treated to some old songs (Have You Seen That Girl Again?, 25 Reasons), several oldish songs (Clothes Of Winter, False Start, Here Come The Swells and Little Lorelei) and quite a few new ones (Bruise On The Sky, Ghost Dog, St Christopher and Black Mountain UFO). Peter seemed to be enjoying the Butcombe Bitter as much as we were, though he did insist on calling it ‘butt-comb’ all evening and then giggling a lot.

A Bruntnell gig wouldn’t be complete without a Neil Young cover or two and tonight we were treated to three – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Down By The River and Like A Hurricane. He wrapped up proceedings with an edgy Cold Turkey and took a bow to great applause. Another fine gig of great music from a band worth seeing time and again.

Rhythm Festival, Twinwood Arena, Bedfordshire, August 20th-22nd 2010 (Part 3)

August 31, 2010

Sunday morning brings the dawn in, and the rain had stopped. In fact, the sun was shining and a fine day was in prospect. The previous night, Mr P and I had resolved with the Bs to meet up at the pub in the local village to watch the Newcastle v Aston Villa game following a leisurely Sunday lunch. The lunch was delicious (stuffed pepper, roast spuds and mounds of veg), but please, please don’t mention the football… Our glum band trooped back to the festival site and headed for the Alternative Stage, where young Leicester blues ace Aynsley Lister was scheduled to play.

Beers were bought, benches moved into position and we settled down for an impressive set of blues and beyond. Aynsley has a tight backing band, which helps immensely, and plays without all the showy stuff that infests blues-by-numbers players the world over. By now it was hot and sunny, and we sipped our drinks and tapped our collective toes as he finished the set with an expert AC/DC pastiche Balls Of Steel, a fabulously guitar-heavy Purple Rain and Deep Purple’s stomper Hush. He encored with his own song In The Morning and it had been a most enjoyable set.

We walked down past the main arena to take our tent down and pack up before seeing Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams (left). I’d also said goodbye to the beer as I’d be driving home later, but Gandalf and the crew kept me thoroughly entertained. As I mentioned in my review when they came over in February, they are quite proggy, but in a good, psychedelic way. As main-man Joziah introduced The Great Unravel as their ‘James Bond number’, it struck me that the riff is actually identical to the catchy one from Pink Floyd’s Lucifer Sam, but that’s no problem. Anything Floyd did before (but not including) Dark Side Of The Moon is fine by me.

Joziah explained that they’d just flown in, having played the Philly Folk Festival on Friday night. There were signs of some tiredness, but their enthusiasm won out, with the fine guitar-playing of Sharkey, ably backed by lead vocalist Joziah, the bizarrely dressed Tink, son Orien on bass and keyboards, and hairy Tony on drums. They have a special affection for the Rhythm Festival, as it was the occasion of their first British gig two years ago and the crowd cheered their appreciation. Alongside their own compositions such as the King Crimson-inspired Talkin’ To The Buddha and the mighty Trans-Slambovian Bi-Polar Express, they played a nice version of Subterranean Homesick Blues, being huge Dylan fans – which again is fine by me.

Back at the Alternative Stage, evergreen R ‘n’ B madman Wilko Johnson moaned about the sound then launched into a mean set of tightly played numbers, abetted by Norman Watt-Roy on bass. The Browne Bluesman and I agreed that Norman, moonlighting from his other job as bassist with the Blockheads, is perhaps Britain’s finest R ‘n’ B bass player. Alongside Wilko and his unique lead-and-rhythm chopping style, Norman and Dylan Howe on drums create an extraordinarily powerful and dense sound for a trio. The audience lapped it up and eventually got to their feet for a rousing finale of Back In The Night, an oldie but goodie from the Dr Feelgood days, as immortalised in the recent movie Oil City Confidential. Mr P took this weird but wonderful photo of Wilko (left).

As I walked back down to the main stage to catch a few songs by headliners 10cc, I heard DJ Wheelie Bag playing his stuff in the food concession field. It transpired that the concession flogging corn-on-the-cob was faring badly (and at three quid a pop I’m not surprised) and had hired DJ Wheelie to drum up some interest. One punter suggested to Wheelie that he’d sold out in the manner of John Lydon and his butter adverts, but that’s a bit harsh in my opinion – I suspect he was being paid in corn…

I didn’t want to be too late home, so Mr P and I resolved to watch five songs or so of 10cc before heading off and missing the traffic. Up at the bar’s decked area, our four chums were still drinking heavily and bemoaning the time they saw 10cc almost ruin the Knebworth Festival back in 1976. I said that I’d thoroughly enjoyed them in a cheesy sort of way at Cropredy a few years ago and that I was alarmed to discover just how many of the songs in their set I not only knew but could sing along too – and I don’t even own a record by them.

Sure enough, they came on and started with Wall Street Shuffle – and we all sang along. I vowed we would leave the moment they played a song I couldn’t sing, which by my reckoning was six songs in – we got Good Morning Judge, The Things We Do For Love, Art For Art’s Sake, I’m Mandy, Fly Me and something else I can’t remember. The line-up has changed repeatedly since their 70s heyday, but Graham Gouldman is still at the helm. Unfashionable they may be… no, correct that – unfashionable they certainly are, but I have to admit they were almost unrivalled in their ability to churn out the hits in the mid-70s. But enough was enough and we drove off into the night after a great weekend of music, beer and fun. But not football…

Rhythm Festival, Twinwood Arena, Bedfordshire, August 20th-22nd 2010 (Part 2)

August 30, 2010

Mr P and I enjoyed a quiet morning until Pete J, D, the Browne Bluesman and Mrs B showed up at the tent for an impromptu tailgate party. After demolishing a three-litre box of quite drinkable Sicilian red, we went into the arena to take our places on the bar’s deck area. Very pleasant – unlike Ed Tudor-Pole, whose ‘quirky’ brand of nudge-nudge posh pirate punk always rubs me up the wrong way. He’s as annoying as the late-summer wasps that had developed a fondness for sticky spilt beer and were buzzing around the bar.

Things looked up considerably when Jackie Leven came onto the stage. Mr P (to whom thanks for the great photo, left), the Browne B and I took up positions on the rail as Jackie started with one of his amusing and dubiously true anecdotes and sang his fine Elegy For Johnny Cash, following it with a funny tale about Ralph McTell and his allegedly sharp temper. The next one, Call Mother A Lonely Field, is one of the many songs Jackie’s written that’s well-observed, carefully written and well sung. It also contains the great lyric, ‘Like young Irishmen in English bars, the song of home betrays us.’

You always get jokes and fun with Jackie, and he tells one about being heckled when playing in Glasgow. A loud Glaswegian greeted one of several songs about Jackie’s late father with a bitter cry, ‘Typical Fifer – showboating about how he knew his dad!’ Next up was David Childers’ Heart In My Soul from 2008’s Lovers At The Gun Club album, and King Of Infinite Space, prefaced by a great tale concerning the Columbo episode which guest starred Johnny Cash. Last up was new song New Wreath from this year’s Gothic Road to finish off what had been a funny, touching and compelling set. Jackie’s guitar-playing can be surprisingly delicate for a big fella and his voice – inflected with that soul style that’s so common among Scots singers – at times sounded just like Aaron Neville’s. The crowd was rightly impressed.

We resumed our seats up at the bar to watch and listen to the entertainment from afar. Geno Washington and his band performed a perfunctory set of soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues, though I feel this party music would have suited to later in the evening. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t understand why headliners have to appear last on the bill. They might be the biggest act but they might not be the ideal rumbustious way to finish a festival evening.

It was then we spotted a slightly harassed Jackie Leven lugging his bag and guitar case in our general direction. We said hello and he asked us to look after his stuff while he slipped to the bar for a swift pint. I got the impression that he was due to leave but wanted just one more – and who can deny a proud man of Fife his pint of ale? He came back from the bar empty-handed, however. I think he’d had second thoughts, as his driver had just arrived. We said cheerio and I told him I was looking forward to seeing him at the Union Chapel in December.

Roger Chapman, with his 70s blend of blues and rock, was the next main-stage attraction. As with Geno, it all passed by pleasantly enough without making much of a great impression. He’s still got a good voice, though. The day’s emcee and provider of between-sets entertainment was the excellent Juan Pablo from Mundo Jazz – very funny and convincingly 60s latino-stoner…

On next were popular post-punk politico partyers The Men They Couldn’t Hang. I saw them back in January and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to them. They turned in a similarly stirring performance of politically tinged folk-punk-rock with lots of favourites – Devil On The Wind, The Ghosts Of Cable Street, Wishing Well, Bounty Hunters, Shirt Of Blue, and the a cappella seafarer’s lament Barrett’s Privateers. Then they went soft and invited their kids onstage (along with the two chaps from Weddings, Parties, Anything) for a rousing rendition of Bank Robber. They squeezed in an encore, The Colours, which left the bopping crowd very happy:
I was woken from my misery by the words of Thomas Paine,
On my barren soil they fell like the sweetest drops of rain,
Red is the colour of the new republic,
Blue is the colour of the sea,
White is the colour of my innocence,
Not surrender to your mercy.

After all that exertion, It was back to the bar’s deck again, this time for the rest of the evening. The Wailers came on to great acclaim and played a good set of reggae classics. It was just right for a relaxed Saturday evening, though it seemed at some point that the band’s front-man Koolant started haranguing the crowd. Not sure what was going on there. Final act of the night was the cosmic elf himself, Donovan, who played a crowd-pleasing set of folky psychedelia and fey pop whimsy – often too whimsical for my tastes. Catch The Wind and Mellow Yellow are fine, but most of those ‘I love my flower girl and she loves me’ numbers are just annoying. And he’s still putting on an embarrassing cod-Jamaican accent between songs. Can anyone tell me what that’s all about?

After more beer we said good night to our four compadres, who were pampering themselves in local hotels. As I listened to the torrential rain on the roof of the tent at three in the morning, I couldn’t help but feel a pang or two of envy…

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.

Sleepy Sun, Bush Hall, Shepherds Bush, August 17th 2010

August 29, 2010

After the previous night’s taster, I was keen to devour a full portion of Sleepy Sun. Their recent album Fever has been a regular on my iPod in the last few months. Their psychedelic heavy stoner rock does have a nostalgic appeal for the hazy, lazy days of the late 60s and early 70s, when men were hairy and chicks liked a freak-out, but Sleepy Sun are bang-up-to-date too. Their rhythmic pulses and variations owe a lot to a greater appreciation of ‘world music’ than was around in the late 60s – although the psychedelic world was perhaps more amenable to African and Latin sounds than the mainstream rock world was. More importantly, technology allows them to make the sorts of sounds on stage that many bands could make in the studio forty years ago but found nigh on impossible to reproduce live.

The Suit and I are only tentative fans of Bush Hall – the architecture is lovely but the sound can often be seriously substandard. Several potentially great gigs have been tarnished by the booming, muddy sound that often greets bands here. Fortunately, Sleepy Sun had done their aural homework and opening numbers Marina and Open Eyes were heavy, loud and crystal clear. Twin lead singers Bret Constantino and Rachel Fannan have a great understanding and their laidback appearance belies some seriously good singing, impeccable timing and creative semi-improvisation.

Rachel announces the next song, Horses, as a new ‘jammy’ number and it lives up to its promise. At times her voice wails like Björk’s, while at other times she has the vocal clarity of Joni Mitchell or even Melanie. Behind the singers, the band has strong foundations with the solid bass and drums of Jack Allen and Brian Tice, while the controlled roars and whispers of Matt Holliman’s and Even Reiss’s guitars complement each other almost perfectly. The quieter, more countrified songs feature lazy harmonica and picked acoustic guitar, and the songs slow down to a pace close to collapse, but that makes the dusty internal spaces breathe with a gentle vibrancy.

Ooh Boy is another huge number, and the set included a couple of intriguing songs I didn’t recognise – one, with some irresistibly rising major chords, is almost poppy in a classic 60s way, and the other has a booming psychedelic bass line very much in the manner of early Roger Waters. They show that they can do soft and acoustic as well as loud and electric, but the whole set is soaked in the sunny rays of California and its upbeat, loose psychedelia. The set’s final song Sandstorm Woman is, if anything, longer and more jaw-dropping than on the previous night and the band received a rapturous ovation.

Sleepy Sun have not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the musical world. They’ve contributed a fine version of Chicago to the compilation Be Yourself: A Tribute To Graham Nash’s Songs For Beginners, and recently they’ve teamed up with British trip-hop outfit UNKLE for the latter’s latest album.

The encore was a fine toe-tapping Sleepy Son, with an ending that’s similar to Led Zeppelin’s How Many More Times. In fact, their bluesier sound is quite like that of the early live Zeppelin, as captured on the BBC Sessions CD. It’s not so much of a ‘downer’ as a lot of post-Cream heavy blues-rock that anticipated the post-60s comedown and which disappeared up a depressing musical cul-de-sac in the 70s. The less ‘downer’ and more psychedelic blues-rock thread survived, though, and is still alive and kicking in Sleepy Sun’s wondrous sound. Definitely one of my gigs of the year so far.

© Hadas

The Owl Service and Sleepy Sun, Rough Trade East, London, August 16th 2010

August 28, 2010

I’d been to Café Oto a couple of weeks before this free in-store gig for a reading and Q&A with Rob Young, author of the recently published tome Electric Eden, the subtitle of which is ‘Unearthing Britain’s visionary music’. Young’s focus is on the late 60s and early 70s boom in folk-rock and psych-rock, and how this refreshed British folk tradition has infused the work of many modern ‘visionary’ musicians such as Kate Bush and Julian Cope. It’s a cracking read, and Young was also putting in an appearance at Rough Trade East, off Brick Lane, for another reading,  sandwiched between some appropriate sounds from The Owl Service and Californian psych-stoners Sleepy Sun.

The Owl Service are a friendly bunch, centred on the fine musicians associated with the Rif Mountain label and its driving force, Steven Collins. I’ve recommended the label’s output before and I’ll do so here as well – everything they’ve put out has been worth a good listen and exemplifies just the ‘visionary’ exploration that’s detailed in Electric Eden.

They set up on the small in-store stage at the end of the CD and vinyl racks, and mixed up some straight traditional songs – Gardener Child (Child Ballad No. 219) and a mighty Willie O’Winsbury – with some interesting takes on other songs in the traditional vein, such as Lal Waterson’s The Fine Horseman. Highlights of the set were the cleverly twinned songs I Was A Young Man / Sorry The Day I Was Married, and a plaintive take on tradiitonal number North Country Maid, which warns innocent out-of-town girls of the perils of places such as Rough Trade East:
‘A North Country maid up to London had strayed,
Although with her nature it did not agree.
She wept and she sighed, and so bitterly she cried,
‘How I wish once again in the North I could be!
Oh the oak and the ash, and the bonny ivy tree,
They flourish at home in my own country.’

The Owl Service put on a fine show but my one small quibble is that the vocals don’t always live up to the richness of their recorded sound. Perhaps it’s because they don’t perform as a band very often, which might make it harder to forge a strong cohesive sound all the time. No matter – they’re very good.

After Rob Young read some extracts from Electric Eden, a slightly dishevelled-looking Sleepy Sun climbed onstage and explained that they’d just got in from Amsterdam. With a stoner psych-rock group, that euphemism really doesn’t need spelling out… Anyway, the sparse audience was treated to a fantastic display of controlled heavy noise, powerful rhythms and counter-rhythms, and swirling harmonies. First up was recent album opener Marina and fast-paced Open Eyes, and the band quickly got into their groove, which is loose in a tight sort of way, and tight in a loose way. Just how I like it. But they were playing Bush Hall the day after this little taster and I was going, so more of them later. Suffice it so say that they’re one of my most exciting musical discoveries of the year. They finished the set with a blisteringly epic Sandstorm Woman. Here it is in all its glory (though the sound is slightly unbalanced towards stage right):

Summer Sundae Festival, De Montfort Hall, Leicester, August 14th-16th 2010, Part 3

August 26, 2010

Day three and we repeated our gargantuan all-you-can-eat breakfast experience. They were definitely getting to know us in the hotel restaurant, but it hadn’t made them hide away the sausages and eggs from the lads yet, so we can’t have made ourselves too unwelcome – when ‘kids eat free’ and your two teenagers eat like horses, you sometimes worry…

The weather looked brighter than on Saturday and we got up to the festival for noon, as I was keen to catch Andy White (left) in the Musician Stage tent. I last saw Andy about 22 years ago and we’ve both aged since then, but he still has a familiar spritely and cheery demeanour. He said hello to the recumbent Sunday audience and began the set with James Joyce’s Grave (including a nice dig at U2), Valley Of My Heart and green elegy Last Long Evening On The Planet. His style is that of the 60s-70s protest singer, but it’s not stereotypical and he long ago shrugged off the much hated ‘new Bob Dylan’ tag. He ended with a strong trio of Turn Up The Temperature On The Machine Of Love, Italian Girls On Mopeds and his fine anti-religious song about his Belfast background, Religious Persuasion – here’s an extract:
protestant or catholic?’
cried a voice from the crowd
‘not you again, st peter’
I was thinking aloud
should have packed my bags
headed off for the coast
had my time already come
to meet the heavenly host?
they switched on their halos
adjusted their harps
checked that the blades
on the pearly gates were sharp
I asked them what they meant
about religious bent
they said ‘that’s the test’
I said ‘that’s the test-ah-meant’
they were giving holy orders
I think you’ll find
I was up against persuasion
of the religious kind.

As the weather was now sunny and warm, we lounged around before going to the main outdoor stage to see Kentish troubadour Pete Molinari, wearing ‘the other’ spotty shirt from the one I saw him in at the Hop Farm Festival (thanks to Mr P for the photo, left). We were treated to a similar set, but it was all delivered with verve and style, despite a few sound problems initially. He started with A Train Bound For Glory, CC On My Mind and Streetcar Named Desire from the latest album, followed by relative oldie Love Lies Bleeding and a host of other toe-tappers – Easy Street, I Came Out Of The Wilderness, Absolutely Sweet Louise and Heartbreak Avenue. A Little Less Loneliness and All I Could Do Was Cry rounded off the all-too-brief set, but it had been an object lesson in catchy, straight-up country-folked rock ‘n’ roll. I’m looking forward to seeing his full set at the Jazz Café next month.

We wandered back inside for the next act, Montreal’s Besnard Lakes, whom I’d seen at the loathsomely trendy Cargo back in March, but enjoyed nonetheless. Once again, it was a similar set, played with great power and a swirling drone. Jace’s falsetto took some getting used to for those audience members who were unfamiliar with the band, and a couple of drunks seemed to take pleasure in random heckling. But mighty openers Like The Ocean, Like The Innocent and Devastation made most of the audience stare at them with bemused curiosity. Their sound was quite different to most of what had gone on at the festival, but the reception was generally positive – Astral’s not a fan, but liked hearing them in the festival environment. The rest of the set comprised familiar songs from the last two albums, but played with verve – Glass Printer, Albatross, And This Is What We Call Progress, Disaster and And You Lied To Me. They’re a fine live band, but it’s difficult to know in what direction they’ll head off to in order to give themselves a wider musical panorama. We shall see.

Back on the big outdoor stage, Low Anthem came on to some applause, but I wondered whether or not their sound was too delicate for such an environment. My worries grew as they gathered round a front-of-monitors mic to sing the opener accompanied only by a clarinet, but the audience was surprisingly amenable to something quieter and received them well. The next song, To The Ghosts Who Write History Books, was pretty too, but things warmed up with a fine rolling version of the Rev Gary Davis’s Sally Where Do You Get Your Liquor From? followed by a rocking rendition of Tom Waits’s Kerouac-inspired Home I’ll Never Be. They’re a very competent bunch, despite looking like extras from a photo shoot for an album by The Band, and swap instruments effortlessly. After Cage The Songbird, they resumed their places around the mic front of stage for I’ll Take Out Your Ashes, at which point the mic and PA packed up. They looked at each other and decided to play unamplified, which was very cool for those of us near the front, but must have been baffling for those at the back of the field. Still without amplification, they then sang a fine version of The Band’s Evangeline. As the PA crackled back to life, they took up their instruments again and roared through a great version of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s Cigarettes Whiskey And Wild Wild Women.

The next two songs, This God Damn House and Ticket Taker, were back to the softer stuff. It’s all done very well, but to my ears, the Fleet Foxes-style ethereal songs are attractive, but I’m not sure that the content is strong enough to hold up the structure. They finished with a good one, though – prison number The Old Triangle (The Banks Of The Royal Canal) by Brendan Behan, taken from his play The Quare Fellow:
Oh, a hungry feeling came o’er me stealing.
And the mice were squealing in my prison cell,
And that old triangle
Went jingle jangle,
Along the banks of the Royal Canal.
To begin the morning
The warder bawling,
Get out of bed and clean up your cell,
And that old triangle
Went jingle jangle,
Along the banks of the Royal Canal.

Our own hungry feeling came over us and three of us left the festival to have a fabulous veggie curry buffet at Shivalli while Humungous enjoyed the dubious pleasures of the DJ tent. Eventually, we gathered together again for a last goodbye to the festival and an enjoyable weekend.

Summer Sundae Festival, De Montfort Hall, Leicester, August 14th-16th 2010, Part 2

August 24, 2010

After a gigantic breakfast, we took it easy in the morning, avoiding the drizzle and grey of Leicester city centre, so we got to the festival at lunchtime, downed a few beers and I headed to the inside stage to see The Woodentops. The band, formed in 1983, was at the fun end of the C86 indie scene, playing what lead-man Rolo McGinty calls ‘indie thrash’ or ‘hypnobeat’. Their music was typified by upbeat and frenetic strumming and drumming. I saw them lots of times in their native Croydon in the mid-80s, frequently at the Underground Club, a dingy indie dive that hosted some fine evenings, notably by other local heroes Loop, my favourite noise merchants of that era. As a penniless postgrad living on the grim Mitcham-Tooting borders, I couldn’t afford to go into London very often, so Croydon it was. And there’s nothing wrong with Croydon, despite its unfashionable image.

The Woodentops bounded onstage (Rolo’s clearly still a high-tempo, bouncy sort of chap) and played their new single, Third Floor Rooftop High, their first single for 22 years. Now that does make me feel old, but they kept up the youthful pace with oldies like Here Me James and Why Why Why, the latter featuring a groovy semi-rap and a beat that presaged the coming acid dance explosion of the late 80s. Next was slower number – and minor hit at the time – Good Thing, with its almost calypso lilt. The band hit their groove very well and most of the middle-aged audience was at least tapping its toes or nodding its heads if not actually dancing like banshees. The set’s climax was the great Move Me, another big dance number with Rolo yelling ‘addicted to the rhythm…’ and it’s the rhythm that’s the most recognisable element in their sound. Having not seen the band for years, I’d forgotten just how upbeat and irresistible they are. Very entertaining.

I was planning on spending practically the whole day at the indoor stage and next on was a complete change of pace –singer-songwriter Laura Veirs from Oregon strumming her gentle, woodsy, folk-tinged songs. Most of the set was from her recent July Flame album – Sun Is King, Carol Kaye (featuring some nice picking), Wide-Eyed, Legless, I Can See Your Tracks and the title track:
July flame,
Fiery kite,
Will o’ the wisp,
Lead me through the night.
July flame,
Sweet summer peach,
High up in the branch,
Just out of reach.

One other track, Wandering Kind (from 2007’s Saltbreakers) was stronger and electric, with a 70s Fleetwood Mac-ish groove to it. Laura mentioned having her three-month-old baby on the road with her, which is pretty impressive and she seemed remarkably calm and happy about the whole experience… I enjoyed her set and my mood brightened further on hearing that Aston Villa had beaten West Ham 3-0 in the opening game of the new football season.

The whole family are fans of Tunng, and we all enjoyed their set of festival-friendly songs and sing-alongs. Don’t Look Down Or Back was a powerful opener, followed by a whole bunch of other recent songs – It Breaks, The Roadside (during which singer Becky sounded uncannily like Donna Summer), With Whiskey, By Dusk They Were In The City and Hustle, with its noticeable Motown influence. We did also get oldie Tale From Black and they rounded off the entertainment with crowd favourite Bullets.

We’ve been watching Tunng since they started out and they’ve become consistently better performers, particularly in the vocal department, even though the sound has changed since the departure of Sam Genders to become less folky and more rocky. Indeed, front-man Mike Lindsay revelled in his ‘rock god’ moment during By Dusk They Were In The City with his crazily funny heavy metal-style solo while wearing OTT spangly 70s shades. They’ve kept one element of their music that I’ve always liked – the spooky and creepy lyrics that suggest disorientation, unease and violence. It doesn’t always sit with their more upbeat sound of late, but it does give them an edge. Here’s how The Roadside starts:
Where are you going to? Can I go with you?
No, you have to stand guard,
Stand where I can see you,
It’s getting so, so cold,
What are you going to do?
You should stop worrying,
When they waded naked into the water.

Next act on the big indoor stage was Caribou, Dan Snaith’s electro-dance outfit. On record, he plays everything, clever fellow that he is (he also has a maths PhD), but live he uses a band. They prove to be very tight, even physically, with the fine drummer sat stage front, right next to Dan on keyboards, computer and other percussion. Add in bass and guitar and it’s a beguiling mix of the digital and the analogue. I like Caribou’s stuff, even though it’s fair to say I don’t dance to it, but I was surprised that almost no-one else was dancing. Astral and I sat in the balcony for this set, which was our excuse…

Then it was back downstairs to see The Fall. I’ve only seen them a couple of times in the last fifteen years or so and I’d forgotten how the inimitable Mark E Smith wanders around the stage, fiddling with band members’ equipment. That must be extremely annoying, though if you’ve signed up to play with The Fall, you’ve pretty much given up the right to have any say in anything that goes on… Mark E was neatly dressed and lunged at his microphone, launching into a set comprising mainly songs from the recent Your Future Our Clutter album, though we did get White Lightning from 1990ish and their rip-roaring version of The Sonics’ Strychnine from 1965. Not much about The Fall changes, which is good. Astral pointed out how plesasantly droney they sound and I’d forgotten (as with The Woodentops) just how danceable they are – the 40-something-year-old blokes in the mosh pit were jumping up and down enthusiastically and seemed not to be bothered about the lyrics over which Mark spends so much time and effort. Not that the songs’ lyrics make obvious sense. Here’s an excerpt from Cowboy George:
I had two brown bottles
And a white note as I entered,
Five years of confinement,
This is the story that unfolded,
As it went on into the sea of
Unseen footage and
Unseen facts,
Unseen refinement,
Unseen extension,
Chicory Tip in a shopping centre
With a soundtrack again.

Marvelllous! It had been quite a nostalgic day, but it was by no means one set in aspic. All the older bands were very entertaining, as was the late-night film Astral and I decided to watch in the film tent – the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. The music, of course, was fab, and it was a great performance from Andy Serkis as Dury, but the story concentrated too much on Dury’s son Baxter (that’s him with Ian on the front cover of New Boots And Panties). I suppose that’s understandable given Baxter’s active involvement in the production, but we really want to see as much of his infuriatingly charismatic father as possible. The film was very telling when focusing on Ian’s relationships with the women in his life, but there’s something about those anarchic band-on-the-road scenes that borders on stereotypical farce, in the manner of Bad News Tour and Spinal Tap. It would be interesting to see a film fiction that captures more than the ‘drama’ and humour – how about the tension, boredom, creation and despair? But that can wait till another time.