Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Festivals Round-Up

AS is traditional, the last two weeks of June have been characterised chiefly by torrential rain. I have spent much of my time standing in it. I guess it's a demonstration of my passion for music. I've certainly learnt not to trust an advance Met weather forecast. Glastonbury will be 'mostly pleasant with scattered showers'. If that's what they call scattered showers, I would hate to see what heavy rain is. I'm pleased to say that, for the most part, the battle against the elements, despite requiring all the willpower and physical stamina I could muster, was worth the effort.

First up in my festival double was the Fleadh, in the delightful grounds of, err...Finsbury Park. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm sure the reason for cancelling the festival last year was that they could not find an Irish act to headline the festival. This year, the event was headlined by that well known Irish folk act Bob O'Dylan. There are surely any number of acts that Mean Fiddler could have gone for (although they mercifully spared us The Corrs). How about the reformed Dexys Midnight Runners, Shane McGowan or, even better, Elvis Costello. I'm now officially starting a campaign to have Costello as next year's headliner - by then, he should have a new album with the Imposters to promote. Anyway, gripes aside (after all, I was there chiefly to see Dylan anyway), I enjoyed the day very much.

I was disappointed to have managed to miss Polly Paulusma, who was given the indignity of a twenty minute set far too early in the day. Kicking things off for me then was the dependably entertaining Billy Bragg. He was on fine soapbox form, voicing his support for a four day working week (well I'd support that too - but frankly at the moment it would mean less pay) and the new European Consitution. Bragg's major shortcoming is that he can often be too earnest - and one of the worst examples of this is 'Sexuality', the song with which he opens his set. It was admittedly one of his biggest hits - but it always struck me as a very simplistic and ham-fisted response to homophobia. A fine message, badly executed. Mercifully, it got better from there. Bragg proudly proclaimed himself as one of the 'saddoes' who followed Bob Dylan, and cheekily played a Dylan song with his own reworked lyrics as a homage. He also played generous helpings of the Woody Guthrie material he recorded with Wilco - still perhaps the highlight of his career so far. A reworked version of 'Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards' rounded things off passionately. At his best, Bragg is eloquent and brimming with conviction. I enjoyed his subtle ribbing of Damien Dempsey, a man who has taken all of Bragg's failings and distilled them into an embarassing mess. Having felt thoroughly uncomfortable during his support slot for Morrissey at the MEN arena, I avoided his set like the plague.

On the Borderline stage, Laura Veirs gave a mysterious, subtle and engaging performance, accompanied by some stark guitar playing. She managed to squeeze in most of the finest moments from her excellent 'Carbon Glacier' album, and the songs retained their distinctive, icy atmospherics within a live setting. Her voice is unusually biting - and it makes for an initially uncomfortable contrast with her spare arrangements, but over time, I have grown to admire her work immensely. 'Shadow Blues', 'Rapture' and 'Riptide' are the best moments today, as they are on the album, with evocative and emotive lyrics, and a real sense of space and time. It's a real shame that she was brought over from Seattle to play for only 25 minutes. An artist of this quality deserved more time to cast her remarkable spell.

Back to the main stage - and the most underwhelming act of the festival were Delays. I managed to meet them at Glastonbury, and they proved to be warm natured and good humoured people, but on stage they seemed isolated in their own world, and more than slightly self-important. The singles are infectious minor successes that promise a great deal for the future and there is no denying that Greg Gilbert's androgynous voice, scaling extraordinary heights, is a definite asset. So many of their other songs, however, seemed thoroughly unremarkable, notable only for the annoying electronic bloops and keyboard blips that seem to have been pasted unthinkingly all over them. If they take their gift for compelling atmospherics and expansive melodies, they may yet fulfil their promise - but as yet, they are not the great pop band they clearly wish to be.

Unexpected revelation of the festival were The Charlatans. I had long ago lost interest in this band, and in fact was greatly angered by their idiotic apeing of Curtis Mayfield on the terrible 'Wonderland' album. So far, what I've heard of the new 'Up at The Lake' album hasn't exactly restored my faith either. It was therefore a huge surprise that this crowd pleasing set proved a timely reminder of just how brilliant this band can be. As a group of musicians, they are still arguably the best rock band in the country. The rhythm section has a swagger and nuance that has been sorely missing from most of the sixities-inspired bands of their ilk. Compare this edgy, groovy playing with the leaden, trudgy riffing of, say, Kings of Leon, and it's immediately apparent that this is a group in a class of its own. Wisely, they choose to keep well clear of most of their recent material, playing only 'You're so Pretty, We're so Pretty' and 'Love is the Key' from 'Wonderland' and a mere couple of tracks from 'Up at the Lake'. Instead, we are treated to a marvellous greatest hits set, filled with nostalgia, but also delivered with enthusiasm and energy. 'Just When You're Thinking Things Over' is brilliant, with some superb interplay between the band, 'One To Another' and 'North Country Boy' are solid and instantly memorable, and both give guitarist Mark Collins opportunity to show off his chops. They even wheel on Ronnie Wood for an overly faithful, if undeniably spirited cover of The Faces' 'Stay With Me'. They end with a riotous 'How High' - leaving the crowd satisfied and entertained, if more than a little drenched by the rain.

I then end up dividing my time between stages and searching for my late-arriving friend (who had somehow managed to play a football match in the pouring rain). I watched
John Prine with keen anticipation following a recommendation from my friend John Kell (editor of the excellent Unpredictable Same fanzine). I had expected there to be an unfortunate clash between Prine and Dylan - but, contrary to the original billing, Prine played in the early evening. I'm not familiar with his material, so I can't specify any particular highlights, but I can affirm that these were intelligent, powerful, complex and compelling songs, sung (at least at first) with convincing authority. His voice began to get a little croaky towards the end - but this struck me as only a minor problem in an otherwise consistently fascinating exhibition of some of the great songs in the American canon. The unnerving task of following Prine went to the wonderful Laura Cantrell. This time there was an unfortunate clash between stages, so I had to content myself with watching a mere two of her songs. She is a charming performer, with a distinctive voice and a real knowledge and feel for country music. Peel has rated her first album as among the best he has ever heard - a very high recommendation indeed and I will be looking to pick up her back catalogue as soon as I next get paid.

It was then over to the main stage for a typically uncompromising, confounding and intermittently inspired set from Bob Dylan. As usual, he was ushered on to the sound of Aaron Copland, and a voice proclaiming his legendary status - 'the man who made his name with protest folk songs, discovered drugs in the mid-sixities and produced some of the greatest music of the era, who surprised everyone by finding God in the late seventies, who lost his way in the eighties, but returned to greatness in the nineties - the poet laureate of rock n' roll, Columbia recording artist, Bob Dylan' (or something close to that anyway). He now seems to have abandoned guitar playing, instead hunched uncomfortably over an electric piano at the side of the stage, avoiding any direct contact with the audience. He made no concessions to the crowd with the set list - opening with 'Down Along the Cove' and even including 'Seeing the Real You At Last' from his least popular mid-eighties period. As usual, he reworked the songs in radical, occasionally unrecognisable arrangements, most of which proved to be energetic, straight ahead blues. This gave appropriately gutsy backing for Dylan's cracked voice. When I last saw a Dylan show (Wembley Arena towards the end of 2003) - his voice was stronger and clearer than I had expected. Today, he occasionally slipped back into mumbling monotonous phrases. He was crisp and compelling on beautifully affecting versions of 'Boots of Spanish Leather' and 'Desolation Row', both good selections. He was forceful and apocalyptic on rollicking versions of 'High Water' and 'Summer Days' from the now not-so-new 'Love and Theft' album. These tracks sounded remarkably close in spirit to the classics 'Maggie's Farm' and 'Highway 61', both full of energy and intensity. Best of all was a reverent, committed take on 'Not Dark Yet', one of the finest songs from the 'Time Out of Mind' album. Less impressive were lazy renditions of 'It's All Over Now Baby Blue' and 'Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee', where Dylan seemed to care little for melody or phrasing. Larry Campbell's guitar and mandolin player was outstanding from start to finish - he really is a stunning musician, adept at both accompaniment and soloing. With such a dazzling band behind him, who are able to bring new magic from the tangled web of American musical history, Dylan's poetry has now been shifted to the sidelines in favour of some astonishing musical interplay, now heightened by Dylan's unorthodox keyboard stabs. It was a shame that this interplay had to be interrupted consistently by the presence of Ronnie Wood throughout. His performance was clearly hastily arranged last minute, and he clearly had no idea of the structure or arrangement of the songs. He was visibly lost - although mercifully not really audible (someone on the sound desk must have had the good foresight to leave his guitar channel mixed well down). All in all, this was a pleasing set for Dylan fanatics - but by no means a crowd pleaser. Dylan only spoke to introduce the band, leaving those in the audience less familiar with the Dylan concert experience to play guessing games as to what song he might actually be playing. Only the rousing encore of 'Like A Rolling Stone' proved to be a crowd singalong - the crowd having a much stronger mastery of the tune than Dylan, who improvised on regardless, still ploughing his own path, unprepared to change direction or be influenced by any trends.

I went to Glastonbury largely to work on a volunteer radio station Radio Avalon - which proved to be a challenging and immensely enjoyable week of work. The station output was enriched this year by sessions from Damien Rice, Michael Franti of Spearhead, Carina Round and Denis Lecorriere amongst many others. I would urge anyone going to the festival next year to tune in!

I was a bit apprehensive about what seemed to be a nostalgic and largely disappointing line-up, and feared that the festival might not be so much about the music this year. Nostalgic it certainly was - but no less enjoyable for it. Most of the music I managed to see came on the Friday - when for some reason I seemed to have more free time.

Wilco were the first band I saw, and they set the standard for the rest of the weekend. Performing in scorching sun, they played a set consisting mostly of songs from their two most recent albums 'A Ghost is Born' and 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', both of which are inventive, ambitious and important works. Many of the new songs are characterised by dextrous, expressive guitar squalling, and sprightly, punchy piano playing. Particularly impressive is the lengthy 'Spiders', with its hypnotic krautrock-inspired rhythm and controlled explosions of furious energy. 'Hummingbird' is an elegant song impressively played whilst 'At Least That's What You Said' builds from super quiet hum to a spectacularly raucous guitar duel. From 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' we get a clattering, unorthodox 'I Am Trying To Break Your Heart' and a solid, steadfast 'War on War'. It is all impressive stuff, despite Jeff Tweedy's determination to remain aloof and detached throughout.

At their last appearance at Glastonbury, Elbow recorded the crowd for the track 'Grace Under Pressure' on their spellbinding 'Cast of Thousands' album, and this year they returned to do it all again for the single version. Now that the song has become familiar, I'm imagining that the chanting was bolder and bigger than before. This was a solid, dependable set - although perhaps not quite as transcendent as when I last saw them at the Junction in Cambridge last year. I have always felt that Elbow's hypnotic rhythmic propulsion and emotive melodies would translate well to a festival, but singalongs aside, I'm not really sure that they did. Perhaps it was just that Guy Garvey's mordant wit was somewhat restrained. 'Switching Off' was beautiful and inspiring, whilst 'Fallen Angel' chugged relentlessly. Some balance was lacking in that some of their most adventurous material (particularly 'Snooks') was omitted, but it was still a set brimming with conviction and invention - perhaps too much for the mid-afternoon pyramid stage crowd. I look forward to some new material from this excellent band.

Later in the evening, PJ Harvey played a bewitching and highly charged set. Whilst in her maturity she has become arguably less aggressive, she still enthrals and captivates with her distinctive and sensual performances. Dressed in a ripped Spice Girls top, she appears as a perverse inverter of pop fashions, very much follwing her own muse, isolated from trends and expectations. Perhaps that is why critics seem to have reacted indifferently to 'Uh Huh Her' with its basic, dirty blues influences and rather rough sound mix. It's actually another very impressive record (albeit in marked contrast with its cleaner, more immediate predecessor), and in a live context its songs really come alive (particularly 'Shame' and 'The Letter', which drip with distaste and suspense). She playfully taunts the crowd, and sings with remarkable clarity and confidence. Her band are raw and complimentary, and they regularly swap instruments, the percussive drive heightened on the songs that employ two drummers. She also mixes in some old favourites, including a fiery version of 'A Perfect Day Elise', a direct and potent 'Good Fortune' and sleazy, dangerous takes on 'Down By The Water' and 'To Bring You My Love'.

Over on the acoustic stage, a legend is doing the nostalgia circuit. Arthur Lee's latest incarnation of Love is actually remarkably fresh and upfront, with some strangely virtuosic electric guitar playing. The heavier feel almost overcomes the folk and soul influences that informed 'Forever Changes' - but I rather welcomed Lee's attempts to breathe new life into cult favourites. Although I deeply admire these songs, particularly for their structural, melodic and lyrical complexity, I do wonder if the influence and importance of 'Forever Changes' has been somewhat overstated. Nevertheless, when compared with the small amount of new material in this set, which seems insipid and lightweight, these songs still sound colossal and inspired.

Back to the main stage for headliners Oasis. I can no longer really claim to be an Oasis fan, and I haven't bought any of their material since 'Be Here Now'. The general consensus on this set seems to have been that it was lacklustre and consciously unengaging. I must beg to differ. Having seen Oasis at Earls Court on the tour supporting 'Be Here Now', when they were only intermittently appealing, sludgy and bloated, I was pleasantly surprised by their set. Of course, there was no real performance in it, with Liam's usual swaggering arrogance and affrontery the main focus of interest. Many thought they were going through the motions - but I felt that by skewing the set in favour of their first two albums ('Definitely Maybe' is about to be reissued in one of those horrible tenth anniversary packages - can it really be ten years??), they played to their strengths. There were still moments of insipid blandness - the terrace dirge of 'Stop Crying Your Heart Out' and Noel's rather earnest 'Little by Little', and the two new songs lacked spark, but the bulk of the set proved a timely reminder of what great pop songs 'Live Forever', 'Morning Glory', 'Acquiesce' and 'Supersonic' are. Zak Starkey's drumming was enervated and clattering, which proved a welcome addition to the usual wall of strum.

Noel rather bitterly recalled performing 'Don't Look Back In Anger' to a somewhat indifferent crowd last time they played, but this time he looked somewhat sad, perhaps even moved by the occasion. Despite several line-up changes and countless bust-ups, this is a band that has survived through sheer mass appeal. At the end, after a turbulent and rather perfunctory take on 'My Generation' (Oasis have never really been a great covers band), Liam leaps from the stage, stands stock still facing the crowd, and balances his tambourine on his head for over a minute. It looked iconic. This was not quite a Glastonbury triumph - it was inconsistent and perhaps a little muddy (not quite yet in more ways than one) - but for the most part, it was enjoyable and convincing.

Saturday was a much tougher day, with much time spent backstage standing in torrential rain. In fact, I only managed to see three acts, but all would almost have justified the ticket price by themselves.

Late afternoon on the Other Stage, My Morning Jacket were both an extraordinary sight and a compelling sound. With giant hair flailing everywhere (you can just about see the drummer's arms somewhere), they constructed a huge monument of noise. Live, they err towards the lenghtier, rockier side of their set - and a little more balance would have been welcome. When I saw them in the considerably more intimate confines of the Cambridge Boat Race, Jim James' acoustic moments made a deep impression on me. Still, James' reverb-laden vocals, the twists and turns in the song structures (particularly 'Run Thru' which sounds like two entirely different songs spliced together) and the increasingly intricate guitar swordplay proved as captivating as ever today, even if it lacked subtlety.

Just about time to run over to The Guardian Lounge, which by this time was almost sinking into the quagmire of mud, where the outstanding Adem is playing the most intriguing and original set of the entire festival. Unfortunately, I only have time to watch four songs - but that is enough to get a general impression. All his musicians are seated, and the sound is remarkably quiet, often just a delicate murmur in danger of being submerged by background chatter. The arrangements are exquisite, with intuitive use of percussion and unusual instrumentation. Whereas Adem's voice sounds cracked and vulnerable on record, it sounds full and communicative in a live setting, even when he plays a stunning rendition of 'Pillow' completely by himself. 'These Are Your Friends' sounds both considered and anthemic, and 'Statued' is lilting and affecting. The emotional directness of some of these songs is striking, and often undeniably charming.

Much later on the Main Stage, Paul McCartney proves to be the grand highlight of the festival. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Given all the Lennon myth-making and eulogising we have to put up with on a daily basis, it's so refreshing to see a living Beatle have the chance to state his case. His earnest, everyman banter is slightly cloying (there is a lot about 'vibrations', 'laylines' and 'rocking in wellies' - yes Paul we know we're in hippy territory and that it's pissing it down), but the music is huge. Of course, he has the benefit of the finest songbook in English pop history - and he uses it generously. 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Yesterday' are favourites, 'Hey Jude' unsurprisingly becomes a lighters-aloft mass karaoke session and 'Drive My Car' rollicks along with a real sense of fun. He seems to be genuinely enjoying himself, despite being at the end of a lengthy world tour. Best of all is a solo set, where he honours John Lennon with 'Here Today' and George Harrison with a lovely version of 'All Things Must Pass' (what a characteristically unassuming and deferential gesture), and performs a sweet, deeply moving version of 'Blackbird'.

Even the Wings songs sound awesome - 'Jet' kicks things off with an energy that belies his increasing years, whilst 'Let Me Roll It' is massive and thrilling. 'Live and Let Die' provides another highlight, with its dazzling, no doubt obscenely expensive pyrotechnics. He plays most of his well known Beatles songs, and finally ends with a medley of 'Sgt. Pepper' and 'The End'. He plays almost nothing from his solo career (personally, I wouldn't have objected to one of the songs co-written with Elvis Costello from 'Flowers in the Dirt'). It's hard to see how this unashamed and entirely selfless crowd-pleasing can be topped. I have to make one reservation though - before the set began, there was a warm up DJ who seemed to go on for an entirely unpleasant eternity. Initially, there were snatches of McCartney songs that could be picked out from the noise, and this would have made some sense if it had provided a short intro. However, the thumping noise soon became relentless and indistinct, entirely inappropriate for the occasion. An error of judgment rather than a massive calamity perhaps.

Sunday has its own frustrations as well. As far as the headliners were concerned - I was bursting with excitement at the possibility of seeing Television in the New Bands Tent (new band?! they couldn't even be described as newly reformed!). Unfortunately, I discovered their set had been rescheduled to 6pm and I had missed it - leaving only a choice between Orbital and Muse. Given the time I spent walking between stages, I missed most of Orbital's set - their last ever performance on English soil. Still, I caught 'The Box', still to my mind an excellent composition and their finest moment, as well as 'Satan' and, of course, the Dr. Who theme. My reservations about this sort of dance music live remain though - it was like listening to the recordings amplified very loudly, whilst some fairly uninspired visuals are projected behind them. It's never clear what these people actually do when they are on stage - although that's not to detract from Orbital's achievement over the years, which is significant, and I hope this set proved to be a reminder of their value.

Earlier in the day, James Brown proved he could still enjoy himself and dance despite being well over the age of 70. Like Bob Dylan, he now seems to have real trouble enunciating ('I feel Good' sort of becomes a series of grunts 'uh eeeeuuuh ooooohgh'). To my mind, there was something slightly ungracious in this obligatory greatest hits set, despite an astounding level of energy and a well-aware, tightly controlled backing band. Still, control and awareness means little when compared with the original JBs, who were the funkiest band of all time. Perhaps James Brown was never a singer first and foremost - more a communicator and a demanding bandleader, and there was plenty of that on display.

Another real highlight was Morrissey. Arriving to the same taped hate list that opened his Manchester homecoming show, and again with giant glowing red letters spelling out his name behind him, he bitzed through a all-too-brief set which offered no compromise or concession to a festival audience. His humour was on razor sharp form ('please do not OD until we've finished our songs', he somewhat tastelessly requested - later on, he was to thank 'some of' us) and his singing better than ever. Opening with 'Don't Make Fun of Daddy's Voice', an even newer song than the material on 'You Are The Quarry', he did little to break the audience in gently. As for much of this tour, the set dipped into unpredictable areas of his back catalogue - a slow-burning but haunting 'I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday' and a deceptively endearing 'Such A Little Thing..' being particular highlights. Elsewhere, a typically anthemic 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out', 'Everyday Is Like Sunday' and current single 'First of the Gang to Die' proved to be audience favourites (the reaction, contrary to some comments on the Morrissey solo message board, was by no means 100% hostile where I was standing). As ever, a clutch of material from the new album was delivered with gusto, particularly 'The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores'. It was unfortunate that Alain Whyte was conspicuously absent - the guitars did seem a little less cutting than at Manchester, even though there was a worthy replacement. The set was brought to a crunching, determined conclusion with a raucous 'Irish Blood, English Heart'. Morrissey may balk at the word 'performance', but he is really looking more and more of a star with every passing show. Quite why he had to settle for being below the turgid, deeply terrible Muse on the bill is beyond me. He was Sunday night's de facto hero headliner.

So that was it - all over, only a rather hasty and unpleasant tent dismantling and drowsy overnight drive home left to recount - thanks must go to Nat for keeping me from falling asleep at the wheel!

No comments: