Monday, August 13, 2007

Something for the Weekender: Summer Sundae Friday review

Actually, before we start this properly, a friend of a friend was in the cocktail bar (yes, outsiders, there's a proper cocktail bar, and it was adjoined to the real ale tent) on Friday night, he told us later, and one of the barmen apparently asked if he knew us and gave him a free shot for it. Now, while we knew people there none of them to our knowledge was working in any capacity at the festival. Was this you? Let us know, because as we'd never properly met this acquaintance face to face before we're completely baffled.

So. Truth be told, there had been some concern heading into the eighth, and our fourth, Summer Sundae Weekender. With its ever growing reputation and critical acclaim for its consistently varied bill 2007 had a high bar set and on paper, despite some corking and clever bookings, it looked underwhelming in context, still a couple away from a befittingly special occasion. Rose tinted glasses and all that, yes, and at least everybody headlining was above Gomez's level, but a lot of people thought there was a spark missing somewhere, whether through festival competition or the air the area still has of being out the back of musical beyond. And following the strength of the previous Sunday headliners - Belle & Sebastian, Patti Smith, Air, the Emmylou/Baez/Hynde/Bragg/Earle Campaign For A Landmine Free World spectacular, there was some doubt in many quarters whether the headliners could carry off headlining a 6,000 capacity festival. Throw in the five pullouts in the last month, including the Hold Steady and Two Gallants, and things didn't bode as well as could be.

Still, proof in the pudding and that.

After checking our bearings, the first band we saw any of was Palladium, a band who, god have mercy on us all, work the post-ironic angle for all it's worth in white jeans, wifebeaters and visors playing what must have started out in the rehearsal room as attempting to make proper early 80s pop the way nobody does any more but got sidetracked down the alley in which lies Tango In The Night Fleetwood Mac and Daryl Hall T-shirts, 'yacht rock' as a not particularly successful Guilty Pleasures-style attempt at rebranding briefly had it not long ago. We had this all with Zoot Woman and that didn't work either. They had branded earrings to give away. Cheers, everyone.

If Summer Sundae has made a habit of one thing, it's booking artists when they're just starting to make a noise for themselves which means that by the time they're playing low down the bill they're enormous. Following Keane, Kasabian, Editors and James Morrison comes Kate Nash, in front of a massive and well up for it audience, brandishing a teapot and herbal tea to combat some sort of ill effect. Problem is, there's already so much baggage to Nash's name that it's hard not to see critical review dissolve in a welter of scene references and monomanaically repeated biographical detail (broke her foot, you say?) So, what is she like? Many of her songs betray a curious musical/cabaret structure, much like some of the much namedropped by her Regina Spektor and certainly some distance from that other young 'realistic' female singer-songwriter. She's not quite at ease on the big stage yet but she's appeallingly surprised at the realisation that that's her songs that people now sing along to every word of. Ultimately, though, the problem lies in much the same sphere as our issue with her work to date - she's been harried along by an overeager UK record industry and, eighteen months after her first show, while there's a kernel of something there it's not going to be given much room to develop. Still, there are worse ways to spend a warm afternoon at a festival.

And there are much worse ways to spend a warm afternoon in a boiling Musician Stage tent than locals The Dirty Backbeats. The Mark Lamarr favourites look like three bands compressed into one and sound like about six, to be precise the Sonics, the Magic Band, Tom Waits, the Doors, Love and the Cramps. All that injected with several bucketfulls of energy goes into making their uniquely riotous psychedelic circus mutant blues sound, all sudden switches and tightly coiled rockouts, yet what makes them such a live spectacle is frontman Grant, entering the stage in a fox mask and unable to go a second without some sort of twitch, gesticulation, gurn or jump, hanging from the PA and stage structure and heading deep into the full tent on a couple of occasions. This is the third time we've seen them and they keep getting better and better, but the array of stunned faces exiting the tent and making directly for the merch tent told its own story.

Three years after their former band The Beta Band chose Summer Sundae for their final festival The Aliens had an inherent problem of being foremost a studio project and not quite working out how to transfer that sound organically, the harmonic psychedelia being better than reputation suggested but still not working all that well. By contrast, a healthy crowd including Kate Nash were in Musician for someone who doesn't need any studio trickery or backing. As well as looking exactly the same as he did in his punk poet heyday, John Cooper Clarke is equally a one-liner stand-up as poet these days, pulling routines about Burnley and media studies seemingly out of thin air as extended punctuation to the likes of Johnny Clarke's Haiku Number One ("to convey one's mood in seventeen syllables is very diffic") The digressions last so long that he ends up in competition with the Concretes on the main stage, yet he still turns it to his advantage by singing Who Loves The Sun to the tune of their opener and attempting to get some community singing going before climaxing with both Beasley Street and the souped up post-regeneration version Beasley Boulevard. Definite mastery at work, however he looks.

As for The Concretes their newly reformatted line-up is missing a member as it is and appear underpar, seemingly now content to labour in the slipstream of near musical neighbours Camera Obscura with not a lot of their most recognisable songs in the set. Lisa Millberg still hasn't quite got the hang of the icy frontwoman business, and when she semi-apologises for Victoria Bergsman's absence it seems more apology than explanation. Inside the hall Candie Payne takes more assertive inspiration from the 1960s girl singers, in beret and short skirt every inch the ye-ye girl, but these well crafted songs suffer from being taken out of their intricate studio setting - not that Payne's voice is at all bad, but it necessarily misses the close-miked heartfeltness and the recorded post-Portishead flourishes sound more akin to Britbeat or commercial psychedelia. Quietly impressive for all that, though.

What's in a name? When we passed The Buoys earlier there were fifteen people in the Rising tent; Modified Toy Orchestra fill it without breaking sweat. And they're just what it says on the tin, five besuited not entirely young men with rewired kiddie keyboards and discarded electronic toys making a curious form of madly organic early Hot Chip-like electro with odd warped noises therein. There was no way they could have finished other than to cover Kraftwerk's Pocket Calculator.

While DJ Yoda fitfully entertained inside, getting the whole floor jumping to Dizzee Rascal/Dolly Parton segues, the grandiose outdoor finish to the day came from the current nine piece version of The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon still carrying a louche debonair air and self-deprecating between songs even if he has started growing facial hair again, never a good sign as those who remember his beard phase circa 2001 will know. A slightly disjointed setlist draws quite a few tracks from their ninth, largely ignored by the world at large last album Victory For The Comic Muse while reaching as far back as Your Daddy's Car and Lucy from debut Liberation, not forgetting the big hits, National Express second out. A few technical hitches got in the way, but what stopped it from being an outright success was an air that this was a set for the hardcore rather than the festival casuals (no Pop Singer's Fear Of The Pollen Count?), even if they go to show the constantly ticking brain behind the lyrical expertise, Don't Look Down and Tonight We Fly closing the main part of the set very well while belying their origins on 1994's Promenade, while closing on the personal reminiscence turning into a huge sounding Sunrise was entirely fitting. Day one over, and with fears gradually dispelling we could only look forward.


Ben said...

The Divine Comedy, Kate Nash - cheers for reminding me there were good things about my not going this year...

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