Wednesday, August 15, 2007

It's all good: Summer Sundae Sunday review

Day three begins with the locals. We'd always had festival perennials Pacific Ocean Fire down as dusty Americana mainstays, but live they're a louder, more scuffed-up proposition, reminiscent of briefly hyped but long lost indie alt-country crossovers Lowgold with hints of Calexico, Sparklehorse and Modest Mouse, joined on two songs by Liam from now defunct rodeo sweethearts The Have Nots and for their final song by a small child carrying maracas who suffered an unfortunate bout of stagefright not even his mother could help him out of. Andy Bell is a professed fan of London's The Lea Shores and so he should be as they're much like Ride, mixed with another band Bell has recently played live with, their former touring partners the Brian Jonestown Massacre. A decent, and decently hirsute, frontman marks them out but it's difficult to really mark them out what with all the nu-shoegaze stuff going on. Toy Heroes have meanwhile got green T-shirts with cartoon characters' names on, which is actually just about all that's memorable about their standard power-pop.

Vetiver are pretty standard as well for what they do, especially emerging from the Newsom/Banhart freak-folk brigade (leader Andy Cabic is Banhart's musical right hand man), but their country blues-folk is just right for the weather, which has gone all clammy again after early light showers. In fact there's hardly anyone standing up even though the gardens are packed as Cabic's fingerpicking plays off the aspirant Flying Burrito Brothers meets Vashti Bunyan nature of this most delicate of sons of California Americana.

The band on next in the Rising tent are neither delicate nor easy to sit down to. When The Strange Death Of Liberal England came up with their USP of replacing audience banter with placards, we wonder if they ever thought they'd be fielding requests for them. Adam Woolway's accusatorial, quasi-sloganeering vocal style may be their Marmite, but his yelping calls to arms befit the stridency of their work, starting somewhere near fellow wild-eyed historical referencers British Sea Power, progressing through Arcade Fire's apocalyptic choral shouting and terminating at Montreal's post-rock home Constellation Records. They've found a way to never let the energy sap even when everyone's instrument swapping - four of the five have a go behind the drumkit - and create a hell of a controlled racket that marks them out as potentially triumphing where many, most prominently Hope Of The States, didn't quite manage to balance post-rock with vocals. At the end, as Woolway takes his guitar pedals to task, two members smash the hell out of the drums before one of them flings a stick arrow-like into the crowd, missing our camera by literally an inch. It's called making an impression.

Although the conditions seemed right for it Cherry Ghost's laid-back anthemic pop just doesn't fit snugly, the country-rock ambitions crushed under the weight of Springsteenian guitars. Much less resistable in the clement condition is a bit of old school rocksteady, and so it comes to pass that El Pussycat Ska more than pack out the Rising tent with plenty of joyous bluebeat, crowd participation, uplift and an actual conga line or two during Enjoy Yourself. Nobody was likely to form a conga line during Koop's set, as their modernist electronically enhanced jazz of previous albums has been transposed for Blue Note-quoting 1930s swing, vibes solos and the air of exotic dinner jazz meets Acid Jazz. And there's your kicker - for all the sophistication, it's notable and never easy to shift from your mind listening to this that Rob from Galliano is on their new album.

Spoon are playing two UK shows to support their Billboard top ten album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, one a sold out London Forum gig, the other here. This, then, is the sort of thing that makes Summer Sundae worthwhile year after year. There's precious little messing about here, one Motown-influenced keyboard-heavy punchy power indiepop hit-in-an-ideal-world after another in a way we apparently can't do in Britain without some higher calling towards 'raucousness' (oh yeah, the Pigeon Detectives played on this day too. We won't be mentioning them.) It doesn't quite find its groove until a roaring Don't Make Me A Target, but the album's highs are propulsively reproduced throughout alongside back catalogue favourites (The Way We Get By, I Turn My Camera On) and a lot of indieboy posturing by Britt Daniel. The only downside of watching their masterclass in this stuff was we had to miss Fujiya & Miyagi, although there was just enough time to see them finish up Ankle Injuries in a Kraftwerk/Krautrock style as someone who'd purloined one of TSDOLE's banners held up the reverse side, on which they'd written 'Get Your Owl Out'. It was turning into one of those festival days.

Every day is one of those days, you feel, for Gruff Rhys, tonight in his live habitat of a giant cardboard Hitachi-style television set sat behind a desk with the origami figure from the cover of his Candylion solo album in the middle of a similarly large test card behind him. It's from here that he starts the set by building up a series of loops of vocal, guitar, vocal effects, percussion and all sorts of odd toys and gizmos, doing it again with even more to play with two songs later on Cycle Of Violence, ending in Rhys screaming into the mike several times and looping those as well. Around and in between Gruff and album sidewoman Lisa Jen plus occasional backing band tease out the folk and tropicalia elements from the psych-pop adventure of Candylion before it all goes nuts again as Rhys and Jen take to airline seats, Skylon!, already a fourteen minute epic tale on record, stretched and filled even further with even more musicians, a keyboard that lights up, Rhys in a air captain's hat and, of all people, Spacemen 3's Sonic Boom quietly turning up on Atari-style extra effects. Nobody quite knows what to make of it except to applaud wildly.

This year's recipient of the already tradition Sunday night veterans slot is Echo & The Bunnymen, not only a band who come with their own vocal support but one who, on recent evidence, have finally realised that it's the classics people are here to see rather than much from since Nothing Lasts Forever. Time, though, is clearly not doing a great job on the two remaining original members, Will Sergent all over the mix - the epochal riff of The Cutter lost somewhere in transit - and looking like a binman while Ian McCulloch's vocals have lost much of the power and subtlety of what they used to be, even ten years ago. The 1981-87 catalogue is raided liberally and Nothing Lasts Forever is segued into a ice-cool take on Walk On The Wild Side, and despite already running over they get a one song encore, but it doesn't totally convince. In the hall Steven Adams of Cambridge's own The Broken Family Band, a man who not long ago penned a tribute to Radio 4's Today programme (21 minutes in) is the opposite of McCulloch's doleful presence, self-deprecating and not a little tetchy taking on a heckler. Musically his band have moved on from their Americana roots and now resemble Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco if they'd first read through Our Band Could Be Your Life, refracted through Pavement, Mission Of Burma and Smog, and come across more raucous and lively then their recorded output suggests. Leicestershire's own blues guitar hero Aynsley Lister might want to take notes, even his Purple Rain cover dissolving into Claptonish extended fretwankery. How unlike Prince himself, eh?

At 10pm we did a quick recce of the four stages, all of which simultaneously had something on for the first and last time all weekend. Duke Special indoors was half full, Chuck Prophet in Musician had about half that, while the main stage headlining Spiritualized Acoustic Mainline show had the lowest turnout for an outdoor headliner we can remember. Everyone else was packing out and around the Rising tent to see Seasick Steve, even his guitar changes getting cheers. We'll come back to him in a moment, but apart from his sheer magnetism the best reason we could see for why Spiritualized were losing people was that basically it's not a set made for a big open air festival stage after dark. Touring successfully last year around 400 seat venues, Jason Pierce and keyboardist Doggen face each other side on, with a string quartet and three piece gospel choir behind, to perform songs by Spiritualized, Spacemen 3 (so presumably him and Pete Kember get on a bit better now) and Daniel Johnston's True Love Will Find You In The End. While Pierce's love-as-loss-as-religious epiphany-as-personification of heroin lyrics remain oddly touching, the arrangements here are in danger of drifting off into the night sky or just were always meant to be electrified, while what should have been showstoppers, especially Stop Your Crying and Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space's blending with Can't Help Falling In Love, suffer from a mix that tends to mask the full impact. If he'd brought the full band and one of their famed light shows, especially with a new album on the way, we'd still be talking about it in August 2008, but as it is it's a chance missed due to circumstance.

Stopping by to see a couple of songs by Chuck Prophet, an idiosyncratic and much underrated storyteller who told of one song being about the horror of moving back in with his parents, we closed our weekend by braving that Rising throng. There's always been an element of suspicion about the sudden rise to prominence of the former Steven Wold, playing his second set of the day, in that his hobo origins and original bluesman credentials are constantly played up, leaving out of official press releases that he also ran his own studio in Olympia, Washington for a few years before relocating to Scandinavia, producing Modest Mouse's acclaimed 1996 album This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About and working alongside Calvin Johnson's assorted pet projects. The history of popular music has always been about personal historical subterfuge, though, so it barely matters, especially as Steve clearly has what used to be called "the chops", belting out the rawest, most energetic virtuoso blues whether playing with six, three or one string(s) and keeping the packed tent hanging on his every move and story. Just like solo performers should do.

Odd, isn't it. A weekend that started with hot new Garageband-aided Myspace talent Kate Nash ended with authenic blues grizzled veteran Seasick Steve. What a strange and wonderful thing music is in 2007, and indeed what a great thing Summer Sundae continues to deliver.


Anonymous said...

Cheers for the lovely comments guys - We had such a magic time playing summer sundae and it means the world to me that people were willing to come and have a party with us! Leicester crowds are the business!

Daryl Kirkland (singer from the pussycats)

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