Travelling the nearly hundred miles to Steventon for the third time we couldn't help but feel some trepidation. Not because of the weather, the outlook for which was better than it had looked a few days earlier, or the bill or the clientele or the fact the festival had for whatever reason seen fit to never actually confirm the full bill in advance, or even that it's our first festival port of call for the year, but the general atmosphere. Many, many alternate festivals, not least Latitude, had been pushed into its line of fire this weekend, pushing it back out of a spotlight it had worked hard to earn over the last few years, and various music message boards, not least the festival's own, were swamped with people selling their tickets to an amount we've never seen even approached for any other such event. And that with tickets were available on the gate for the first time in two or three years, perhaps a legacy of last year's flooded out event. And this for one of the strongest bills in its history. Can we blame the credit crunch?
We can almost certainly blame residential parking for jamming up the main slip road through Steventon and causing at least an hour's tailback round about midday, meaning that by the time we're on site and in the Barn Alphabet Backwards are a song from the end of their set, meaning in their extended live formation beyond observing some skewed pop hooks we can't really make our minds up about them. We can't quite make our minds up about Fonda 500 either, but that's an entirely different procedure, given their tendency to associate around the musical idea of a twee-er Super Furry Animals locked in Hamley's, darting between guitar anthemry and the sort of sounds produced by the panda ear-clad Simon Stone's mini keyboard. Fonda 500 are made for early Truck moments like this, especially with this band's exuberance and Stone's playing to the crowd. Apart from when he calls us all cunts.
This Town Needs Guns are hyped well in the sort of places where internal hype will never, ever cross over into proper media hype, and with the rise of the guitar tappers it's not difficult to see why. The influence of assorted Kinsella family projects is writ large through Tim Collis' constantly shape shifting guitar work at the wracked emotional core. Such intricacies need paying off with something extra to avoid just sounding like playing for the sake of it with no audience connection, and today we're not sure TTNG are fully getting that across, not least, we suspect, as the end of the set, and thus of their bassist's tenure in the band, comes as a surprise to them all as they haven't played standout 26 Is Dancier Than 4 yet. Taking it back down in the Market tent are Holton's Opulent Oog, too downhome to really qualify as alt-country, more of a sleepy eyed wistfulness somewhere between The Band and Mojave 3 and none the worse for its technical ease. Dusty Sound System, organiser Robin Bennett's solo project in lieu of a hiatus-afflicted Goldrush, is more rollicking good-time country. It's also taking place in The Village Pub, a far too small whenever anyone is playing indoors new tent that seems to have replaced the much admired Trailer Park for a few performances a day.
The last couple of Trucks have seen an influx of clearly handpicked older bands, perhaps to demonstrate the building blocks of where much of the music around it is coming from, and so the Television Personalities turn up in the middle of the afternoon. Dan Treacy, who despite rising temperatures sticks to his large overcoat and beanie hat, was never the most trained of singers and many years of drug addictions and mental health issues since their days in the sun aren't exactly helping his yowl nowadays. Yes, it's shambolic, but you wouldn't expect top class professionalism from them now, and the songs, not least A Picture Of Dorian Gray (segued into I'm A Believer) and Part Time Punks, are still there. Some would call this a living legend in action - we're content to see him in hale and hearty health.
Post War Years are just getting going when we have to depart their Barn set, which is unfortunate as they're many times improved on the young outfit we saw three years ago still finding their feet. Now they may be indebted to the post-Rapture new wave disco, but in a darker vein with analogue keyboards, harmonies and what seems to be two basses during their first couple of songs they're doing it much better than most. The rest we leave early? Emmy The Great is on the Truck stage. Is it really two years, give or take a few days, since we were completely won over by her set here? Now, our first time seeing her live since then, she's got her full band with her but still keeps the music simple and the feelings intimate. Her voice is the purest instrument for purpose, all the better to convey the lyrical twists and motifs in a set that mixes recent favourites - Gabriel makes far more sense in this setting - and a few newer songs from her debut album, now bumped back to the start of 2009; We Almost Had A Baby may be her most nakedly raw song yet, while First Love, the current title track, smartly quotes Hallelujah (and, in Ms Moss' occasional pop cultural referencing, makes clear that this is the Leonard Cohen version). To our right, a group of gentlemen are more openly smitten than us - maybe it's her denim shorts - and keep up a two way banter with her throughout which leads opaquely to a song dedication to "all the women who've been successfully seduced by Jeremy Warmsley". An instant later, and it's as if nothing could ever put her off her stride.
Delayed due to The Wishing Stones, the lumpen reformed band of Kill Your Friends writer John Niven, overrunning, there's a communal atmosphere about in an overflowing Market tent for Jonquil. We've always pinned Jonquil down as an unvarnished part of a corner of the nu-folk circus, but their songs' construction and root points are far more complex than that suggests, and neither are they the freaks-coming-out of an Animal Collective. They're nobody so much, in fact, as a British Grizzly Bear, all pushing at the modern folk boundaries so as to reassemble them for themselves, while the new songs have more of an odd pop construction that takes them closer to a Wilco in experimentalist terms without actually sounding like them. As soon as Hugo Manuel dons his accordion and announces one last song everyone knows what's coming, and the shoutalong of Lions is rarely bettered for volume all weekend, especially when a mic is put out to the front row to not entirely harmonic effect.
And if Truck is the only place where Jonquil can get a proper celebratory atmosphere going, in this mini-world Youthmovies are stadium gods. Their first gig in some months, and following a going nowhere jam crossover with the preceding Barn band Rolo Tommasi, Youthmovies can be trying but they're rarely dull, as songs start like math-pop confections before veering into unmarked lanes for some time, sounding like the longeurs from their friends and Andrew Mears' former band Foals' album crossed with some post-hardcore modern jazz ideal, with a dash of Explosions In The Sky. And yes, it does touch prog areas, the feeling being that they may not be at their best here and threaten to lose the common thread, but the band clearly know each other so well that they can adapt and bring it back into explosive life on command. We're left impressed but not sure that they've fully extended themselves into potential greatness today.
Ian MacLagan and the Bump Band bring us right back down to earth with hoary rhythm and blues from the Small Faces organist, while a Dodgy acoustic set sees another rammed Market tent - exactly how many thirtysomethings are here? Back in the Barn Dead Kids singer Mike Title is attempting to live up to his celebrated manaical reputation - over the barrier during the first song, serenading the security, urging us to scream like animals being slaughtered (perhaps not great form on a working farm, but let's run with it). Lively, but also pointless when it's shouty Essex-boy rabble rousing over loud electropunk that wasn't even the future in 1998 when Bedlam A Go Go among others did it. No, the present form of the future is being conceived over in the Beat Hive (dunno) by the cream suited Daedelus, constructing not so much beats as danceable electronic textures, ratcheting up the intensity while concentrating intently at his electronic boxes and lit up buttons. One patron is so taken in by it all that he hurls his half remaining pint at the stage. Daedelus looks up pointedly, then calmly turns the BPM up as fast as they will go.
Back in the old methodology of music making, Danny And The Champions Of The World is Danny George Wilson of Grand Drive's communal country-folk uplift, and communal in both the campfire air and by the numbers who join him and his group on stage. Last year it's said he managed an eighteen strong cast; this year we counted it up to a peak of twenty, sadly not including MacLagan despite his flittering around the wings but featuring Romeo Stodart of the Magic Numbers, Trevor and Hannah-Lou of Indigo Moss, former David Holmes collaborator Petra Jean Phillipson, the Truck mascot and assorted randoms and men in chimp outfits whose presence even surprised Wilson, all the human faced of which were daubed in paint a la the Rolling Thunder Revue it comes across as a bit like. Back in the Barn we caught some of These New Puritans' set. Why don't we get These New Puritans? They push a lot of buttons regular readers know we go for, and we'd plump for them ahead of, say, Late Of The Pier any day, but there's something that smacks of trying too hard to fuse and modernise all that electro dance post-punk stuff, like a student physics teacher making Arctic Monkeys jokes to his class. Anyway.
During Okkervil River's set, a bloke wanders onstage from the back and stands right at the front of the stage. He then starts making pointing and head-nodding gestures at the sound desk, after a front-row-of-an-Oasis-gig "'avin' it!" style, before briefly mounting part of the PA and eventually collapsing into the arms of someone else. This all took place during A Girl In Port, a song not noted for its Fratellis-like convivality.
We mention this because, apart from obviously being an annoyance, it was pretty much the only less than perfect moment of their set. At the risk of going into unreadable gushing, when you see one of your favourite bands in the world play pretty much, give or take maybe a couple, your dream set of theirs - The President's Dead, Black, A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene, A Girl In Port, Plus Ones, So Come Back I Am Waiting, John Allyn Smith Sails, Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe, For Real, Unless It Kicks, Westfall - with tight command of their surroundings and with the unbridled passion of Will Sheff, it's a true one-off that can't be conveyed by mere blogging. In fact, afterwards we had one of those moments everyone who's seen a transcendental performance at a festival must have had where they really can't face going to see anyone else immediately and just want to find somewhere quiet to consider what's just happened. Highlight? Oh, the Sloop John B transition in John Allyn Smith Sails, or the furious delivery of For Real, or the moment when the narrative of Westfall kicks into life... it completely killed off everything around it, and we're proud to have seen it.
We'll get back to normal service now.
As sky lanterns fill the air and head off towards Didcot, as the bicycle-powered cinema tent suffers a pedal power failure that nobody seems bothered about mending when we pass, as the lack of a Disco Shed this year hits hone (emigrated to Latitude, apparently), and with the Market tent awaiting new top 30 stars Noah & The Whale becomes so crushed we were sure there'd be a repetition of last year's postponed Foals set, it was with The Lemonheads that we went for the night's headline treat, as the current trio were to play the whole of It's A Shame About Ray. What was at the time a staple dorm listen has retained its edge as a superior power-pop workthrough, and one Dando and latest hired hands were blazing through as if still in the joys of its 1992 release. Obviously a 29 minute album is not going to fill too much of a headline timeslot, so the band tacked on a couple more at the end and Dando eventually returned to work through a few more songs, most notably The Outdoor Type, solo with not much gumption and nothing in the way of audience acknowledgement. Our first evening ended with another highlight - Munch Munch, the Bristol collective whose pulsing electropop takes a dual percussive bent - including some quality speed xylophone - to tension and release that spills over with ideas and pure rhythmic energy in the way So So Modern, who followed them onstage but we've seen them before, occasionally hint at but never quite carry off.
So, day one done. What's next?