Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In it for some money: Summer Sundae Friday review


Firstly, a genuine thank you to everyone who picked up or at least hung around reading our fanzine - we know that of a total print run of 60 the remainder were comfortably into single figures by half past ten, which is far better than we'd expected, and we saw people completely engrossed in our blather, which only really having this very impersonal, indirect electronic connection at any one time with a readership pleases us immensely. Yes, should we all make it that far we'd like to do it all again for next year. And it got mentioned in the official programme, which somewhat made a mockery of our assumption that our work would get in the way of the festival's own publication. If you were there and had a look, drop us a comment or line.

The downside was we didn't actually seem to see a lot, and when we did there was a noticeably different atmosphere without a lot of visible interest around us. Which you might expect for a pre-festival booze-up, but where last year there felt like a real celebratory communal atmosphere around the local music scene and the festival to come, this time there seemed to be more people hanging around in assorted stages of inebration outside the venues, especially the Charlotte, than inside and actual post-song interest registration was often at a premium.

Still, we enjoyed ourselves, and briefly, because we know you want to know about the festival and not what we did with our night before: Love Ends Disaster! have swelled to a sevensome for the night, but the extra effort doesn't seem to be appreciated by their audience (one song doesn't so much as get any applause) which drags the set down a bit until Matthew Oakes vaults the barrier and beckons the crowd to come closer, which takes some beckoning. From then on their taut post-post-punk dynamics seem to become all the more assured but it's not all there until a coruscating closer. Herra Hidro are playing their first gig in seven months and similarly take their time to warm up. Odd band, Herra Hidro, occasionally sounding like they're trying to shoehorn Shellac cussedness into Enemy anthemry, but when they really spark up there's plenty of awkward life in them. Previous At The Drive-In comparisons may be ambitious, but there's definite echoes of yourcodenameis:milo and Jon Chapple's post-McLusky band Shooting At Unarmed Men, and the number of new songs denotes a band intent on striking much deeper this time. Pacific Ocean Fire have always echoed Neil Young and Sparklehorse equally but there's now an Anglicised Bright Eyes echo to their porchlit reveries somewhere among Firebug's murky sound, a sharp contrast to previous events there, that means you can't even hear the between song banter properly (apparently the mixing desk blew up earlier in the day). Charlie Jones, playing in the corner of the Charlotte, might just be 'another' female acoustic-toting singer-songwriter but there's a sharp lyrical voice in there. We'll come back to her. Then Tired Irie took ages to set up, and as we'll come back to them too we went down the road, where the Dandilions were taking even longer (at least 45 minutes, we reckon), so we cut our losses and went home.

We know better by now than to write Summer Sundae off, after going in last year anxious over the quality and leaving in high spirits. Despite the proliferation of that horrible term 'boutique festivals' it retains wide critical acclaim for its reliability, perceived family friendliness and eclectic booking policy, which might well be to its detriment this year as a fine bill is more often than not topped by underwhelming headliners, the indoor Hall stage bill top suffering its own economic downturn this year. On the other hand, it's a great festival for what it is, and while it may not have the aura of the more openly specialist and curated events or even the undivided attention in these days of Field Day it still maintains its very....festivalness. It's not Zoo Thousand and never will be.

That was something we needed to remind ourselves of throughout the twenty minute wristband queue, mind.

Once that was negotiated, straight into the Rising tent we went for the first of the bands invited by the day's curators Drowned In Sound. Youthmovies have raised their game, seeming far more alert and tighter than at Truck, no doubt helped by the shortened set time and non-local clientele, but they're also in the midst of a clash issue that means we can't so much as stop by to see Adam Buxton doing a surprise set in 6 Music's mobile Hub area that was inaudible if you stood more than three people away anyway. Instead we head over to Phrased & Confused's tent, a welcome new addition for this year largely showcasing spoken word and an area we eventually got to on too few occasions this year, where Emma Pollock and Kenny 'King Creosote' Anderson were performing a joint acoustic set to an appreciative audience, Pollock, whose own set we failed to catch again for clash reasons, explaining that family members still haven't spoken since the phone call that inspired If Silence Means That Much To You.

Out under cloudy but dry skies the outdoor stage segment of our SSW got underway with Fight Like Apes - not the first band you'd have in mind to fulfil the Summer Sundae ethos, but certainly one who expend a lot of energy on the small numbers who've so far turned out. If this is electro-punk, and there's really no way round the fact that it's spiky riffs played on keyboards, it's some distance away from the assorted idiocies latterly committed in the name of that cause. MayKay, sporting a short black dress with silver hot pants, is every inch the stage commanding vamp, even when merely sitting on a monitor the better to exude Jake Summers, while unpromisingly named keyboard player Pockets, clearly incapacitated by an ankle injury requiring some frankly unnecessary but for showmanship hobbling around the stage, acts out his own whirlish dervish routine and brings saucepans for percussive purposes. They may not do their occasional cover of Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues, but it's the short sharp shocks of McLusky the Dubliners are looking to translate into wonky keyboard action, not wholly successfully - the two singles are the standouts - but well enough to suggest in smaller venues there may be something going on.

Friday, really, was all about smaller stage clashes. In the hall Errors' layered, pulsing loops of soundscaping are drawing quite a crowd, but while they sport a former Dananananaykroyd drummer an outfit who that band recently supported are tearing up the Rising tent with their own take on 'fight-pop'. The Mae Shi's music - often short and sharp bursts of what in America is delightfully entitled spazzcore, spiky shoutable bursts of hardcore-influenced complexity on nodding terms only with melody, always on the brink of starting to fall apart before just slamming into each other kinetically again, is notable enough, but their live show is something else, taking advantage of wireless technology to richochet around the place - guitarist Jeff Byron scales the side of stage scaffolding at one point - and variously screaming and whispering into mikes. The celebrated white tarpaulin Mae Sheet may be gone, but they still rustle up a small blue and yellow sheet that covers twelve or so people which three members climb under to attempt to get some small scale community singing going as the other wanders around the crowd. God knows how many songs they get through as there's far too much going on at any one time to attempt to keep up with, but the overall experience is akin to being force fed tartrazine by Refused in a hall of strobe lights.

Which can never be used to describe Royworld, so we stay out of their way expecting, correctly, that the tent will fill up before too long for this year's band booked for too early a slot for their size come SSW weekend, Noah And The Whale. It's fairly apparent that most here are just waiting for The Hit and will amuse themselves until then, but to their credit N&TW pull off an assured set, featuring a two piece brass section plus Johnny's sister Lillie Flynn as an ersatz Marling, that brings a nu-folk dance joie de vivre to a record that can lapse on record, Charlie Fink's baritone perhaps in better keeping live. Then Fink straps on a ukelele, announces that "this is a love song called... Five Years Time" and the tent duly erupts. It's warming to see band members looking genuinely thrilled afterwards by such a response, which they carry through a triumphant closing Rocks And Daggers. Over on the main stage King Creosote continues to pretty much rock up his Fence Collective folky credentials, but something of the charm has been waylaid in the process. Whether this is what he's always wanted to do has long been discussed, but to us it doesn't seem to fit easily.

Vignette. We're hanging around the Bathysphere tent attempting to look inconspicuous while wearing a Futureheads T-shirt (yeah, that was us, sorry). A girl with a French accent walks up. "Are you a Futurehead? I'm a Futurehead". This, it's fair to say, surprises us somewhat. It becomes clear in what passed for an ensuing conversation that she considered a 'futurehead' to be someone who keeps abreast of changing technology and electronic music and had never heard of the band. Wonder what her favourite chat-up line is.

Meanwhile, now in Rising you'd be forgiven for thinking there's a rave going on. The lighting rig works overtime, 19 year olds are whooping, bouncing on the spot and gesticulating as only those 'on one' do; even a few middle aged women at the back are cutting a dash. What is actually going on is Fuck Buttons, who may well echo the crescendos and repetitive, escalating beats of club music, but do so via the medium of sonically huge washes of semi-industrial pulsing noise. Very different reveries in the hall, where Nina Nastasia is playing solo. Where others might have had problems getting themselves across in this cavernous space, Nastasia has the knack of making her heartfelt laments, soaring vocals and fingerpicked acoustic guitar seem all the more intimate and personal. There's far too few people in here appreciating this.

According to the bill, this is The Coral's acoustic set. Why, then, have they brought some electric guitars? The tag of convenience since the departure of lead guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones seems to have been cast aside in spirit if not in name, and for the most part the sort of songs that make up this hits-and-favourites set are constructed around a very Merseybeat melodic template so it doesn't actually matter that much. We're not sure they even did Dreaming Of You but the songs radio loved - The Coral are one of those bands whose consistent hitmaking capabilities you forget until you hear them actually play them - work well around the downsized lineup and two new songs continue in much the same vein, the one they close with, so new they say it's not so much as got a title, particularly promising.

We've talked about this sort of thing in the past, but there are certain bands who would on paper tick most of our boxes but leave us cold, and Howling Bells are one of them. A visit to see them headline Rising leaves us none the wiser as their dark riffs make no effect, if not helped by muddy sound. Instead we pop over to The Musician stage and find The Heavy have brought The Funk. Huge fuzztoned swaggering guitar riffs and dirty soul rhythms underpin shamanic Curtis Mayfield-chanelling singer Swaby bonding with the audience he refers to as "the wolves" as only a postmodern funk man can. The attempts to turn into straight up rock don't work, but when it clicks it really goes off and causes frenzied dancing in the half-full tent throughout.

Startlingly, while waiting for our night's headliners the main stage PA plays The Chapter In Your Life Entitled San Francisco by the Lucksmiths.

So to those headliners, Supergrass, fourteen years a hitmaking rock and roll machine, now swelled to three Coombes brothers, guitarist/percussionist Charly joining Gaz and Rob, Danny Goffey approaching justification for the Keith Moon comparisons that came his way early in the band's career, Mick Quinn an underrated bass player. The problem when a band like Supergrass are caught between promoting a new album and headlining a festival to a field full of people subconsciously awaiting Alright - which, as per custom of the last few years, they don't play - is that they have to demonstrate that they're still a going concern as good as ever if only in their own minds, while for the rest of us most of the newer songs show up the lack of dynamism in much of their new material. It's all very well starting with the cocksure Diamond Hoo Ha Man and Bad Blood from the new album but all too often the set lapses into autopilot lull that just demonstrates that the likes of Rebel In You and 345 are content to meander along in rote glam-Stooges riffs and extended outros, the type of which litter the evening to no effect. There's the odd bone - Moving goes down very well, and there's a lively cover of the Police's Next To You - but only at the end do they get things really going, finishing with Pumping On our Stereo and Caught By The Fuzz acting as something of a warmup for an encore of Sun Hits The Sky, Strange Ones and Lenny.


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